The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Home-Grown and Wildcrafted Smudge Sticks: Plant List and Recipes November 18, 2018

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Basket of newly made smudge sticks

Creating homemade smudge sticks with local ingredients is a wonderful activity to do this time of year.  As the plants die back, you can harvest whatever you aren’t using for other purposes and create a number of beautiful smudges that can be used for many different purposes: clearing, honoring spirits, protection, setting intentions, letting go, bringing in, preparing for ritual or mediation, and much more.

 

A few years ago, I wrote an initial post on homemade smudge sticks using local ingredients–this has become my most popular post on my blog.  Given that, I wanted to offer a follow-up post with some additional information and share a few smudge stick recipes for specific purposes. For initial instructions on how to make your sticks, please see my first post.  This post expands the plant list that you can use to make smudges and also offers smudge stick recipes for various purposes.

 

Expanded Ingredient List for Smudge Stick Making

The following is a much expanded ingredient list from my first post–it not only talks about different plants you can explore in smudge stick making, but offers their latin names and also if they can be wildharvested or need to be garden grown.

 

Aromatic Cultivated and Wildharvested Herbs. This list represents plants that you can easily find in the wild and/or grow in a garden.  The information I’m providing is based on the US East coast/Upper Midwest, so you will need to adapt accordingly.  (C) refers to the need to cultivate this herb in most places in the US Upper East Coast or Midwest, while (W) indicates you might be able to find it in the wild.

  • Bay leaf (C)(Laurus nobilis):  Bay has a wide range of magical uses: to banish or expel, to protect, to support, to prepare folks for deeper magical work. If you aren’t sure what to use as smudge, bay is a great choice due to its flexibility! You can cultivate bay plants; alternatively, pick up some bay leaves in the spice section of the grocery store .
  • Coltsfoot (C)(Tussilago farfara): Coltsfoot is used primarily for divination, and due to its very early bloom time in the spring and beautiful yellow flower, it is also associated with sun work and the coming of spring. Leaves can be harvested in the spring or fall, you can find it along roadways in full sun or part shade areas. The leaf is large and can be used as a wrap for other smudge ingredients. The flower, looking similar to a dandelion but smaller, and blooming in early spring, can also be used in smudges.
  • Eucalyptus (C) (Eucalyptus spp.)– Another herb for clearing work; its smolders nicely and produces a powerful scent.  It combines beautifully with sage and lavender.  You have to plant this in my region–it doesn’t grow wild, but will grow to a nice size over the summer and you can use it.  You can also get whole leaf in some places if it isn’t local. While you can find it in craft stores in the US, I don’t know what they treat it with–I’d use it from an herbal supplier first.
  • Hyssop (C) (Hyssopus officinalis) – An herb with ancient connections to purification work; you can also use this to keep away negativity that is thrown in your direction.  Hyssop smells wonderful when burned.  I’ve also used Anise hyssop in a similar way; the two do burn differently (anise hyssop is more aromatic and smells and burns like black licorice).
  • Lavender (C) (Lavandula spp.) – Lavender helps with clear thinking, relaxation, and focus.  You can use both leaf stalks and flower heads in smudges–lavender flowers give smudges beautiful colors and appeal.  Lavender combines beautifully with sage or sweetgrass.
  • Lemongrass (C) (Cymbopogon): Cleansing, removing obstacles, purification.  You can grow this or even pick up stalks in the local grocery store.  Burns with a lemony scent and produces good smoke.
  • Mugwort (W, C) (Artemisia vulgaris) – Mugwort has a nice smell when burned (and its also used in a lot of herbal smoking blends).  Mugwort is specifically tied to dreams and can produce very vivid dreaming.  It is also wonderful for any other kind of trance or journeying work. While this is a powerful dreaming is a good thing in the short term, do keep in mind that vivid dreams over a long period of time can exhaust you–so use mugwort with care and not daily, but definitely use it!  Mugwort also grows beautifully straight and tall, and really does do well in smudges.  A lot of people cultivate mugwort, but I find it wild growing everywhere around where I live.  I really love this plant for both tea (harvested young) and smudges

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges--tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

    ingredients laid out to make some smudges–tobacco leaf and empty seed pods in front left corner.

