Category Archives: creativity

Building an Earth Oven, Part II: Insulation, Finish Plaster, and Cob Mosaic

Friends enjoying the hot oven

Friends enjoying the hot oven

In last week’s post <LINK>, we began exploring the build of an earth oven.  An Earth Oven is a simple structure, made of clay, sand, straw, stone, and fire brick, that you can use to cook foods in a traditional way.  Last week’s post walked you through the first set of steps for building your oven.  In this post, we’ll finish the build, troubleshoot, and talk about how to bake in your oven.  When we last left off, the oven was drying after building the dome.   What is left to do is to add a layer of insulation and a finish plaster, and then offer the oven protection from the elements (an upcoming post cause I don’t have that last part done yet!)

Insulating Your Oven!

Mixing cob insulation layer--keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Mixing cob insulation layer–keep on adding straw until it barely stick together!

Once your oven is fairly dry, you will need to add an additional layer of insulation to the oven.  Insulation is critical for the success of your oven, as this determines how quickly the oven heats up and how long it holds heat.  If you want to bake 10 pizzas in a row in the oven, an insulated oven may be able to do it, while an oven with less insulation wouldn’t hold the high temperature long enough and you would have to repeatedly build fires. There are a few things that work and, as I discovered, some things that don’t work, for insulation.

One of the tried and true methods for insulation is to mix your cob with as much straw as possible so that it just barely is holding together. Straw itself has a lot of holes that trap air, so a layer of mostly straw will trap air, creating insulation. You want STRAW here and not hay (straw has many long and thin shafts with air in the middle; hay is basically dried grass).  If you get creative, you can also add lots of glass little bottles to your oven to get even more insulation.  I had read online somewhere that sawdust also makes a good insulation layer–this did not hold true in my experience.  I added a layer of sawdust-cob mix and it had very little insulating properties, so I had to add a second insulation layer.  So let’s add that layer!

To do this, you will mix up your cob, keeping it a little wetter than normal.  Take clean straw and, if you can, use scissors to cut it up if it’s really long (anything over about 12″ in length you can cut down a bit).  This makes it easier to cut it.  Then you mix it in and get ready to add it all over your entire oven.

My big mistake here is that I thought sawdust would be insulating enough, so my friends and I put on a layer of sawdust (and artwork) that we ended up having to cover up.  Ah well!

For extra insulation, I also added some small bottles; these created bigger pockets of air for extra insulation.  You don’t have to do this.  I had a bunch of bottles that I was having difficulty cleaning after they had tinctures in them for a long time, so I decided to put them to use in my earth oven.  You can see that in-progress shot above–the straw insulation with the extra bottles.

Goose helpers help to mix up some cob!

Finish Plaster and Decoration

At this point, you have a fully functional, very well insulated, earth oven. Now you can turn your attention to the decoration of your earth oven, the finish plaster, and figuring out how to put a good “hat” or roof on your oven. The reason you need to think about plaster and a roof is to protect it from the elements. This is an oven made of mud, and thus, exposure to the elements for any amount of time will damage it. Until you get your finishes on, you can put a tarp over it!

You have a lot of options for finish plasters and thinking about how to protect your oven.  Lime plasters are one option–here is a good introduction to lime plaster. If you do a lime plaster, you will have a nice breathable finish that is also very protective of rain and snow.

I made a cob-based finish plaster using a higher ratio of sand to prevent cracking. You will want to mix your plaster in advance and then do a test piece on your plaster to see if it’s cracking or not.  If it cracks, adjust your ratios (particularly see if you need more sand). You will also want to include a short fiber that is very strong. A lot of people use cattail fluff for this; but, I had an abundance of milkweed pods on the property (and I was already using the seeds for seed balls), so I decided to use the milkweed fluff and that worked great.

Plaster can be applied in a thin layer. What I did was to briefly wet down the outer layer (so that the plaster sticks) and then use a trowel and my hands to spread the plaster, about 1″ thick and smooth it out nicely. Here are a few steps:

Mixing my milkweed-based finish plaster–I felt like a frolicking fairy!

Wetting down for finish plaster

Wetting down for finish plaster

After I have started my final plaster–you can see the consistency of the milkweed plaster (a cattail plaster would look pretty similar).

Because I also wanted some artwork and decoration on my cob, I used the cob plaster to shape some nice spirals.  I saved up broken plates, cups, and bowls that had broken during regular use, and then I used a hammer to smash them up and give me smaller pieces.  I embedded these in the cob plaster and used a small sponge to wipe away excess.  When the plaster dried, I went back in and wiped it away again to clean up the mosaic pieces.

I’ll show a few detailed photos of the mosaic:

In this first photo, you can see how I shaped the finish plaster and added the spirals.  The finish plaster below this is still wet; if it wasn’t, I would have wetted it and also scored it with a stick or a butter knife to give the new plaster a bit to hold onto (just like you would do in pottery).  I added cob glue/grout to the inner area and kept adding a few pieces at a time. I did this with extra cob so that things would hold firmly.

Here you can see it as the mosaic progresses.

Now I’m going in and taking a wet sponge and sponging off most of the excess cob.  If there are areas that need more cob, I add it.  The idea is a smooth presentation.

Here’s what the finished mosaic and oven looks like!

The completed earth oven

The completed earth oven

Despite my best efforts, I still had a little cracking on my earth plaster, but I’m ok with that.  I needed to do a second test, and I didn’t, primarily because it was starting to get cold and I was running out of time to complete the build!

Sheltering your Earth oven

The final step for your earth oven is to create a shelter for it.  You either need a shelter or a finish plaster( lime plaster).  In temperate ecosystems with lots of rain and snow, a shelter is your best bet.  I am working on that final step this spring,  so I’ll share more about it once my friends and I finish that part.  It has taken some time because I’ve been harvesting lumber from the property–as trees fall down or are blown down by storms, I am gathering them up to use for my shelter.  This takes more time, but it’s also in reverence and respect for this land that had been logged before I came.

Final Thoughts and Troubleshooting

My oven has a crack! Nearly all earth ovens will develop a crack somewhere. That’s ok, and honestly, the crack can tell you a lot about the oven–as you learn about your oven, you will learn to read the crack to understand the temperature, etc.  This isn’t usually anything to worry about as long as you have built a strong structure.

Shrine on the path to the cob oven (that stone looks precariously placed but it’s actually quite stable! Kind of a cool optical illusion.

My oven takes a while to heat! Yes, it does.  This is not like turning on your fossil-fuel-driven oven.  Earth ovens take time and are absolutely ‘slow food’.  Because of this, you have to spend time tending the fire before you can cook.  To get pizzas, I start my oven about 4-4.5 hours before I want to bake.  If it’s below 40, I start it 5 hours before I want to bake.  This means every 30 min, I am going to tend my fire.  That’s part of the experience.  If you aren’t achieving baking temperatures, you probably need a longer fire.

My oven doesn’t seem hot enough. Get yourself an oven thermometer (the stand-up kind) and see what your internal temperature is.

I will be sharing more details about baking in the earth oven and some cool recipes to try in my 3rd post in this series!  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, I hope that this series has inspired you to get your hands in the mud and maybe build something or help someone build something.  Blessings!

UPG and Me: On Gnosis, Personal Gnosis, and Unverifiable Personal Gnosis in NeoPagan Practices

As with any spiritual path, the question of how we build knowledge, what we believe, and where that knowledge comes from is important.  I think it is particularly important to druids as we have so few fragments of the Ancient Druid tradition.  We are constantly asking ourselves–where can we gain knowledge from? How do we build knowledge, and from what sources?

What is Gnosis?

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Gnosis refers to “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.” Gnostic traditions are those rooted in the idea that knowledge can be gained through esoteric (inner) practices, such as communion with a deity, prayer, meditation, repetitive activity, dreams, and so forth, and that that knowledge is important and valued. Throughout history and in many different spiritual traditions, Gnosis was an important part of any spirituality.  Seeking the mysteries on the deepest level often requires contemplation, silence, and communion with the living earth–as we have seen in monastic traditions throughout the ages. In the Gnostic traditions, this gnosis was said to be the most important knowledge one could hold and this belief transcends anything that might be provided by external sources. In other words, a Gnostic gets their messages and truths from spirit/deity above all else.

