The Druid's Garden

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

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!

 

Chickweed (Stellaria Media) as a Healing Food, Medicine, and Magical Plant Ally June 6, 2016

After a long bout of cold weather, things are quickly warming up.  This means we are about at the end of our spring emphermals and summer is quickly approaching.  I would be remiss if I didn’t post about at least one delightful spring plant, and so today I want to share about the edible, medicinal, and magical properties one of my favorite plants is in abundance in the spring—chickweed (stellaria media). I found some incredible specimens of this plant just this week, so it is still out there, working its magic, in its own very humble way. This post will talk about chickweed’s medicinal and edible qualities, sharing recipes for chickweed pesto and chickweed salve, as well as its incredible magic and symbolism.

 

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed is certainly a plant in abundance in the spring and fall through most temperate regions in the world, and it can still be found throughout the summer months.

 

Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). In fact, M. Grieve writes that, “It has been said that there is no part of the world where Chickweed is not to be found…it has naturalized itself anywhere that man has settled” and I have found this to be the case in many places that I have visited. Here, it is a plant that you find both in urban and wild areas–I find it here near the edges of sidewalks, around telephone poles, growing graciously in the lawns, or tucked into the edges of the woods.

 

Chickweed is a Healing, Tonic Food

Chickweed it is an extremely nutritive, healing food. We herbalists call this a “tonic” food; its when a plant is both medicinal and edible, and when you eat it, it is restorative to multiple systems in the body. Chickweed is the reason we call food medicine, and medicine food. Chickweed is very nutrient dense, like many delicious wild foods, and is high in Vitamins A, B, C, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Calcium, Phosphorous, and potassium, among others.  It also helps the metabolism, broadly, to more effectively eliminate waste and soothe inflammation.  It can be consumed moderately and with effect.

 

Chickweed Pesto: You can make a chickweed pesto that is nutritive and delicious.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup of chickweed (or more)
  • Small handful of garlic mustard (also abundant and easy to find) or 2 cloves garlic
  • Walnuts or pine nuts
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Optional: 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

This delicious pesto can be used in all sorts of ways: tossed in noodles, baked into bread, as a sandwich spread, as a dipping sauce for treats.  You can freeze this (I like to freeze it in an ice cube tray and once frozen, put it in a bag so I can pull out a few cubes at a time).  Then you can enjoy it all year, even when chickweed is not in season.

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Chickweed Salad: I also like to make a salad with various spring ephemerals (garlic mustard, dandelion greens, chickweed).  Make sure you chop the chickweed up pretty good.  Raw, it tastes a lot like a mild corn silk.  Toss it the greens with a vinaigrette and enjoy!

 

The Healing of Chickweed

Chickweed is a first-rate herbal plant ally, helping with a number of conditions. Chickweed is a demulcent (that is, it coats and soothes dry or inflamed tissues); is cooling (addressing hot conditions, like burns or inflammation).  It is also an alterative, working broadly on the metabolism to help the body more effectively absorb and use nutrients and more fully eliminate waste. As a gentle tonic plant, it can help rebuild these systems over time.

 

Chickweed is considered a “slimming remedy” for those that specifically have underactive thyroid issues. It has a folk reputation for being a “slimming remedy” when underactive thyroid is a cause of weight gain.   But more broadly, because it works with the metabolism, it also supports digestive processes.

 

Most people use Chickweed as a skin healer—in fact, in many Amish stores in my area, you will see chickweed salve for sale! It is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.   It pretty much works for any skin conditions that are dry and inflamed—although because it is demulcent, you don’t want to use it for damp or mucus laden skin conditions. You can use it fresh as a poultice for this purpose (and combine it with plantain for added effect). You can also make an amazing salve from it. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy issues as well.

 

I want to stress that in all of the medicinal actions I’m describing above, chickweed is an extremely gentle plant.  She is powerful, yes, but in a gentle and soothing way.  I kind of see her like a friendly old grandmother who has a careful touch, yet powerful knowledge and healing ability.

 

Chickweed Healing Salve

Here is my recipe for a simple chickweed healing salve, which you can make and use for at least a year or more.  It is fantastic on burns, scrapes, sunburns, bug bites, cuts, etc.