  • Mullein (W) (Verbascum thapsus) – Soft, fuzzy mullein leaves have a nice “smoldering” quality–they smolder in the same way that sage smolders.  They don’t smell nearly as nice, but the smoke itself does have a beneficial impact on the lungs and can, medicinally, be used for “clearing” out the lungs of toxins.  In Buddhist practice, the lungs are said to house grief.  I think, for a personal smudge stick where I was working to clear out some deep emotions and emotional recovery, I would most definitely put mullein in becuase of that clearing/grief/lung connection.
  • Rosemary (C) (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Rosemary is another clearing and protective herb.  It is also another staple for smudges.  Interestingly enough, you can use both the root and the plant of rosemary–and they have different qualities.  The rosemary stalks burn wonderfully in a smudge.  Don’t let them get too dried out or the needles fall off easily and you will have a hard time wrapping them and keeping them intact.  You might look at the different varieties of rosemary–not only do they smell slightly different, but they burn slightly different as well.
  • Sage (C) (Salvia spp.) – Sage is a clearing herb that helps purify and cleanse spaces of negative energy.  All sages energtically work similarly, but do have some fairly unique smells.  Here are some different sage options:
    • White Sage can be grown in gardens and has a potent, distinctive smell.  The seeds are rather hard to start (only about a 20% germination rate) and it doesn’t like it too wet–it likes it hot. I usually plant this in my greenhouse as it is hotter and drier than the rest of my yard for the summer months.  You can use white sage stalks and leaves in your smudge sticks.  If you can’t grow it, you often can also find sage bundles in metaphysical shops (and you can take the bundles apart and mix them with other plants).
    • Desert Sage also has a lighter, sweeter smell than white sage.  I haven’t grown this myself, but have gotten some from friends who were out west. It also is relatively easy to find in the shops.
    • Garden Sage is a wonderful choice for multiple purposes–culinary arts as well as smudge sticks.  I harvest back the garden sage plants in the fall for use in smudges and for cooking!  It has a deeper sage smell than the other two.
    • Clary Sage has larger leaves and a more musky smell.  Works great for smudges!
  • Scented Geranium (C) (Pelargonium Spp.): Geranium is associated with prosperity, happiness, and love. The leaves and stalks of scented geraniums make wonderful smudge stick ingredients.  They burn similar to the smell that the geranium has.  i have had the most experience with my lemon scented geranium for smudges, but there are many options here.  Pick one up and it will grow in a pot all summer for you.
  • Sweet Clover (W) (Melilotus officinalis) – A great locally available plant that smells fairly similar to sweet grass (and attracts spirits and honors them, like sweet grass) is sweet clover.  Sweet clover is dotted over roadsides and fields around midsummer. It does not burn quite as sweetly as sweetgrass, it has similar qualities and a similar smell.
  • Sweet Grass (C) (Hierochloe odorata) – Sweet grass gets spirits’ attention and can be used any any visionary or honoring work. I cultivate a patch of sweetgrass (moved with me several times and originally given as a gift) and it works great for smudges.  Sometimes, I will put a full section of a sweetgrass braid in a smudge (see my photos).  That really gets some attention and looks amazing.
  • Thyme (C) (Thymus vulgaris): This gentle garden and culinary herb is an incredibly powerful magical plant.  Thyme helps with the removal of negative emotions, healing, and emotional healing. It looks so pretty in a smudge bundle too, especially the lemon thyme varieties.
  • Tobacco (C) (Nicotinana Rustica): Home grown tobacco is my go-to offertory plant, making offerings in particular to the spirits of the land, particularly of the plant kingdom.  Tobacco also helps other plants do their work better (it amplifies their power and connects you deeply with their energies).  I grow my own tobacco, and I use the leaves for offerings and use the stalks in smudge sticks.
  • Valerian (C) (Valeriana officinalis) – Valerian is one of the most powerful and potent cleansing and clearing herbs. A little valerian goes a long way.  The fresh flowers smell sweet, but as they dry, they take on a potent wet-dog style aroma. The dried flower stalks work great in smudges. You can also use the roots, but the roots smell even more like a wet dog–and your smudge will smell similarly when burned.  And  your house will smell just with the roots sitting out in a smudge stick.  That physical potency lends itself well to the spirit plant, for I have found nothing better to clear out a space.  Burn with the windows open!
  • Wormwood (C, W) (Artemisia absinthium): Another super protective and clearing herb is Artemesia Absinthium (Common Wormwood).  It has a pleasant smell when it burns, and is clearing, but in a more gentle way than valerian.
  • Yarrow (C, W) (Achillea Millefolium): Yarrow is another herb I like to use a lot in my smudges for its energetic qualities; it smells a lot like itself when it burns due to the high volatile oil content.  Yarrow is used for workings where you don’t want to be seen or you need to hide or conceal something.  It is also useful for strength and divination.

Trees and Shrubs.  Traditionally, cedars (like incense cedar or red cedar) were used for smudges out in the western part of the US.  In my bioregion, conifers mostly produce the best smudges, although some a few other options exist.

  • Eastern Red Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana): Junpier is a strongly protective herb and useful for male strength and for banishing. This is a wonderfully aromatic plant with berries that also are used medicinally.  I love using juniper in my smudges–but it has little prickly bits, so use it carefully so that you don’t get stabbed.
  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidantalis):  Eastern white cedar is a great smudge to help cleanse and open up a sacred space.  It also helps with cleansing negative emotions, grief, or other pain.  It is also tied to longevity and illumination. Eastern White Cedar crackles and pops when it is freshly dry due to its high amount of volatile oils.  If you use the cedar branches when they are first dried, they smell wonderful but literally crackle and pop when you burn them due to all of the volatile oils—which is a bit of a fire hazard, but also can kind of be fun. However, if you hang the cedar in your house for a few months and let it dry out, the oils slowly dry out of the cedar and then you can make your smudge sticks. The sticks at this point will smoke beautifully.
  • White Pine (Pinus Strobus): White pine is associated with peace (both outer and inner), drawing things out (including pain), cleansing and purification, and wayfinding. White pine needles burn beautifully and smell a bit like a pine-vanilla when they burn.  Wonderful in any smudge stick!
  • Blue Spruce (Picea pungens, Picea glauca): Spruce offers healing, resilience, strength, getting past the darkness. The latin name says a lot about the scent of the spruce tree: pungens – it is pungent!  The blue spruce has a very musky smell which goes well for working with animal magic and other nature-focused approaches.  The white spruce is less musky and very strengthening and potent.  Beware–most spruce needles are sharp and may need to be handled carefully when harvesting and making smudges.
  • Staghorn sumac(Rhus Typhina): Staghorn sumac is a wonderful addition to any smudge stick.  While you can use the leaves or fuzzy berry clusters, I much prefer the berry clusters.  If you are using the leaves, you need to get them into the center of the smudge stick or they crumble as they dry. You can make smudges with small clusters of berries and or collect and use the leaves after they have gone red in the fall for the best smoke.  Staghorn sumac has a very calming effect (I use it as an herbal smoke for my bees) and smolders nicely–plus, it is a beautiful red color that provides visual beauty in your smudge.  It has a fairly pleasant smoke (not very aromatic, but copious).  Staghorn sumac is a plant that offers creative approaches to thinking and cunning, which can certainly be of use.
Smudge sticks with various components--center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Smudge sticks with various components–center one has a sweetgrass braid!