Gnosis is important to those on the druid path for several reasons.  First, druidry (at least the kind of druidry I practice through OBOD and AODA) is non-dogmatic and focused on individuals’ spiritual development.  This means, in AODA, for example, that druids work to hone their own personal spiritual development, spiritual expression, channel Awen, and wildcraft their druidry.  These practices, which form the core of those practicing druidry (especially AODA druidry) require you to localize and personalize your understanding; and thus, are enriched by your own personal gnosis.

Most people who practice druidry use a combination of personal gnosis (inner knowing) with external knowledge seeking (outer sources). A good of this is through working with sacred plants: if you wanted to work with maple trees, it would benefit to you to read some books about maples: their ecology, their function in the ecosystem, how humans may have used them for food or medicine (such as tapping trees for syrup), and also traditional folk uses.  But the key part of this is that you balance that outside knowing with your own direct experiences in nature: observation, meditation, and spirit communication.  It is through these different inputs you can develop a personal spiritual path rooted in nature that also supports the development of personal gnosis.

Cultivating Personal Gnosis

Personal Gnosis can come in many forms as you travel along the druid path. These methods are fairly varied but many of them end up with similar results.

The first is our intuitive “knowing” or gut feelings. The reason they are called “gut feelings” is because we often experienced these in embodied ways–a sensation we get within the body, a knowing we have that cannot be shaken. Intuition/gut feelings are very important to those practicing spiritual paths and can be very useful to cultivate on your journey.

Another form of personal gnosis is Direct contact with spirits/deity who offer messages or teachings. This contact may be in many forms: voices, songs, feelings, visions, messages on the inner planes, teachings from spirits, etc. There’s an enormous amount to learn and navigate on the “inner” planes, and much of this is connected to the spirits you connect with and what they have to teach you.

Bardic arts is another area where personal gnosis may come to be. As you create, the awen, which druids see as a spiritual or divine force of creativity, will flow through you, inspiring you and deepening your understanding of the world.  As Jung noted, creative expressions help you connect with your subconscious, and there is much wisdom to be gained in such a connection.

Dreams may be yet another area that you can connect both with your subconscious and with the larger sense of dreaming of the world.  You can cultivate a dreaming practice where you delve deeper into the world of your dreams and work to understand the messages they provide you. (I highly recommend the teachings of Sarah MacLean Bicknell for more on a systematic, intuitive, and highly engaging dream-based practice).

Meditation is another area where you can develop a deep understanding of yourself, your life, and your spiritual path.  Meditation quiets the mind and/or focuses the mind, allowing it to move in particular directions, connect with spirit and with the subconscious.  Jung noted that dreams, creative practices, and meditation were powerful ways of getting in touch with our subconscious.

As you continue your studies, personal gnosis may come infrequently or regularly to you. It is a frequent occurrence for many more experienced practitioners but varies considerably by an individual.  Some practitioners see gnosis and their interactions with the inner worlds/spirit/deity as the most central part of their practice. If you aren’t yet experiencing these things, continuing to quiet your mind, seek the sacred in nature, and engage in regular meditation is a sure path to receiving personal gnosis from nature and spirit.  Keep at it and it will come!

Verification: Outer Plane Checks and Confirming Insights

Those new to these practices may question what they experience/hear/learn and question if these experiences are “real” or if they are all “making it up in their heads.”  This is a critically important question to consider–even with trusted spirit teachers or deep gut knowing, it is always wise to test your insights.

The first question towards unpacking this is: where do the messages come from? There are two parts to this question to consider.  The first is tied to what you believe–and thus, you will want to think about how your own experience fits in with your belief.  If you are in the woods and are in prayer/meditation and receive a message, a Christian druid may believe that message came from God, while an Atheist druid may believe the message to originating from their subconscious.  So understanding the “source” of personal gnosis as it fits your belief is important.  The second part of the question is also tied to the source and your level of trust.  Did you receive this message from a trusted inner contact, one you have experience with, or was this a random spirit or entity?  If you’ve developed a longstanding relationship with a spirit/deity and that connection is healthy, there is probably little reason to question what you received.  But if you aren’t sure of the source or if this is a new spirit, there is great cause to be wary.

Further, there are numerous questions beyond questioning the source of the message.  What does the message say? What would acting on the message do, if anything?  Does that action make sense?  Is that message asking you to behave in a way that is your best self or not?  These kinds of questions are important to ask, particularly as you are starting out–we tend to be very trusting early on our journeys, and that can get us in some trouble.

Outer Plane Checks and Confirming insights. One of the ways to “verify” personal gnosis is by asking spirit/deity for what is known as an “outer plane check.” This is some kind of external message or verification from spirit/deity and it can vary quite widely but it is somehow rooted in our physical reality.  Part of what you will receive as verification again goes back to your own personal belief system and how much skepticism you have.  Here are some examples:

A great example of a message from nature--the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual--the messages we received have an additional verification

A great example of a message from nature–the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual–the messages we received have an additional verification

Some druids would consider an outer plane check confirmed if they were in nature, received a clear message, asked for an outer plane check, and then had a very clear sign from nature–such as a flock of wild turkeys walking through the center of their grove, a large eagle flying overhead, or a ray of sunlight shining through the clouds.  This kind of confirmation may not occur immediately but should be obvious when it happens.  For example, I was making a very serious life choice some time ago, a choice that had a significant impact on the future of my life.  After hearing guidance from the spirits and making a tentative choice, I asked spirits for confirmation that it would be the right one.  A bad storm blew through and dropped a  big tree away from my house–a clear message confirmed.  They aren’t always that drastic, of course.

Having a human (friend, mentor, even stranger) confirm a message is another path.  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a friend or mentor shared a similar experience; that allows them to confirm and understand their own experience/message  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a similar message came through to them by another means (friend, mentor, someone sending them a link, etc).  For example, after receiving a message upon which you might act, going to a friend for divination (without revealing any details) could be a useful way to confirm. Some druids would want physical confirmation, such as being able to read or see something that confirms what was shared (not always possible, but useful for things like past life regression).

Sometimes the best way to verify a message is simply time.  Wait to see what happens, seeing if the insights or understanding gained comes to be.

Gnosis without verification: Some Personal Gnosis may not be able to be verified with an outer plane check, but there are still other ways you might think about this in more depth. Here are some useful ways of thinking about the information you receive:

  • Do you trust the source?  If this is a deity or spirit that you have a deep relationship to, it is probably much more trustworthy than from someone you have no relationship to
  • Does the message/insight/information make sense? If the information is outlandish or uncharacteristic, it is a good idea to question it.
  • How strong was the message? How did you feel after you received it?
  • Were you protected when you received it?  E.g. did you do a daily protective working (such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection) or were you in a sacred grove/sacred circle? This also makes a difference.

Sometimes personal gnosis cannot be verified and must be taken on faith.  More interactions over time with the world of spirit are certain to deepen this knowledge.

Unverified/Unverifiable/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG)

While personal gnosis is a critically important part of our own spiritual experiences, it can lead to some trouble, especially when people begin to pass off their own personal gnosis as fact.  In the broader neopagan community, the term is usually “unverified” or “unsubstantiated” personal gnosis, which refers to matters of spirit that cannot accurately be verified using physical means.  It is often, but not always, used in a negative way for at least two reasons.

The first is that UPG can be dangerous when used in groups and can be used as a means of control of individuals and groups.  If one leader or small group claims a direct connection with a deity or set of spirits, and only that leader has a connection and receives messages, then anyone who follows that leader can be led deeply astray.  They can become enthralled by the leader’s visions and there is no way of verifying the visions.  This happens in all sorts of spiritual traditions (think about your typical “cult” here), and unfortunately, does occur within neopaganism.  Thus, it is really important that when you are listening to the words of others, you pay attention to where they are getting their information–is it UPG? What does your own gut tell you?  It is good to take someone else’s personal gnosis with a very heavy dose of skepticism, particularly if they are using it as a means to control.  Ask them where the information comes from, and distance yourself if necessary.