 

Harvesting plants: Pick some chickweed in a place where it is safe to gather (not from a yard that is sprayed, for example; see my post on foraging for more on how to harvest safely).  Please be very careful where you gather chickweed–it is often in places other things can’t grow that are typically sprayed. For added medicinal effect, also pick some plantain and add this to your mixture! The two of these combined are really stellar.

 

Ingredients and materials

  1. 1 cup chickweed (or 1/2 cup plantain, 1/2 cup chickweed); more is even better
  2. High quality olive oil (about a cup)
  3. Double-boiler with a lid
  4. Beeswax
  5. Strainer
  6. Small jars to place in salve

Begin by cleaning your chickweed (wash it off, and garble it to make sure nothing else is in there; sometimes speedwell can look very similar).  Lay it out on a towel to dry.  You will want to wilt it for a few days–let it sit on a counter or table for 24-48 more hours before continuing the recipe.  If you are using plantain, treat the plantain like the chickweed.

 

Double boiler with plant matter

Double boiler with plant matter

Chop up your chickweed/plantain fairly finely and place in a double boiler.  Bring your water to a boil, and then keep it on low, infusing for at least 24 hours (if you have to turn the heat off for a few hours while you leave the house, that’s OK).  Beware of using a crock pot for this–crock pots typically get too hot and fry your plant matter.  You want it infusing, not frying!  If you don’t have a double boiler, you can place it in the sun for about 10 days infused in the oil.  Make sure the oil fully covers your plant matter.  I just prefer the double boiler method for the reason described in the next paragraph.

 

Chickweed is a very wet plant, so you need to make sure the water is getting out of the mixture.  This is why we wilted it!  Water will make your salve go rancid very quickly.  You can do this by putting a lid on your double boiler for about 10 min and then lifting it, seeing if there is condensation.  As long as there is condensation, there is still water in the mixture.  This is ok–you just need to be aware of it.

 

After you are done with your mixture, let it cool and then strain it into a clear glass jar.  I usually put the strainer on top of the jar and let the oil drip out.  Squeezing it is sure to bring water into the mixture, which you don’t want.  Let the mixture settle overnight–if there is water in it, it will look like little bubbles on the bottom.  Pour your oil back into your double boiler. When you pour it off, avoid those bubbles and pour off only oil.

 

Reheat your oil gently in the double boiler and add beeswax (I would start with 2 tbsp to a cup of oil). You can add as much wax as you want—the more wax, the thicker your salve will be. You can check the thickness by dropping a tiny bit of the salve onto a cold spoon (put the spoon in the freezer for 5 min). Once you are happy with the thickness, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil if you’d like and then pour it into small tins. It will keep a year or more this way, and can be used for many purposes. It also makes nice gifts!

 

The Magic of Chickweed

Chickweed might be a humble, gentle plant, but she packs a magical punch.  I have spent a lot of time working with this plant over the last few years, and one of the things that I realized is that she is a very potent magical plant, emphasizing protection and healing. In fact, I’d argue magical symbolism is drawn from her botanical features (see image above).  I came to this conclusion not by reading through herbals (although they certainly have a lot to say about the matter), but through my own powers of observation.

 

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

One of the things we have around here a lot are barn signs; these are painted signs, called Hex signs, that people placed on their barns to ward off evil or to encourage the good to come in. They primarily come out of the Pennsylvania Dutch magical tradition. So many of these signs feature a pentacle or ring ray of petals facing outward–just like chickweed.  Here’s one such barn sign (left) that I think looks a lot like the petals of a chickweed plant.

 

When you look at the chickweed itself, close up (see photo, below), the petals themselves are paired and shoot off in five rays.  The sepals (the small leaves right behind the petals) form a pentagram.  The  pistil is shaped almost like triskele.  So much magical symbolism is present here, in this tiny, unassuming flower. Culpepper puts chickweed as under the dominion of the moon.

 

I have come to understand chickweed as an extremely protective and potent plant.  I very much welcome in it in the beds around my house, and cultivate it when it appears–its protective, healing energy is always welcome.  She is an excellent guardian, functioning quite similarly to those barn signs of old, a quiet and yet potent protection for all who cultivate and welcome her.

