Category Archives: Wildcrafting

Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

Making Acorn Ink – Instructions and Recipes

Acorn Ink! (Great color!)

Acorn ink, derived from the mighty oak tree, can be a wonderful addition to your druid practice or art studio.  Inks can be used for all manner of useful things, from drawing and artwork to the creation of sigils, writing in a druid’s journal, or engaging in other magical work.  In this post, I’ll share a method for making an acorn ink as well as a rust garden (that you can use to strengthen the color of this and other natural inks, like walnut).  I’m posting this now because I have found that acorns are best gathered for this not right after they drop, but after they’ve sat on the ground for some time (such as over the winter months).  This is a way for you to use acorns pretty much year-round, connect deeply to the energy of the oak tree, and localize your practice.

Ink making was once a common practice before the advent of commercial inks.  It was a sacred practice, for the arts of literacy and materials for drawing, writing, and painting were rare and hard to produce.  Toady, with the over-abundance of everything at the expense of nature, it’s wise to practice some of these older ways and reattune with the balance, wisdom, and joy of our ancestors. Ink making is actually quite simple and very rewarding and you will get colors that you can’t purchase commercially.  If you are interested in this topic, you might also want to check out my earlier post on berry inks.

The Magic of the Oak

Oak trees are special, particularly to those in the druid tradition.  The ancient druids did their rituals in groves of oaks. The ancient Irish considered the oak one of the seven sacred trees.  Many cultures around the world venerated oaks, which we can see from the use in military symbols and coats of arms throughout the world. The oak is a symbol of strength, persistence, courage, wisdom, and honor.

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns in the fall months

According to John Michael Greer’s Natural Magic Encyclopedia, Oak is “the preeminent tree of power in ancient symbolism” being of particular use to those who channel high levels of energy, for weather magic, and for earth magic.  Acorns themselves are symbols of fertility in ancient times to the present. In the Ogham, Oak is represented by the word “duir”.  In ancient Sanskrit, duir literally means “door”.  Oaks, then, are not just symbols of strength but doorways to many other things (the inner worlds, worlds of spirit, new journeys, etc). It is tied with the time of midsummer.  The oak has very strong wood and was often employed as the Yule Log (where the oak’s power would allow the light to return to the earth once again!) In the Hoodoo traditions, oaks is used to remove hexes or jinxes, usually through a wash.  Oak galls (which you can also make ink with, also using iron) are specifically used in the hoodoo tradition to lend power to any other working.  So you can see how having some oak ink might be a useful tool!  What better opportunity to honor the sacred oak than by making some high-quality ink that can be used for drawing purposes, spiritual journaling, or magical uses.

Making your Ink

Making acorn ink is simple and requires a few basic ingredients and tools

  • Acorns, older are better
  • Something to crush your acorns with (mortar and pestle, hammer and plastic bag, etc)
  • Vinegar (preferably rust garden vinegar, see below)
  • Water to cover acorns
  • Strainer

Gathering Acorns. I like to make acorn ink early in the spring.  The reasoning here is simple–you can easily find last fall’s acorns, and whatever is left, wasn’t a viable food source nor will sprout. So you are using the true “castaways” from the oak–probably acorns that had a few worms, etc.  I also find the ink is stronger if you are using older acorns.  As always, ask permission to gather and make sure to leave an offering in thanks.  To make about a cup of ink, you can gather 2 cups acorns (a cup of ink is a LOT of ink, just FYI!)

Gather up some old acorns

Crushing Acorns. After you’ve harvested your acorns, you will need to crush them.  If you have a large mortar and pestle, this works great.  You can also crush them easily by getting a thick plastic bag (like an old used feed bag) and using a hammer.  Or just crush them up on a large stone.  Make sure you save the small bits.  The more that you crush, the more effective extraction you will get.

Crush up acorns and add them to a small pot with water

Cover acorns with water. Barely cover your acorns with water, just enough to fully cover them in a small pan.  The more water you add, the less of an extraction you will have.  So go for a small pot and barely cover them.

Soak overnight.  Soak your acorns overnight if possible.  While you don’t have to soak overnight, the ink is stronger and more potent if you do.

Simmer. You will want to simmer your acorn mixture for a few hours.  It’s better to go long and slow than fast and quick.  As you boil, keep a good eye on the water level.  Early in my boiling, I might add a little water, but later on, especially in the last hour, I let the water boil off.  The more it boils off, the more high-quality ink you will have.

Simmering acorns

Strain.  Next, using a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth, strain your ink.

Acorn ink is finished boiling and ready to strain

Add Rust garden vinegar or regular vinegar.  If you take the time to make a rust garden (highly recommended, see next section), you can add a few tablespoons of rust garden vinegar (about 3 tbsp per cup of ink) to your mixture.  This darkens the color and helps preserve it.  If you aren’t going to make a rust garden, you still will want to add a tablespoon or two of vinegar to help preserve your ink.

Adding rust garden vinegar to the ink

Storage. You can store it in a mason jar with a lid.  I recommend keeping it in the fridge as it will last longer. You can keep it in the fridge for quite a while (several years).  It is likely that over time, it will develop some bluish mold.  Just get a strainer or a fork and remove the mold–the ink is still good.

Mold is a common occurrence with natural inks–just strain and keep using!

 

Optional: Making a Rust Garden

Making a rust garden is a way to improve the quality and color of your acorn ink (it also allows you to make oak gall ink and walnut ink; I’ll cover oak gall ink in an upcoming post). All that you need to start your rust garden are some rusty objects (like iron nails) and some vinegar (any kind will do).  Gather up your rusty objects and cover them in vinegar.  If you want to help speed it along, you can actually remove the objects, let them be exposed to oxygen for 24 hours, and then put them back in the vinegar vat.  I find this to be a little tedious, so instead, I just shake up my rust garden every once in a while and let time do the work. You can start your rust garden in a mason jar. As the items continue to rust, the rusty bits get suspended in vinegar, eventually creating a beautiful dark brown shade.  In a few months, you’ll have a very rusty, brown-black vinegar and it will be awesome for making natural inks!

