The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

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

 

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

 

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

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

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

 

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

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

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

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Where do we go from here?

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

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

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

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

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

 

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

 

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

 

Localizing Resources

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Poison Ivy Remedy: Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel July 11, 2017

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

As I spend copious time in the outdoors, I often end up covered with poison ivy at least once or twice in the summer.I happen to like poison ivy as a plant a lot–she is beautiful, she is powerful, and she teaches us awareness (more on her soon).    But the contact dermatitis that I get from her on a regular basis kind of sucks.  Given that, I have a simple recipe that I make and keep on my shelf that seeks the healing power of two other plants: witch hazel and jewelweed.  This jewelweed infused witch hazel is a great remedy for poison ivy and clears it up very quickly.

 

If you can’t find jewelweed, I believe this recipe would be fairly effective with plantain or chickweed.  But Jewelweed is really the best.

 

Harvesting Jewelweed

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is also known as spotted touch-me-not, orange touch me not, and orange balasm.  It is an annual plant that self seeds readily, so once you know where it grows, you can easily find it in the same spot year after year.  It prefers damp, shady, forested enviornments, although I’ve also found it in wetter part sun or mostly sun environments.  The key is that it likes a moist forest floor.

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

On a recent plant walk, one of my attendees told me that jewelweed was named this way because if you put it under water in a flowing stream, it looks like a beautiful jewel!  So try it and see if you agree.

 

This plant’s primary use in herbal medicine is as a poison ivy remedy.  You can use it in two ways:

  • Fresh jewelweed can be applied to a location that was just exposed to poison ivy.  For this, simply pick a plant (especially getting the lower stem area and the places where the leaves join the stem that are very juicy), crush it, and rub it on the affected area.  This may take off the oils from poison ivy and prevent you from getting contact dermatits also known as poison ivy.
  • You can pick it and tincture it in witch hazel (or vinegar, in a pinch) and use this to dry out and soothe the poison ivy.
A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

If you are making the remedy, you will need enough jewelweed (chopped up and crushed) to loosely fill a mason jar of whatever size you want to make.  Unless you are in poison ivy all the time, probably a pint or half pint jar is all anyone needs for a while.  It does keep indefinately, so it doesn’t hurt to make more.

 

I also like to leave an offering (a pinch of home-grown tobacco) for the jewelweed for the harvest, of course, to honor the plant and the land.

 

Making Your Poison Ivy Remedy

Poison Ivy on the skin is caused by the oils in the plant reacting with the skin.  This makes the skin blister up and get very itchy.  The more you scratch, you the more spread the poison ivy (by spreading the oils) all over your skin.  What this remedy does is help heal and take out the itch (jewelweed) and dry out the afflicted areas (witch hazel).  It works wonderfully.

 

Ingredients and Materials:

Scissors or a knife

1 bottle of witch hazel (you can make your own from the witch hazel plant by distilling the branches in the early spring or you can go to the drug store and pick some up)

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

 

Step 1: Crush up your jewelweed.

To make your preparation, you will want to get as much juice from the jewelweed as possible into your preparation.  To do this, I like to first crush the jewelweed with my hands or a blunt object. I don’t crush it too much, but enough that it will expose more surface area to the witch hazel.  Pay attention to the thicker areas where the leaves attach to the stem–these are very juice filled (and the juice is the medicine).

Crushing up the jewelweed

Crushing up the jewelweed

Step 2: Chop up jewelweed finely into the jar.

Chop up (or tear up) the jewelweed and add it to the mason jar. A good pair of kitchen scissors will help this process quite a bit–I find that better than any knife for this work.  You don’t want to over-fill the jar, but do fill it up loosely.

Chopping up Jewelweed

Chopping up Jewelweed

 

Step 3: Crush it some more in the jar.

At this point, I continue to crush the jewelweed.  Here, I used my fingers, but I oculd easily use a pestle (the round thing used to grind herbs in a mortar) or some such similar tool.  Get as much juice out as you can at this stage.

Crushing further

Crushing further

 

Step 4: Add witch hazel.

Now, pour in your witch hazel, ensuring that it covers the Jewelweed fully.  If the jewelweed is too firmly packed, you’ll end up with less (after you remove the plant material in a few weeks).

Add witch hazel

Add witch hazel

 

Step 5:  Lit sit (macerate) 2-3 weeks and then strain.