The second place that you often hear about UPG being a negative thing is particularly tied to movements like Celtic Reconstructivism or other reconstructivist movements.  Reconstrutivist movements focus on historical accuracy and recreating/resurrecting lost traditions, and thus, UPG is rarely welcome in such communities because the emphasis is on recreating ancient traditions. In this case, the community’s values are focused on historical sources, not UPG.  Druid revival orders, such as AODA or OBOD, don’t worry as much about this issue as we don’t have less than 9 pages total of preserved works from the ancient druids, but it is very important to understand that different traditions value different things–and to respect those differences.

Sharing Personal Gnosis

Given the above, one of the things that gets tricky in the broader druid community  (and where the negative spin on UPG comes from) is when individuals intentionally or unintentionally pass off personal gnosis as truth, fact, or historical fact. This is something you will want to watch out for in your own interactions.

In sharing your own personal gnosis, I recommend that you make it clear that this is your own gnosis/understanding that comes from spirit. It is easy enough to signal this when you are sharing with phrases like, “in my experience” or “In my interactions with spirit/deity” and simply clarify that this is coming from your personal gnosis. That way, when you are sharing, it is very obvious where your information comes from.  This makes you a more trustworthy person and allows you to have positive, healthy interactions with your broader spiritual community.

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Some personal gnosis is specifically given to you to share. Our world is in a tipping point, and spirits are eager to help humanity transition away from our destructive path.  Thus, you may start getting messages with the idea that they need to get out there.  I point to my Plant Spirit Oracle as a good example of this.  It was very clear to me from the beginning that this project and set of journeys were meant to be shared.  In my book, I made it very clear that this project–the images, meanings, divination system–was my personal gnosis.  I shared exactly how I came to the meanings and images, and with that, I feel like my ethical obligation is complete.  People can choose to use it or not, and they know where it came from because I’ve been upfront about it.

On the other hand, not all personal gnosis is meant to be shared. You will usually have an intuitive sense (if not a direct message from spirit/deity) about what can and should not be shared. Some may be shared with those who are mentors or friends, while other personal gnosis may be appropriate for more public sharing.  There is such a thing as “talking the magic out” of something, meaning that if you had a very deep personal experience and you begin sharing it widely without taking the time yourself to work with it and unpack it, you may never reap the full benefits of the experience or message.  Thus, I recommend always sitting with insights and messages for some time, and then if you are going to share, share carefully.

In reading and responding to others’ personal gnosis, you can ask the simple question–where did this information come from? Are they indicating that they had a personal experience, they were taught this, this is part of a family tradition, part of some larger tradition, or so on?  If they aren’t sharing where it came from, you can gently ask (but be kind, a person is choosing to share a personal thing and we want to always honor that sharing). Part of the reason it is good to recognize when someone is sharing UPG is for reasons I outlined above–someone may claim or use UPG (or claims of UPG) for personal gain. Thus a “grain of salt” approach is useful–again, think about who is sharing and if they are trustworthy.

Personal Gnosis is Personal

One of the most important issues with sharing is to understand that personal gnosis is personal. Your relationship with that plant/spirit/deity may be very unique.  It may not align with what others are sharing–and that’s totally ok.

Think about it this way–you are a different person in your professional workplace, with your parents or siblings, with your childhood friends, or with your druid grove.  In essence, you are many sides of the same person.  This happens in the spirit world as well.  The spirits will work with you as an individual, and the insights you receive may be different than what others experience. Your interaction with spirits is based on a host of factors:  how long have you been doing this? What is your relationship? How deep is it? How much do you walk your talk?  What have you done on behalf of these spirits/land? and so on.

Thus, if your own personal gnosis differs from someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that either of you is wrong, but rather that you are both experiencing different aspects.  I see this a lot with plants and trees.  Trees like Hawthorn or Elder, for example, have a wide range of personalities and magic, and what side of those trees you see may be very much based on who you are and what relationship you cultivate.  You may read one thing in a book about Elder being a certain way, and experience a very different thing.  This doesn’t mean you are wrong; it just means that Elder, to you, appears and offers a different set of teachings. All of this is part of why it’s really important to understand when others are offering their own UPG.

Personal to Community Gnosis

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

In some cases, personal gnosis transitions to community-based gnosis or even cultural gnosis if enough people receive the same kind of messages. For example, there are a number of people in the druid, herbalism, and bushcraft communities that have been individually receiving messages and teachings from the Poison ivy plant. After sharing notes and experiences in smaller groups, these teachings are starting to be transmitted via classes and events and a new name for the plant (Sister Ivy) is being used pretty widely.  All of us who have worked closely with her, over a period of time, have recognized the need for her teachings in this particular age, and have spread the new name for her, more fitting of the role she wants to assume.  At this point, after almost 30 conversations with different people about their individual experiences, it seems pretty clear to me that Sister Ivy has a message and set of teachings she wants in the world right now.  Thus, what was personal gnosis to some individuals is now being shared more widely–because that gnosis was consistent among individuals that received it and the information shared makes sense. The key here is that this same Personal Gnosis has been experienced by a number of different people independently, and, most importantly, nobody is using that personal gnosis to control others.  It is something that is simply being shared, understood, and valued.

Conclusion

A spiritual path is so much richer when we are able to work effectively with our own personal gnosis as part of our path.  By using the practices I’ve outlined here, you can develop your personal gnosis, avoid some of the pitfalls, and learn when it is appropriate to share.

Creativity, Mental Health, and Well Being: A Case for the Bardic Arts

Creativity is the birthright of all people. When humans are young, play and creativity are central to our own development. Children don’t worry about it being ‘good’; they just make things, play with crayons, laugh, dance, and sing. They play. As children get older, school and society often discourage individual creativity and play, particularly in a culture that values economic growth above all else. The result of this has been a stifling sense of creativity, with many adults believing in the myth of talent (that you have to be good at something immediately to practice it creatively) or insisting they have no creativity.

The bardic arts are those in the druid tradition that focuses on creative works: storytelling, creative writing, fine arts, fine crafts, and any other endeavor where you are building in your creativity. The ancient bards were part of the druid community and were the storytellers and historians of their people; undergoing rigorous training and learning how to pass on the legacies and traditions of their community.  In the druid tradition today, we see any creative practice–for the good of the self, community, or unknown others–as part of the path of bardic arts.  Druids see practicing the bardic arts and cultivating creativity as a spiritual act.  Even with this positive framing, many people feel they “aren’t creative” and may be blocked.

Hence, culturally, we live in a world where a lot of people are discouraged from creating anything–and while this is starting to change due to the challenges of the last few years,  I think we have a long way to go.  Not being able to cultivate a sense of play and creativity has serious implications for our mental health and well-being.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the reasons that creativity is good for all of us, drawing upon scientific research as well as druid sensibilities.

(I’ll also point readers to my longstanding series on the bardic arts, which can be found in these articles: taking up the path of the bard part 1, part 2, and part 3; cultivating awen in your life, bardic storytelling, bardic arts and the ancestors, and visioning the future.  I’ll also point readers to my 2019 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture on the bardic arts in the druid tradition!)

Creativity, Bardic Arts, and Mental Health

The idea that creative practices are tied to mental well-being has a fairly well-established history. In the 19th century, treating mental illness with the bardic arts was standard medical practice.  This was before the age of pharmaceuticals and modern industrial treatments.  According to this study from 2016, the idea of “therapeutic mental health landscapes” was common.  People would be surrounded by gardens, beautiful trees, and landscapes, and be able to engage in a number of creative practices as therapy.  This same kind of thinking: that creative practices have therapeutic effects can be found in research on World War I soldiers, in managing anxiety disorders, in helping individuals with compassion fatigue, and in managing depression. Studies from 2012 and 2008 demonstrated that women who engage in quilting and other crafts-based activities in their leisure time have more mental well-being and general happiness than those that do not. Similar findings are true for “men’s sheds” that provide socializing and opportunities to work wood. These are just some of the hundreds of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of creative practices on well-being and mental health.

