The Druid's Garden

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

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.


Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.


In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.


Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).


The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.


It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.


And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.


Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.


As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.


Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.


Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.


The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.


The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.


Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!


As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.


Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.


American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!


Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More December 20, 2017

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.


I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.


Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.


Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!


And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.


Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.


Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.


My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:


Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.


A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.


Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.


I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:


Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!


Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath


Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!


Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree



Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.


Reparation and Healing the Land as part of American Druidry December 10, 2017

Sunrise over the land

Sunrise over the land

Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness.  In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward.  This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective.  That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.


The Right to Speak?

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things.  But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.


To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices.  I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries.  I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present.  I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.


The Work of Repair

When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc).  But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.


Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:

  • 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
    • b reparations plural : repairs
  • 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
    • b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
  • 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation usually used in plural

All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair.   We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b).  We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples.  And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged.  And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.


A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace

On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice.  My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:


First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer.  He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit.  We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc.  In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited.  The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity.  The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.


Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools.  The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on.  The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.


Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits.  I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it.  Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.

The Work of Repair

In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land.  When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human?  Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted.  No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair.   It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.


And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods.  I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc.  And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:


  • both psychical and energetic in nature
  • offers healing and strengthening to the land
  • puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
  • offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality


I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work.  What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework.   I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.


Some Examples of Repair

I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.


Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting

Some of the trees planted!

Some of the trees planted!

I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste.  I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then.  And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day.  I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.


This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property.  Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal.  As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees.  After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more.  And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).


It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent.  Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy.  And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health.  The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.


Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook).  In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it.  I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work.  I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging.  I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood).  Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it.  That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.


Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair

A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds.  As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature.  Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work.  It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.


There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here).  You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up).  This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage


Supporting Native Peoples

I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people.   Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles.  And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.



I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done.   It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.


I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people.  But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!


Sacred Tree Profile: White Pine’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings December 3, 2017

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend, there was a terrible conflict between five different nations of people. This conflict was rooted in cycles of pain, revenge, and chaos. A messenger of peace sent from the Great Spirit, the “Peacemaker,” sought to unite the five warring tribes. After convincing them to unite, they came together to make peace, but they still carried their weapons. The Peacemaker uprooted a White Pine tree and had them throw all of their weapons into the hole. He then replanted the tree, and the underground waters carried away the weapons. On the tree, the needles grew in clusters of five, to represent the five nations who came to find peace. The roots of the tree spread out in four directions, to the north, south, east and west; the roots are called the roots of peace. An eagle perched on top of the tree to watch over the roots of peace. Under the tree, the branches spread wide for all to gather. It is from this Native American story that we can understand why the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is called the “Tree of Peace” and why the White Pine carries such power here on our landscape. In today’s post, we explore the White Pine and his peaceful energy, examining the mythology, magic, medicine, and uses of this incredible tree.


This post is from a larger series on sacred trees that have included Sassafrass, Ash, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut. I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).


Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

The White Pine is a magnificent tree reaching up to 100 feet in height.  With beautiful green needles that have a soft, feathery appearance, it is one of our most iconic forest trees on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. The further north you travel up the East Coast, the more dominant White Pine becomes in the ecosystem. Here in PA, we have White Pine planted primarily in urban and suburban areas with fewer of them found in forests. Because they like it cold, you can often find them up on the ridges. Another reason we have less here is that White Pine doesn’t tolerate logging well; hemlock and other shade-resistant hardwoods (maple, cherry, beech, birch) will take the place of White Pine if they are cut.  But if you head further north, into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and those areas, you will see that White Pine is an incredibly dominant tree.


White Pine grows tall and straight, with a massive canopy of feathered, soft needles stretching out from long and strong branches. You might find White Pines in clusters or planted in rows–she makes an incredible “cathedral” tree for sacred spaces and people to gather.  In fact, in New Hampshire, a place called the “Cathedral of the Pines” exists. For many years, White Pines stood in and around the gathering space. A tornado devastated many of the ancient pines in that place in the late 1980’s, but old photos show how incredible this sacred place was with the White Pines towering over all (and there are still some nice white pines there!) I have been to other places where White Pines were planted in a long line and have this cathedral appearance.


History and Early American Uses of White Pine

In New England, Eric Sloane writes that White Pine survived logging primarily because it made really poor charcoal; the “coaling” activities that were fueling industrialization at the turn of the 20th century decimated many other species and yet left intact patches of White Pine. This means that even where coaling and logging were dominant, we still have many old-growth forests with White Pines, a true beauty to behold. However, today, White Pine is now used extensively in construction, cabinet making, pattern making, and more; it is a soft, warp-resistant and light wood, meaning that these old trees are sought out for their economic value.


Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

According to Using Wayside Plants, by Nelson Coon (1969), straight White Pine trees were known as “mast trees” in British Colonial days as they were used as masts for ships. The emissaries of the king would go through the woods a mark the White Pines with the King’s Broad Arrow indicated that tree would be used as a mast on one of the British Fleet. This symbol told anyone else that this tree was the king’s property and none other could cut it. Interestingly enough, the “broad arrow” mark in some, cases, looks a ton like the Druid’s Awen symbol /|\.


In Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane writes about the White Pine as being one of the most important trees to early Americans, as from it, people could produce paint, tar, turpentine, firewood, building materials, lampblack, tanbark, resin, and pitch. White Pine was most frequently used for creating these products, followed by Pitch Pine. Sloane also notes that even though they are called “blackboards,” most early colonial blackboards were actually white pine boards that were sanded and painted black. Further, he writes that, in the 18th century, many houses in the MidAtlantic and New England were built from White Pine due to its soft, strong, and workable qualities. Early Americans also used the branches to make wreaths and to create ropes.


If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall that Thoreau built his house out of White Pine and interacts with white pine often.  He writes, at one point, about an old man who used to come fishing at the pond who used a White Pine canoe.  The White Pine canoe was fashioned from two logs, dugout.  The old man hadn’t made the canoe, and as Thoreau puts it, “it belonged to the pond.”


According to Using Wayside Plants, the cambium (inner bark) of the White Pine was used as a food both by Native Americans and colonists. The cambium could be powdered and used as a flour (or added to flour in order to stretch it further). White Pine seeds are very spicy and were used by Native Americans to cook meat (I will add that they are generally not easy to get–the squirrels always have gotten to them before me!) The material suggests in this section that White Pine is an incredibly useful tree to humans and has been in relationship with humans for a very long time.


White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

White Pine, being an American tree, doesn’t get any considerable coverage in the Western esoteric literature (although more generally, pine of other species does get such coverage). For example, in the Ogham, Alim is either translated as pine or fir (or “conifer” more generally).  In the Ogham, this symbol is often associated with healing, wayfinding (that is, finding one’s life purpose, finding a home, setting one’s feet upon the path), protection, and purification.


Hoodoo, an African American Magical tradition, looks at pine in a very similar way. In Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, Yronwode describes it as a as a spiritual cleanser. Pine needles (fresh) in a bath help offer clarity and remove mental negativity. Burning pine wood can be used to clear a new home of unwanted spirits. Unopened pine cones help bring in health and longevity. If you keep a pine cone near you, as long as it stays closed, it will bring this in. Yronwode writes that if the pine cone starts to open, plant it and get a new one. Pine of all kinds also are connected with abundance or finances. Its evergreen nature also means it draws in steady money.


In the “Book of Sacred Magic by Abramelin the Mage“, a 15th century magic manuscript translated by S.L.M. Mathers, the Ambramelin describes the sacred place for which magic is to happen (what he calls the “operation”). In the many details he gives, he indicates that the floor should be made of white pine and swept clean.  Ambramelin does not specify why the floor should be of white pine, but given some of the other lore associated with it, one might infer it is for the purifying and protective nature of the tree.


Medicinal Uses of White Pine

White Pine, both physically and energetically, appears to be able to draw things out.  This is true not only of the pine pitch but also of the simple presence of pine.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine for people who have problems with breathing due to smoking. Further, Wood describes how White Pine was widely used by Native Americans (primarily, the bark was used medicinally) and adapted for use by colonists and early doctors in North America. Chewing the inner bark was used for respiratory infections (especially with sticky green phlegm) or used when an infection started to keep it from getting worse. Native Americans also used a “patch” of pine pitch to seal up wounds and prevent infections (White Pine, like Blue Spruce, is antiseptic and will also draw debris out of a wound). White Pine pitch can also be used on wounds that are already infected to draw out the infection and heal the wound. Wood also notes that the Ojibwe use White Pine bark (along with wild cherry and wild plum) to treat gangrene.


Pine is used as one of Bach’s flower remedies.  The essence of Pine is said to help with nervousness, allow for deeper contemplation/introspection, and help release any guilt or self blame. Pine more generally can be used as a “pick me up” by placing a few drops of pine oil or fresh pine needless in a bath for general tiredness, especially if one has been “burning the candle at both ends” so to speak.


Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

I’ve already shared what I believe to be the most important legend of the White Pine, the Iroquois story of White Pine as a tree of peace. Here are three other stories that give us some deeper insight into the White Pine:

In one Micmac legend, three brothers seek out a great magician, Glooskap, in order to be granted three wishes. The first brother wants to be exceedingly tall so that he would be admired by all of the women. The second brother wanted to stay in the forest, beholding its beauty, and never work again (a man after my own heart!). The third brother wished to live in perfect health till old age. The way to see Glooskap was fraught with trials and difficulty, but the brothers persevered and arrived. After sharing their wishes with Glooskap , Glooskap calls upon Cuhkw, the earthquake, and asked him to plant the three brothers feet in the ground. And they turned into three white pines. The first brother was the tallest white pine in all of the land, he towered over everyone. The second brother got his wish of staying in the forest as a magnificent tree. The third brother stood healthy and strong.


In a second legend, a Kwakiutl tale (from the Kawkiutl Indians in British Colombia) the Great Inventor took a girl for his wife. He puts the gum of the White Pine in his mouth and lays with her, and she is immediately pregnant.


In “The Origin of People“, a legend from the Shoshoni people of what is now present day Nevada, the animals (Coyote, Mouse, Woodpecker, Crow, and more) work to get pine nuts from people who have hung them in a bag on a white pine tree. They play games with the people to distract them, and finally, succeed in getting the nuts. They eat and eat the nuts and then there is but one nut left. The humans woke up and grew angry and chased them down. Coyote’s people relay the nut to the fastest runners, and finally, Crow bites the end off of the nut, hides it in his leg, and runs. He is shot and killed but his leg with the nut in it keeps going up into the mountains. Now, white pines grow there in the mountains but not where the people originally harvested them (only Juniper grows there now).


Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

In summarizing all of the above with regards to the white pine, we might see that this tree is a powerful symbol and broker for peace in a variety of different ways.

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

The Work of Peace. The work of the White Pine in the opening story, especially here in the region where the tribes of the Iroquois once lived, makes it clear that this tree is powerfully associated with peace of all forms. Perhaps when we think of peace, we think of human relationships (and certainly, the White Pine is needed here).  But Peace isn’t just about human to human relationships, but relationships with the past of all kinds.


Human-human relationships. White Pine, as the story suggests, offers much to promote peace between humans. Given the contentiousness, seething anger, and intensity we have in these days, we might all spend some time with the White Pine to help facilitate peace among our friends, family, neighbors, community, and broader world.


Human-land relationships. I think its particularly interesting that while all of the other trees were cut down and coaled, the great White Pines largely remained intact. In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary. When I first went to speak to the spirits of the land on my old homestead in Michigan, the spirits were angry at having the land so mistreated. The only tree that would speak to me was a towering White Pine in the middle of the land–this tree taught me much about how to build a relationship with the land, do repair work, and cultivate peace between us. This tree did this, all the while the stump of its partner white pine, oozed sap after being cut down next to it. Since that time, I have found the peacemaking qualities of the White Pine to be true–the peace-honoring nature of white pine makes it a good choice for a variety of land healing and repair work.


Peace within One’s Self.  Perhaps one of the hardest ways to broker peace is within one’s self. Healing and growth begins with making peace with the past and coming to a place of acceptance. Begin angry at yourself, not letting the past go, and continuing to hold onto old hurts is so common for us as humans.  It causes wars and tension between people, and certainly, it can cause pain and stagnation within our own hearts. The White Pine powerfully suggests to us that it is time to let it go. To heal, to renew, to simply stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, or to stop holding onto what was done to us.


The work of peace is difficult work, and to do this, we can look at three other messages that seem present in the White Pine based on my synthesis of the above material:


Drawing Out. It think its no coincidence that this tree’s sap has been used to draw out poisons, splinters, infection, and other kinds of things unwanted from the body. In order for the process of peace to happen, we must pull all of the old pain and festering wounds  and allow peace to flow within us. The White Pine, in its work of peace, does this for us.  Drawing out past anger, sadness, and pain so that peace can take place. This can happen on every level: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual.


Cleansing and Purification. Also associated with the power of peace is the work of cleansing and purification. Once the pain of old wounds is drawn out, the site must be cleansed and purified for the work of peace to continue so that nothing else can work its way back in. White Pine does this work, and does it well, both on the physical body as well as the mind and spirit.