Visual Components.  There is also a visual component to making a nice smudge stick, and I think this is where various wild flowers can lend a hand. Most of the flowers don’t have a particularly strong smell when burned, but a bit of purple or yellow or white in your smudge can look absolutely beautiful (and add energetically to your smudge). A visit to any flower field in the height of the summer will certainly give you much to work with–I love adding black eyed susans, sprigs of blue queen sage, or yellow ox-eye daies to smudges.  You can also cultivate flowers like statice or baby’s breath which hold their beautify for long periods of time for your smudges (I would not buy these commercially as they are almost always sprayed with something you don’t want to make airborne). There are SO many options to experiment with!

 

 Recipes for Smudge Sticks

Now that we have so many wonderful ingredients to choose from for home-grown smudges, what kinds of combinations smell nice and work well?  The following are some combinations I have used for various purposes.  You may not have all of the ingredients on these lists–you can eliminate ingredients you don’t have and mix and match.  In the end, your intuition should be the best gauge for what plants to put together for what purposes.  Here are some of my personal favorites:

Recipes for the Wheel of the Year

  • Winter Solstice Smudge: For bringing the light back into the world. Cedar, Juniper, and White Pine.
  • Imbolc Smudge: For Purification and Renewal: Hyssop, Rosemary, Cedar, and Sage
  • Spring Equinox Smudge: Letting the Awen Flow: Lavender, Sage, and Cedar
  • Beltane Smudge Smudge: Fertility: Wormwood, Motherwort, Lavender
  • Summer Solstice Smudge: Drawing Strength and Power:  Scented geranium, wormwood, juniper
  • Lughnassadh Smudge: Land blessing/Offering: Tobacco and White Pine
  • Fall Equinox Smudge: Seeking Balance: Bay, Rosemary, Mullein, Thyme, and White Pine
  • Samhain Smudge: Honoring the Ancestors – Bay, Sweet Grass or Sweet Clover (or both), Cedar

 Recipes for Other Purposes

  • Visioning and Journeying Smudge:  Any of the following, individually or in combination: Mugwort, Bay, Lavender, Sweet Grass, Sweet Clover, Yarrow, White Pine, Staghorn Sumac
  • Letting Go of Grief/Pain: Mullein, Juniper, Thyme, White Pine
  • Really Super Cleansing: Valerian, Rosemary, Wormwood
  • Divination: Coltsfoot, mugwort, White Pine
  • Establishing Sacred/Ritual Space: Bay, Yarrow, Sage, Cedar, Staghorn Sumac

 

 

Medicine of the Spirit: Plant and Flower Essences – A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part III November 4, 2018

Three completed flower essences

Three completed flower essences

A flower floats in a bowl of spring water under the sun. The drops of the resulting water contain the energetic signature of the flower; a bit of its essence and spirit.  A few drops of this medicine, taken with sacred intent and combined with inner work, can create powerful transformations in the body and spirit, both inner and outer. This is potent medicine, spirit medicine, medicine to work with the soul. It is a gentle medicine, a medicine based in energy rather than matter. It is plant spirit medicine, medicine that can help move us to new places and ways of understanding. Yet, when we think of the word “medicine” today, what often comes to mind are various pills–little white and yellow tablets in bottles, created by some unknown process in some faraway place. Many of them have extremely harsh side effects; they are so potent that they work quickly (which gets someone back on their feet and back to work) but these medicines lack connection and spirit. Just as our bodies need the medicines (most of which I covered last week) or spirits also need medicine–to release the non-tangible things (hurt, sadness, grief, trauma) and to help strengthen our spirits in these difficult times. And so in today’s post, we explore the medicine of the spirit through plant and flower essences.

 

 

Medicine of the Spirit

Flower essences are energetic creations. As I shared a few weeks ago, developing spirit relationships with the plants has many forms, and one of them can be through working with flower and plant essences. This is medicine of spirit, and for spirit, and so your individual connection to the plant deeply matters. In order to talk about plant or flower essences, I think it is important to develop individualized medicine and medicinal knowledge from plant spiritsworks based on connection. There are books and websites that tell you about the different flower essences; e.g. that Aspen is good for anxiety, particularly about unknown things, or that Crab Apple flower essences help you move beyond your imperfections.  And these will likely work well as they are established knowledge that has been worked with by many people. Using these kinds of resources are a great place for you to start, but I would suggest that you not end there–take it a step further. Working with the plant on both of these levels allows you to really understand and acknowledge the plant. Medicine of the spirit works differently than medicine of the body.

