The Druid's Garden

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

Finding and Working with Ancestral Traditions March 26, 2017

Grandpa's field

Grandpa’s field

When I was a child, my grandfather took my cousins and I to a wild area we later called “Grandpa’s field.” It was a field on the edge of the forest below our houses, the edges rich with crab apples, hawthorns, beeches, and maples. Grandpa had a rusty red tractor, and we’d go into the forest riding on his lap. When we got to his field, we would park the tractor and look for wild mushrooms, wild ginseng, and other wild edibles.  He would point out plants and animal tracks and teach us about the forest.  After that, we would lay in the field and watch butterflies. When I was only 8 years old, Grandpa died after a hard life in the steel mills. In time, these memories faded and I didn’t remember where Grandpa’s field was. Later in my 20’s, some of my cousins came to visit and we began searching for the field–and we found it, overjoyed to be reuinted with a place so sacred to our Grandfather. Here were the old wooden fence posts that grandpa had brought down with his tractor. Here was the old crab apple tree. Here was everything that we remembered.

 

And yet, memories like this are few and far between. In truth, I have maybe 20 or 30 total “fragments” of my own heritage from beyond my parents’ generation–in small stories and tidbits just like this. As part of my own honoring of the ancestors, I’ve worked to bring back any of these traditions, however fragmentary, and I often weave these into the posts on this blog, such as my recent one last week on ethical sourcing of medicinal plants and American Ginseng. Many of us, I’m sure, have stories like the one I’ve shared above–small bits and fragments of those who came before. And yet, for many of us, these memories are fragmentary, so many traditions lost to history, to the passing away of ancestors, or even to our own memories. As I work to begin to live more like them, I am always struck by the little that I know of them.

 

I think it is easy to see the lack of ancestral knowledge as a deficit: how much we have lost, how much we don’t know, how we wish we could just sit and talk with someone who has passed on. I find myself sometimes falling into this trap sometimes, lamenting what has lost and not knowing the extent of what I’ll never know. But recently, a positive shift has occurred for me in rethinking my relationship with the fragmentary knowledge of ancestral tradition (I think this shift had a lot to do with returning to the land where I was born). So I’d like to spend some time today exploring ancestral traditions and the fragments we have left of them, and talk about how these can be used as “seeds” of rebuilding and reconnection within a nature-spiritual path.

 

Fragments of Traditions

The term “tradition” is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” And so when we think of ancestral traditions, they are those bits of language, behaviors, rituals, and culture that our ancestors have passed to us. The challenge I think that many of us face is that we are working with minor fragments of traditions, tiny bits and pieces that somehow survived and made it into the 21st century, into our hands. I choose the term survive very intentionally: in the last several centuries, with the rise of westernization, industrialization, and globalization, we’ve seen many cultural traditions, languages, and species disappear at an alarming rate. In fact, at present, over half of the 7000 languages in the world are “moribund”, that is, the remaining speakers are a few elders and the language hasn’t been passed on. These moribund languages hold incredible insights into how a particular culture thinks, sees the world, understands the human condition, interacts with nature, and more. And what these languages and cultural traditions have been replaced with is part of the predicament we are contending with in the present age.

 

Here in the US, immigrant families often worked to eliminate their own cultural differences to assimilate; this, combined with the loss of traditional ways and rise of consumerism has left many of these traditions no longer seen as “useful” to pass on. Native blooded peoples, of course, had their culture and language systematically stripped from them for the better part of three centuries. In other places, people may have been forced to relocate, famililes were split, or other kinds of severing occurred–leaving us with few traditions. My own more recent ancestors were part of the cogs of the enormous working class whose blood, sweat, and tears funded industrialization, expansion, and “progress.” My grandfathers were steel mill workers, other family members cut lumber or worked in coal mines in other working class industries here in Western PA–and that’s about the extent of what I know. And by the time someone (like me) is ready to learn them, those that could pass them on have long since returned to the Summerlands.

 

Ancestral Fragments as “Seeds” of Future Traditions

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

For my entire life, I’ve really found only “fragments” of my family’s traditions: these traditions are fragments of what was once a completely different way of life. I have come to see the fragments in two different metaphorical senses: the jar metaphor and the seed metaphor.

 

First, I have the metaphor of the jar, which is the metaphor that reaches back into the past. These fragments are like tiny br0ken pieces of what was once a set of large and beautiful jars, bottles, and vases of various colors and styles (because my heritage doesn’t link back to just one culture, but to many).  Perhaps I find part of a flower or some blue pattern and I wonder what the whole jar used to look like, who held it, the kinds of things that were stored inside.  And so, I pick up the fragments, look at them, and work to piece together what might have been.

 

The second metaphor I use for these fragments is that they are the “seeds” of future traditions.  So if I’m working with a small fragment of ancestral knowledge, that fragment is like a seed of unknown potential. I maybe need to hold onto it for a while but eventually, cultivate some soil and plant it, to see what grows. I need to tend the soil, to work with it, to water it carefully.  Maybe that means doing some research, maybe that means trying something out–but the point here is to “tend” to it and see where it may lead. This seed metaphor is important because I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in the same cultural context that they did, I likely don’t believe what they did, I don’t live like they did, and so, some of their traditions would make no sense in the present age. I need traditions for this age–ways of working through this age, and things to do to respond to the present circumstances and build a future tradition.

 

Family Traditions

Family traditions are often the most salient and meaningful as they weave into our own upbringing and experience and tie directly to ancestors of the blood. And yet, I think there are a few challenges with these traditions. First, our ancestors didn’t always leave much for us to work with. Gather up what you can, as often as you can, and keep it close to you. Write it down–that and stories you remember. Talk to anyone who is still alive about those traditions. I’ve actually found it important to talk with each person more than once, in different settings, as conversations can lead in multiple directions. Ask if anyone has “stuff” that you can look like (old journals, books, etc). This can also help you piece together things.  And sometimes, it can be a puzzle worth solving!

 

Here’s a good example of this kind of work: my same grandfather that I shared about above often visited a spring and drank spring water after a long day at the steel mill. My mother mentioned it a few times in passing as I was growing up, and one day when I was driving to visit my parents, I came across a roadside spring not so far from those very steel mills. I shared the story of that spring last year on this blog. I began drinking the water from that spring and visiting it as did other members of my family. Then, a few months after we had reconnected with the spring, we came across some old reel videos my grandfather had taken of the family when my mother was quite young. As we were watching the black and white videos (with no sound) projected onto the wall, there was the spring, with the whole family drinking from it.  My cousin and I jumped up excitedly because we had confirmation that we had found the “ancestral” spring. This is a seed of something that has become much greater for me–I now visit that spring at least once a month and take water from that spring to other sacred locations.  All of my drinking water comes from the spring and I honor that spring each time that I am there. The ancestral spring has become one of the focal points of my spiritual practice, and I’m cultivating my own relationship with it–all the more meaningful because of the generations who came before me.

 

Sacred Spring

Here’s a second example. A friend recently learned that his grandfather had been known across the county as a person who knew a lot about apple orchards and was an orcharder.  After learning this, he looked with new eyes at the few remnants of his grandfather’s trees that still remained in his grandmother’s yard. He now has plans to gather scion wood from those trees and graft them onto other apples.  If he begins to tend those trees with the grafts, he has–literally–brought part of his grandfather’s work with him and the varieties that his grandfather cultivated. And of course, from there, there is no end to the kinds of activities one can engage in surround this apple tree (like pressing cider or Wassail!)

 

Of course, we have many such family traditions to draw upon: music, food, songs, places that hold significance, clothing, items passed on, land, trees ancestors planted, things they did–all of these hold potential for planting seeds for new traditions that will carry us into the future.