Finding some rusty objects with Pythagoras the Rooster’s help!

Adding objects to vinegar in a jar

The completed rust garden! Look at all that rust!

However, this practice takes some time – at least 3-5 months–so keep that in mind.  You can always make the ink, then store it in the fridge while your rust garden “grows” and then return to it later (that’s what I did in creating the ink shared in this post).  Or you can start your rust garden now, and it will be ready for when this year’s batch of acorns drop in the fall.  Be aware here that over time, the jar lid itself will actually rust away–you can see that already happening to my jar here.  Thus, I recommend putting either a plastic lid on the jar or else a piece of plastic in between the lid and the jar can help preserve it over time (it will take a few years for the lid to rust away due to the corrosion of the vinegar).  Not that I have ANY experience with this happening, haha!

If you use some of your rust garden, you can just add more vinegar and keep letting it rust further.  Keep it on a shelf and then anytime you want to make natural inks like acorn, oak gall, or walnut, it will be ready for you!

Using your ink

Once you have your ink, it is ready to use!  Here are just a few possibilities for using your ink:

Acorn ink dyed leather pieces in progress…these will be bag flaps for leather pouches.

  • Pen and ink:  An old fashioned dip pen works great with this kind of ink, provided it is well strained.  You can use your ink on journals, magical sigils, drawings, and so much more.
  • Sigils and other magical work.  Consider saving this ink for a special purpose such as writing in your spiritual journal or making sigils.
  • Natural arts.  You can do a lot of interesting things with such high-quality ink: ink drawings, ink washes, and more.
  • Leather and Wood dye.  This ink will also dye a lot of surfaces (if you want to use it in this fashion, you’ll have to make large batches, which isn’t unreasonable in mast years when you can harvest abundant acorns).  I’m experimenting now with it as a leather stain and its been great!

I hope this post inspires you to try to make some of your own acorn ink!  I feel like acorn ink making is a great practice for the aspiring bard or druid!

 

PS: I hope you like the new look of the Druids Garden Blog!  I’ve been using the same theme for so long, I thought a change was necessary.  Blessings!

Wildcrafting Druidry: Getting Started in Your Ecosystem

One of the strengths of AODA druidry is our emphasis on developing what Gordon Cooper calls “wildcrafted druidries“–these are druid practices that are localized to our place, rooted in our ecosystems, and designed in conjunction with the world and landscapes immediately around us. Wildcrafted druidries are in line with the recently released seven principles of AODA, principles that include rooting nature at the center of our practice, practicing nature reverence, working with cycles and seasons, and wildcrafting druidry.  But taking the first steps into wildcrafting your practice can be a bit overwhelming, and can be complicated by a number of other factors. What if you are a new druid and don’t know much about your ecosystem? What if you are a druid who is traveling a lot or is transient? What if you are a druid who just moved to a new ecosystem after establishing yourself firmly somewhere else? This post will help you get started in building your own wildcrafted druid practice and will cover including using nature as inspiration, localized wheels of the year, pattern literacy, nature and relationship, and finding the uniqueness in the landscape.

 

AODA Principles

Prior to this post, I’ve shared some of my earlier ideas for how you might develop a localized wheel of the year, consider the role of local symbolism, and develop different rituals, observances, and practices in earlier blog posts.  The three linked posts come from my own experiences living as a druid in three states: Indiana, Michigan, and now Western Pennsylvania. For today’s post, I am indebted to members of AODA for a recent community call (which we do quarterly along with other online events).  In our 1.5 hour discussion, we covered many of the topics that are present in this post–so in this case, I am presenting the ideas of many AODA druids that flowed from our rich conversation. For more on upcoming AODA events that are open to AODA members and friends of the AODA, you can see this announcement.

 

Nature as Inspiration and for Connection

While the principle of wildcrafting seems fairly universal, in that all druids find some need to wildcraft to varying degrees, there is no set method for beginning to engage in these practices or what they specifically draw upon in their local landscape. The details vary widely based on the ecosystem and the individual druid’s experiences, history, culture, and more. What an individual druid chooses to follow is rooted in both the dominant features of that landscape, what they choose to focus on in the ecosystem, and how they choose to interpret and build a relationship with their landscape. Here are some of the many interpretations:

  • Following the path of the sun and light coming in or out of the world (a classic interpretation) and looking for what changes in the landscape may be present at the solstices and equinoxes
  • Following clear markers of the season based in plant life: tree blooming, sap flowing, colors changing, tree harvests, dormancy, and more
  • Following clear markers of migrating birds and/or the emergence or stages of life for insects (monarchs, robins)
  • Following animal patterns and activity (nesting behavior, etc)
  • Following weather patterns (e.g. time of fog, monsoon seasons, rainy season, dry season, winter, summer, etc)
  • Following patterns of people or other natural shifts in urban settings (e.g. when the tourists leave, patterns of life in your city)
  • Recognizing that some places do not have four seasons and working to discover what landscape and weather markers mark your specific seasons
  • Drawing upon not only ecological features but also cultural or familial ones (family stories, local myths, local culture)

Transient druids or druids who travel a lot may have a combination of the above, either from different ecosystems that they visited or from a “home base” ecosystem, where they grew up or live for part of the year. There is obviously no one right or wrong way to create your wheel.

 

Another important issue discussed in our call tied to using nature as inspiration is viewing nature through a lens of connection rather than objectification.  When we look at a tree, what do we see? Do we see the tree as an object in the world? Perhaps we see it as lumber for building or as a producer of fruit for eating. But what if, instead, we thought about the interconnected web of relationships that that tree is part of? What is our relationship with that tree?  Thus, seeing nature from a position of relationships/connections and not just seeing nature as objects is a useful practice that helped druids build these kinds of deep connections with nature.