Scientific research has begun to explore the relationship between creativity and mental illness, both psychologically and genetically. This study from 2015 examined the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and creativity.  The study used a mathematical model to predict whether people who were diagnosed with mental illnesses had a higher disposition for creativity–and sure enough, they did. This led the researchers to suggest that creativity and certain mental illnesses may have the same genetic base. One study from 2003 explores divergent thinking (when people have to be creative within constraints) and makes the case that there there is a spectrum between creativity/genius and psychosis and madness/psychopathy. Thus, individuals may fall at different points on this spectrum.  Most recently, genetic research suggests that one gene, the COM-T gene, may be linked to creative thinking.  This same gene is also linked to certain forms of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. From this research, we see some link between creativity and mental illness.

In my own study of the creative arts within the druid tradition, I found that creativity helped address mental health challenges and create stability in a tumultuous world.  As part of my 2018 Mount Haemus lecture, I surveyed 266 druids worldwide about their creative practices. Many, many participants felt that their bardic arts were necessary to their functioning as human beings. It wasn’t that bardic arts was simply a hobby to them, but rather, it was a critical and integral part of their own lives and helped with their well functioning. In my survey, of those who regularly practiced bardic arts, almost half responded in this way to the question “Why do you practice the bardic arts” with a discussion about mental illness and/or health and well-being. Some of their answers included: “My creative practices are akin to my breathing.  I would be lost without them” and “I practice bardic arts to stay sane and grounded”; “Bardic arts help me navigate the difficulties of life.”  Thus, 50% of my participants used creative practices not only for self-expression but for mental balance. Some people used the bardic arts to make sense of the world itself, while others used it to help process issues relating to their personal life or broadly to 21st-century life.

A personal example offers another interesting point to this discussion. On one side of my family, we have a lot of mental illnesses. And it has been a source of some discussion over the years, as some members of the family have debilitating mental diagnoses and others of us showed no signs of mental illness. At first, it seemed random; some of us lost the mental illness lottery and others were spared. It wasn’t until I started digging into this creativity research that I had the ah-ha moment. Those of us who had dedicated creative practices had little to no struggles with mental illness; those who did not have regular battles with mental illness. Did those with mental illness not create?  Or did the lack of a creative practice allow mental illness to take root due to the lack of coping mechanisms? Or perhaps some of both?

Another piece of this puzzle involves the state of mental illness in most industrialized nations. On the rise for mental illness of pressing concern are the youngest generations: children and college-age students have much higher instances of mental illness today when compared with decades ago. Changes to the school system and the rise of the testing culture have had the creative arts stripped from the curriculum.  When funding grows tight, the arts are the first thing to go. We lock kids away in boxes, make them sit quietly and learn facts, test the hell out of them, never let them play or be outside, cut out music and art classes (with Common Core in the US, this is now even worse than before)–and we wonder why kids are depressed? Then, to have them cope with this reality, they get medicated. If children can’t play and create, of course, it is likely to cause a lot of psychological harm. What exactly does refusing them creative practices do?  When these children grow into unhappy and disgruntled adults, is it surprising?

Adults have other issues.  Most are conditioned to believe they are not creative and have no capacity for creativity that they literally engage in defeatest dialogue–“I could never do that” and “you’re so talented.”  The myth of talent, that you have to be good at something the first time you try it, has caused serious harm to many who otherwise would create.  The “I could never do that” shows a lack of understanding and willingness to experience creativity as a process–a process of learning, growth, exploration, struggle, and success.  Being creative takes only a few simple things: a willingness to do it and persevere, some basic tools and instructions, and the time to invest. And yet, for many adults in modern western culture, the idea of creating is outlandish.  I know this from firsthand experience--I’ve cultivated my own creative skills over a long time and now, that I’m a highly skilled artist, literally every time I share my work, I end up in one of these defeatest conversations.

So given all the above–how do we cultivate creativity? How can we gain the wonderful benefits of the Bardic Arts in our own lives?

Embracing Creativity and Flow for Mental Health

Let the awen flow!

Let the awen flow!

Finding ways of allowing ourselves to create–without judgment, without reservation, without blocks–can be an extremely freeing experience.  By shifting our ideas of producing a high-quality creative work (which comes with time and practice) and instead simply making the act of creating the key goal, we can start to overcome some of these challenges and reap the rewards of creative practice in our lives.

A “flow” state is a creative state where a person gets deeply immersed in their work.  In a flow state, you may lose track of time, have a deep focus on your creative activity, and often emerge from this activity feeling calm, refreshed, and grounded.  A flow state is one way that druids would describe the ‘flow of Awen’ – it is when you are deeply immersed and simply flow with your creative practice. The flow state cultivates deep calm and relaxation and has health benefits similar to meditation.

All people are capable of getting into the flow state–and we can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions for it to occur. So here are a few things we can do:

  • Create time for creativity and creative practice
  • Work to develop a base level of technical skill in what you are doing–when you are too new at a skill, you will likely not get into flow states as easily
  • SEtup any conditions that may aid you: the right tools, music, the right setting, etc.
  • Rather than forcing a particular project that you want to create, try to allow yourself to work on whatever you feel drawn to in that moment.  This particular thing has worked exceedingly well for me–it does mean I have a lot of projects ongoing, but I am always ready to make progress on one or two of them when I sit down to create.

For me, for example, I often get into it as a writer by playing instrumental music, sitting down at a set time each week, and doing some brainstorming to get me in the mood (most of my blog posts are written in the flow state, and revised at a later place).  As an artist, my requirements are a bit different.  I usually put on a familiar movie or music track (this time with words) and lock myself in my studio.  And in either case, I ask myself, what am I most excited to work on? Of course, this kind of dedicated creative practice, along with my other spiritual practices, do help me maintain my mental balance and stability, even under conditions that can be difficult.  You’ll note that with each of these, I’ve had to practice ways of getting and staying in flow states–and once I did, I had a method that “worked” for me, and therefore, allowed it to come often.

To be clear, I’m not saying that an emphasis on the creative arts is the solution to all mental illnesses. But what I am saying is that according to a lot of druids in my study, and based on some of the other factors shared above, it may offer us a buffer to stave off mental illness.  Creative practices may be one of several things we can do to protect ourselves from the debilitating and rampant mental illness that is plaguing our culture.  And we get some cool paintings, stories, or songs out of it too!

Thus, creativity can be a buffer not only for these challenging times where mental health and self-care seem to be at an all-time low, but also a buffer to help us understand, process, and experience the world. I certainly use my own artwork to do that: I paint my feelings and emotions surrounding fracking and mountaintop removal here in my home. I paint my feelings about the loss of my beehives due to colony collapse disorder.  I paint my frustration about the inability of our world’s leaders (particularly here in the US at present) to do anything substantial about climate change and mass extinction.

Visioning the Future through the Bardic Arts: Creating Vision, Creating Hope

Reishi mushroom from the Plant Spirit Oracle offers a vision of healing, growth, and regeneration

I used to be a big fan of reading dystopian fiction when I was younger. It seemed like a distant world, a reality far from our own. But perhaps now, those books resonate too close to reality. As someone who practices magic, I have to wonder, would the concepts present 1984 be as present if the book hadn’t been so well-read? Did George Orwell manifest these concepts as a magical act, or were these already present and he simply channeled what was already coming into focus? The same can be true of many such influential works: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Bladerunner, and more. We also have things like robots, invented by Issac Asimov as science fiction in the 1940s and 60 years or more later, became a reality.  One might argue that despite the fantastical nature of these works, works like these have had an influence on present human culture.  Perhaps, it is a sign of the times that most of what has been produced from a mass media standpoint in the 20th-21st century is rather dystopian and chilling, with some notable exceptions. As we have recently seen here in the US, words have power.  Words can shape reality and incite people to action. Is this the world we want to create?

As someone who practices magic, I certainly accept that our intentions and the directing of our will can help shape our realities. I also accept that for many things, we have to have a spark or vision before we can see it come to reality.  It is hard to bring something to life if we first can’t envision that it could exist. If we accept this to be true, then, in turn, we can consciously harness intentions and that bring visions to life that help create a better future. I think that one of the powerful things that art of all forms can do is help envision the future.