 

Creating a Healing Plant Flower Essence or Plant Essence

For some plants, you might want to work exclusively with the energy of the plant, rather than the physical body of the plant. This is because the plant may be poisonous to ingest (such as Thuja Occidentalis, the Eastern White Cedar) but you still want to work with its potent healing spirit. Or, can also be because it has a very low population at present (such as Indian Ghost Pipe); creating a flower essence allows you to not damage the plant as part of the harvest.  Or it can simply be that you want to work more with the spirit and energy of the plant, rather than the physical body.  Flower essences work on the same principles that cell salts, homoapathy, and reiki work on, that is, they work on subtle energy.  You can make flower essences anytime of year flowers are blooming; you can make conifer essences all times of year.  Given this time of year, you might want to try a witch hazel flower essence if you have any blooming around you!

 

Supplies. Once you are ready to proceed, you will need the following materials:

  • A bowl of your choosing
  • Fresh water (preferably rain or spring water, non-chlorinated if at all possible)
  • A strainer(depending on approach)
  • A small knife (depending on approach)
  • Moonlight or sunlight
  • Amber dropper bottle or jar for storage
  • Amber dropper bottle for use
  • Alcohol (vodka or brandy, 80 proof) for preservation.  Brandy tastes better, so it is usually my choice for flower essences.

 

Honoring and permission. Be in a good frame of mind as you start.  You may want to establish a sacred grove before creating the plant.  Make an offering to the plant  and then sit with the plant to make sure the plant is willing to help you create the essence. Listen for any messages that the plant wants to share.

 

Holding the bowl for a hemlock needle essence

Holding the bowl for a hemlock needle essence

Moonlight and sunlight. You can make a plant or flower essence in both moonlight or sunlight.  The choice of which depends in part on the work you want to do with the plant.  The energy of the sun is protective, it is outward facing, it is energizing, and it is potent. Use this for any healing work where you seek to strengthen, build, move forward, or start something new.  The energy of the moon is receptive; it is inward facing, it is calming, and it is subtle.  Use the moonlight for any healing work where you seek to remove old wounds, where you are doing shadow work on yourself, or where you seek to bring things in.  You can also use a combination of sun and moonlight–leave your flower/plant essence out during the day and then during the evening for a full 24 hour cycle to create balance.

 

Plant matter: You will need a very small amount of plant matter for your flower essence.  Use flowers if they are available (which means you may need to wait till the plant is flowering) or leaves/seeds if they are not.  Seeds and flowers both contain the potent energy of the plants.  Don’t use commercially grown flowers (like roses from the grocery store) or from greenhouses; nearly all of these are sprayed with poisons which will be infused into your water.  Instead, use wild populations or those you grow yourself or that are at friends/family’s houses where spraying doesn’t happen.  Grow your own on a windowsill if necessary!

 

Choose your approach and make your Essence.  There are two approaches to making flower essences, involving cutting or not cutting plants. Both with their drawbacks and strengths.

  • Cut plants approach: Go to your plant, and cut a small amount of plant matter or several flowers for creating the essence. Floats the flowers/plants in the bowl in the sunlight or moonlight for 3-4 hours or up to 24 for the sun/moon balance approach. When you are finished, remove the plant matter and complete the essence (see below).
  • Whole plants approach:  Go to your plant and dip a small amount of plant matter or plant flowers into the bowl.  If you can set the bowl on the ground or hang it somehow to keep the plant matter submerged, this is ideal.  If not, hold the bowl there as long as you can (at least 15-20 min) and allow the essence of the flowers or plants to infuse into the water.

 

Creating the “Mother Essence.” Once you have your essence, fill your jar halfway with your plant water.  Now, fill the rest with alcohol.  You have created a “mother” plant essence; this will last you a long time and be preserved indefinitely).  Take 7 drops of your mother essence and put it in the second jar, and fill it with pure water. This is our finished flower essence, and you can take it as often as you like and use it for various purposes (ritual, meditation, medicinal, etc).  You will also have plenty to offer others if you feel the need.  If you have any leftover “mother” water, consider using it in a sacred manner.

 

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Plant and Flower Essence List

Here are a few plant and flower essences that I have used and developed (these come primarily from my own understanding and what has been taught to me as an herbalist and permaculturist):

  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis): Getting past deep trauma and grief, getting past inner darkness, bringing light into a darkened soul
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Bringing clarity and insight; focusing the mind
  • Indian Ghost Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora): Offering distance and perspective on current or past situations; offering distance from pain, breaking through addictions
  • Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis): Bringing the flow of awen/creativity into your life; cultivating creative practices
  • Goldenrod (Soladago spp.): Bringing in power and joy into your life; bringing forth the harvest

 

Using Plant and Flower Essences

Once you’ve created your flower essence, you are now free to use it.  But how do you use it?  The most standard way to use a flower essence is to take four drops from your dropper bottle four times daily.  You might do this while in ceremony or meditation, or when taking a quiet moment.   If you aren’t sure you are going to be able to do this, if you carry a water bottle, add the drops to the water bottle and drink it throughout the day.  Or, add them to a glass of water at meals.  The point is to get the essence into you however you can (and for some of us, taking something regularly, much less 4x a day, is not something that comes easily!)

 

I’ve found there are other ways of using the essences, however, and they lend their own magic.  One I really like is to take any leftover “mother” water and bottle it up in a spray bottle (or split it and bottle it up in several spray bottles); I use cobolt glass bottles for this purpose.  Then I can spritz myself with it when I want the energy of that plant, or spritz a room with it.

 

I also like to add three drops of my flower water to any ritual bowls of water as a way to infuse the ritual with the energy of that plant.

 

Finally, especially for cleansing floral waters, you might add a few drops to your bathtub when you are taking a bath.

 

This concludes my post for this week–and one way, of many, to use plants for medicine of the spirit. Blessings upon your spirit medicine journey!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part II: Preserving and Preparing Sacred Plant Medicine October 21, 2018

The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea.  Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars.  This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts.  The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings.  In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!