 

New Herbalism Blog: Star and Thorn Botanicals

I wanted to end this post by telling you about the herbalism blog I have started–this is a joint effort between myself and my sister, Briel (who is also a practicing herbalist).  You can visit the blog here. It will cover a variety of different herbal techniques and plants, drawing upon traditional western herbalist practices. I’ll post wild foods and these kinds of magically-enriched posts here, however, still :).  Please check it out!

 

A Beltane Blessing: The Magical Art of Pysanky Batik Eggs April 30, 2016

Bowl of Magical Eggs

Bowl of Magical Eggs

When I was a child, my family and I would spend hours carefully drawing melted beeswax onto eggs and dyeing them, the rounds of successive colors growing darker and darker. Once an egg had been fully dyed and covered in wax, it was time to unveil the magical colors, the revelation of incredible, magical works of art.  Pysanky, or Ukrainian Eggs, is an old tradition still in practice here in Western PA; it was brought over from Ukrainian peoples and others of Eastern European decent and spread throughout the area (it was later suppressed in the old world by the Communists, who claimed it was a “religious practice” for a number reasons, some of which we’ll explore in this post).  I’m not sure how my family originally found our way into this practice, but every year, we would make our delicate and beautiful works of art and display them on a bowl in our living room. This year, my mother put a bowl of them out for Easter, and I wanted to get back into this lovely art form, this time with a bit of a magical twist! And so, today, we will dive into the art of crafting magical eggs using batik techniques!  This is an absolutely perfect magical art form to practice at Beltane–hence the timing of this post.

 

This Beltane-themed post has two parts–first, I wanted to explore some of the traditions and mythology surrounding these magical eggs. And in the second half of the post, I’ll show how to make your own psyanky eggs.

What is Pysanky?

Pysanky is a permanent art form where the artist uses a wax resist method to preserve colors during a dye process. The egg has all of its contents removed (yolk, white) and is washed out so that the shell is all that you are working on–this creates a permanent art form. Essentially, you add wax to the color you want to remain that color, and then dye the egg a darker color. Everything that isn’t covered by wax will take that new color. For example, if you want white, you start with a white egg and add wax to all areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg to your next lightest shade (usually yellow), then add beeswax to all the yellow areas. Then you dye it your next shade (green or orange) and add wax to all of the green/orange areas, and so on, until you end with some dark color, often black, dark blue, or purple. The beeswax is removed, and the brilliant colors are revealed. The choice of colors and symbolism adds various magical properties to the egg–this is not just me saying this, but this is part of the tradition. The egg is ready to display for a blessing of prosperity, health, or more!

A brightly colored egg!

A brightly colored egg!

Pysanky Lore and History

In Eastern Europe, and eventually the USA, the tradition of egg dying and egg marking is quite old. Its not just Ukrainian, but nearly all Eastern European peoples have traditions of drawing on eggs with beeswax and adding dyes. Scholars are pretty sure that this tradition dates back to pre-Christian times (so perhaps even the times the druids were hanging around in Gaul!) due to the nature-based symbolism and enormous amount of magic and folk legends surrounding the eggs.

 

One of the oldest traditions on the magic of Pysanky is from the Hutsul people, who believed that a evil serpent is bound to a mountain cliff, with heavy iron chains.  The monster has many envoys, who he sends to pay attention to people in villages–if he hears news that the people are ill, suffering, angry, or at war, he laughs and shakes the mountains, loosening his chains.  If this were to go on long enough, he would be let loose upon the world with his chains falling away and cause evil and destruction.  If his envoys tell him that people are happy and in high spirits, he grows angry and the chains grow tighter.  If people are making psyanky, that they are still making them and carrying the tradition forward, he gets very angry and thrashes about, which makes his chains grow even tighter!  His head beats against the cliff (thunder), his chains grow tighter, and sparks (lightening) begin to fly!  So this folk method suggests that the pysanky literally keep the world safe (more legends can be found here).