 

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

At this point, we are facing both ecological disaster and many human challenges that grow more serious by the year as our society continues the “slow crash”.  This era of human civilization will decline and end–but the question is–what comes after?   How can we be good ancestors for the future?  Thus, I am always looking for ways to do more. I want to take responsibility for my own behaviors physically and metaphysically. Physically, this might include being careful with my purchases, working to heal and regenerate landscapes, and engaging in other kinds of sacred action. Metaphysically, it can be bringing forth visions of a better future–we can create the visions now so that they can enter circulation and become something that helps seed a brighter world.

I also share the rest of this post with a caveat. People create art for a lot of different reasons, both external and internal. You might consider visioning arts as one of many reasons to create, a bonus reason, a reason that offers your art additional purpose.  Not all art has to have this kind of vision either, but some art forms and works may be very well suited to it.

Creating a Sacred Vision

If you buy into this idea and you practice the bardic arts of any kind (poetry, music, dance, writing, visual art, fine crafts, etc) you might want to give this idea some thought.  What vision are you putting into the world? What is the world you want to create?  Towards that end, I have a few suggestions for helping you hone and refine some ideas.  The most important thing you can do is spend some time in meditation and reflection about what vision of the world, what ideas and concepts, you want to bring forth.   So here are a few things to consider:

  1. Start by thinking about the specific kind of art (bardic work) you produce and what kinds of messages you can share. Certain art forms are easier to convey messages than others.  When you convey messages in your work, can the work stand on its own, or, do you want to share some information about the work in addition to the work itself?
  2. Consider presenting general philosophy about your work.  Messaging can come in a lot of forms: these sometimes come in the form of “artist statements” that talks about what you do and why you do it.  This is especially helpful for work that can be interpreted in many ways, or whose interpretation is not immediately clear upon examination (e.g. woodcarving).  You can share these messages on social media, on your website, even with the physical art that someone receives.
  3. Consider your specific messages or themes you want to convey.   Perhaps you have a very specific message or a general one. Think about the thing you most would like to see in the world–write it down, and keep it in mind when you create.
  4. Consider the symbols you use. Symbols, whether they are intentional magical sigils or just broader symbols, also carry tremendous power. If you have specific symbols or symbolism you want to use in your work, this should also be considered!

Now, I’ll present three core visioning goals for my own work as an artist–I  am sharing them both to demonstrate an example of the kinds of visions you can create but also to spark your own creativity about how your bardic arts of all kinds (poetry, visual art, music, dance, fine crafts, writing) might support your own unique vision.

Messaging and Visioning: An Example

As a visual artist and a writer, I am always thinking about how I can bring this aspect of magical visioning into my work. It is one of the reasons I create, but certainly, not the only one! These are my three goals.

Presenting an alternative perspective and value of nature.

One of the first ways I see us using art, writing, poetry, music, and other bardic arts is to present alternatives or ways of reseeing our present reality.  We can show a different perspective on something, offer a new angle, or provide new insight through our work.  I think you can do this with anything, but as a druid who has her heart set on preserving the natural world, my focus s on nature and on providing alternative messaging and visions.

The art show!

I’ll give you a good example of this. As I’ve shared before on this blog, I live in a region of the USA that is an extraction zone: we have fracking wells, 1000’s of miles of streams full of acid and iron from mine runoff, mountaintop removal, boney dumps, logging, and coal-fired power plants–to name just a few.  Around here, most people view nature as something to extract; a resource to be profited from, and a way to keep jobs in the region. Hunting and fishing are also big around our rural area; while I’ve met some hunters who have reverence, unfortunately, many shoot animals, birds, and rodents for sport.  Thus, there is very little respect or love for nature and in my art, I work to offer a different message. 

A few years ago, I was invited to hang some work through our local art association at the regional hospital. It was a nice opportunity to have my work seen by a lot of people.  I thought really carefully about the content of my art and decided to work to present an alternative view of resource extraction.  I painted trees with hearts in the ground, I painted the telluric currents of earth energy flowing, I painted regenerated landscapes.  It’s hard to say how these pieces of art touched those who saw them, but I hope they did some good. The more these kinds of alternative messages and perspectives can get into circulation, the more “normalized” they become and the more power they hold.

Staghorn Sumac ornaments from reclaimed wood

Another way of thinking about this is in the tools and materials I use–there’s a message about valuing nature inherent in this work.  For example, my neighbor plowed over a beautiful stand of staghorn sumac last summer without even knowing what it was or how it could be used.  This beautiful stand was one I got to know well and I was really distraught at how it happened.  This really saddened me, but he did allow me to come in and harvest as much as I wanted of the wood and roots.  I did so, and at the holidays, I made him an ornament from the beautiful root wood and put a note on there that it was from the wood he let me harvest.  Perhaps this beautiful wood will have him think twice about cutting down the trees and seeing some inherent value in them.

Re-enchanting the world

After someone is willing to see nature, to value it more, to understand it in a new light, then I can shift to the more magical and potent part of the message–the message of the world being an enchanted place helping re-enchant humanity’s perspective of the living earth. If a new vision is step 1, then re-enchantment is step 2.  In other posts, I’ve written about what I see as the disenchantment of the world, the philosophical and literal stripping of all magic and wonder from the world, which I believe has paved the way for some of the more egregious abuses of nature in the 18th- 21st centuries. 

Ultimately, if we see nature as sacred, enchanted, and having a spirit of its own, it is much more likely that humans of all kinds will behave in ways of reverence and respect. I think a lot of authors and artists have done a great job in showing that the world has an enchanted side. 

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways

I think one of my own projects that most closely aligns with this goal is the Plant Spirit Oracle.  The goal of this deck was to take common medicinal plants and offer them in an enchanted and personified way.  I also paid special attention to plants that were maligned like Poison Ivy and Japanese Knotweed as part of this work. Thus, Japanese Knotweed, which is widely hated and maligned, is shown in an enchanted light as a guardian of the waterways; the catnip in your garden is shown to have spirit, poison ivy teaching awareness, and so on.  These plants have forms that can be viewed, interacted with, and offer guidance and wisdom. . 

Offering new visions of the future and personal empowerment

Wendell Berry’s Poem as a Woodburning–I made this at Samhain and in the spring, I will leave it as an offering in the forest, a reminder of the vision we can bring forth

A final aspect, and one that has a lot of potency for me right now, is thinking about how works of art of all kinds can shape the future. I’m sick of reading and thinking about things from a dystopian perspective and I’m sick of watching our world go further and further into those dystopian vision.  I’ve firmly committed to creating works of hope.  This was a clear vision for me for the Tarot of Trees– a response to deforestation. I wanted people who used the deck to value trees more, and I wanted a vision of a healed world to come forth. But there’s also a lot of future vision in these works: witch hazel, one of my favorite paintings in the PSO, is all about a pathway towards the future; about becoming a good ancestor. Comfey is about having the tools to bring positive change, while Rosemary reminds us of the powerful cycles and generations that we have to consider.  The messaging is there for those who look!

In another example, this one by one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, his poem, Work Song, Part II: A Vision is a prime example of a message that holds a vision of the future. When I first read this poem, I cried from the beauty of it, the vision Wendell Berry offered and thought about what we might need to get there.

Visioning a Brighter, Nature-centered Future

Providing alternative perspectives, enchantment, and visioning for the future is certainly a magical act and one that many people who practice the bardic arts might build into their work.  When you create something and put it out in the world, you have an opportunity to create so much more than just a piece of art–you have a chance to help build a vision of the world to come.  While simple visioning work is only part of the task before us, however, as Wendell Berry’s poem notes, it is an important part and something that each of us can do. 

Dear readers, I am very interested in hearing from you on this topic: Have you built visionary principles into your art? If so, please share.  If you haven’t yet but would like to, I’d love to hear from you as well!

 

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts: Tools, Techniques, and Legacies

Shoemaking Hammer with Spirit

Browsing an antique store a year ago, I found a wonderful shoemaking hammer.  It was an interesting shape, and when I held the tool, I could literally feel the connection this tool had had with its previous owner. Whoever had owned this tool had used it well–the handle was worn, a piece of old, soft velcro partially worn off where someone had placed it for a firmer grip. I could sense the resonance of craft and skill in this hammer. I held the unique hammer in my hand, and turned it a few times, knowing that this tool would find a wonderful home in my art studio.  But more than that, this tool had a bardic ancestral connection to one of the primary bardic arts  I have been pursuing for some time: leatherwork.