 

Family Religious Traditions

Of course, one of the challenges for those on the druid path is that we’ve likely deviated away from our own recent ancestors’ religious traditions–and those traditions may be the bulk of what family traditions are left to us.  If that’s the case, we need to also think about what traditions would work best for us, and if any traditions can be adapted and honored, but perhaps in the context of our own druidry. This isn’t always easy for you to figure out, but is worth spending some time sorting through, and I’ll give you two such examples:

 

I have a good druid friend who comes from a Catholic tradition but has left that tradition behind her. Most of her ancestral traditions handed down in the family are Catholic in origin, and she’s working through what to do with those.  Of course, some of those rituals have meaning and significance to her, even though she is no longer a Catholic. One of the ways she has worked this into her druidry is to call upon the four archangels as part of her daily Sphere of Protection (the daily protective ritual in the AODA).

 

I have a personal example here to share as well. My family has done pysanky eggs since I was a small child–something I shared on this blog last year. Each year, we would bring out the small packets of dye in their white envelopes, the small tools, the eggs, and the candles and work to design beautiful and magical eggs.  The traditional eggs, of course, use a lot of Christian symbolism.  I’ve kept what I felt was appropriate and also added new druid symbolism into the eggs.  And so, in this case, I’ve kept up with the tradition but have changed a bit of the symbolism and designs that I draw upon.

 

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

I think it is up to each of us to figure out how we want to weave those previous religious traditions with our present work–and you might find that you are able to do so with more comfort and certainty as your own path continues.

 

Cultural Traditions

Another angle you can take is the broader cultural tradition that your family’s ancestors were part of.  These traditions aren’t necessarily directly descended and passed on by blood relatives, but they are often easier to find and learn about than the fragments left to us through family lines.  Cultural traditions are often well documented in books: look for songs, stories/myths, customs, food, dress, holidays, and more. Of course, with these, you’ll want to develop your own take on these cultural traditions–what works for you? What doesn’t?

 

I have two potential resources here for you on broader cultural traditions. The OBOD‘s course does a nice job in introducing people to some of the cultural customs tied to the ancient druids, particularly of Wales, and how those can weave into modern druid practice. The Grand Archdruid of the AODA, Gordon Cooper wrote a brilliant piece on “Wildcrafting Your Own Druidry.”  In this, he offers an example of a wildcrafted druid cosmology where the druid drew upon her own heritage as well as a focus on the land around her.

 

You also might look to more “local” cultural traditions or those that are around your region.  For example, here, in about a three-county area, there is some tradition surrounding magical barn signs (and they are distinctly different than the Eastern PA “hex” signs).  I’m still researching this tradition, but seeing these beautiful cut out barn signs everywhere has really encouraged me to do more research, to take photos, and to weave these symbols into my own artwork and druid practice.

 

Traditions tied to the Land

The final piece that we might draw upon with regards to ancestral traditions are those tied to the land itself–those that allow us to reconnect with the heritage and uses of the land prior to our current culture.   This, often, is tied to wildcrafting, foraging, and the kinds of plants and animals you have.  Bushcraft classes in your local area is one such way you might learn about these traditions, as are, again, old books, old maps, and old timers.

 

One such tradition that I’ve been attending to in recent times is the art of acorn harvesting and acorn eating. Many native tribes in the US ate acorns and used acorns as their staple crops.  Reconnecting with the acorn in this way, making it a part of my fall rituals, and enjoying it as a meal or flour has really opened up possibilities. And so, I’m learning how to crack acorns effectively, how to dry them, how to grind them into meal and preserve them. Acorns as a dietary staple are easy to find and abundant here, and rebuilding this knowledge can help me connect with the land in powerful ways as well as teach others! I’m finding that acorn preparation is a lot of work, but it is fun work, and it is helping me reconnect with an extremely important local food source that has been used by people inhabiting this land for thousands of years.

 

Other ways you might find some of these traditions is looking at place names: the name “spring” or “mill” gives some sense of what your town or road may have once been used for. Historical societies and historical markers also can help you see some of the broader histories in the region–often directly tied to the land and how people sustained themselves upon it.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought on your own ancestral traditions as they tie to your family, your broader cultural heritage(s), and the traditions of the land around you.  Thinking through and planting seeds of new traditions is extremely meaningful work to do, and can be wonderfully rewarding.  In the comments, I’d love to hear from anyone who has made family traditions part of their own druid path.

 

PS: I’m seeing an increasing number of people directly copying and pasting my blog posts into their other blogs (different than reblogging). These blog posts represent my own thinking, meditations, life energy, and sacred work. I ask if you want to share them, please use the “reblog” feature so that you share a small portion of the post and then the post links back to this site (and thank you to those of you using this feature!) I freely share my insights and experiences here, and I ask that you respect that sharing. Thank you and blessings!

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Hawthorn (Lore, medicine, magic, and mystery) October 30, 2015

Hawthorn branches and leaves

Hawthorn branches and leaves

In honor of Samhuinn, a festival of beginnings and endings, today we’ll explore the most sacred of trees–the hawthorn. This is the 6th post in my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series where I examine abundant trees in the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the USA, exploring their many qualities: physical, magical, herbal, mythological, and so on.  Previous posts have include Eastern Hemlock, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, and Hickory.  Each of these posts takes 20-30 hours to research and write, not to mention the countless hours I spend with the trees to understand them and share their stories as best I can.  And now friends, let’s enter the forest and visit the hawthorn.

 

There are few trees quite so enigmatic in either western herbalism practice or contemporary druidry as the sacred hawthorn—and this is the first of the sacred trees of the Americas series that is included in the traditional Ogham, although I want to add to our knowledge of this tree.  With its small, tart berries, its lovely white or pink flowers, and its thorny, protective trunk, this is a tree that has woven its way into the hearts and tales in many parts of the world.  And certainly, its  a tree that has much power during this sacred time.

 

I remember when I was a child, running through the hawthorn grove behind my house. Hawthorns here in Pennsylvania, as in many forests, function as under-story trees, so they would grow in the second layer of the forest—and the forest in parts was thick with them. We would gather apples from the crab-apple on the hill, and place them in the thorns of the hawthorns as “offerings” to the trees so that they could let us pass into the forest, which we believe was another realm. We would gather the thorns and stick them into the mud or in the sand in our sandbox to create mini groves of thorny trees, a wonderland of its own. It’s amazing to me now, in studying the ancient lore of the hawthorn tree, how our instincts and intuition as children are often right.

 

As an adult, I would be thrilled to come across a hawthorn in full fruit, ready and waiting for a harvest.  Just as I was a child, I would first leave an offering in that tree’s thorns (an apple, a piece of bread, a song on my flute) and then pick the haws (fruit) from the tree or the ground—they are ready when they give freely, and they drop when you pick them. Many trees, when you work with them, bestow some of their gifts just from being near them, from harvesting from them, from breathing them in or sitting next to them. Hawthorn has always had this effect on me—when I was heartbroken, harvesting flowers and then preparing them simply soothed my aching heart. Come with me now, into the grove of the Hawthorn tree!

Hawthorn tree in early summer

Hawthorn tree in early summer

 

About Hawthorn (Physical)

Hawthorns (Crataegus spp) have many folk names including thorn, thornapple, may-tree, whitethorn, quickthorn, mayblossom, hagthorn, hedgethorn, quickset, hawberry, halve, bread and cheese tree, Huath, lady’s meat, may bush, tree of chastity.  According to Grieve’s herbal, “quick” terms come from its ability to quickly grow; the “hedgethorn” name comes from its ability to produce effective hedges (more below), and whitethorn from its light coloring. The Latin word for the tree, crataegus, comes from the Greek kratos hardness (of the wood) and akis sharp, suggesting these trees have sharp, strong thorns. Hawthorn trees are a whole range of sub-species that usually have slightly different bloom and berry ripening times; nearly all are used interchangeably in herbalism and magical practice.  Its range spans most of North America and is likewise found in Asia and throughout Europe.  Not all varieties are trees—some are rather large shrubs—the ones that make good hedges.  All of the, however, have their enigmatic thorns—the secret to both the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn trees are an important part of the ecosystem, being a nectary for insects in the spring and providing food and shelter for many birds and mammals.  Because the haws are a very late-dropping fruit and some may remain on the trees even into the winter, thrushes and cedar waxwings will eat them and spread the berries through their droppings.  Certain moths and butterflies feed exclusively on the nectar and leaves of the hawthorn tree.