Let your preparation sit for a few weeks in a cool, dark place.  Then, you can strain out the jewelweed (you can do this by hand, or with a hand held potato ricer or tincture press).  Place the liquid back in the jar, ensuring that you don’t have any extra plant material.

 

Using your Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel

You can use the jewelweed infused witch hazel when you have an active outbreak of poison ivy dermitis. Use a Q-tip or cotton ball and liberally apply the preparation to the affected area. Repeat this several times a day (or more, I usually do it 5-6 times a day or any time I enter the bathroom).  It will clear up the poison ivy very quickly!

 

I hope this small remedy helps many a forest wanderer this summer!

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Wild Food and Wild Medicine Profile: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca) June 7, 2017

The delicious and delightful wild strawberry just came into season here in Western PA, and I thought I’d share a bit about how to find this plant and why it is worth seeking out both as a wild food and a wild medicine. Wild strawberry is incredibly flavorful and delicious, and in my opinion, is a really high quality wild edible that is worth seeking out (which, thankfully, isn’t that difficult). Strawberry leaves also serve a medicinal purpose as a gentle astringent. This post will detail where wild strawberry typically grows, its overall growth habit, two look-alikes that should be avoided, and some information on how to harvest and enjoy wild strawberry.

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

The wild strawberry is also known as the woodland strawberry, alpine strawberry (although there are other cultivars also known as alpines that are clumping, fragaria vesca is a running variety), or european strawberry. It is abundant and diverse and grows in many temperate places in the US and beyond. It is a great beginner wild food and wild medicine!

 

Wild Strawberry Growth Patterns

At the right time of year, you can spot the little white wild strawberry flowers underneath or alongside the wild strawberry leaves. They are in the rosacacea family, and so, have five white petals with five bracts (little leaves in between the petals) and a number of small pollen pods that are yellow surrounding a yellow stamen. About a month later (in my region, at least) you can find the delicious red fruits.

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road...

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road…

Wild strawberry prefers to grow in full sun and is found in open fields or along edges of fields and brush/forests.  This is where you will find it fruiting. I have found it a lot in fields that were once farms and with low soil fertility, also on the edges of roadways, etc.  It seems to have no problem with poor or rocky soil or soils that are partially bare and hot. But I’ve also found it along lush edge spaces–interestingly enough, the poor soils seem to produce smaller, but more flavor rich fruit. Like other wild berries, if there is little rain, fruits will be more potent and delicious than if there was a lot of rain before ripening (like this year). Wild strawberry grows other places as well, like inside forests with a bit of light, but often these plants do not have enough light to fruit.

 

Strawberry is a plant that travels as it grows–strawberries slowly creep from one area to another.  A single strawberry patch will expand eventually into a ring, and then break off in different directions; the older plants send out new runners and slowly expand as they go (which is an awesome thing to see)!  I saw this firsthand at my homestead in Michigan-what started as a sizable single patch, later turned into a ring and into diverse new patches; the original patch was taken over by ground ivy and cinquefoil, primarily.

 

 

Wild Strawberry Look Alikes

Wild strawberries are very easy to find, but so are their look alikes (and sometimes, they are all growing in the same area). There are two plants that look like wild strawberry, false strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Cinquefoil / Polentilla spp. I’m going to cover each so you know what the differences are. 

Creeping Cinquefoil  (typically, Potentilla Reptans) is found in the same places as wild strawberry, often growing alongside it. Cinquefoil has five leaves and yellow flowers that look similar to strawberry flowers. Cinquefoil never gets a berry, however, so its pretty easy to avoid. In the photo below, There are some cinquefoils right in the middle of this strawberry patch (there’s also some small goldenrod shoots on the right next to the Cinquefoil).

Here’s a closeup of the Cinquefoil leaf (bottom) and a strawberry leaf (top).  The strawberry leaf has three leaves (trifoliate) while the Cinquefoil has five radiating leaves (palmately compound).

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil itself is medicinal, its roots are moderately antimicrobial when put in contact with infected tissue (so you can make a salve or wash with them).  But they aren’t tasty like strawberries!