In Druidry and broader neopaganism, we often focus on the ancestors in three different directions.  The first is ancestors of our blood, which is the most common idea of “ancestor” in modern culture, and represents a connection with the DNA and lineage that we have coursing through our blood and bone. We often also recognize ancestors of the lands where we live (which is critically important for those of us who live on lands that were stolen through colonialization).  And we also recognize ancestors of our tradition or spiritual path, for example, in Druidry, the ancient druids and those of the druid revival period are honored as ancestors.  I’d like to suggest that for those of us engaged in the creation of bardic arts, we might consider a fourth kind of ancestor: ancestors of our craft.  By bardic arts, I mean any creative arts that you practice, which can include literary, musical, movement, art and craft, or others that are less easier to categorize. These are things you create with your hands, your mind, your body, and your heart that allow you to experience the flow of awen (creativity) and create.  In my earlier post on this topic, I offered a philosophy of ancestors of the bardic arts in two ways: the first was in considering taking up bardic arts that are tied to your own blood ancestors: what they created, how they created it, and so forth. Thus, you can draw upon ancestral in the choice of a new art form or carry on a family ancestral legacy. The second way I shared was through connecting to previous through previous bardic creations and using those as inspiration. For a clothing maker, this might be being inspired by previous century’s fashions, for a musician, sets of notes created in another time period, or by poets, through the words written in days of old.  These flows of inspiration can support the creation of new works today. In today’s post, I want to expand this idea of bardic ancestry and also consider the role of tools and teachings as a third area that we might consider to be part of a “bardic ancestry.”

Tools and Connections

Some of the leather and tools gifted to me

To get back to my shoemaker’s hammer, part of the reason that I was so excited to find this hammer is that this isn’t the first set of old and well-loved tools that I’ve encountered.  In fact, the first set of tools set me on the path of leatherwork six years ago. The journey into leatherwork was an unexpected one, one that almost fell in my lap.  It started with Yankee Shoe Repair, which was an icon in my hometown for over 100 years.  I remember going into this bright, wonderful store when I was a child with my grandmother and looking at all of the patent leather shoes that they made there.  In late 2013, the proprietor, Carmel Coco, had passed away and nobody in his family decided to continue his legacy.  According to the article linked above,  Carmel had given up other opportunities, including going to the conservatory for music, so that he could dedicate his life to leathercraft and continue his family’s business.  In early 2014, Yankee Shoe Repair went up for auction.  My parents, who are artists themselves, went to the auction and ended up purchasing leatherwork tools and much of the remaining leather for me as a birthday gift.

I was delighted with the gift and began to learn in earnest. Leatherwork drew me in deeply because it required a tremendous amount of technical skill to master (which is a welcome challenge) but also, in part, because I did feel like I was in my small way continuing a local ancestral legacy.  The tools that I held in my hands and worked with, such as punches, a beautiful bakelite hammer, and a lovingly crafted handmade awl, weren’t just any tools, they were special tools that came from a special place and that needed to be honored.

Leather case I made for my sickle

After spending time with these tools, learning how they work (mostly through books and youtube videos), I have developed my own relationship with them.  These tools of my craft have a spirit of their own.  They have presence.  I can feel the weight of the years of use in them, guiding my hand.

I think, given time, my newer tools that I purchased to supplement the ones that my parents bought will take on their own energy and spirit.  But that will come only after years of use and relationship building.

I suspect that many of us may have an opportunity to connect with old tools of a bardic art, or even have those tools come to us in unexpected ways.  My suggestion is this: If you are going to start a new bardic art, see if you can find some older, well-loved, and well-made tools.  Perhaps this is an older instrument, set of songbooks, old wooden palate, and so forth.  connecting with the tools of previous masters of the craft offers you what I can only describe as an energetic connection into your craft.  You still have to put in the work, practice, and cultivate your technical skills.  But using those tools gives you something that is simply not present, and I can only describe it as a bardic ancestral connection.

Teachings and Techniques

The other way in which I see this ancestral bardic connection flowing is through a different kind of legacy–a legacy of teaching and learning.  Techniques and teachings are refined, passed on, and shared with students.  This might be from a physical teacher to student (and certainly, this was the only way it was done in days of old), or, it might be through preserved books, teachings, and recorded lectures.  I see this as another ancestor of bardic craft connection: if someone has decided to pass what they know on, you are carrying that legacy of instruction with you each time you use those techniques and skills taught.

Leather burned piece above altar

It is not easy to find local leatherworkers willing to teach you or local leatherwork classes. I have only had the opportunity of taking one in-person class in leatherwork (at the North American Bushcraft School) and one more via purchased video (the DVD from Jason Hovatter on Scandanavian Turnshoes).  Those were both fairly recent in the last few years–and before and since then, I’ve been mostly on my own.  The thing about leatherwork is that it does require huge amounts of technical skill, and no amount of “messing around” with the tools will teach you certain things you need to know.  You need to use the established techniques to be successful.  For me, filling in the in-person gaps was the books and teaching legacy of Al Stohlman. Al Stohlman and his wife Ann revolutionized leatherwork, producing over 30 incredible books that are literally illustrated in leather.  These books teach you everything you need to know about techniques, construction, how to use and care for your tools, and more.  The impact of these books on my technical skill and how much they have taught me (and how much I still have to learn from them) is incredible. Thus, the other clear bardic ancestors I honor in leathercraft is Al and Ann Stohlman.

I suspect that many of us who are interested in taking up a particularly technical art form may eventually find those kinds of sources–teachers, either direct or indirect–which help us radically shape our craft and build technique.  Those kinds of inspirational figures are worthy of honor and respect.

Honoring the Ancestors of the Bardic Arts

Leather bag with a wolf theme

Now I’ve offered four ways–two in the last post, and two in this post–to think about bardic ancestors and honoring those ancestors.  But what might this look like in practice?  I’ll share a few ideas, although I suspect that different bardic art forms may require their own kinds of adaptations).

  1. Honoring the tools of the craft.  Because I am working with tools that carry a legacy, I take a moment at the start of a new project or when I pick up my tools for a creative session to honor them.  I have a moment of silence where I simply feel the tools, hold them, and express gratitude for them.  It’s not any kind of big ritual, but simply acknowledgment and gratitude.  Even if you aren’t working with legacy tools, I think it’s a good practice to take a moment to honor the tools–the raw materials they were created from and their support of your work.
  2. Honoring your hands and body as a tool of creation. If you are a dancer or singer or use your body in some way to create, you might also think about the ancestral legacy flowing through your veins–that voice came from some genetic combination, the hands that were shaped from the genetic material of previous ancestors, etc.
  3. Ancestor Shrine in your place of creation.  As with other ancestors, you might create a small altar or shrine to honor your ancestors of the craft.  This could be set up in a place where you create.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or elaborate, but a simple acknowledgment of the lineages and crafting traditions that you follow.
  4. Ancestor work at Samhain. For any of the ancestor work that you do at Samhain or other parts of the year, consider including the ancestors of your bardic crafts.  For example, I usually do an ancestor altar, dumb supper, and ancestor ritual of some kind as a way to honor my ancestors (sometimes this is with a grove, and sometimes solo).  Consider adding these ancestors in and revering them in the same way you would other ancestors in your spiritual practice.
  5. Improve your skill and dedicate yourself to your craft. I think that another way that you can honor the ancestors of the bardic arts is by dedicating yourself to developing technical skill and eventual mastery.  If you are using their tools, techniques, and approaches, applying these well is a form of honor.
  6. Naming and honoring. You might name a piece after an ancestor or create something that honors the ancestors of your bardic arts in a specific way.