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

 

There are a few other bits of information I’d like to share.  Many of these come out of really books and papers on Pysanky that are in my personal collection on the subject:

  • “The Egg, as the embodiment of the life principle, has been associated with mythical and religious ceremonies since the earliest pagan times…each province, each village, each family has its own special ritual, its own symbols, meanings, and secret formulas for dying eggs.  These heritages are preserved faithfully and passed down from mother to daughter through the generations.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “The custom of decorating pysanky is observed with greatest care, and a pysanka, after receiving the Easter blessing, is held to contain great powers as a talisman.  A bowl of pysanky was invariably kept in every home, serving not only as a colorful display but also as protection against lighting and fire.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “Peasants placed krashanka shells [krashanka are the solid, dyed eggs] in the thatched roofs of their homes and under hay mounds to turn away high winds.  Beekeepers put them under hives for a good supply of honey. On St. George’s Day, a krashanka was rolled in green oats and buried in the ground so that the harvest would be full and not harmed by rain or wind. The Krashanka was also credited with healing powers. A krashanka, blessed on Easter eve, was suspended on a string from the neck of a seriously ill person, or touched to infected areas on persons suffering from blood poisoning to effect a cure.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)

I’ll get into more detail on the symbols themselves used in the eggs later, when I talk about how to make the eggs.  And so, what we see here is a lasting, magical tradition surrounding the creation of these eggs.

 

A Synthesis of Traditions: A Modern “Druid’s Egg”

So on the other side of Europe, we have the occurrence of the “Druid’s Egg” that is discussed in connection with the Ancient Druids.  I am not, in any way, saying that these traditions are connected or the same thing.  But I do want to consider some parallels.  Of the Druid’s egg,  Pliny writes in his Historia Naturalis of the ancient druids: “The magical practices of the druids, their knowledge of botany and the sciences.  They wore a distinguishing badge, a “serpent’s egg” worn on the bosom and regarded as a potent talisman.” Other writings, also from Pliny, show that these “druid eggs” were created naturally, in a snake pit, and that the eggs were very magical, protective, and held in high esteem by the ancient druids who wore them as protective talismans. People used these eggs to win court cases and gain “favorable reputation” with princes. And people were even killed if they had them in their possession due to their potent magical effectiveness. Obviously, in modern Druid Revival orders, we don’t take the idea of the druid’s egg quite so literally (after all, even historians aren’t sure what the druid’s eggs actually were), although the idea of the “druid’s egg” certainly is woven into some of our lore and practices.  I think this bit of history gives ways for new interpretations of the “druid’s egg” and how we can manifest it today, through the bardic arts.

 

There are some parallels between the traditions that are interesting to note. If we study the artwork of many of these pysanky, there is an “entwining” feature that naturally occurs due to the nature of the egg.  We can, in making these eggs, create entwining patterns that make a nod back to the original producers of druid eggs, serpents. Druid eggs were said to be highly magical and rare.  And the same can be said of pysanky: not many people do pysanky today either.  I’ll also note the importance of serpents in both sets traditions; in both they are dangerous, and the egg is somehow connected to them and their power. Finally, the magical powers of eggs in both traditions, especially for protection, blessing and power.

 

Given some of these parallels, I’d like to propose that one modern “druid egg” can be the pysanky, and its something we can embrace and practice as a magical art form.  So let’s get onto the best part: how to make these delightful eggs!

 

One of my favorite new eggs!

One of my favorite new eggs!

Materials Needed

Dyes for Eggs

Commercial, very bold and beautiful dyes for psyanky are readily available.  I’ve found that these dyes can be put in a wide mouth pint canning jar with a lid and used effectively for 2-3 weeks (after that they lose their dye capacity, and even reboiling them doesn’t allow for them to stick.  I’m still trying to figure that out).  A good source for dyes is at this Etsy Shop (Ukrainian Egg Supplies).