One interpretation of the wheel of the year

One of my own interpretations of the wheel of the year

Wheel(s) of the Year: Localizing and Adapting

The concept of the wheel of the year is central to druidry. Druids find it useful to mark certain changes in their own ecosystems and celebrate the passage of one season to the next–practices which we’d define in terms of a wheel of the year. But to druids who wildcraft, the wheel of the year should be a reflection of nature’s cycles and seasons, things that are local and representative of the ecosystems that they inhabit.  While many traditional wheels of the year assume either a fourfold or eightfold pattern and are based entirely on agricultural holidays in the British Isles and the path of the sun, this system does not map neatly–or at all–onto many other places of the world. The further that one gets from anything resembling UK-like temperate ecosystems, the less useful the traditional wheel of the year is. The disconnection and divergence encourage druids to build their own wheels of the year.

 

Druids describe widely divergent wheels of the year in different parts of North and South America. Some reported having only two seasons (rainy and dry) while others reported having up to 7 different distinct seasons in their wheel. Wheels of the year might be marked by some of the kinds of events described in the bullet points above:  the return of a particular insect to the ecosystem, the migration of birds, the blooming of a flower, first hard frost, the coming of the rains, and so forth. I shared my own take on the wheel of the year here, and also wrote about my adaptation of Imbolc to my local ecosystem and local culture–these are two examples that might be useful to you.  Even if you live in an ecosystem that isn’t that divergent from the classical wheel of the year, you still may find that you want to adapt parts of it to your specific experiences, practices, and connections.

 

From my earlier article on the wheel of the year, here are some practices that you might do to start building your own wheel:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming, or what they understand to be the seasons. You might be surprised at the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farms and agriculture. Most traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems. You can learn a lot about important things that happen in your local ecosystem by paying attention to the agricultural wheel of the year and what is done when.  If you have the opportunity to do a little planting and harvesting (in a garden or on your balcony) you’ll also attune yourself to these changes.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs and festivals and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs from much older traditions (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? What is changing?  Observation and interaction will help.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature spirits or spirits of the land and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

Pattern Literacy: Nature’s Archetypes

All druids seeking to wildcraft and connect deeply with the world around them would benefit from understanding what permaculturist Toby Hemingway called “Pattern literacy”.  Patterns are nature’s archetypes;  they are the ways that nature repeats itself over and over through broader designs, traits, configurations, features, or events.  Each unique thing on this planet is often representing one or larger patterns. Learning pattern literacy is useful for all druids as a way of starting to engage with and develop wildcrafted druidries.

Rosaceae – Patterns from Botany in a Day book

 

Let’s look at an example of pattern literacy from the plant kingdom to see how this works. The rose (Rosaceae) family is a very large family of plants and includes almost 5000 different species globally–including blackberries, apples, hawthorns, plums, rowans, and much more.  Members of the rose family are found on nearly every continent in the world. Rose family plants have a number of common features, including five petals, five sepals, numerous stamens, serrated leaves (often arranged in a spiral pattern).  If you know this pattern, then even if you don’t know specific species in the ecosystem you are in, you can still do some broad identification–you can recognize a plant as being in the rose family, even if you don’t’ know the specific species.  This information–along with lots more like it, comes from a book called Botany in a Day, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning plant patterns.

 

For those of you who are transient, traveling, or looking to connect to a new ecosystem, pattern literacy offers you a powerful way to form immediate connections in an unfamiliar ecosystem.  Connections are formed through relationships, experiences, and knowledge–you can have a relationship with one species and transfer at least part of that connection to similar species in a new area. With pattern literacy, you an learn the broad patterns of nature and then apply them in specific ways to new areas where you are at. Once you can identify the larger patterns, you are not “lost” any longer, you are simply seeing how that familiar archetype manifests specifically in the place you are at.  These kinds of immediate connections in an unfamiliar place can give you some “anchoring” in new places.

 

The best way to discover patterns is to get out in nature, observe, and interact.  Reading books and learning more about nature’s common patterns can also help.  In addition to Botany in a Day which I mentioned above, you might be interested in looking at Philip Ball’s series from Oxford University Press: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts. The three patterns that he covers are: Branches, Shapes, and Flow. Mushroom and plant books also often offer “keys” or key features that repeat over many plant families (e.g. shelf mushrooms, gilled mushrooms, boletes, agarics, etc).  These kinds of books are other good sources of information.  Learning nature is learning patterns–and pattern literacy is a critical tool for druids.

 

Recognizing the Uniqueness in the Landscape

Another useful way of wildcrafting your druidry is thinking about what is unique and special about your landscape.  These can be natural features, beauty, diversity, insect life–and these unique features can be a land’s journey through history and restoration from adversity, the story of that land.  Finding and connecting to these unique features may give you a way of seeing how your land is unique in a very local way.  Some landscapes have old-growth trees, others huge cacti, others endless fields of flowers, and still others huge barren mountains with beautiful pigments.  Each place is different, special, and unique.

 

For transient druids, traveling druids, or druids who are new to an ecosystem, recognizing the uniqueness in the landscape has added benefit. It allows you to focus on what is special and best about the landscape you are in rather than focusing on a landscape that you miss (e.g. being able to appreciate the prairie for what it is rather than focusing on the fact that there are few to no trees).  Thus, this offers a way of orienting yourself in an unfamiliar environment.

Ready, Set, Wildcraft!

Hopefully, this post combined with my previous writings on this topic can help you develop a connection with your landscape, and thus, find new ways of deepening your wildcrafting practice.  Find the cycles, find the patterns, discover what is unique, and discover what changes–all of these suggestions can help you better understand the world around you.  If you have any strategies or ideas that weren’t shared here that have helped you wildcraft your druidry and connect with your local landscape, please feel free to share!