 

Hawthorn has long been a hedge plant; the German word for Hawthorn is Hagedorn; haw is also an older word for hedge. Hawthorn, especially in the UK, was planted heavily in hedges for boundaries to fields; while it was used throughout the ages for this purpose, in the 18th and 19th century with new fencing laws, the hedges grew even more prominent. It was from these hedges, full of medicinal and magical plants, that the “hedge witch” term derives. In terms of human uses of hawthorn, it has a very hard and rot resistant wood, and so in the US, it was used frequently for fence posts and handles, even in some cases for wood engravings and carvings.  M. Grieve reports that hawthorn root wood also has a fine grain and finishes well—so the root wood is used for decorative boxes and combs. Charcoal of hawthorn is so fine that it was apparently used in pig iron furnaces for the creation of “coke” for making steel—although given the strong prohibitions against cutting or burning it, I’m surprised that anyone would use it for charcoal!

 

Example of hawthorn rust

Example of hawthorn rust

One of the physical problems that hawthorns have in the USA (especially those where I lived in Michigan) had was Rust (cedar/apple rust blight).  This rust was carried by Eastern Red Cedar (juniper) trees and was transmitted to any apples or hawthorns in the area, sometimes being fatal.  I haven’t seen rust impacting the hawthorns here, but I noticed many of them dying off in the immediate area—older hawthorns of a dwarf variety all dead in one season—so I’m not sure what is going on.  It is worrisome.

 

A final use of a hawthorn tree is that of a rootstock or graft for other related cultivars—primarily for quince, pear, or medlar. From a permaculture design standpoint, this is wonderful to know, because you could end up with a hawthorn tree that also has pear, medlar, and quice grafts—what an abundant opportunity!

 

Harvesting Hawthorn

For medicine making, the flowers and leaves can harvested, along with the berries.  Of course, if you harvest the flowers, there won’t be berries, so there is always a choice to make! You can use a pair of scissors or just your hands to harvest leaves and flowers. Do realize that many hawthorns, especially in their flower stage, are home to a variety of insect life.  Shake the branches and check the flowers and leaves carefully before drying them, tincturing them, etc.  Let the life that lives on the flowers stay outside to gain the hawthorn’s blessing!

 

Later in the season, the hawthorn berries  ripen—depending on the cutivar, either rin September or October (if there are many hawthorn trees around, you’ll be able to harvest for 1-2 months straight from different trees!) Hawthorns, like apples, give of their haws (fruit) when they are ready—when you lightly tug on the haw and it is ripe, it will come easily from the tree, and likely others with it. If you tug on the haw and you get resistance, come back later, and the fruit will be ready. Or it may be all on the ground, which is a fine place also to gather it up. When they are perfectly ripe, they start dropping to the ground in quantity. When harvesting haws, there are all shapes and sizes – larger ones almost crab apple sized and tiny ones no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger.  Hawthorns can come in red (most common),  yellow and black (least common) varieties.

 

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

A hawthorn loaded for harvesting! (This one was very friendly!)

In terms of harvesting, some hawthorn trees are more “friendly” than others, meaning they have less thorns on the branches.  I’ve met trees who simply aren’t interested in being harvested by humans—they have lots of thorns on the branches and stick you with them when you reach in.  Better to find a nicer hawthorn tree—many are quite personable if you give them an apple or something as an offering!

 

After harvesting, check your hawthorn berries for worms. Hawthorn berries often have small worms in them (again depends on the tree), so I find its easiest to use a masher (like a sauerkraut masher, a solid wooden one) on a wooden cutting board.  I smash open the berry with a gentle tap, see if there are worms inside, remove the seeds ,and then dry it or tincture it or whatever.  If there are wormy bits, I simply remove them and use the rest of the seed.  You do want to remove the seed of the berry for sure—the seeds, like the seeds of apples and cherries, contain cyanide.

 

Grieve reports that the fruits have names other than “haws” – she lists “pixie pears,” “cuckoo’s beads,” and “chucky cheeses” (who would have known that the pizza joint was named after the hawthorn tree? The things you learn studying herbalism and magical plants!)

 

Hawthorn in Herbalism

Culpepper notes that hawthorn is a tree of Mars. He also suggests that a distilled water of the flowers “stays the lax” (translation = keeps leprosy away) and will draw out thorns or splinters.   If the seeds are bruised and boiled in wine, its good for “inward pains” (pretty self-explanatory).  Gotta love Culpepper!

 

Physcial heart healing: More modern knowledge of western herbalism recognizes that Hawthorn is one of the greatest herbs anywhere on the planet for use in healing the heart—both physically and emotionally. Hawthorn functions as a troporestorative, that is, it has long-term restorative benefits to the heart and circulatory system when taken over time—it heals the heart and helps it function better.  Unlike many traditional remedies, hawthorn has a wide variety of study from aleopathic (modern) medicine, so the uses are backed up by scientific study. It is used for high blood pressure, where it relaxes tension and helps dilate the blood vessels to allow blood to flow more freely.  It strengthens the heartbeat and aids in smoothing out the rhythm of the heart. The berries are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant.

 

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn – here’s my masher!

Sore Throats and inflammation: Flowers and berries are astringent, according to M. Grieve, and therefor useful in a decoction for sore throats (especially the wet, goopy, inflamed ones, given hawthorn’s anti-inflammatory powers).

 

Soothing Hot Excesses: Hawthorn has a potent nervine effect of calming the heart and soothing hot excesses. Herbalist David Winston uses hawthorn for ADHD clients to help calm down a bit as he illustrates that hawthorn calms the spirit. Herbalist Sean Donohue uses it for stress induced asthma.  In each of these cases, we see hawthorn having a calming effect on the nerves and the heart.  Overall, Hawthorn is a mood brightener and mood lifter.  In his Cherokee Herbal, Garret reports that the Cherokee likewise used hawthorn as a relaxant.

 

Emotional heart healing: On the emotional and spiritual side, hawthorn is a great herb for heart healing. Herbalist Jim McDonald also uses it to help people establish their own emotional space. As Jim McDonald has discussed, about anytime that you’ve had heartbreak—you can literally feel your heart hurt, and wounded, and as part of this to prevent further hurt, you close up/constrict yourself and are unwilling to open yourself again. Hawthorn helps us heal from this kind of emotional damage—we can see this in the tree itself, who offers its medicine freely but also creates a protective space with its thorns.  Hawthorn, therefore, provides an energetic/etheric protection to the heart and helps us establish our own space.

 

Hawthorn is a wonderful tree to help with heart guarding or heart healing.  You can use this energetically or physically. According to Jim McDonald, it can be as simple as carrying a bag of haws with you or rubbing tincture on your heart.  It can be a daily ritual or affirmation and can help you connect with your intentions.  You can use it for emotional issues, emotional body army, emotional overprotection. David Winston says that Hawthorn calms the heart and spirit, especially calming the spirit when the spirit is easily affected by what is around a person (because of this, he uses it to treat ADHD/ADD).

 

In terms of making medicine from hawthorn, the most complete medicine is a combination of flowers, leaves, and berries in a tincture; you can also make decoctions of berries; tea with leaves; tincture; herbal vinegar; glycerate; elixir; hydrosol (flowers); syrup; and food (conserves, jellies, jams).