 

But the other option, and the more traditional choice, is to make your own natural dyes.  Kozolowski (1977, Easter Eggs…Polish Style) offers some ingredients traditionally used for egg dyes but doesn’t give details on how to make the dye.  In my experience, you can boil these down for a long period of time, add salt, alum or vinegar (or boil them in straight white vinegar) and strain them.  Its similar to how you’d make any other natural dye.  The list below is dervied from Kozolowsi with my own addition of other plant matter and berries that I often use for dyes:

  • Yellow: Onion skin, straw, saffron, dandelion flowers, goldenrod
  • Orange: Crocus petals, goldenrod
  • Red: Red beets, plums
  • Green: Spinach, grass, moss, buckthorn berry
  • Blue: Sunflower seeds, logwood, Huckleberry
  • Purple: Blackberries, elderberry
  • Brown: Alder cones, coffee, walnut husks
  • Black: Walnut shells, alder bark
  • Pink: Pokeberry

Of course, the problem is that not all of these dyes show up at the same time of the year.  I have had good luck in making the dye and then freezing it till the right time.  I’ve also experimented with drying the berries and trying to make dye later, but that has been less successful.

 

Tools and Materials

  • Kitska: You will need some tools to draw designs on your eggs. These tools are called Kistka (kistky; plural), for your eggs.  You can get them at the supplier listed above or readily online.  They are very simple tools–I like the ones with the little reservoir and the plastic handles.  You can also make your own.
  • Wax: You will need some beeswax in either little granules or a block.
  • Candles: You will need 1 candle per person to melt the wax.
  • Workspace Protection: You will want to lay down a plastic bag or newspaper around your workspace, especially the area you are dyeing the eggs.  The dyes can really stain a countertop!  You may also want to have some paper down around the areas where you are adding the wax.
  • Egg blower: You will want to invest in this little $12 tool–its an egg blower, and it allows you to easily blow eggs out prior to starting your dyeing.  When I was a kid, we used to blow them out by creating two holes, one at each end, and just blowing and blowing till all the insides came out.  For one, its a lot of work.  But for two, its now dangerous to do so due to the high level of salmonella in eggs today. The egg blower is amazing–you can blow out about a dozen eggs in 45 min or less!  Here’s where you can get a nice egg blower.

    Tulip egg my mother made

    Tulip egg my mother made

The Eggs

The eggs themselves should be carefully selected for the following qualities:

  • Eggs need to be whole (not cracked at all).
  • They need to have minimal bumps, and instead be smooth.
  • They need to have a pleasing shape (symmetrical) and of a shape you like.

You can start with white eggs or, if you prefer, you can start with a light brown, cream, or even blue chicken egg as the base color for your design.  I have found that getting an assortment of nice eggs at a local farm gives me a wide variety to work with.  The shells of these eggs are also usually thicker and better than those factory farmed eggs in the store.  You can also use duck eggs–but beware that some duck eggs have a film that you may want to scrub off.  I am really enjoying working with duck eggs!

 

The Process

So now I’m going to walk you through the full process of making your own beautiful pysanky!  As I said before, this is a great activity do do around Beltane.  I’ve taken to starting my Pysanky making at the Spring Equinox and wrapping it up around Beltane, so I have a full 8 weeks making these amazing eggs.  And without further delay, here’s how you make the eggs!

 

1.  Prepare your workspace and lay out your dyes. You will need to make your dyes according to the package instructions or according to natural dye making strategies.  Make sure you add vinegar to either kind of dye–it helps the dye take better on the eggs.  It is wise to place your dyes in a separate area (on a kitchen counter is good) and protect that area well.  I also like to get a bit of paper and dip a small piece into each dye and then put them in front of the jar so that you can see what the color looks like.  Here’s a dye setup (I’m using commercial dyes):

Dyes on the counter

Dyes on the counter

And here’s a setup for drawing the wax on the eggs.  The egg carton holds extra eggs, there are books for reference and a sketchbook for drawing out potential designs.  We have a roll of paper towels to keep fingerprints off of the eggs.  And of course, we have our candles and tools.  We have found that adding a little cardboard box below the candle catches drips and keeps them off the table.

Workspace for egg wax drawing

Workspace for egg wax drawing

2.  Select your eggs.  Select eggs that are free of cracks and that are smooth and well-shaped (see above).  Have some extras available, cause you will likely break a few in the drilling and blowing process (or even drop them at other points–try not to!)

A nice example of an egg.

A nice example of an egg. This one is setup to drill (see step 3).