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

Ancient Order of Druids in America

Dear readers, I’m taking a pause from my regular article-style blog posts this week to share some big news and do a bit of reflection. Last week, as of the Fall Equinox, I became the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). I’ve been in leadership and service with the AODA since 2013, serving first as Trilithon journal editor for four years, then as Grand Pendragon, then as the Archdruid of Water for the last four years. And now, I’ve stepped up to lead the AODA, following Gordon Cooper, and before him, my friend and mentor, John Michael Greer. Because of this, I wanted to take a week to share my story of AODA and reflect on this path. I do this for a few reasons–first, I wanted to share the news. But also, I realize that a lot of people may find this reflection useful in deepening their own practices–learning about others’ paths helps us see possibilities for our own. Additionally, a lot of what I talk about on this blog is rooted in some way to frameworks from the AODA. A lot of my thinking about nature spirituality, druidry, and permaculture have an underlying foundation of AODA work. Thus, in this post, I am going to do two things.  First, I’m going to share my story about AODA and how I got to where I am today.  Second, I’m going to share what I consider to be the strengths of AODA practice, the highlights, the things that make AODA an amazing druid order.

 

The Road to a Spiritual Home: My Path into AODA

Druidry and the trilithon

Druidry and the trilithon

I’ll start by sharing some reflections about my own journey into AODA. After leaving home at 18 to go to college, I released the last hold of my parents’ religion. I called myself a secular humanist and an agnostic and went blissfully along my way. And while that path was useful to me for a time, after watching my closest friend battle with, and die of brain cancer in my early 20’s, I realized I needed something more. I had experienced his spirit after death, I had a deep knowing of his passing long before the formal news came my way, and with that experience, I knew I could be agnostic no longer. So in April of 2006, I began working through my grief and also finding a spiritual path that I could call home. The only spiritual experiences I had were with nature, so I started with that–I needed a path rooted in nature. I found druidry sometime in the fall of 2006, and after researching numerous druid orders, I found two I really liked (consequently, the two I belong to and work with today- AODA and OBOD). I decided to join AODA and did so in early 2007.

 

My first few years were spent learning and growing and asking so many questions. As a teaching order, AODA is dedicated to giving people a set of tools and practices to help them develop and deepen their own nature spirituality, rather than offer dogmatic belief or sets of rules. This self-directed path was useful, both because fundamentalism of any kind was not welcome in my life, but also because self-direction allows for ownership and mastery in the deepest way possible.  You learn by doing, by practicing, and sometimes, by making mistakes. I also think that part of why I took to AODA’s practices so quickly is that it didn’t require me to believe anything, particularly surrounding deity, a concept with which I was wrestling after coming out of my birth religion. Instead, I was given a set of working tools, rituals, and experiences that helped me shape my own druidry, deepen my connection to myself and my creative gifts, connect deeply with the living earth on multiple levels, and learn to be fully present and alive in this world.  I learned about the power of meditation, spending time in nature, making lifestyle changes to reduce my ecological footprint, and more.  I opened up myself to the bardic arts, the living earth, and the world of spirit (you can see AODA’s full curriculum here for more info). My developing nature spirituality, on both inner and outer levels, unfolded over a period of years.  Several years into my path, as I was finishing up my AODA 2nd degree, I also joined OBOD and found those practices to be wonderfully complimentary, particularly as OBOD’s course offers a lot of deep psychological work.

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

As time went on, I continued to grow with my AODA practices, eventually moving into the AODA’s self-designed 3rd degree.  This is a three-year project that you undertake to enhance your spiritual practices in some way–it is entirely self-designed and self-directed. For my project,  I took up the practice of permaculture and applied it to druidry (and as some of you may know, I have my first book coming out sometime next year–and that book is on the synthesis of permaculture and sustainable living practices and earth-centered spirituality!). This blog was also born from that project–I started this blog in 2013 as a way to document my experiences in the third degree in learning about the synthesis of permaculture, sustainable living, and druid practice. Obviously, I decided to keep it going long after as writing this blog became one of my primary expressions of my bardic arts!

 

What are AODA’s strengths?  What does AODA do well?

Now that you know a bit about my own experiences with AODA, I wanted to share some of what I think makes AODA unique and special. I draw this list from several places.  First, obviously, my own experience having gone through the curriculum. But also, for the last four years, I have read most of the degree reflections from AODA; these are what people write at the end of competing for one or more of their degrees. You can get a deep sense from these as to what people are really taking away from these practices.

 

Nature Reverence

One of the most central and abiding aspects of AODA practice is the way in which nature is central to everything we do. This isn’t just a respect for or use of nature as part of a spiritual practice, but rather, seeing the natural world immediately surrounding you at the core of your spiritual practice. AODA druidry has several key features that help members root themselves deeply within their own bioregions and practices.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Deep roots

Nature Connection: Wildcrafting your druidry.

The first is a concept of wildcrafting your own druidry, first described by Gordon Cooper years before he became Grand Archdruid. This manifests as a deep commitment to developing locally-based druids that focus on a deep understanding of your local ecology, local seasonal wheel of the year, and so on.  I wrote a number of articles on this blog about ecoregional druids in this same theme: you can see them here, here, and here. What you see with AODA druids is rather than “boilerplate” seasonal wheels of the year based on far off locations, you see all kinds of different druids based on location

 

Nature connection : Reciprocation and regeneration.

The second is understanding and set of practices that forefront reciprocation ass critical part of a spiritual path. For the last few centuries, humans have felt that they can simply take from nature with reckless abandon. In fact, we cannot, and the true cost of our actions are coming due. In AODA practice, we recognize that saying you revere nature is not enough–but rather, it must be accompanied by practices that engage, in permaculture terms, care for the living earth and fair share, taking only what we need. These practices also focus on regenerating nature. When they take up AODA druidry, all of our members engage in lifestyle changes and tree planting to help “give back.”  Many AODA members go well beyond the required work and truely embrace nature reciprocation as a core part of life, practicing permaculture or other regenerative practices. AODA druidry, then, is the deep green kind of druidry–the druidry that helps protect and heal our landscapes.

 

Nature connection: Nature knowledge.

The third aspect of nature connection central to AODA is a commitment to growing ecological knowledge about the world around you. Most people in the modern world know virtually nothing about nature, and we make it a point in AODA to change that–to have people know about nature in their local area.  Thus, all AODA members focus on learning more about their local ecosystems, through several different practices.  Regular time spent in nature, including in focus and observation, helps us gain direct experiences that allow us deeper connection.  We also read books, take classes, and learn about different parts of the ecology, geology, hydrology, and so forth with our ecosystems.  This is a powerful practice–by learning about nature, we grow more connected with nature.