 

  • Teas: To create teas (infusions and decoctions) from the hawthorn, use the leaves and flowers or de-seeded berries.  For a strong medicine, pour boiling water over the leaves and flowers, seep for 10-20 min, and drink (with honey, if you’d like!).  For the berries, bring water to a boil, add berries, and boil covered for at least 20 min (depending on if they are whole or smashed prior to drying).
  • Syrups: Chop of hawthorn and cover with 1 quart of water. Boil this for an hour or so, then strain the berries.  Boil it down to 1 cup, then add your choice of sweetener (honey, maple syrup).
  • Elixirs: Tincture in brandy with honey or maple syrup; Elixirs as concentrated as a typical tincture
  • Paste: Hawthorn berry powder can be made into paste or pastilles with a bit of honey.  Spread it, ball it up and eat it, however you’d like!
  • Hawthorn Schnapps: Tincture of fresh berries in lower-proof vodka (80proof) for an enjoyable beverage!
  • A pregnancy infusion for preeclampsia: hawthorn, nettle, raspberry leaf, and oat straw: this functions as a troporestorative for the liver and can be used as early as the 1st trimester.

 

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn and New England Aster and Cauliflower Mushroom all harvested on the same day

Hawthorn in Legend and Lore

Native American Lore

In this series, one of my main goals was to examine how trees, like hawthorn, work in the North American context.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be found in the Native American literature on the hawthorn (which is surprising, given how prominent this plant is in most other parts of the world where it grows.)  One of the few stories I could find was a Chippewa legend, “Why Porcupine has Quills” where porcupine is being hunted by bear, and he needs some defenses. He takes hawthorn branches and places them on his back, and when Bear came to eat him, Bear was pricked by the thorns and went along his way. Nanabozho, a trickster god, witnessed what happened and was impressed with Porcupine’s tricking of Bear. He took hawthorn branches and thorns and peeled them so they were white, then put some clay on Porcupine’s back and added the thorns. Ever after, Porcupine was protected from those that would eat him, like Wolf or Bear. In another tale, a Senaca legend, a bird (personified as a woman) is in search of her mate. She sings to men along a riverbank, and eventually settles on seeds to eat. In this story, Hawthorn is what is eaten by the bear, her second suitor.

 

The only theme I gather from these stories is the “protective” role that hawthorn plays, which we certainly see physically as well as medicinally in the plant. When we examine the lore in other parts of the world, particularly the British Isles, a more elaborate picture emerges.

 

Hawthorn in Celtic Lore

Hawthorn as a Gateway to the OtherworldIn the lore of many tales specific to the Celtic Isles, hawthorn is a gateway tree; that which holds a doorway between our realm and the fairy realm. This is clearly discussed throughout the lore and literature. One such example (of many) comes from Sir Samuel Ferguson’s “The Fairy Tree,” where a group of maidens sneak out to dance on a hill with the hawthorn (the fairy tree), ashes, and rowans. They slow down and quickly fall asleep and are enchanted, “For, from the air above, the grassy ground beneath, and from the mountain-ashes and the old Whitehorn between, a Power of faint enchantment doth through their beings breathe, and they sink down together on the green.” The fairies come to visit them (and I’m not talking about Walt Disney fairies here), and one of their number, Anna Grace, is taken away and never seen again.

 

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

Ancient, wise hawthorn tree

The Magic of Sleep: As the above story describes, Hawthorn has the power to put people to sleep.  This is explicated in another story, The King of Ireland’s Son by Padric Colum from 1916.  In this story, the King of Ireland’s son is in love with a woman, Fedelma.  At one point in the story after her love, the King of Ireland’s son falls asleep and will not awaken, she asks the King of the Land of Mist to pluck a hawthorn branch and put her to sleep as well—she does this, and for part of the story, she stays asleep as long as the hawthorn branch is with her.

 

The Gateways of the Seasons: Hawthorn, along with another very sacred tree, Rowan or Mountain Ash, flowers traditionally somewhere around May 1st (or a bit later, for those that live in colder climates) and its berries ripen and fall sometime in mid to late October.   This puts the power of the hawthorn tree near two critical Celtic festivals: Beltane, the festival of fertility in the Spring and Samhuinn, the festival of the final harvest, the new year, when its berries fall.   Normal Lockyer (1909) makes note of the connection of these trees to Beltane and Samhuinn in Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered. In the story of Thomas the Rhymer (as told by Donald Alexander Mackenzie in 1917 in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend), the Fairy Queen comes when the “milk white hawthorn is in bloom, anointing the air with its sweet odour.”

 

A Fairy Tree and the Cutting of the Thorn.  As the stories above suggest, the Hawthorn is strongly associated with the fairy, and is said to be their tree.  Plucking one, or cutting one, is very liable to garner their wrath—not a good idea in the slightest. In the story  In the poem “The Fairy Well of Laganay” bu Samuel Ferguson, the speaker is in deep mourning and says, “I’ll go awawy to Sleamish hill, I’ll pluck the fairy hawthorn-tree, and let the spirits work their will, so they but lay the memory, which all my heart is haunting still!”

 

In a connected tale, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde (1887) Wilde tells a tale called “The Fairies’ Revenge” where a wealthy farmer buys some land and builds his house on a fairy hill; he cuts the hawthorn tree on that hill and incurs the fairies wrath.  The fairies begin to harass their only son, and eventually, he dies and the farmer is ruined.  The house slowly returns to the land, and the fairies dance there once more.  In a second story, Lady Fancesca discusses the hawthorn again, “Their favorite camp and resting-place is under a hawthorn tree, and a peasant would die sooner than cut down one of the ancient hawthorns sacred to the fairies, and which generally stands at the center of a fairy ring.”

 

A Tree of The Heart: Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde also  describes a traditional Irish Wedding.  In that Wedding, the bride and groom meet with guests in a field under a large hawthorn tree covered in colored fabric and with rush candles in the branches.  This heart connection can be seen woven all through the medicine and magic of the hawthorn tree.

Hawthorns form a gateway

Hawthorns form a gateway

Revival Druidry & Magical Alphabets: Coelbren and Ogham

I would be remiss if I didn’t look to the Hawthorn Tree in the druid tradition. In Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas (1862), Iolo presents a magical alphabet called the Coelbren of the Bards, derived from Welsh and a wooden frame called a pillwydd which the letters can be carved into.  One of the trees Iolo suggests is Hawthorn.  (For more information on the Coelbren of the Bards, see John Michael Greer’s article in Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Volume II).

 

Hawthorn, or Huath, represents the letter H in the traditional Celtic Ogham.  Numberous interpretations of the hawthorn exist—let’s take a look at two of them.  In the Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer describes the hawthorn.  His upright meaning for it includes, “Patience, reserve, retreat.  A time of waiting and planning rather than action.  Obstacles that can be overcome.  Success after a delay. Temporary obstacles.”  Reversed, it’s the opposite, “Inappropriate action, rushing ahead when patience and planning are called for.  A risk of failure.  You need to stop and reconsider” (p. 82).  In both of these cases, we see hawthorn being connection to either the right timing, overcoming obstacles, or taking the action at the wrong time.  The Greek concept of “kairos” which is summed up “right time, right place” comes to mind here.  Hawthorn gives us messages of the heart, and if we can listen to our hearts, we know when the right (or wrong) time to act is.

 

In a second book, Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires also describes the hawthorn in detail.  His discussion of the ancient lore on the Ogham from the Book of Ballymore links the hawthorn (whitethorn) to a pack of “meet of hounds” that is “formidable owing to its thorns” (44).  Blamires also notes that the letter H in Galeic grammar is neither consonant or vowel, but functions to strengthen other letters. Cuchulain, the great hero of the Ulester Cycle, provides his own list, indicating that hawthorn is “difficult night” (47) and a whitening of the face.  Blamires, in his own interpretation, suggests that Hawthorn not be invoked during magical work, but rather that it be used as a “warning to the magician to prepare for something about to happen” which might be backlash for some kind of action(111). His interpretations stem from the idea that the thorns of the hawthorn, along with the old terminology, suggest that the hawthorn is hostile but can also be defensive in its thorns.  He concludes be suggesting that hawthorn may bring about disruption, but this disruption is temporary and can be put to positive use (113).