3. Blow out your eggs. We use a Dremel drill to drill a small hole on the bottom of the egg.  I will sit the egg in a small cup, place a paper towel between the cup and the egg, and then drill the egg carefully. I usually drill about a dozen eggs at a time if several people are making pysanky. The second step is to use the egg blower to blow out the inside of your eggs (I blow them into a bowl, so that you can make a nice quiche later in the day!)  The third step is to add some water to rinse out the inside of the egg. and make sure the last of the egg is out (I don’t add this to my egg bowl).  Finally, you can let it dry out by placing it hole down in an egg carton or placing a little bit of paper towel up in the hole for 10 or so min.

Blowing out eggs

Blowing out eggs

3. Decide on a pattern or design.  This is my favorite part of the process–its here where you decide what your design will look like.  I like to use a pencil and very lightly draw my design (or design lines/guides) on the egg (the pencil will come off later in the process).  You can also use a string to wrap around the egg so that you get straight lines.

 

At this stage, you also need to get in your head how the dye process works and do some planning for the different colors you might use.  One of the biggest beginner mistakes is not to have enough contrast between colors–remember that its contrast that makes the different colors stand out.  If you end up with three light colors next to each other, the egg won’t be as beautiful.  But if you use light and dark colors next to each other, it makes the designs stand out more.

 

You also want to do your first few eggs simply. Maybe do a white pattern, a light blue pattern, and then dye it dark blue and that’s your first egg.  That will allow you to see how it works without getting too complicated for your first egg.

 

There are many options for designs and colors, as you’ll see under “symbols in pysanky” below–and all of these symbols and designs have meaning.  In addition to the traditional ones I’ve listed, we have an assortment of other kinds of symbols you can draw upon with meaning: spirals, celtic knots, awens, and more

 

Lines on an egg before I begin

Lines on an egg before I begin laying out my design

Symbols in Pysanky

The designs in traditional Pysanky all have meaning.  I have worked to compile the list of symbol meanings from various sources from my book collection on pysanky: Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957; Easter Eggs….Polish Style by Lawrence G. Kozlowski (1977); Ukranian Easter Eggs by Linda Gruber,  a handout by Martha Winchorek titled “Ukranian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) Designs) that is undated; and a handout titled “How to Make Ukrainian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) by the Pysanky Committee, Ukranian graduates of Detroit and Windsor (undated).  The traditional symbols and magical meanings are as follows:

  • Dots may represent stars or may be used in conjunction with lines to form a division on the egg
  • Ribbons, lines, or belts, those that encircle the egg, represent eternity (since they are continuous lines)
  • Lines in a pattern that would make a net are one of the most ancient designs, and are associated with the Hutzul people’s myth of the snake
  • Triangles are symbolic of the trinity, also the elements of air, fire, and water
  • A comb/rake is symbolic of the harvest
  • Flowers – symbolic of love and charity; happiness
  • Stars – An 8 pointed star has particular pagan connotations (it is connected to the pagan Sun god, Atar; connotes sunshine); stars are usually placed on the broad side of the egg and are very common
  • Pine tree or fir tree – symbolic of youth and health
  • Poppy or Sun – good fortune
  • Crosses – usually occur in the Greek style, with four similar arms; they can be symbolic of Christianity, but there are surviving designs and motifs that show this symbol is much older
  • Reindeer, Deer, or Horse– symbolic of wealth or prosperity
  • Rooster – Symbolic of fertility or the fulfillment of wishes
  • Birds – symbolic of happiness
  • Butterfly – symbolic of nature and resurrection/transformation
  • Horns, Spirals, Bends, Maidens: Combinations of spiral lines; these appear in several books but no meaning is given
  • Zig-Zag or Double-Zig Zag Pattern: (Called a wave or saw).  When this occurs in two parallel lines, it denotes death and was used for funeral palls.  So its RARELY used in Pysanki for that reason (the eggs are symbols of life and light!)
  • A spiral: Also used, connected to nature
  • A circle with a dot in the middle: represents something bright and noble; represents the sun and good fortune
  • A circle with a cross inside reaching the edges: represents the sun; good fortune