 

Adaptable and Effective Rituals and Frameworks.

AODA works with a seven elemental system, including the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three aspects of spirit (above, below, and within).  The three aspects of spirit are tied to the telluric current (earth energy, spirit below), the solar current (solar energy, spirit above) and the lunar current (nywfre, the spark of life, the spirit within).  We offer members a core daily practice, the Sphere of Protection (SOP), as a protective/balancing ritual that offers lasting benefit.  I have been working with the SOP and this elemental system for a long time, and it has been extraordinarily adaptable and useful in a wide variety of circumstances.  One ritual, the SOP, literally can do anything from setting me up for my day to help me send healing energy to a friend to doing massive land healing and blessing.  John Michael Greer once explained it to me as a “swiss army knife” and this is an apt metaphor.

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

One of the other great things about the SOP, which is partially covered by my next two bullet points, is that the SOP is also infinitely adaptable to one’s local ecology, local beliefs, and individual practices. There are versions of the SOP floating out there using swords, oracle cards (my last week’s post), various different ecologies, and much more.  Each person has the opportunity to create their own take on this ritual, thus, making it even more meaningful and personal.

 

Creating Room for Individual Paths and Honoring Diversity.

As my story above explored, one of the other strengths of the AODA path is the way in which it appeals to people of many different walks of life and belief systems.  AODA is a path of nature spirituality, compatible with many other belief systems. It is non-dogmatic, and instead, offers you a set of tools to help you discover and develop your own spiritual practice. Within AODA, we have people who practice an incredibly diverse range of druids: polytheistic pagans, animists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and more. I love the fact that you can have a practice rooted in nature spirituality and keep your existing beliefs–or explore them in a new context. This allows AODA to appeal to a wide range of people from different walks of life. I think this is really important today, given some of the social and political challenges we face at present and the rise of extremists and hate groups.  Let’s let peace prevail in the quarters, and certainly, within our order.

 

Flexibility and Self Direction

AODA’s core curriculum focuses on individual choice, individual path, and following the flow of Awen.  In addition to offering individuals a set of core tools (meditation, nature observation, celebrating the seasons, the SOP), it also offers a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s path.  Members can choose to pursue any number of bardic, ovate, or druid practices while working through the curriculum.  Members also develop plans of study that are focused on their lifestyles and local ecosystems.  No two druids end up doing the exact same thing as part of their path into AODA.

 

Sacred rays of the sun

Sacred rays of the sun

Traditions and History

AODA is the oldest druid order in the US.  Established in the US in 1912, the AODA is currently 106 years old.  During that long history, it had several twists and turns, the most recent being that John Michael Greer resurrected the AODA in 2003 when it was down to less than a dozen elderly members.  Now, the AODA is thriving with 1200 members, mostly located in the USA. The SOP, the oldest of our practices, dates to sometime in the 1960s, also likely adapted from older practices.  This is a tradition with staying power, and that matters.

 

Conclusion

When looking back on my own life, I have no idea what it might have been without the AODA.  Most of the core parts of my spiritual practice, and my life today, is directly resulting from the core practices that I’ve been doing for over a decade.  AODA practices allowed me to return to my bardic arts (now an indispensable part of my life), those practices led me to study and practice permaculture, herbalism, homesteading, radically change my life, and taught me so much about nature (so much, that now I can teach others and do so through regular plant walks and herbal education).  I’m grateful to be taking this next step with AODA, and I hope some of you will join me on that journey!

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob

An earth spirit statue in my greenhouse, freshly made with sticks and an oak gall

A lifetime ago, myself and a dear friend dug some clay out of a hillside.  We each took half of it.  My half of the clay was used to form an earthen statue, a guardian statue, for that same friend who was struggling with terminal cancer while still in his early 20’s. It had a wooden tree knot head, stones for its belly, a stick staff, and an earthen body.  My friend accepted it reverently, and it went with him everywhere, even till the end. As he struggled with his battle with cancer, it grew nicked and chipped.  The wooden head fell off, just as my friend’s brain cancer grew more serious. When he passed on, the earthen statue passed on with him, returning to the earth. This statue was an impermanent being; fashioned of unfired clay. It was brittle, yet, in its own way, full of strength. It was ephemeral, and yet perfect in its lack of permanence.  It was a spirit statue, channeled from nature, with a bit of spirit within it, there to help my friend on his journey.

 

I had forgotten about this small statue until quite recently.  I’ve been cobbing several times a week, working to get my back greenhouse cobblestone/cob heatsink wall done.  One day, I had just a little cob left over. Not enough to set more stones on the wall, but enough to play with.  I started to shape it and felt the power of the Awen and of spirit flowing through me.  I saw a vision of all of these earthen statues, shaped, with sticks, shells formed and strong. I saw them left, to break down quietly in the elements and return to the earth with her blessing. And then, I remembered that earthen statue that I made all those years ago to try to provide healing and strength for my friend. And so, I’ve been experimenting working with such earth spirit statues. After sharing a few of my photos with friends, several suggested that I write about how I make these and how I use them ceremonially.  So today’s post, part of my cob building series, looks at the process of making earthen nature spirit statues all from simple materials found in your local landscape.  This is something that ANYONE can do, regardless of artistic skill.  So let’s get muddy!

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

In earlier posts on this blog, I worked with the idea of building nature shrines and sacred spaces of all kinds.  One of the things I often stressed as part of that work was not bringing things into those spaces that might be harmful or damaging to the land.  So I suggested natural things, things like shells, stones, wood, bones–things that you gather yourself, from the land, and allow to return to the land.  Or I suggested things that would easily return to the land, like wood burned object, hand-dyed natural fibers, etc. These will break down quickly due to the elements, but that’s exactly the point.