Wayfinding. After peace has been brokered, the question of where to go next is an important one. What happens to the solider when there is no longer a war to fight? What happens to a person when he or she finally lets go what has been occupying his or her heart for years?  This period of time can be confusing, disorienting, and potentially very scary–but White Pine is here to help us find our way and to see a clear path forward.



White Pine is an incredible tree with much to teach us in an age with so much pain, suffering, bad blood, and relational difficulty. As an evergreen, Pine tells us the work of peace is never ending–it is work we must continue in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, and in our hearts. When you see a White Pine, stop and enjoy his towering presence and his peaceful energy–and know that he is there to help broker peace in the many different ways we–as people, as a society, and as spiritual beings–need it.


Urban Food Profile: Cornelian Cherry Harvest and Recipe for Soda Syrup, Jam, Pickles, and More September 14, 2017

I really enjoy foraging for foods in urban environments, you just never know what you are going to find.  In the spring, keep a good eye out for various kinds of flowering trees in an urban or suburban setting–any tree that is flowering is a tree that is worth looking at closely and identifying.  Most frequently, they are flowering crabapples (which are awesome for jellies and other things) or flowering cherries but sometimes you are rewarded with something extra special. Spotting flowering trees at a distance and identifying them is how I found a boatload of urban foragibles this year. Back in June, a few friends and I harvested upwards of 10 lbs of serviceberries from a urban spot in town, and I had spotted another grouping of trees I was excited to return to in the fall–Cornus Mas, or Cornelian Cherry.

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

These are in the dogwood family and have absolutely beautiful flowers in the spring. Cornelian cherries are not native to Pennsylvania or anywhere in the US, but like serviceberry, they are frequently planted as ornamentals so you can find them if you look around. In fact, the ones I found were planted right near the serviceberry; they are all “small” trees that don’t get too big. I found four cornus mas trees and have been patiently checking them all summer to see their fruits ripen. As we near the fall equinox, their fruits grow deep red and drop–and are a wonderful treat for those who seek them out. In terms of flavor, Cornelian cherries are fairly similar to a sour cherry flavor, but they have more floral undertones and a different level of complexity.  After they are cooked, they also can take on a kind of cranberry taste, but without any bitterness.  Truly, they are a fruit into and of themselves, and they are well worth trying for new and interesting tasting experiences!  This post, part of my foraging / wild foods series, will introduce you to harvesting and several recipes for these delightful treats!



Harvesting Cornelian Cherry requires some patience.  The fruit, while still on the tree, are usually super tart with a good amount of tannins.  They take all summer to ripen.  They go from hard and green to lighter yellow/red to darker red, and finally almost to a deep red/purple. When they are ripe, they are soft to the touch and have a hint of sweetness and are deep red, almost purple.  You can harvest them less ripe if you cook them more or let them sit out on the counter for a few days, but you won’t get that really good floral undertone that is only present with a *very* ripe Cornelian cherry.


Every few days, I’ve been checking in on the trees, and they are finally ripening.  One tree dropped all of its cherries while I was at Stones Rising last weekend and the birds cleaned those up in a hurry, but this week, two friends and I harvested a very nice ripe tree, and there are two more than appear to be ripe next week.  They are two different cultivars, but individual trees seem to ripen at slightly different times.

Cornelian Cherries on the tree--the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

Cornelian Cherries on the tree–the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

You can harvest them from the ground, which will give you the ripest ones.  You can also harvest them from any tree ready to give its fruit.  In this way, it is like an apple–you know the fruit is ripe when the tree gives it to you with minimal effort.  If you are there taking stems and having to pull on it, it is not quite ripe.  You can harvest under-ripe ones, but you need to prepare them differently than ripe ones.



Most of the recipes for this amazing fruit come from the lands where they grow natively–Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and so on.  I have looked at a lot of recipes online for the fruit, and have made some adaptations based on safety and canning here in the US.  I have drawn a lot from Fig and Quince, but added my own touch.

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Cornelian Cherry Persian Moraba and Sharbat (Aka. Cornelian Cherry Whole Cherry Jam + Simple Soda Syrup)

You get two kinds of products from one recipe–a whole cherry jam (that contains the pits) and a Sharbat/simple soda syrup that can be used for a variety of things.  I have adapted this for safety standards for canning so that you can get a long shelf life out of this delicious fruit!  Note that the flavors of Cornelian cherry are fairly muted and subtle–you can add other stuff (like coriander or mint, which is very traditional) but doing so loses some of the flavor of the cherries themselves.