In Ukranian Easter Eggs Gruber writes, “Every mark that is placed on an egg has a meaning.  People with expertise in Pysanky can distinguish between eggs decorated in different sections of Ukraine and even between villages.  In the villages, certain families have come to be known for their distinct patterns” (3).   I find the symbolism here, pulled from old books, utterly fascinating.  Some of this same symbolism shows up, unsurprisingly, in the old esoteric lore! You can also use any other symbolism from within other spiritual or magical practices (such as some of the symbols I included here in an earlier post).
Ok, so at this point, you have your dyes made, your eggs drilled and blown, and a good design in your mind (and maybe drawn on your egg) complete with magical symbolism.  Now comes the fun part!

 

4.  Add your first wax layer.  Your first wax layer will be of your LIGHTEST color–that is typically white, but it might also be a very lightly dyed first color. You add the wax by heating up your tool, then scraping or dropping some wax into the tool, and wiping off the excess before drawing the tool across the egg.

 

Adding wax to an egg

Adding wax to an egg

5. Add your first dye layer.  Before adding your egg to the dye, you will need to seal up the drill hole with wax before you put it in the dye bath.  A little gob of wax does the trick here.  So, you can now dye your egg with the lightest color that you want to use in your design. Typically, this is yellow. The longer you leave your egg in the dye, the darker the dye will become on the egg.

 

Since your egg is hollow, you will need to weigh it down the egg so that it is fully dyed.  We found that a 1/2 pint jar works perfectly for this! I forgot to photograph this, unfortunately (so no photo here).  But basically you can use an empty 1/2 pint canning jar; it fit in a 1 pint widemouth jar that you are using for dye, and it will weigh the egg down.   Wait a few minutes, and pull your egg out often to check on the dye and see how you like the color.  Then when you are happy with the intensity of the color, pull it out of the dye and let it sit till it is dry again.  Its for this reason that we usually work on 2-3 eggs at a time–some are dyeing, some are drying, and one we are actively working on!  If you want a REALLY deep color, you can even put your egg in for several hours (or overnight) and you will get very intense colors.

 

6. Add successive wax and dye layers. You need to think about how the different colors already on the egg will interact with any colors you later put on the egg and plan accordingly.  This means you need to play for the dye path you will take.  So a few typical paths that you can use to dye include:

  • White–> yellow -> orange –> red  –> purple –> black
  • White –> Yellow –> light green –> blue –> purple –> black
  • White –> green –> blue –> Red (which makes purple) –> black

And so on.  Each layer gets darker, and its hard to go between complimentary colors on the color wheel (e.g. green to red makes a brown; yellow to purple makes a brown; blue to orange makes a brown).  As you work with the dyes, you can also experiment with different color combinations.

 

Here is an example of the successive layers of dyes that I used for my tree egg.

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg; this was a sunflower yellow

 

Third layer of dye and wax

Third layer of dye and wax (egg is in the front left); its now a light green, which is going to be all of the leaves on my tree.

 

Fourth layer of dye and wax

Fourth layer of dye and wax.  I’ve taken it to red, which interacted with the green and gave me a nice dark red.  This is going to be the ground areas and trunk.

 

7.  Allow the egg to fully dry after the last layer of dye. I would recommend at least an hour total for the drying time before you proceed with removing your wax (although it is hard to wait!).  You melt the wax off by  holding the egg carefully to the candle for brief amounts of time and wiping the wax off with a clean tissue or paper towel (a tissue works better).

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

 

Removing wax from an egg

Removing wax from an egg

8. Finish the egg and display!  You can leave a thin layer of beeswax and wipe it all over the egg to preserve it. A lot of people choose to use varnish on their eggs to help seal in the colors, but I haven’t done that and they last just fine. But at the end of this process, you have an incredible work of art! Here’s the finished egg from my earlier photographs:

Here's my completed tree egg!

Here’s my completed tree egg!

I hope that you’ve found this post to be an inspiration to you on your path deeper into the bardic arts!  I have found making of these eggs to be a wonderful, relaxing pastime.  They are unique gifts, full of magic and beauty!  Not to mention, they look great on your altar :).

Altar with eggs

Altar with eggs