 

Many earth spirit statues

As I have talked about over the last few weeks, Cob is a natural building material made of clay, sand, and straw.  When you make something from Cob, it’s not fired.  It will not hold up to water. It will break down in the snow, wind, rain, and ice. Why, then, would you make statues out of cob if you know they will break down? First, because there is a magic in impermanence, magic in the making.  When you know something is only going to be a certain way only for a short period of time, it holds additional value.  For example, when my strawberry patch starts to produce the best-tasting strawberries, I know there is a short window, maybe 2 weeks, where I get to enjoy them fresh from the plant.  The rest of the year, I might enjoy preserves, but never that fresh succulent strawberry right from the vine.  Sacred objects can be like that too–an object you carefully construct, with the full knowledge that it will be broken down, creates a different kind of relationship. A sacred relationship based on the immediate moment. Creating these statues asks you to be in a place for this moment in time, to simply be present, making these, working with the cob between your hands. Letting the natural objects find their own shape and in their own time.  And not rushing it.   For there is much magic in the making.

 

There is magic in the making, and there is magic in the placing. An earthen spirit statue’s goal is to return gracefully to the land.  If you want, you can work slow magic with these, on nature’s time and at nature’s pace, as part of this work.  Almost all of my earthen spirit statues are used for the purposes of land healing.  As I shape them, I speak my healing words into them, I work healing energies through my fingertips. I sing, I chant, I smile, I laugh. I put the energy of life and light into my statues. And maybe when they are done, I put some more into them ritually, adding the powers of the elements and the sacred animals of the druid tradition.  Then, they become like little healing shrines all to themselves.  Carefully wrap one and put it in your backpack while you are on a hike, leaving it in the nook of a tree.  Place one on a stone in a stream, knowing the floods will carry it away.  Bury one in a snowdrift in a logged forest to offer peace to the survivors.  Offer one to your local lady of the lake.  Place one in your garden to nurture your plants to grow, letting it become soil you will plant in.

Gathering Materials and Decorations

There are two parts to an earthen spirit statue.  Natural items, such as feathers, leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, roots, seeds, and more are one of those parts. Take a small basket into the woods, beach, bog, desert or whatever is near you.  Walk intentionally and slowly, letting small bits of nature speak to you.  If they call out, pick them up, and leave an offering in thanks.  Once you have a good selection to work with, its time to make your cob!

 

Making Cob

And so, let us put our feet and hands into the earth and make our cob! For an introduction to our delightful material, you should look at the introduction to cob construction here, and how to make cob here. I will also offer basic instructions here, as they differ slightly from the instructions on my introduction to cob page. In a nutshell, cob is a combination of clay, sand, and straw.  This combination, in the right amount (1 part clay/silt to 2 parts sand) makes a perfect material for building earthen spirit statues.

To make your cob:

  • Dig down to the subsoil (see here for more details).  Fill up part of a wheelbarrow (1/2 or so).  Screen it, removing any rocks, sticks, or other debris.  The goal is to have just clay, sand, and straw.
  • Put your material on a tarp.  Make a well in the center of the soil, and then, add water.  Mix with your feet, putting your prayers, energy, and love into that material.  Dance with the spirits as you dance on your cob.  Take a side of your tarp and flip the cob, adding more water to make a good firm dough consistency.
  • If you want extra strength, you can add a bit of fine straw.  To add straw, take your scissors and carefully cut the straw up into 1/2 in pieces or less.  then sprinkle it through, working it in with your feet.
  • Pick up some of your cob.  It should hold its shape well and you should be able to work it.  Add more soil if its too wet and more water if it’s too dry and crumbly.
  • The goal is a nice firm but doughy texture that will hold its shape and that you can form.

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

Make your statues however you see fit.  the easiest way is to create a cylinder by rolling the cob in your hands or on a solid surface. Then, find the natural objects you want to include.  Press them into the cob, shaping it as you go.  Stick some sticks coming out of it, shells, or dried turkey tail mushrooms (or similar small polypore mushroom). Let the objects speak to you, and let the clay speak to you. Make no thought if it is “good” or “right”; refrain from any value judgments. Your goal is to channel the spirits of nature, and they are not concerned with the physical vessel you are creating.  Don’t fuss over it.  Let it be complete, and make another.  And another, and another, until you feel you are done.  As you make, laugh. Get muddy. Sing to the statues, drum.  Call for the sacred powers of nature who might aid you.  Put happy, healing, and light energy into your work.  Let go.

 

Bless your statues

If you feel the need, you can do an additional blessing for your statues.  Draw upon the power of earth, air, fire, and water, and give a blessing to them–smudge them with incense, drip some beeswax on them or hold them to the flame.  Give them some water drips, smear them with soil.

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

Find a home for your statues in the nooks and crannies of the landscape.  They want to travel, go somewhere, send their healing energy out as they begin to break down. Put them in unconventional places.  Put the in places in need of light and healing.  Put them on nature shrines.  Put them in your druid’s anchor spot. Visit them and watch them break down, or leave them never to return. You can put one on your altar for a while, but make an agreement between the two of you how long it will be there so that you can return it at the right time (these energies are meant to move between you and the land freely). There is no right or wrong path, just you, the spirits of nature, and how spirit moves through you.

The Ways of our Ancestors: Review of the Mountaincraft and Music Gathering

Here, in the center of our camp, the sacred fire burns. This fire is tended for the four days we are together, never being allowed to go out. This is an ancestral fire, and all of us at the Mountaincraft gathering have the responsibility of feeding it. This is where we remember that learning primitive and earth skills is the work of our ancestors. This is where we gather for a quiet moment to commune with those ancestors, and will our bodies and hearts to remember. This is where, each morning, we gather as a group to hear about the day’s classes, call to the directions, hear a word of intention, and recieve a water blessing from Nancy Basket, a tribe elder. This is where, at each meal, some of us may find ourselves, talking with each other or engaging in quiet communion with the flame. This is where, each night, we gather to drum, dance, and connect with all in this community. This is where many classes are taught, using fire as a tool for cooking, dye, carving, and more. The ancestor fire at the heart of the Mountaincraft gathering is the heart of the gathering itself–and it represents much of what we’ve come here to do.