 

The second look alike is known as “false strawberry”, “mock strawberry” or “indian strawberry.” It produces berry that looks a lot like strawberry, and it has leaves similar to a strawberry, but the berry is flavorless. You can eat it, but who would want to? It tastes like nothing. The berry also has seeds on the outside (not indented like the wild strawberry) and many seeds in a very orderly fashion (see below). It has a yellow flower (so if you can ID the flowers earlier in the year, you will know it is a false strawberry vs. the white flower of the wild strawberry). A simple rule of thumb is to not eat anything with yellow flowers, and stick only to the white flowers. Its been a while since I’ve seen one of these; they aren’t nearly as abundant around where I live as the Cinquefoil (which is as abundant as strawberry herself).

Here’s a photo of one (courtesy of Wikipedia, I forgot to take a photo!)

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry

The false strawberries grow up, pointing towards the sky while the wild strawberries are usually hanging or growing on the ground.

 

Harvesting Strawberry Leaf and Strawberry

When doing any wild food foraging, you should make sure that you are harvesting in a safe environment, free of toxins and not too close to houses with lead paint, roads, and so forth (see my earlier post on foraging part 1 and part 2).

 

There are a few tricks to harvesting wild strawberries. Like garden strawberry varities, dense foilage can often cover the tasty berries. You can use your hand to gently move away the leaves to get at the berries. You’ll also want to work your way carefully through the patch, trying not to step on any as you work through.  Although they are small, they are often abundant, and if you gather for even 10 -15 minutes, you’ll have several handfuls for fresh eating.  Remember that there might be a ring, or a line, or several patches in the area–so look carefully!  Strawberries ripen over a period of a week or so, so you can come back every day or so for more fresh strawberries.

Wild strawberries on the ground

Wild strawberries on the ground, brush leaves aside to see even more.

Since wild strawberry is so small, I typically just eat them fresh.  If you had them in extreme abundance, they’d certainly make a nice jam.  I once combined about 2 cups of fresh wild strawberries with some I had grown that were much larger for a jam–that was great.  If you had them in a lot of abundance, you can also dry them and enjoy anytime or make a fruit leather (see my instructions here).

 

Finally, a note about balance. I think that it is important to give something in return to the plant itself if you are harvesting fruit or leaves.  This can take a number of forms: a bit of organically grown tobacco is a welcome gift to many plant spirits.   If you are willing to scatter some of the strawberries themselves (with their seeds) the strawberries will be very happy.  You might find other things to do as well, but these are two I have found are very effective.

 

Strawberry Leaf as Medicine

Strawberry leaf is packed full of vitamin C and can be enjoyed as a tea either fresh or dried.  The tea has a mild and slightly fruity flavor (and some substitue it for green tea when a person can’t have caffiene).  I like to harvest leaves (maybe one per plant) when they are first blossoming.  They get a bit stronger after the fruit come in (still fine to harvest for medicine). A lot of folks will use these gentle leaves as a nourinshing tea that is tonic on the body and soothes the digestive system, particularly for those who suffer from diarrhea or loose stools and/or could use immune system support (provided by Vitamin C).

 

Strawberry leaf is also a gentle astringent (with a high tannin content).  I like to use it as part of an eye wash for conjunctivitis/pink eye when the eyes are goopy and watery (in conjunction with plantain for healing).  It is also great for a daily rinse for the gums and teeth.   Herbalists have used this successfully in tooth powder recipes to help treat plagque and bleeding gums (typically with clay, baking soda, and so on).

 

You can also brew up a strong cup of strawberry leaf tea and use it as a treatment for sunburn, simply lathe the affected areas with a soft cloth or cotton ball.  If you combine this with calendula or plantain, it is even more effective.

 

Please know that wild strawberry leaf is much more medicinal than its domestic counterpart.  You can use domesticated strawberry, but I have found the medicinal qualities much higher in wild strawberry (this is similar to Yarrow–the more difficult growing conditions, the more medicinal and aromatic the plant!)

 

Concluding Thoughts

I love the gentle spirit of the wild strawberry.  She is giving, soothing, abundant, and magical!  I hope that you will enjoy some of the benefits of this amazing and easy to find plant!

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Finding and Working with Ancestral Traditions March 26, 2017

Grandpa's field

Grandpa’s field

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fragments of Traditions

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

 

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

 

Ancestral Fragments as “Seeds” of Future Traditions

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Family Traditions

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

 

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

 

Sacred Spring

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

 

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

 

Family Religious Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

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

 

Cultural Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

Traditions tied to the Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

 

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

 

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland February 5, 2017

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

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Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these