 

Numerology

The hawthorn, with its protective thorns, has flowers with five petals (in which a shape of a pentagram can be drawn); the leaves are typically divided into either three or five segments.

 

Abundance

Abundance

My Experiences: In Search of the Hawthorn

My own experiences with hawthorn are a bit…whimsical.  I have found that hawthorn trees generally like to be seen when they are ready.  Northeast of the sacred circle on my former homestead in Michigan is a line of trees; within that line, a hawthorn. I had lived there and worked to establish and maintain the circle for years….only three years after I moved in did I see the hawthorn tree.  Once I saw her, she beams at me radiantly.  I found another hawthorn just across the property line in my neighbor’s yard; it had also been there for some time, but I was only ready to see her when I was ready.

 

For several years, every hawthorn I had visited in my immediate area in Michigan was not blooming and was not bearing fruit due to a rust that was harming the trees.  I had hoped to gather flowers in May to make a tincture and glycerite, but never managed it.  Then, just when I needed it, the hawthorn was there. I remember a fine spring day, not very long ago, when I was making the transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Less than 12 hours before I was to leave Michigan, I had received some news that really broke my heart, and I cried on my drive most of the way home (I was visiting my parents before moving into my new home). The morning when I awoke in the home of my childhood, I walked down into the woods, and saw that the hawthorns were in full bloom–huge hawthorns, bigger than any I had ever seen, all covered in their beautiful white flowers. I had been so sad since I had arrived home because of the news. I gathered the flowers later in the day, and that evening, I simply sat with the fresh flowers, picking out the little green bugs and inch worms that had made them their home.  As I sat, I could feel the energy of the hawthorn flowing over me, calming me, and soothing my heart.  It was a transformation–even in the process of making the tinctures, I was amazed in the healing power of those flowers.  Needless to say, I partook of the hawthorn each day after that–it is truly a plant connected to the healing of the heart and also the mystery and magic of the land.

 

My Interpretations

My entry on this tree is longer than some of my others, because it seems that we have two, potentially contradictory aspects of hawthorn showing up in the literature. My experience with individual hawthorn trees is that each unique hawthorn tree has a range of mannerisms—from those that freely give of their haws when you come near to those who stick you repeatedly just from walking by.  The trees with opposite mannerisms might be growing next to each other—I find that when I am out looking for flowers or haws for medicine, the individual temperaments of the trees vary widely.

 

On one side, we have this super-protective, heart healing plant, that is some of the best medicine that we know of for the heart and a plant that, in the Native American lore, also demonstrates protection. On the other hand, we see that it bodes of warnings and things not to be trifled with—the “whitening of the face” and “pack of hounds.” I think both of these are equally true of the hawthorn, and perhaps, represent light and dark sides of this tree, like two sides to a coin.  Hawthorn responds differently depending on how you approach it.  If you ram yourself into a hawthorn, its going to hurt and you aren’t going to get anywhere—and you may wish you never came upon it.  But, if you are mindful, you can can carefully work with it and reap rewards.  If you are true of heart and kind go the land, the hawthorn is likely to be your ally. It’s a tree of mystery and magic, as much as it is a tree that opens the heart. Its defensiveness can be aggressive when warranted, but nurturing when it wants to be.

 

 

Special Thanks:  I want to specifically thank Jim McDonald for sharing his knowledge of this amazing tree.

 

Spiritual Lessons from the Land: On the Vines that Catch and Snag September 4, 2015

Nature is abundant with stories and metaphors that allow us to reflect upon our own lives and draw deep meaning, as I’ve written about many times on this blog. It is in these simple lessons that we find the most profound truths–ways of re-seeing our own lives, stories that allow us to spiritually grow, and methods of better living and interacting with our lands. I believe that everything we need to understand to heal ourselves, our lands, and our communities can be found within nature–if only we listen. Today, I’d like to share two stories about vines and the spiritual teachings that they provide.

 

In the weeks following my move to Western PA this summer, I made it a point to visit as many wild places as possible. The closest one was a park to the north, visible from my window of my rented house in town, that’s about 270 acres. As I was walking through this park on my very first visit, a friend and I came across some Common Buckthorn vines on a grove of Sassafras. One of the Sassafras had been strangled to death by the largest vine and was standing dead.

 

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Three more Sassafras trees had vines crawling up them, but the vines were smaller and had not yet choked out the tree. We found where the vine met the ground, and decided to cut it to save the other trees. The problem was that we lacked the right tool—we had a Hori Hori that has a small saw on it that’s not that effective, but that will work in a pinch (described in this post).  Unfortunately, we didn’t have my portable fold-up saw that I usually carry (which would have made short work of the vine and is much more effective for that kind of job). So cutting the vine and liberating the sassafras trees was slow going, with each of us taking turns, cutting through this vine that was about 2.5” round. That Buckthorn vine was not interested in being cut in the slightest and was quite tough, and the job was quite taxing and difficult. We took turns, and still ended up cutting for a good 30 or 40 minutes in the high heat and humidity before we were finally through the vine. The trees thanked us, and we continued on our hike.

 

In a second story, I recently visited some friends who have been long-time gardeners (their entire backyard is converted to a vegetable garden). A series of stressful events have left them less time to work on the garden this year than in previous years, so the weeds have taken over. I decided to put a few hours into weeding while I was there, and found myself weeding two vines—some kind of morning glory vine and a lot of honeysuckle vine. Its been very, very wet year and the vines have used that, and the fertile soil of the garden, to really take off. The honeysuckle vine was easy enough to clip at the ground to temporarily cut it back, but the stuff was just everywhere. The smaller vine, the morning glory vine, proved exceedingly difficult. In what I thought was just a pile of vine I found garlic and onions, some strangled to death by the vine, all brought to the ground. One vine could send off up to 10 different tendrils. The beans fared a bit better, but even they were likewise pulled down by these vines. It was very slow going, and I opted in some cases for pulling out the root and leaving some of the vine on, cause the damage to the plant to try to remove it would be worse. By the end of my weeding session, I had saved a good deal of the garlic and beans and the vines were already beginning to wilt in the sun–but not all could be saved.

 

A set of powerful lessons lie in these two stories, and I’m sure you can see even more lessons within than I discuss here.  These lesson resonate on multiple levels: ecologically, spiritually, and personally.

 

Ecologically, Common Buckthorn and Japanese Honeysuckle are both some of the more problematic species that are not native to the USA, and there’s been a lot of concern what to do about them (and no, I do not advocate the use of spraying chemicals, nor do I like to use the term invasive species). They are concerns because they are plants that did not evolve here, but arrived here somewhere in the 1880’s as ornamental plants and are now very widespread. Due to their vining nature,  they can cause serious unbalances in the ecosystem in the shorter term, before nature adapts. Honeysuckle can create huge mats where nothing else can grow and pull down other plant vegetation. Buckthorn can quickly dominate and pull down whole trees in a matter of a few short years as it is a much thicker and tougher vine. I think plants like these teach us a powerful ecological lesson–we brought this plant here without knowledge of what it would do, and now we are seeing the effects of that long-term. We have many such lessons at present, of course, but its a good reminder that we harm nature by not understanding her or what introducing unknown elements can do to her.  Furthermore, Its likely that a very small number of these plants were brought here–but now they are all throughout our lands and changing the ecosystems here.  I beleive, in enough time, the land will adapt to these newcomers and all will be well–but that’s on a larger evolutionary scale.  The current situation teaches us the lesson of impact–we never know what small actions (either good or bad) can lead to long-term change.