 

An Herbal Sacred Grove

Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating.  You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own.  I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection.  The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit).  For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):

  • East/Air – New England Aster
  • South/Fire- Sassafras
  • West/Water – Hawthorn
  • North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
  • Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
  • Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
  • Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi

So my opening might look something like this:

  • Declare the intent of the ceremony
  • Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
  • Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
  • Sphere of protection; sealing the space
  • Offering to the spirits of the plants

Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.

If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening.  It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc.  The important thing is to make it matter for you!

 

Garbling

Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities.  On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly.  On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested.  Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.

 

Drying Plants

Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs.  If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels.  Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity).  If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option.  The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.

 

If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage.  This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry.  Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.

 

Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea.  The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants.  So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!

 

Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves

 

Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)

If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas.  For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors).  This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.

 

Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag).  This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers.  When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is).  The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time.  You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied.  I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste.  Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.

 

Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes.  These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material.  A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea.  Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.

 

You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:

Sunlight and solar tea!

Sunlight and solar tea!

Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon.  For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight.  For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid.  Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.

 

Solar tea:  Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material.  Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun.  If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat.  For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.

 

Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation.  I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!

 

Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)

Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here.  A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).

 

Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely.  If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists.  An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance.  You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues.  Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle.  Strain your material, and enjoy!  Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).

 

Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations.  They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh).  Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day.  Strain and enjoy.

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal.  Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic.  Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar.  Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy.  One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.

 

Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.

 

Healing Plant Infused Oil

Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available.  Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point.  Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).

 

Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated.  Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.

 

Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours.  Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.

Infusing plants

Infusing plants

Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster.  Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.

 

Healing Salve

To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up.  Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil.  As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.

 

To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency.  When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice).  Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.

 

Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).

 

Conclusion

The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it!  Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part I:Harvesting by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Sacred Intent October 14, 2018

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

A field of goldenrod, nettle, and aster greet me on this warm post- Fall Equinox day.  As the moon comes up with a sliver in the afternoon sky, I joyfully take my basket and harvest knife into the field for my fall plant preparations. The breeze has change on the air–winter is coming soon, and the sacred medicines I prepare will bring my family nourishment and strength for the coming dark half of the year. As we are well into the harvest season at this lovely Fall Equinox, I thought I’d take the time to talk about harvesting and preparation by the sun and moon and honoring the harvest. Next week, I’ll talk about the most basic plant preparations and we’ll end this series with talking about energetic preparations through the creation of flower and leaf essences.  That is, we’ll talk about the medicine of both the body and of the soul.

 

Wheel of the Sun, the Phase of the Moon, and the Turning of the Stars

With working with plant spirits, as we’ve been exploring in this series, we can do everything with sacred intent and awareness that plants aren’t just physical beings. This includes our planting, harvesting, and plant preparations. I have found that when I time my herbal practices by the wheel of the sun (harvesting and planting on sacred days, particularly Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain), these sacred times add a bit of magic to my plant preparations. Further, by working with the plants on these sacred days, I begin building a more rich and full wheel of the year practice focusing on medicine and healing. This means, that, over the years, I have special plants that I harvest at certain times of year, and part of my celebration of that sacred say includes harvesting plants. Some of these plants, like tobacco, are plants that I grow while others are wild plants that I have cultivated a relationship with over time. For example, Elder is one such plant: the Summer Solstice is “here” for me when elder is in bloom, and I will often make elderflower cordial on that day to enjoy throughout the year. When the Elder is ripe with fruit, Lughnasadh is here, and I make elderberry elixir for health and healing. These two plant preparations are not only critical to the health of my family throughout the year, but also help me mark and celebrate these holidays with something meaningful.  You might select a few plants to cultivate this kind of yearly relationship with.

 

Moon phases

Moon phases – the Land card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

The phases of the moon offer additional opportunities for sacred timing and herbal preparations. To me, there is little as enjoyable as going out under the full moon or dark moon to create a flower essence. There are two ways to use the phases of the moon: the simple way based only on moon phase, and the more complex way based on what planet astrologically the moon is in at that given time.  In terms of moon phases, preparing and harvesting at a new moon or during the waxing moon is good for when you want to bring healing into the body, strengthen the body, or offer nutrients to the body. The full moon  brings power to herbal creations and energizes them. A waning moon helps draw out or remove toxins, sickness, or other impurities.  If I want to work with removing sickness from the body, perhaps I start with a lunar flower essence of wormwood or walnut, created during the waning moon, and draw upon that energy to help remove sickness.

 

The turning wheel of the stars combined with the moon phase through astrology, offers yet a third possibility for harvesting and herbal preparation. This way is the most in-depth, but also perhaps, most powerful. This way to plant, harvest, and prepare herbal preparations by the phase of the moon is to use astrology, specifically, the moon sign. Each month, the moon spends about two days in each of the 12 astrological signs. The easiest way to know what phase the moon is in is to purchase a biodynamic calendar or a farmer’s almanac; both of these will offer this information. Generally speaking, here is what is important to know:

 

  • Water Signs (Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting leafy, above ground material for herbal preparations.
  • Earth Signs (Taurus, Capricorn, Virgo): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting and working with roots (below ground material) for herbal preparations.
  • Air signs (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is considered fairly barren and dry.  Libra, however, is also associated with flowers, so flower harvests and preparations are appropriate under Libra. Otherwise, these signs should be avoided for plant preparations and harvest.
  • Fire Signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): These signs are good “removal” signs, so good for weeding, but not very good for harvest (with the exception of the fourth quarter fire sign, this will be good for preservation).  Generally, you want to avoid harvesting under these signs.