Dye pots in the sacred fire

 

As I’ve already begun to do, in this post, I’m reviewing my recent experience at the Mountaincraft gathering. I’ll offer a full review, and also share at the end of the review how you might find a similar earth / primitive skills gathering, and why, if you are interested in nature spiritualiy and druidry, you might really want to do so!  And so, let’s get back to honoring the ancestors.

 

While I had been at the North American School of Bushcraft a few times before, this was my first time at their annual  Mountaincraft and Music Gathering–and in fact, my first earth skills gathering ever. This gathering focuses on the wide variety of earth skills and primitive skills that our ancestors once knew, and that many of us are now trying to re-learn and preserve. Held yearly in early September in Hedgesville, WV at the North American Bushcraft School, this gathering is a wonderful time for people to gather together to learn, teach, share, and grow. I have been looking forward to this gathering for quite some time, and I invited two druid friends to go with me.  And what a time we had.

 

A typical day at Mountaincraft looks like this: breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 8:30. At 9:30, we have morning circle around the fire. Morning circle is as I described above: part annoucements, part community building, and part ceremony.  We hear about the day’s classes from each of the many instructors–they introduce themselves, what they will be teaching and where. We get a word of intention for the day, which helps us focus our energy in a useful direction.  We gain a water blessing (and sometimes a song) from Nancy Basket, who uses cedar to flick each of us with pure water. Then, we go off to one of many classes offered.  Usually about 7-10 classes are being held at any one time. Morning class runs from 10am till 12:30. Lunch is till 1:30 and classes begin again at 2 and run till 5:30. The gathering provides breakfast and lunch, so then everyone goes off to cook or pays for a delicious purchased meal. Signups for classes start at dinner the day before, so around dinner, so everyone visits the board and sees what the next day’s offerings are and sign up. Many find it diffiuclt to choose as so many good options are available. As it gets dark, everyone gathers for drumming and connection. There might be trading activities (trade blanket, or trading/sales of items) or some other activity. The final evening of the gathering, Saturday evening, they had two fantastic Bluegrass bands (I’m not even a fan of Bluegrass but these were quite fun and enjoyable!) Then you go to your tent and enjoy your rest. While it sounds like you stay quite busy, the schedule is quite relaxed and things happen at their own pace. Earth skills are not “fast” skills, rather, they work on slow time. The gathering’s pace reflects this powerful lesson.

Afternoon Classes – so many!

 

Each day at the gathering offered new classes and exciting opportunities to learn. It was often quite hard to pick between the many classes. Here are just some of the many classes that were offered this year: Wilderness survival 101, map and compass, navigation without maps, bow drill firemaking (make your own kit and learn to use it), friction fires of the world, 40 minute forks, spoon carving, blacksmithing 101, make your own atlatl, primitive pottery, zen and the art of woodchopping, tool maintenance, make handles for tools from trees, make a milking stool from a log, flintknapping, tomahawk throwing and course, bow course, cordage, basketry (many, many different types–pine needles, kudzu, vine, etc) combined with storytelling, fingerweaving, natural dyes, bark baskets, parkour, campfire cooking, indigo and shibori dye, leatherwork: moccasins, make your own leather pants or skirt, process a deer and use all parts, cattail reed mat making, herbalism 101, salve making, naturalist classes, nature awareness, weed walks and plant walks, eating bugs and mushrooms, tree identification, drumming, learning guitar and banjo (and other music), nature identification, and so many more I can’t remember and didn’t write down! There was also a full 3.5 day kids program, where kids did many different earth skills along with plenty of play time, swimming, and nature hikes. This allowed the kids autonomy and also allowed parents to go to their own classes knowing that their kids were in good hands. There were also daily sweat lodges that you could sign up for–I did not do a lodge but one of my druid friends did and had an amazing experience.

 

40 Minute Forks

On my first day, I spent the morning learning “40 minute forks” from Fuz, a long-time earth skills instructor from North Carolina. This was a great class to help me build confidence with my knife skills, whittling skills and create some simple forks. Fuz was a strong presence throughout the gathering, not only teaching a wide range of primitive skills (carving, wood chopping, drumming) but he was also very active in the drum circles at night, helping us feel welcome and leading some great beats.

 

The afternoon class was primitive pottery with Keith. We made our way down to the creek bed, dug clay from the bank, and learned how to hand wedge it. Covered in mud, we came back to the primitive pottery area, where we shaped the clay into bowls and other objects. On saturday late afternoon, after drying the pottery by the fire, the kiln was built on top of hot ashes and all of our pots went inside. Then, we built a bonfire on top of it and watched it burn  I remember standing there with our pots, at about 11pm on Saturday night. Bluegrass band playing in the background, heat of the fire before me, and just thinking what an amazing experience this was–to use fire as such a powerful tool. Evening came and my friends and I shared a meal and some downtime at our campsite. We then went down to the ancestral fire, where we participated in the best drum circle jam I have ever been enjoyed!

 

Prefiring pots

The second day cordage in the morning with Jeff Gottleib.  I loved everything about Jeff’s teaching style: practical, knowledgable, friendly, and encouraging. Jeff was a professional earth skills instructors and naturalist and it really showed. He walked us through the intracies of creating cordage from various plants and trees, and had tons of examples to look at.  We made dogbane cordage and then some hemp cordage. He even had a book on the topic for more info, which I was lucky enough to purchase for reference.  (He has a site and Youtube channel you can check out here).

 

After a great lunch, I went to my afternoon class, which was dyeing with indigo and traditional shibori techniques with Stephanie Davis. I have been longing to learn these techniques for years!  Stephanie’s workshop was amazing. Stephanie brought out examples, pictures, and had her own indigo dyed clothing and tapestries everywhere for examples.  She offered us a box of clothing and we took what would fit.  I ended up with a great cotton sleeveless shirt and an long runner I will use as an altar cloth. Stephanie’s instruction in indigo was magical. Each of us finished our prepartion (with various stitches, string, rubber bands, and more) and then made our way to the dye vat. Stephanie worked with each of us, slowly and purposefully, to dye our work and remove it quickly so that we did not add oxygen to the vat. Her gentle guidance added *so much* to the learning process–I felt like she taught us how to commune with the dye, how to work with the Indigo plant behind it. My two pieces came out beautifully. Many of us stayed to watch the last of the items get unwrapped like precious gifts. I left that class with my heart so full.