 

On a spiritual level, lessons that Buckthorn and Honeysuckle are good reminders of what we want to cultivate in our spiritual lives. I think both of these plants teach us lessons of restriction and what can happen to us spiritually if we allow too many things to pile up and entwine around us. Just as we can see these plants at work in the outer world, in the inner world, we can have problematic issues that prevent rich spiritual life from developing.  These include the constant drains on our time, the things that cloud our inner vision (television, politics and media are particularly bad about this, at least for me), living too closely to the destructive patterns of consumerism and industrialization, and more. I see these constant drains preventing us from a richer spiritual life like vines around our inner sacred grove of trees, attempting to bring them down. If we are not careful, the trees of our inner sacred grove are strangled and simply die, as in the case of the sassafras.

 

The vines teach a similar lesson on a personal and interpersonal level. Sometimes we get into situations or have people in our lives that begin wrapping themselves around us—they have that uncontrolled vine energy. At first, it might not be a big deal, because they are just a small vine, but if they are there long enough, they can hurt us possibly beyond repair. Sometimes, it takes a third party to come in, cut the vine at its source, and help you recover. But this work is never easy—and it can be really draining and difficult. We also need to be aware of the kinds of energy that may be trying to pull us down and strangling us. Even if we are able to get out of that kind of situation, it might leave its mark. The Sassafrass trees forever bear the scars of where the vine had twisted itself around their bark–but they will live!

 

In the gardens of our lives, we have cultivated the soil and have planted various kinds of seeds we have planted that we want to manifest (like creative projects, starting a family, finding meaningful work, etc). These seeds need light, moisture, and good soil—but they also need to be free of competition. The vine energy of other pressing matters often puts those things we most want to bear fruit on the back burner. The garlic and beans, much more delicate plants, would have not have produced at all because the vines were not only strangling them but shading them out. It required the full removal of the vines for those plants to have any chance at producing this season–and that was delicate and difficult work indeed.  If we want tender things growing in the soil, we must be ready to keep them free and able to grow without restriction.

 

Not all vines do what these two vines do–and that too, is an important lesson from nature. I’ll draw your attention to poison ivy vine, which is a plant that has evolved in this part of the world (read = native), and a plant which lives in perfect harmony with healthy trees that it climbs.  Poison ivy climbs up a tree in order to reach sunlight, not to choke and strangle, and the trees rarely suffer ill effects of having a vine. I’ve seen trees and poison ivy vines growing together for very long periods of time, the ivy sometimes blending into the leaves of the tree.  Now while most humans may not like poison ivy (I have some on my foot right now and I’m trying to not think about scratching it), the trees have a different relationship with it.  I see this vine as awareness medicine, a plant that tells us to pay attention and be mindful. Many times, I have found poison ivy to be a great defender of the forest–keeping the people out and protecting sacred spaces.  People leave the trees, or forests, alone when it is near.  And for that reason, I have always seen poison ivy as an ally.

 

So this is to say that not not all vine energy is necessarily bad energy in or ecosystem, physical or spiritual lives, and its up to us to recognize the various species of vines (metaphorically and literally) and whether or not they are doing harm. We must meditate on what the vines attempt to teach us and listen and observe their role in the ecosystem.  With this deep observation and meditation, we can understand the lessons of the vines.

 

Being the Voice of the Trees – Stepping Forth in the Broader World and Communicating Publically June 5, 2014

The trees and the broader living landscape of our great earth speak to us in subtle but powerful ways. Many in modern industrial society choose not to spend time hearing the voices of the trees and our other plant allies; they fill their minds with video games and Facebook and TV and Hollywood and various other human-created things. While these things are fine in moderation, many seem to use these to extremes at the expense of all else. This creates distance, disconnection, and allows for many to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the land and her inhabitants.

 

In this challenging time of destruction, desecration, and disrespect of the land, I think that the land needs a strong voice from those who work with her.  Those of us who walk nature-inspired, sustainable, druidic paths may be called to speak for our lands, our plants, and our trees.  We may be called to speak on sustainable practices, on how to do something, or be given the opportunity to encourage change.  If we feel called to speak for the land and the trees, we must spend time learning what knowledge they have to teach well enough that we can share their stories.

Jack in the Pulpit in early spring
Jack in the Pulpit in early spring

My Recent Experiences on NPR & Local TV

This spring, I had two opportunities to be a visible voice for the trees, the land, and the sustainability work we are doing in the community.

The first opportunity was I was asked to speak on the Hemlock tree on NPR on the Colin McEnroe show in late April. Here I am, in my little corner of the Internet, with some people who read my work here and comment (thank you, readers!).  And as you’ve seen on my blog, some of the serious work I’ve been undertaking is a magical study of our native trees; Hemlock was the second such tree that I focused upon.  So, yes I had done considerable original research about the hemlock, had extensive direct experience about the hemlock, and blogged about in January of this year. And I have been cultivating a lifetime relationship with the hemlock tree.  So when the call came to speak about hemlock’s magic and mythology on the show, I said, sure, why not? Here is a recording of the show (I come in somewhere around the halfway mark).

 

The second opportunity came a while ago, back in late December, but it was only recently edited and released. A local TV producer, Ellen Warra, films “Earth Talk” for Oxford (Michigan) Community Television.  She filmed a show on sustainability and what was happening at Strawbale Studio and our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup.  This show featured a number of people in our community doing good things, and you can see it here.

 

Both of these  events were a big steps for me, and after doing some reflection, I’d like to share my insights so that others may benefit from it if they are likewise called to be a voice for the land.

 

On Walking the Talk

I think there are a lot of people out there who want to tell others what to do in very loud ways and critique others’ practice, but don’t really want to change their own practices. One of the most critical things you can do if you are going to advocate for any kind of change or speak for the land in any way is to begin by examining your own practice.  If you want to speak for the land, you must spend time in it.  If you want to advocate sustainable practice, you must first live that practice.  Advocating and speaking came for me as a natural process stemming from what I was already doing–I was living it, doing it, and then others took notice and asked me to speak.  I can’t tell anyone else “this is a good idea for you to make these changes” if I’m not, myself, making and living those changes and being honest about where I’m at and what I’m striving for. Why is walking the talk so important?  First, because you understand the difficulty of what you are asking and what challenges there may be, and second, because you have the experience to be able to help others along the way.

 

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley

The Nature of Expertise

One challenge I faced, especially in regards to the NPR piece, was considering my role as an “expert.” In this world of specialists,we assume that a specialist is needed to speak on behalf of the land, on any subject (read = advanced degrees in the subject).  You might say to yourself “I’m not an expert” or “I don’t know enough” or “What do I have to contribute?” And to this I respond–we never know enough.  There is always more to know, and a lifetime can be spent on any one subject.  That natural world is a university with doors open, always ready to teach, always ready to share.  The important thing is to put in your time, learn well what it is you set out to learn, and when you do have something to share and the opportunity arises, share it to the best of your ability.  Recognize yourself as a lifelong learner–you can learn from direct experience, learn from books and other kinds of written work, use your intuition,  learn from mentors and teachers, and so forth–but recognize that learning is a lifetime process.  If you put in the work to learn your subject well, others will take note, they will seek your advice, and you might just end up being asked to speak in very public ways!

 

As soon as you know more than someone else, you can teach someone about that subject, even in limited ways.  When I started gardening, even after my first year, people would ask me for advice on what to plant, when to plant, how to amend their soil, etc.  I was honest about my experience and spoke about what I had read, observed, and witnessed in my own garden.  For someone just starting out, even a year of knowledge was valuable and more than they had!

 

When you move beyond individuals and into a community or the broader world, speaking for the land in public ways is much more tricky.  It means that you do have to have a good knowledge base, be educated on your subject, and be as prepared as possible.  The last thing we want is a bunch of kooky druids sounding crazy on national radio or TV!

 

Challenges with Communication: Understanding Audiences, Rhetoric, and Seeking Common Ground

If there’s one thing I’ve learned concerning communication, however, its that we often communicate best  like-minded, like-pathed people, and its challenging to reach out beyond our own small networks.  I’ve witnessed this in multiple communities that I belong to–we are great at talking to each other and working to make changes in our own lives, but we sometimes are challenged in explaining ourselves to others who aren’t in our small communities. This is especially true in the broader political climate, at least here in the USA.  Seething anger, divided issues, and a virile hatred for the other side has lead us down a path where collaboration, mutual understanding, and building bridges between various sides is nearly impossible.