For this recipe you will need: hot water bath canning equipment (jars, new lids, hot water bath canner, lid lifter, jar lifter, towel).

  • 6 cups of Cornelian Cherries, washed and drained
  • 6 cups of water
  • 6 cups of sugar
The Moraba (whole fruit jam).  Delicious!

The Moraba (whole fruit jam). Delicious!

Moraba / Cornelian Cherry Whole-Fruit in Syrup

Combine your cherries, water, and sugar and bring the mixture to a boil.  If you have very ripe cherries, you will want to just boil it and then immediately can it.  If you have a mix or some that are really not ripe, you will want to cook them longer; up to 10 minutes.  I have found that if you let them have their skins crack a little bit, you can get the sugar more deeply into the tart fruit, which helps. Canning will make that sugar go deeper and soften them up beautifully.  Of course, you have less firm fruit, but that’s ok.

Adding sugar and water

Adding sugar and water

Ready to can fruit and syrup

Ready to can fruit and syrup

While this is going, prepare your jars and lids for canning (heating them up to a boil to sterilize and keeping your boiling water going).  Fill your jars full of the cherries and then pour liquid over, giving 1/4″ head space for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints.  Leave a handful of berries floating in the remaining liquid for your Sharbat.  If you have a regular sized canner, you will need to hot water bath these for 10 minutes (15 for pints) before preparing the second recipe.

Getting Ready to Can

Getting Ready to Can

Removing jars from hot water bath

Removing jars from hot water bath

Sharbat / Cornelian Cherry Soda Syrup

The Cornelian Cherry sharbat is probably my favorite of the different preparations that I’ve tried. In Turkey, a Sharbat is a concentrated syrup beverage mixed into water. If you want, here in the US, we prepare something very similar but instead, we mix it into fizzy water/seltzer water and then enjoy it as a homemade soda. Either is a good option for this second recipe.  After you have pulled out almost all of the fruit, you should be left with a deep red liquid that has a really nice flavor–tart, slightly floral, slightly fruity, and sweet.  Make sure this is near boiling, and again, prepare your jars for canning.  Fill to 1/4″ headspace for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints and then can (hot water bath) these for 10 minutes for half pints and 15 minutes for pints.

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

Getting ready to can Sharbat

Getting ready to can Sharbat

To enjoy the Sharbat, you can add about 10-20% liquid to 80-90% cold water.  It is incredibly delicious and refreshing (and probably packed with good Vitamin C among other things!) You could also pour this into mixed drinks or over ice cream and so on.

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

You don’t have to can either of these–you can eat them fresh.  But this volume of material does give you enough to preserve for a long time.


Marinated Cornelian Cherry “olives”

In fact, Cornelian Cherries have pits like olives, so they can be made into them.  I also got this recipe from Fig and Quince, but I have some major revisions to make it tasty.  Remember that Cornelian Cherries are super tart until ripe–this recipe only works best with the ripest of ripe cherries.  Otherwise, you end up with these really tart vinegary balls that aren’t anything really like olives, they are just super sour.  If you use the most recipe cherries, however, you can end up with a really nice flavor.  The recipe is simple, you add in your very ripe cherries, then pour vinegar over them so that they are fully submerged.  You can add other things here as well if you’d like.  Keep them in the fridge (like a refrigerator pickle). A few combinations I’ve tried:

  • White vinegar / Cherries / Mint – Very good.
  • High quality balsamic / cherries – Very good.
  • Peach blush balsamic / Cherries – Awesome.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar / Cherries – Good and local.

I like the addition of the mint, but be careful you don’t add too much.  It can be very overpowering.

Making the cherries

Making the cherries

I haven’t yet tried a fruit leather, but I believe they would make a nice fruit leather as well.  This is a very versatile fruit and a little sweet added to it makes a complex and delicious flavor.  I hope that if you can find some Cornelian Cherries, these delightful recipes will help you enjoy them in the winter months!


Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.


An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).


Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.


If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.


Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).


Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.


Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.


In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).


Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.


Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.


Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.


Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.


The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.


The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.


Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.


Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.


Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.


Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”


Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.


Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.


Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.


Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.


Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 


Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.


Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:


For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.


Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:


Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.


Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.


Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.


Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.


Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.


However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).


Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:


Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.


Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).


Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).


Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!


Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.


Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.


And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).


The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.


The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).


The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).


Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).


But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.


The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.


At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.


Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.


The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.


Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.


Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).


Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.


A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 


I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.


Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).


The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).


Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!


Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.


Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?


The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!


Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.


Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.


I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.


Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.


My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.


The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.


The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.


Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!


And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!


Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.


I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!


So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.


I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.