 

Amazing dyed fabrics!

Friday night offered a traditional trade blanket. Each of us who participated brought multiple kinds of trades.  We took turns, going around the blanket and offering trades. Or doing side trades, which are ok. I ended up trading for a bag of spicebush seeds (yay for replanting my land), a small leather bag, beads, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, a self-published coloring book, and a wonderful wool shawl with arm holes. I gave iron oxide pigment, guinea and goose feathers, a handmade leather journal, small gourds, and a small gourd drum. This was a  very fun time and a good way to get to know people at the event. For an overview of what this is, you can see this page.

 

Saturday is the “big day” of the gathering. Lots of new folks rolled in and there were at least 10-15 classes running at all times–and again so many choices! I decided to do a natural dyes and ecoprinting class in the morning. My natural dye class was great–we foraged for materials, learned about dyes and prepartion, and prepared and used three different dyes: a pokeberry dye, a walnut dye, and a goldenrod dye. The best thing about this class is that we did these dyes over our ancetral fire, just like our ancestors would have.  We gathered the plants and stained our fingers and faces with pokeberries.

 

My kit, with a fire I started at home a few days after the gathering.

My saturday afternoon class was my last class of the gathering, since I had to return early on Sunday. But I consider this class my greatest success–it was certainly the most physically demanding and challenging but also rewarding. I had class with Jeff again. This time, he was teaching us how to make bow drill kits for friction fire building. We started with a good chunk of dried basswood he harvested. He showed us how to quarter the log and get boards from them, each student making their own board. He then took the rest and offered us smaller shards to carve down into our round drill. After a good deal of carving, we were ready to make the bow. We harvested our drill wood itself and then added lines or did a 3-ply cordage technique with leather.  By this time, we had been making our kits for several hours. Many of the other classes had finished for the day, but we were determined to start fires with our kits!  It took me about 15 minutes of practice to get the hang of it, but then, I HAD AN EMBER!  And then, a minute or so later, I had made fire.  I felt so alive, so proud, so accomplished. From my own hands, I took pieces of split wood and turned them into a friction fire kit that really worked.  I spent most of the evening riding my bow drill fire high, thankful to have learned this skill and feeling damn accomplished. Since returning home, I’ve made three embers and one successful fire with my bow drill–and it tremendously deepened my relationship to fire!

 

That evening was awesome.  We had the trader setup, where you could sell or trade for items from a wide variety of folks who had stuff at the gathering. There were soaps, jams and jellies, herbal medicine, knives, feathers and bones, old school lanterns, various tools, and so many more interesting things. As that winded down, the party began, and we enjoyed homebrew and two amazing bluegrass bands.  I ended that evening at the primitive fire pit watching my pots turn to molten orange.Sunday at the gathering is a half day, but unfortunately, I had to leave early due to having to go to work later on Sunday. I said goodbye and drove away with my heart so full and my mind active, the awen strongly flowing through me!

 

I want to conclude with a few general thoughts and encourage you to go to Mountaincraft or another Earth Skills gathering:

 

Firing the pots!

First, this community is really, really welcoming. I can’t stress that enough. I live in a rural and very conserative area, and that often translates that there are things women do and things men do, and men don’t always want to teach women “men’s” skills. Woodworking and treework, in particular, have been really hard for me to get any decent lessons in. Here at Mountaincraft, Jason and Sera, who run the North American Bushcraft School, are diligent about their land being an accessible and welcoming place. I felt completely respected and believed in, at all times, during the gathering. I had strong women and respectful men leading awesome classes. But its not just gender diversity that is respected: all people are. The elders are respected in this community and given places of honor. The children are likewise respected, and many of them are teachers themselves. I have never been in such an open and welcoming community that honors the diversity of age, race, gender, and path so much.

 

Second, this community has a lot to offer people who put in the time. Besides the incredible list of skills I mentioned, there is a lot of personal work you get to do in building skills. Its a meaningful and powerful method of personal empowerment, where each new skill you learn allows you to gain confidence, gain power, and gain wisdom.  One of my druid friends, also a woman, spent the weekend learning blacksmithing, making weapons, and throwing them.  Her body was sore but her heart was full. She took the warrior’s path, much different than my own bardic journey, and yet, both were fulfilling and enriching for us.  Starting my fire with the bow drill changed something within me; it connected me deeply with my ancestors but also seemed to unlock some as of yet unknown potential within me. All I can say is that I left that gathering a different person than I came, and what that means will likely take some time to sort out through more fire building and bow drill practice.

 

Third, this gathering teaches deep nature knowledge and nature awareness. Nature has so many facets to learn: identification, edible/medicinal virtues, and many other uses–each of these offers a different “face” of a plant. There is such a difference between being able to ID a tree and learning how to make something from its fallen trunk, knowing just the right wood and part of the wood to choose. Before this gathering, basswood was simply a nice tree that I could identify and whose flowers made a demulcent tea. By learning how to make a bow drill of basswood, I learned much more about the qualities of this tree–how the wood behaves, how soft it is, how it smells when it burns, how it carves. Thus, I learned a bit of the tree’s magic: what wisdom and resources that it can offer. Nature knowledge comes in many forms, and the path of earth skills is abundant in such knowledge.

 

Finally, I think earth skills gatherings offeres a wonderful “earth path” suppliment to my many readers who are practicing some kind of earth-based spirituality (such as AODA druidry, which we literally call “earth path” skills).  These are the practical skills, folks.  These are the skills that help you stay rooted and present and build nature knowledge.  It is an incredible opportunity.

 

If you want to find a gathering near you, visit the Earth Skills Gatherings website.

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!