 

Understanding Audience. Classical rhetorical theory, which I’ve studied and taught for many years, offers us some solutions.  First is the matter of audience–understanding one’s audience, where they are coming from, what they hold sacred, how much they know, in what manner they are reading/hearing your words, and so on, is one of the most important pieces to effective communication. If you can understand and adapt your message, you are much more likely to be heard. Case in point–my recent post on the dandelion emphasized dandelion’s utility toward humans in the form of medicine, food, and the like while also emphasizing its role in healing the land. Why? I know that my blog readers care deeply about the land, and are also looking for things to do with plants and ways of interacting.  Plus, its cool information.  But more broadly, I know that humans are most interested in what is of use to them, so the utility why its not the only approach I take to talking about the land).

Cardinal

Scarlet Tanninger

 

On Careful Language Choices. I’ve written before about language, its power and its influence on our thinking, before on this blog.  In my post on “English vs. the Planet”, I talked about how certain terms influence our thinking in certain directions (e.g. develop, development, and so on have a positive connotation of human progress, but often come at the expense of habitat and substantial loss of non-human life).  This concept draws upon the broader linguistic theory of relativity as well as Burke’s idea of the terministic screen.  These theories suggest that the words themselves, with their cultural baggage, shape our thinking and that this shaping creates colored “lenses” through which we view the world.  Given this, if we want to be a voice for the land, we must be careful and mindful in our language use, especially given the number of exploitative and negative terms that are now positively framed in our culture.   How do I get around this?  I pay close attention to my language use and chose to positively reframe or redefine terms. For example, in my aforementioned dandelion post, for example, I discussed the linguistic framing of the dandelion as a “weed” setting that term with its baggage aside and choosing instead to discuss it as a plant ally.  This  use of language, hopefully, has the reader reseeing dandelion as a plant ally, which can alter thinking on a fundamental and important level.

 

On Your Ethos. Another rhetorical concept that bears mentioning here is ethos, also known as your character or credibility.  Ethos comes in two types–invented and situated.  Invented ethos is for people who already have established a name (be it good or bad), hold an important position, or have certain kinds of titles.  For example, if you meet someone who has a Ph.D. in biology, you’ll likely be more likely to believe them when they talk about plants and cell division (and likely anything else).. This is because they come into a situation with situated ethos. This situated ethos can go both ways, however.  If you meet someone who you know is in the KKK, it is very likely that you will immediately see them in a negative light and distrust everything they say.

 

Most of us don’t have “situated” ethos right away, and becoming a voice in a broader sense means that we need to “invent” our ethos for the occasion.  We need to carefully think about the image that we want to convey, the image we want to construct for ourselves.  And make no mistake–everything you say, the clothes you wear, how you chose to affiliate, all of that is a choice that can substantially alter how people view you. This gets back to my “kooky druid” comment above–when we talk about our practices and our work, I believe its important to do so in ways that others can understand and respond.

 

In Coming to Common Ground. I’ve also written before about stasis theory, a rhetorical theory developed in ancient Rome that aids us in coming to a consensus about moving forward on an issue.  We live in very contentious, dysfunctional times, when concepts like “consensus” and “collaboration” are practically curse words at most levels of our government.  But it is my firm belief that if we can get people of differing views to talk together with open minds and mutual respect, we can come to much common ground. These dialogues can take place in public forums as well as more private settings–and if you are going to be publicly speaking often, its a wise idea to talk to a LOT of people to understand their practices and how they live their lives so that you can relate to them and work to build common ground with them.

 

On Encouraging Change

One successful approach is to think about encouraging people to “add” practices rather than condemn current behavior (this is the same approach that successful dieting works–add healthy foods and slowly you will shift to more healthy foods…).  For example, encouraging people to put in a small vegetable garden is better than condemning them for mowing a large expanse of lawn.  As the old proverb says,

 

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Spring Crab Apple Blossoms

Being the Voice of the Trees

There are a lot of loud, well-funded voices out there advocating for a particular way of living, of consumption, of buying things and encouraging harmful practices tied to products. I’d like to encourage more of us in the druidic and sustainable community to educate ourselves fully, to live our practices, and to find ways of reaching out more broadly to speaking for the land, using “oak knowledge” to do so.  I think, given enough of us, we can begin to show that there are alternatives to what consumerist culture promotes as the only way of living, and that through living differently, we can create a better tomorrow.  Speak with the trees, my friends.  Listen to the song of the birds, the drips of rain on a summer day.  Hear the soft rustle of the patch of tomatoes in your backyard, and feel the sting of the nettle as you harvest from her stalk.  And after you’ve experienced these things, convey their wonder and magic to those who will hear of it.

 

A Journey to the Source of a River – A Metaphor for Sustainable Action January 21, 2013

I wanted to spend some time in my blog describing a journey I took last summer to see “the source” of a river.  My work with the OBOD Druid grade initiated this journey, and it lead me to important insights about our world and how to create meaningful change in it.

 

The little crick

The little crick

Behind my parent’s house, in the forest to which I belong, is a creek (not quite a river, and not quite a stream). As children, we called it the “big crick”, and we spent much time on its banks, watching it flow over rocks, moss, and between hemlocks, beeches, and maple trees.  This creek was located in the  Appalachian mountains in West-Central PA, and unfortunately, the forest has been logged repeatedly, damaging the land in numerous ways.  And yet, damaged, logged, and repeatedly violated, the spirit of the land is strong and has much to teach.

 

I set out on a journey to find “the source” of this river. I had a vision of what the source of the river looked like—it was tranquil with moss-covered stones. I had no idea how long it would take me, but I planned for being out the whole day and took food, drink, and a friend along for company. It ended up being about a 10 mile hike through the forest—and not just any forest, but forest that had been logged and otherwise terribly mistreated, so the going was slow. I went deeper into the forest than I ever had before, following the river.  I saw a rare flower, which I discussed briefly in an earlier blog post. Each time it branched, I took the largest of the branches, continuing to work my way up the river, watching the river grow smaller. When I finally found the source of the river, of the largest branch, it was exactly as my inner vision had showed me—three branching streams, with the largest beginning in a spring with moss-covered stones. I sat there in meditation, and there, I had a meaningful vision. This was the message of my vision, and I know its something that I need to share with others:

 

When you follow a river to its source, follow the water’s path upstream and take the largest of the tributaries each time the river splits. This gives you a unique perspective, in that you can witness how the river, at its current size, is built of smaller tributaries.  These tributaries, some permanent springs and other rain gullies and other seasonal contributors, aren’t just part of the river—they are the river.  If you follow the river to its source, you will learn that each river starts off as a tiny stream or freshwater spring; the river only later grows larger as other tributaries feed into it. Each one of us is that stream; each one of us has the potential of that spring that starts the river off.  It is only through the power of others, flowing together in unison, that we can be a river. The strength of a great river cannot be ignored—it shapes the landscape around it and brings significant change. We must unite, have a shared vision, and be that river.

 

The “Big Crick” is otherwise known as “Otto Run” and is located in Western Pennsylvania behind my parent’s home. This river has particular significance in expanding the general metaphor, so I’ll describe it here. Otto Run flows into the Little Conemaugh, which is a river of historical importance in my region’s history. The Little Conemaugh was once dammed up in the 1800’s, and in 1889 after severe rains and equally severe mismanagement of the dam, the dam burst and the resulting wave of water killed almost 3000 people in Johnstown, PA.  This in itself has many lessons to teach us, including the importance of working with nature, rather than trying to tame her and bend her to one’s own will; she may resist such taming and break free.