    A larger awen bag

A week ago, my new leather sewing machine arrived. The machine represents a huge step forward in me deepening my craft of leatherwork. It allows me to move in new some exciting new directions.  I named the machine “Coco” in honor of my ancestors.  I hope that this post has inspired you in some new directions.  I am happy to continue to share deep thoughts on the bardic arts–sometimes they seem a bit “left out” in our spiritual discussions in Druidry, but I think they are so critical to our paths.  Blessings to all.

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging and will resume blogging on the Winter Solstice.  Starting in 2021, I’m also planning on starting to release a quarterly email newsletter.  This will feature some of my favorite writing, new artwork, and other news about my work (such as my upcoming Sacred Actions book being released by Shiffer Publishing in 2021!)   If you are interested in signing up, please visit:  https://www.druidsgardenart.com/mailing-list/

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!

Fresh Flower Crowns and Flower Garlands: Step by Step How-To Guide

A woman hikes up to a sacred spring that she visits at least once a season.  From her small bag, she pulls out a beautiful crown of flowers that she had lovingly crafted before leaving home.  Placing the crown upon her head, she dances and sings around the spring, drinking deeply and celebrating life on this early fall.  As a sign of respect and offering, she hangs the flower garland near the spring and carries her sacred water back down the mountain.

Family wears crowns I made at the bridal shower

I find it interesting that the ancient art of flower crowns garland making is almost non-existent today, at least here within the US.  This tradition has so much potential. The only people who I’ve seen make these delightful crowns are children, who haven’t yet lost their magic or wonder about the world.  And yet, garlands and flower crowns, are powerful, expressive, and wonderful to create, to wear, and to offer.  I grew interested in learning this practice after I had read about the ancient practice of adoring flower garlands sacred springs with regards to Lughnasadh traditions, and I liked the idea of a flower garland or crown as a potential offering.  When I spoke with a few friends who live in areas of the world that used to practice this tradition (like Ireland) I was told that it was no longer done.  As a second motivation to learning to practice this art, my sister was getting married and I decided to make a flower crown for her shower (see photo).  We had planted a lot of flowers this year, and August and September are “peak” flower time for us in this ecosystem, so I had a lot of materials to work with.

Thus, in this post, I’ll share some strategies for making flower crowns and garlands and some of the ways you might build this delightful practice into your own spiritual path. A garland typically refers to a wreath or long string of plant material that can be laid across something (like a hearth or altar) while a flower crown is something you can wear (like the photo above).  But the process of making them is almost identical and is simply dependent on the size.

Supplies

You will need three kinds of supplies to make a flower crown:

  • Willow, hydrangea, young grapevine, or some other bendable plant matter such that you can make a crown base.  I don’t have willow here, but Hydrangea sends out long enough canes that will work.   You can discover many different options in your local bioregion by walking around and seeing if you can form a head-sized loop with various woody bushes or thin branches from trees.
  • Flowers, any kind that are in season and abundant can be used.  You can use wildflowers or else purchase some at a local farmer’s market.  Certain flowers last longer than others (for example, zinnia have a stronger staying power due to their thicker petals while daisy will fade faster).  You might also select flowers for their magical properties–building a crown with rosemary, sage, and new england aster would have a different energy than one with lily, sunflower, and trumpet vine!
  • Tools including a pair of pruners, some small green wire (floral wire) and wire snips.  If you are making a flower crown that will be worn, you absolutely want to use wire.  If you are making something like a garland or crown that will be offered in nature, I suggest instead switching to natural cotton string or hemp; something that can break down naturally.  I also suggest using wildflowers you gather or flowers from a garden or organic farm for this; commercial flowers are heavily laden with pesticides and you do not want to leave commercial flowers as an offering to poison the land.

Making Your Garland or Flower Crown

To make your flower crown or garland, you will want some kind of sturdy base. I have found the easiest way to make a base is to use some kind of bendable woody material (vine, willow, hydrangea). Cut a fresh long piece of bendable woody bush or tree material (in my case, I am using hydrangea).  If you don’t have a fresh piece, you can soak a dried piece of willow for a few hours and then shape it.  You could also do this same practice by attaching flowers to a rigid headband, if you wanted a headband style flower crown.

Here I am with a piece of freshly cut hydrangea about 40″ long.  It has a few extra pieces coming out, which is fine and will add more greenery to my crown.

The next step is actually the most tricky and when you are most likely to break the branch.  Slowly bend the woody material until it forms a head-shaped size (or a larger wreath size if you are making a garland instead).  At this point, place it upon your own head to make sure it is not too big or too small and adjust accordingly, holding it in place so it doesn’t slip.

Next, keep weaving the branches through until the crown is solid and won’t shift.  Usually, this can be accomplished by the 2nd or 3rd go around.  In my case, I had a lot of extra smaller branches that were coming out of the main hydrangea stalk. I wove some of these in and cut some of them with pruners.  Once you are at this stage, test the crown again and make sure it fits the shape of your head.

Now that you have your crown, it is time to gather flowers.  You can gather them earlier and leave them in water.  You want them as fresh as possible to go on your crown.  At this stage, you can think about design–what do you want to include? How many flowers? do you want a big center flower or a bunch of flowers all around?  Select what you will need.

Here I am with my crown, flowers, and other tools ready to go!

For making something to wear, you should probably use wire (I am using thin green floral wire) as it holds the crown in place better.  But if you are leaving something to offer, I would not use a wire (which won’t break down and leave no trace) and instead use a natural hemp or cotton string for the flowers.

To construct your crown, lay your first flower and wiring or tie it to the crown.  Then, lay your second flower where you tied or wired the first, and tie that one.  Keep going around the crown, working to layer each flower and tie them. If you are wearing the crown, make sure you don’t make one side heavier than the other!

For this first crown, I left it mostly with greenery and wired only a few flowers.  For the second crown (below) I added as many flowers as I could!  Both have their charm.  You can see what I mean about layering flowers here–just wire one in, lay the next on the previous wire, and work your way around the crown.

If you wanted to make a garland, the process is the same, just with a larger shape.

The other thing I want to share here is that you will have to work quickly if it is hot outside or your flowers will start to wilt.  You might want to do a few practice crowns till you get the hang of things and can work quickly so that the flowers are fresh when you finish.

If you aren’t going to wear your crown right away, you can preserve it for at least 6-8 hours by wrapping it gently with some wet cloth or wet paper towels and putting it in a plastic bag and then sticking it in the refrigerator or a cooler.  I was able to preserve several crowns for transport this way without any issue and they were still fresh hours after I made them.  Once you start to wear it, depending on the heat of the day, it will likely look great for an hour–or several before it begins to seriously fade.

Ideas for your crowns and garlands

The uses of these crowns are wide-ranging. I have made them this summer as part of a personal ritual; the preparation for the ritual was gathering the materials and making the crown. I then proceeded to my ritual space and did my Lughnasadh ritual.  Once druid gatherings and events get going again, I could see these very successfully being built into other rituals and experiences.

I have also used them as an offering at sacred places (like the opening suggests).  I left a small braided bundle of herbs (a derivative of the crown idea) on the land that was being cut recently.  I have left one within the grove of renewal that I have been working on regularly for land healing purposes.  I have also visited my favorite sacred spring and tucked a small garland into the greenery behind the spring (lots of people visit it and I don’t know what they’d do with my garland if they found it!)

As I mentioned above, I made two very colorful ones (the ones that opened this post) for celebratory purposes–my sister was getting married and we wanted it to be extra special, especially since the pandemic has made everything more difficult.  Those were very special crowns, and mementos that she can save, dry, and hang on a wall. It was a seriously wonderful and unique way to honor the bride and mother of the bride.

I hope that you have found this post inspirational, and yet another way that you can create sacred and meaningful things from your own druid’s garden!

Making Acorn Ink – Instructions and Recipes

Acorn Ink! (Great color!)

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

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

The Magic of the Oak

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

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns in the fall months

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

Making your Ink

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

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

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

Gather up some old acorns

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

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

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

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

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

Simmering acorns

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

Acorn ink is finished boiling and ready to strain

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

Adding rust garden vinegar to the ink

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

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

 

Optional: Making a Rust Garden

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

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

Adding objects to vinegar in a jar

The completed rust garden! Look at all that rust!