 

These moon phases are fairly complex and can change on a daily basis; what I like about the biodynamic calendar and/or farmer’s almanac is that they spell it out for you on each day (and down to each minute). If you are practicing astrology, you wouldn’t need this kind of tool, but if you aren’t, it is very useful.

 

These are all tried and true methods for working with plants and also recognizing the many different ways in which sacred timing can be used to increase the potency of the plants. There are many opportunities to choose timing that best fits your purpose with herbal creations, and doing so adds a layer of sacredness to your actions.  Some of these systems may be contradictory (what if the moon is in a fire sign, but it is the Fall Equinox and you want to harvest?) so you need to pick your time and focus on the energy of that particular aspect.  I have found that the wheel of the sun has the most power, and if not, I will use a combination of the second two; or work hard to find the perfect moment where all three are in alignment (like 2 days before the fall equinox when the full moon is taurus for root harvest and preparation!) You don’t always get such amazing timing, but when you can, it makes the event more meaningful.

 

Honoring Spirit and Harvesting Plants

From an animistic perspective, when you harvest a plant or do any other kind of plant preparation, engaging in respect and honor is part of the necessary work. Part of this is because plants are lending you healing power through its actual body; in the case of root harvests, your harvest may end the life of that plant entirely. I believe that part of the sacred medicine of the plant is built into the relationship that you, as preparer, have with the plant itself.  In taking any part of a plant for healing purposes, and asking a plant to work for us, it is only right that we honor the plant spirit as part of our harvest.  We can harvest ethically and with sacred intent. So let’s talk about a few ways we might do this:

 

Honoring the plant. Prior to harvest, make an offering of some kind to the plant. This can be anything simple: a blend of herbs specially prepared (see my tobacco Beltane blend, for example), a song, music, drumming, a dance, a bit of your own liquid gold, a bit of your own energy, a small stone or other token.  Doing this ensures reciprocation between you and the plant, and lets the plant spirit know that you respect it. I belive this also makes the medicine stronger, as you are building a relationship of respect and mutuality with the plant. You might find, through inner listening, that the plant has a particular kind of offering it wants you to make–and different plants, just like other kinds of people, have a variety of different preferences.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

 

Harvesting for life. Harvest only what you need and think you’ll use.  For anything above the ground, harvest parts of plants or plants at the end of their life cycle, taking a small amounts.  For plants that are abundant, you can harvest more; for plants that are rare, harvest very little (or cultivate them further before harvesting anything at all). If you are doing a root harvest, make sure that your harvest will not damage the larger plant population.  I grow or wild cultivate nearly all of the plants I want to do a root harvest from, that way I am in control of exactly how many plants I have planted and how many I am going to harvest. I will not harvest from wild populations unless A) they are extraordinarily abundant and B) I have already worked to spread these populations further.  You can also consider doing plant or flower essences for plants that are extremely rare (Indian Ghost Pipe being a good example).

 

Cultivation and Relationship. Harvest and preparation are not one-shot events but rather, can be lifetime experiences rooted in a practice of nature spirituality. This means that these plants aren’t just a passerby you interact with once in a while, but can be strong plant allies and friends. Recently, I shared a post at Lughnasadh about how to cultivate long-standing relationships with plant spirits.  I used sacred tobacco (nicotiana rustica) as my example for this work and offered one strategy to do so.  The plant spirit posts I also recently shared offer more tools for this work.

 

That’s it for this week–during my next post, we’ll get into four different kinds of preparations you can make: drying herbs and teas, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and finally, plant essences.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings September 30, 2018

“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed

“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms.  Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time.  When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox!  It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.

 

About the Apple

Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild.  Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten.  There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out.  Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!

 

Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away.  These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life.  Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting properly.  By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree.  he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider varitey.  He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.”  I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree.  Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.

 

One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US.  Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)

 

In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America.  Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe).  Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks.  Unlike today’s limited varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples).  Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.

 

And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apple.  Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season.  Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era.  Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.

 

Wild Apple Foraging

Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms.  I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early Stepember, I return to these trees for a potential harvest.  Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat.  Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varities and tastes!  Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varities, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly.  He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc.  Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on.  Let this cool and strain the juice.  (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor).  This juice can be used to make a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a delightful wild apple jelly.  I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider. 

 

If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby.  You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apple. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore.  Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.

 

Apples and Healing

“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side.  He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.

 

Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health.  Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely.  Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple.  However, Wood notes some consitenencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples before they are ripe have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker).  Therefore, herbalists today use apple for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses.  Here are some highlights:

 

Love magic:  In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

Expelling evil.  In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight.  The apple tree’s apples are gaurded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound.  He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound, and then goes to the castle to claim his bride.  This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.

 

Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.

 

Apple and Healing  Long Lost Friend (an American Grimorie of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.

 

Apple’s Protective Nature.  As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle.  Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:

 

Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything.  She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.

 

Apple as a Gateway to the World.  In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree.  A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtles back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

Apple’s Blessings.  Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in.  Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain.  Apple offers us connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.

 

Apple as Healing and Life-Giving.   The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples.  Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.

 

Apple as a Gateway.  Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place.  Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.

 

Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples.  And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part III: Nature Engagement July 22, 2018

Leading you in deeper!

Leading you in deeper!