 

The Little Conemaugh flows into the Conemaugh which flows into the Allegheny, which meets in Pittsburgh, PA with the Monogahela to form the Ohio. The Ohio leads right into the Mississippi river, one of the largest and most important rivers in the USA. Each of these rivers, with their many tributaries, creates the mighty Mississippi.  And as our recent series of floods in 2011 and droughts in 2012 have demonstrated, despite the best efforts of many humans, the Mississippi cannot be tamed.  This too, is a lesson for us.  In these difficult times of struggle and environmental challenges, we must look to the lesson that the river teaches us.  Each of us is that tributary, and by flowing in unison, we become as strong as the Mississippi.  And nobody can stop the Mississippi.

 

So friends, remember the lesson of the river.  United, we are strong.  United, we can change this world into a better, more sustainable place.

 

The Mystery of the Stumps and The Spiral Path: A Story of How I Became A Druid November 7, 2012

Each of us has a story–a story of how we ended up doing what we do, believing what we believe, walking the path that we travel.  These stories are often like richly woven tapestries, and I believe that there is value in telling them, both for our own spiritual development, but also for the development of others.  For in others’ tales, we learn that many of us have walked similar places to get to where we are–and we can recognize those who are fellow travelers on the path.  Today, I’d like to share my own story of how I became a druid.  There are a few different stands to this tale, and not all are easy to unravel.

 

When I was a young child, my family moved to a home on the top of a mountain in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, a home that overlooked a massive forest. Almost immediately, my cousins (who lived next door) and I began tromping about in the woods. Our grandfather took us there, teaching us the knowledge of stem, root, and seed. My cousins and I built cabins with fallen branches, sticks, and stones; we built dams in the little “crick” (that’s a small “creek” or stream to the rest of yinz not from this area);  and we made friends with many of the trees. Most of my childhood was spent in these beloved woods. Spending so much time in the forest attuned me to the land, the seasons, the ways they changed.  When the forgotten springs opened up and flowed, the spring emphemeral flowers, the progression of life through the seasons.  As we all grew up, we formed this wonderful friendship with the forest.  I now refer to this land as “the forest to which I belong.”

 

There was one mystery in the woods my cousins and I had not figured out—something we often discussed as children. All through the woods, these giant rotting stumps could be found.  Many of the moss-coated stumps were massive—at least double the size of the current trees growing. The stumps were black with age, covered in moss, and mostly rotted down—when you touched them, they would fall apart. Later, I discovered that the mushrooms growing on these stumps were ganoderma tsugae (hemlock reishi, one of the most healing mushrooms on the planet). As kids, we came up with all sorts of reasons that the stumps were there—aliens came and placed them there as a signal that we could decipher, a fire had burned much of the forest, or perhaps a tornado had come and ripped out many of the trees. The one conclusion that we didn’t even fathom was that they were trees that had been cut by human hands. Was it childish innocence?  Was it naivety?  The thought that someone would do such a thing never crossed our minds.  When we built cabins, we never cut or damaged the trees—not even to put nails in them–because our grandfather had taught us to honor and respect nature. So it is no wonder that the correct solution to this “mystery” had never occurred to us.

 

When I was 14, everything changed. We heard the loggers before we ever saw them.  Noises came from below—the sound of trucks, saws, and the occasional crash of a friend falling to his or her death. At first it was barely noticeable, but after a few weeks, they were at our doorstep and our parents no longer let us into the forest. We watched with horror from atop the mountain where our beloved woods were literally being torn apart by the chainsaws and crushed with their heavy machinery. I remember laying in the tall grass behind the house just above the tree line where the forest began and crying and crying—I couldn’t understand what could possess someone to destroy something that I so fondly cherished and respected. It was an extraordinarily traumatic experience–the forest and I shared the pain of it.  The logging invaded my dreams and my waking hours, and it seemed to never stop.

 

Finally, one day, all was silent. The noises of the forest that I knew so well were hushed, different, sorrowful. Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra come to mind here–the silence was all encompassing in ways it never had been.  The forest felt different, it sounded different, and it was no longer the same place. After the loggers finished I went into the forest only once.  As I entered and saw the horrific devastation, repressed memories of serious trauma in my childhood surfaced.  The forest and I shared in our pain, trauma, and abuse.  After that day, I did not step again into the forest for many years; I could not bear the pain of seeing so many friends fallen, and of the reminder of what had been done to my own body, not so dissimilar from my beloved forest.

 

But leaving the forest created a substantial distance from nature for me.  That distance had a very serious toll. I grew distant from many things that mattered: from my creative gifts, from the natural world, from my own family, from my broader life’s purpose.  I grew heavily invested in video games and spent years of my life immersed in fantasy worlds, all the while shutting down my own inner life and bardic arts. Many things happened during that time in my late teens and early 20s, but you could say that I was not a full person then.

 

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago after a very meaningful spirit journey into the forest to which I belong.  I

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago after a very meaningful spirit journey into the forest to which I belong. I “liberated” a rusty chainsaw from my forest that was logged and regrew. That chainsaw formed the basis of my story of peace and healing.

While in college, I met a dear friend of mine named Alfred.  It was with Alfred that I first began reconnecting to nature–we would go out on adventures, into deep woods and caves.  About six months after I met him, Alfred was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor.

 

Alfred came with me to my parent’s house one warm spring day, and we stood on the edge of the forest, the forest I hadn’t entered for almost a decade. I shared with him the story of it and of my own pain.  And he took my hand and asked me if I wanted to enter it again, and we did.

 

The forest was not like I remembered–and yet it was still the same–the same kinds of trees, the little and big cricks, the landforms, and now, the distinct logging roads. There was a mass of dead branches from the logging and stumps everywhere, and also tons of underbrush and young trees coming up.  It was different and wild, and yet vibrant–fiercely reclaiming that which had been lost to the logging. Returning to the forest was a tremendously important healing moment for me because it was at that moment that that I, too, had the same capacity.  Nature teaches us all of the most powerful lessons. Further, seeing that forest healing gave us both hope about Alfred’s condition. Unfortunately, my friend lost his battle with cancer a year and a half later. Before anyone else knew he died, his spirit visited me, and I knew he was gone. This, combined with the lesson of healing the forest provided me, lead me on a spiritual quest to better understand….well….everything.

 

After much reading, reflection, and soul-searching after Alfred’s death, I knew I wanted to return to my deep relationship with nature and cultivate it seriously. I also had reclaimed my own creative arts, and I wanted a path that celebrated that. I found druidry–through the AODA–and joined.  I had come home. Druidry was a term that  described who I was–and wanted to be- as a human being in the many different spheres of my life: my connection to the land, to the spirit realm, to my professional career, to my home life, and to my creative pursuits.

 

Once I started down the path of Druidry, I began returning often to the forest to which I belong. Over time, the forest had transformed, healed, magically and physically, back into the space I had once knew.  Her scars were still there, the stumps from what had been logged, but she was strong, her gentle persistence in reclaiming what was lost.  After those experiences, I found myself particularly sensitive to the spirits of the land, especially the spirits of the trees–their joys and suffering–and was called to physically and spiritually heal the land at every opportunity.   Wherever I go, the land reaches out to me, and I reach out to the land; we grow and learn from each other. And this work doesn’t apply just to natural places; the land is everywhere, even in urban areas and under concrete, she still calls out to her own.

 

At the same time as I was discovering druidry, I also recognized the need to radically shift my lifestyle–how could I call myself a druid if I, like most Americans, was living in an unsustainable, environmentally damaging manner?  And so, with dedicated effort, I began making permanent changes in my life, changes to transform from an exploiting lifestyle to a nurturing one.  I learned about permaculture, sustainability, and deep ecology, and embraced those principles as a central life philosophy.  I take every opportunity to learn, to teach, to grow, and to help preserve. I joined two druid orders to help me along my path–their spiritual lessons taught me much about the long-standing spiritual traditions of nature reverence.  This blog is a story of that path–thank you for joining me on my journey.

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