I’ve heard a lot of conversation in the nature spirituality community, including the druid community, about not touching nature, leaving it alone, to simply “be”.  I remember one influential druid speaking at an event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.”  From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. Because people have a tendency to come in, move things about, pick things, disrupt ecosystems, and generally cause havoc.  Or worse, much, much worse. Further, in a world where most humans can’t identify even five trees or have any idea if the ecosystem they are looking at is healthy or not, it is a good perspective for nature to be on her own.  This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. I do think there are cases, for ecologically sensitive areas, during breeding season, and so on where this is still the best philosophy.  But I think in many more cases, it is not.

 

However, as I began my own journey to understand and connect with nature more deeply, I came to a different understanding.  Through deep study of permaculture, bushcraft, wildcrafting, and so on, and reading the works of many authors, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Jon Young, and Wendell Berry, I came to a different understanding. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies that we put nature on a pedestal; that we enshrine her and look at her from afar, that we leave her alone. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.

I see at least three problems with this perspective, as a general principle:

 

  • It fosters separation and disconnection from nature. The minimal interaction with nature maximizes separation.  But we are part of nature, we are not separate from her.
  • It fosters fear about nature or about our own interactions with nature. Particularly, the fear to do harm, the fear to do the wrong thing, makes us fear doing anything. And so then, we do nothing.
  • It fosters ignorance about nature. Last week, I talked about how nature wisdom had two parts: the book learning through nature knowledge and the  experiential interaction through nature understanding. Because we are separate from it, we have no opportunity to learn from experience.

 

An alternative perspective–which I’m advocating today through nature engagement and next week through nature reciprocity–is a very different one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility. Nature engagement is the opposite of “pick up the garbage and get out”–its the idea that we are part of nature, we can learn to use her, to work with her, help her grow, and tend her, and use her responsibly. (And for earlier posts in this series, please see the framework, nature wisdom, and nature engagement).

 

A place to explore...

A place to explore…

One of the concepts that really shaped my thinking on this was how M. Kat Anderson describes the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness”.  While in English, the concept of wilderness is a largely positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild, the concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good (as long as that wild place isn’t someone’s front lawn). But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

What I’m actually talking about is dependency. With the rise of industrialization, factories and mass production replaced home cottage industries; consumer goods and purchasing replaced hand-created, foraged, and grown goods; and humans in western civilization, in a few short generations, lost the ability to learn to live from nature. Today, for many people living in industrialized nations, we have lost nearly everything our ancestors knew about how to live abundantly from the land. This included everything from growing food to foraging, from fishing and hunting to natural crafts, to building things naturally or with wood (a topic I explored in my “way of wood” post some time ago). We need nature, we depend on her, her survival is our survival–even if systems present in consumerism and industrialization have separated many of us from this truth.

 

If we enshrine nature, if we put her on a pedestal and look at her from afar, we will never develop the sacred relationship and co-dependency that leads to deep love and knowledge.  If all we are willing to do is “pick up the garbage and get out” then that’s all we will ever be willing or allow ourselves to do. The connection stops there–with a distance of respect, and reverence, but without interaction or interactivity.  Part of why nature is so powerful to us is that she can–and does–provide all of our needs. You step on a lawn; there is an incredible abundance of healing food and medicine there. Each time you walk into a forest, there is so much there to offer you.  Looking at a beautiful plant is one thing; looking at a beautiful plant that can help heal your pain is quite another. Through interacting with nature, and instead, prefer to interact with nature, to learn how to use her, to learn how to heal her (which all go hand in hand).

 

And, with all of the above in mind, we come to the three ways of nature engagement:

To engage with nature we can:
use nature for healing, living, and sustenance
enjoy nature’s beauty and adventure
be creatively inspired by nature

Using Nature

Humans use nature every day–it is how we survive as a species. From the oxygen in the air to the clothes on our back, nature is with us.  Everything that clothes us, feeds us, heals us, and shelters us ultimately comes from the earth in some form.  We in the western world might be very disconnected from the original source of materials used to create the things we wear, sleep on, or eat every day, and see it as wholly human made–but in the end, it has a natural source, and it is important that we learn to reconnect with nature as provider.

 

Elderflower harvest

Elderflower harvest

Because of exploitation, because we have such damage in many ecosystems, we are hesitant to directly take anything from nature; hesitant to do harm, when the very materials we thrive upon and food we eat comes from the land.  But “using nature” in a druidic sense needs to account for more than what we take–for a nature-based spiritual experience, it is less about “what can I take” and more about relationship, both give and take. Previously, I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry’s concepts from the Unsettling of America: approaching the natural world from a perspective that exploits (which is only taking, taking without reservation, and taking in a way that degrades and destroys life) vs. a perspective that nurtures (taking only enough, paying attention to the health of the land and considering long-term issues). If we approach using nature in a place of nurturing, we are already in the place to develop a relationship with nature. To me, I see this issue as one of reciprocation. I know that with each meal, with each moment I spend in a warm and heated home, I am taking from nature.  So my goal, then, is to give back in every way that I can.  If I pick our native black raspberries to eat (like I did this morning–yum), I save some and scatter them into new areas where they will grow and I leave some ripe ones for the wildlife.

 

Here are a few, of many, ways that you can learn to more fully “use nature”:

  • Foraging and Wild Foods: This hobby is a wonderful way to learn how to use nature and enjoy some tasty treats. I always balance foraging activities with ways that I directly give back to the land: scattering rare woodland species seeds, helping the plants I am harvesting (when native) by spreading their seeds, and so on (more on this next week). Sometimes, foraging helps manage species that are too abundant (or what others might call “invasive”); thus helping keep that species in check. You can never harvest too much japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, kudzu or dandelion!  Two posts (here and here) introduce you to foraging activities and give ideas and suggestions.  Lots of websites and books are available–and I often post material on foragable treats (like Hostas and Milkweed, both of which I covered this year).
  • Bushcraft. Another take on the “using nature” is by learning bushcraft skills. These are various wilderness survival skills like shelter building, fire starting, making cordage from natural materials, and more. There are various bushcraft skills scattered throughout the country and they offer a rich variety of classes. One I have attended is the North American Bushcraft School in West Virginia, who offer a wide range of classes on a variety of topics.
  • Herbalism. Learning how to heal the body with plants is another amazing way to “use” nature and learn how to engage with her more fully. I have found the herbalism community in the US to be rich, and delightfully earth-affirming and earth-honoring.  It is a wonderful practice to learn with a lot of good people to learn from. I have a post here detailing some of the ways to get started in this practice. You can learn both how to grow your own herbs and also how to harvest from nature and tend to wild patches of herbs to help them better grow.
  • Natural building. One of my long-time favorite ways of learning to use nature is through building using materials right from the land–through timber framing, cob construction, and more. I’ve written on this topic a bit here and will have some upcoming posts on the topic later in the year!

 

I actually think that part of the great tragedy of the modern consumerist movement is that nature has lost much of her “value” to humans.  I watch people cutting down apple or walnut trees, cutting back big swaths of dandelions or burdock, cutting down whole forests–and there is so much “of value” in those spaces, but the value isn’t known any longer.  When I teach wild food foraging classes in the summer, what strikes me the most is how learning something even small about a plant completely changes a person’s perspective on it–it changes their relationship, changes the “value” the plant has, and ultimately, connects them more deeply not only with that plant but with the ecosystem in which it grows. I’ve had people come back to me several years later after attending a plant walk and saying how they stopped spraying their lawns because they didn’t know that you could make wine from dandelions and salve from plantains, etc.

 

And use of nature absolutely builds nature connection. What I’ve found as I’ve delved more deeply into the above practices (some moreso than others) is that the more that I learn to use nature, the more connected I am, and frankly, the more value something has.  As a druid, I approach every aspect of nature with reverence and respect. But, its amazing to come across a patch of wild dogbane in the summer and be so excited because in the early winter, I know I can come back and harvest the dried stalks for cordage.  That really adds something to my interaction with this incredible plant and the ecosystem in which she grows.

 

Nature Activity

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Our second category under “nature engagement” is nature activity. This refers to the many nature-based activities that we can engage in and be out with and part of nature.  Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, and much more are an assortment of things that can be done in nature. My general rule, as someone who is focusing on cultivating a nurturing relationship with nature, is to focus on activities that have minimal impact or no impact and use minimal to no fossil fuel.  So I am happy to kayak down a river paddling using my own human power and navigating the river’s current, but don’t want to take a big speedboat. There are so many ways we can engage in activity, exercise, and healing through “doing” nature. I also think that activity can be paired with wild food foraging and herbalism, which really enhances your experience with being part of nature and connected to nature!

 

Another thing I like to do is combine sacred activities in nature (nature reverence, which we will explore in more depth in two weeks) with getting out in nature.  So planning a kayaking trip that also has a ritual component; bringing along a healing blend of herbs to make offerings to the land and a bag of American Ginseng and Ramp seeds to scatter, and so on.

 

Creating With/Through Nature

In addition to providing all of our needs and offering us incredible experiences through exploration, nature offers us inspiration.  Many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, fine crafts people and other creative artists throughout the ages have found their inspiration in the living earth, in the flow of the waters, in the spark of first light in the heavens, in the bloom of a flower or the soaring of a hawk.  In the druid tradition, we cultivate and work with the Awen, the force of divine inspiration, that flows from nature and through a person seeking to create.  Here are some ways that we might create with/through nature:

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

  • Nature as a muse: nature can be an incredible muse for all different kinds of creative practice.  I am a visual artist, and I am often sketching and photographing what I see to bring into my paintings; a dancer might choose to interpret the pattern of the clouds through motion, where a musician might play the song he hears in the waterfall.  Being present with nature, being in nature, being observant in nature, learning to meditate in nature–all of these can bring you inspiration.  I also find that when I travel somewhere new, outside of my usual places and outside of my own bioregion, inspiration of new natural places often floods within me.
  • Nature and Artistic Media: Using nature as part of your creative process is another way to bring nature centrally into creative practice.  This might be doing woodcarving and using wood, creating berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, and more.
  • Wildcrafting: There are many kinds of artistic materials and craft projects that you can do. I love finding ways of working with nature directly in my artistic and bardic practices. Berry inks, handmade papers, homemade decorations, smudge sticks, herbal offering blends, and so much more can come right from the living earth. For these, I only take what is in abundance, what I grow myself, or what needs to be managed.

I’ve also seen artists who work with whatever is abundant–a wonderful basket artist who works with bittersweet vines; harvesting the vines helps keep them under control and produces lovely works.  Or a woodworker who collects deadfall from the side of the road and turns it into masterpieces.  Or a mosaic artist who works with stones and shells from the ocean. Part of this, I think, is finding the parts of nature that speak and resonate with you and that bring you inspiration.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of ground–so we’ll end for here, and next week, we’ll pick up and explore the other side of the coin to  “nature engagement” which is “nature reciprocation.”  Blessings as always!