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

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

Using your ink

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

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

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

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

 

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

Spirital Lessons of Ecological Succession for the Pandemic: Healing the Land, Healing the Soul

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

Ecological succession is nature’s approach to healing.  From bare rock, ecological succession allows forests to eventually grow.  Ecological succession has much to teach us as a powerful lesson from nature, and it is a particularly useful thing to meditate upon during the pandemic.  As we can look to how nature heals, it offers us guidance and stability during this challenging time.  Thus, today’s post introduces the idea of ecological succession and how these lessons can be helpful to us as spiritual lessons for thought and reflection. This post is part of my land healing series.  For earlier posts, you can see a framework for land healing, land healing as a spiritual practice, a ritual for putting the land to sleep, and a primer for physical land healing.

 

Ecological Succession

Because nature works on larger time scales, its not always obvious that nature is engaging in healing and transformative work in every moment, all across the land.  We are seeing this even with the shifts in human behavior during the pandemic: sea turtles coming up to lay eggs on abandoned beaches, air pollution levels going down, oceans and waterways clearing.  These processes are part of nature’s great power, much of which is driven by the process of ecological succession.

 

All of nature works towards “ecological succession”, a process by which an entire ecosystem changes and grows, eventually reaching something called a climax community. Climax communities are stable ecosystems that have a diversity of species, nutritional and energy balance, tolerant of environmental conditions, the kinds of species are stable and do not change.  This ecosystem thus is diverse, tolerant of diverse climate conditions, and abundant.  Climax communities obviously look very different in different ecosystems, bioregions, and parts of the world.  A tropical rainforest is one kind of climax ecosystem,  as are boreal forests, tundras, deserts, and more.  You can find these by visiting parks that have old-growth forests or other longstanding natural features.

 

Example of primary succession: lichen and moss-covered lava flows in Iceland.

Primary Succession. To start from the very beginning, in what is called primary succession, we might have bare rock with no soil, such as those situations left by the retreat of glaciers, lava formation, recently-formed sand dunes, or even boney dumps from old mining sites like we have around here.  So we start with bare rock–and rock itself, while it is part of soil, is not soil and does not contain organic matter that plants need to grow.  So ecological succession begins with the lichens who slowly break down the rocks and helps form soil.  This process can take a very, very, very long time (centuries or millennia). Once we have soil, we have small annual plants and lichens, giving way to perennial grasses and flowers.  At this point, our bare rock has turned into a field and the more that grows, the more organic matter is produced, allowing for a richer organic basis for larger plant life. Most of this kind of ecological succession was done in the time of our ancient ancestors, and so we usually start with the point where we have soil, perhaps a lawn of grass, or like our opening example suggested, an empty field that has been over-farmed.

 

Secondary Succession.  Once the soil is established, this is where we get into the second kind of ecological succession:  secondary succession.  Secondary succession is what has happened in the example I shared above – a forest was removed for farmland, and now the farmland is ready to return to forest. Secondary succession is typically what you are dealing with as a land healer, as the scale for this can be within one’s lifetime and we can see nature’s regrowth even in a few short weeks or months.

 

To explore this process, we might consider what would happen if a person stopped mowing their lawn. If this person lived along most of the Northeast part of the US, ecological succession would eventually move that lawn to a Northern Hardwood Forest, the pinnacle ecosystem in this region. Immediately, the grasses would grow tall along with any other plant life currently inhabiting the lawn, like ground ivy, docks, plantain, dandelion—most of these “pioneer” species are well adapted for growing in disrupted ecosystems. Within the first few years, we’d see seedlings from shrubs and trees that are shade intolerant wold take root (red maple, black birch), spread by the wind, birds, and animals. We’d likely see autumn olive (which spreads quickly), birch, aspen, staghorn sumac, and lots of blackberry, raspberry, and other rhubus species moving in.  For a long time, this lawn would be a field populated by sun-loving annual and perennial plants, but with each year, the trees and shrubs would get taller.  As these plants started producing seeds, berries, and foliage, animals, including larger animals, would return as there would be food for them to eat.

 

If you were walking through this piece of land when it was a wild field in mid-succession, you might not realize the rich history of the land before you. You might also not realize the powerful, yet quiet process you are witnessing as the land returns to its most abundant state. Ecological succession and forest healing is a long process, well outside the human lifespan. Yet nature’s healing is there, we only need to know what to look for.  If you returned to this place again and again and perhaps scattered some seeds and popped some acorns and walnuts in the ground, you’d see this transformation over a period of years would learn a lot about how nature heals.  You’d also find spiritual healing for yourself in this place.

 

Eventually, those tree seedlings in the field would start to grow tall, discouraging full sun perennials and grasses and shifting to part shade as the trees filled out their crowns. Within 50 years, depending on local conditions, the tree canopy would cover the entire area, allowing the soil to retain water and cooling the temperature on the ground.  Woodland, shade adapted species would then dominate the forest floor.

Forest regeneration

 

Within about 150 years, the canopy would change from short growing trees (maples, birches, cherries) to longer-growing trees (oaks, hickories, walnuts, butternuts, maybe even chestnuts), as smaller trees wait underneath the forest canopy for a break in the canopy.  offering more long-lived hardwoods, and reach the end of ecological succession—the climax community of oak, hickory, and other hardwoods with a rich and diverse understory (pawpaw, hawthorn, serviceberry, sassafras, spicebush, etc). Thus, it is not a single species that cause ecological succession, but rather, an entire community of species working together in an interconnected web of life–one coming after another, until we the forest once again reaches the climax ecosystem.

 

Where I live, the only places that are at their climax are ones under some kind of permanent and long-term protection: state parks, conservation areas, or other protected lands.  If you enter these places, you’ll, of course, notice the energy first: they are calm, restful, very vitalizing places to return to again and again.  They are vibrant, alive, and functioning at their peak.  Everything in the ecosystem is cycled in perfect balance.

Spiritual Lessons of Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is nature’s primary driving force for healing the land and ecosystems. It’s a powerful process that has shaped this land again and again.  Thus, I think it is a critically useful thing to understand, interact with, and meditate upon.  It offers us numerous lessons, some of which I will share here (with many others ready to discover).  I also think these lessons are particularly relevant and valuable to us during the time of the pandemic when so much disruption is at play.

 

Disruption is a natural part of life. That nature is so good at adapting, healing, and ecological succession suggests that disruption is part of life here on earth.  It is part of the life of a forest as much as it is a part of the life of a human. If we apply this same issue to our own lives, we may have minor disruptions (selective logging) or major disruptions (lava, forest fires, etc). These disruptions cannot heal overnight, but we will heal.

 

This is a particularly valuable lesson for us right now. Most of us are experiencing a major disruption in our lives–on a cultural scale, probably the largest we have ever seen.  Nobody knows what the new normal will be or how long the disruption will last.  But this lesson from nature is clear–disruption is a powerful opportunity for new growth.

 

Healing Begins immediately. As soon as the disruption ends, healing begins immediately.  If you’ve ever been to a fire-dependent ecosystem, within 1-2 weeks of the end of the fire (or after the first good rain), you’ll see tiny little seeds sprouting and plants coming to life.  This, too, is part of nature’s healing process.  It will take time for the ecosystem to return to the state before disruption, but it will. Having faith in that process is the start of the healing process.  Perhaps our own healing has already started, and we don’t even know it!

 

Healing takes time Nature reminds us that healing takes the time it is going to take, and there is no rushing the process.  From lava to mature forest could take 1000 years or more.  When I visited Iceland last summer, we saw the lichen-encrusted lava fields, looking like piles of green.  Some of them had names tied to historical events in the middle ages or before–some of them were thousands of years old, and due to Iceland’s extreme climate, it would take a few thousand more years for anything else to grow. This was nature’s healing on an epic timescale.  Even in more temperate climates, of we start with bare soil such as a construction site or farmed field, nature’s full healing may not take place for 250 years. While human time is obviously different in scale, we can use this lesson of nature to realize–and accept–the healing process.

 

Perhaps we are all feeling like there is a lot of bare soil, scorched earth, here in our own inner and cultural landscapes now.  But just like that lichen, nature will heal–and as we are part of nature, we will also heal in time.  And that healing is ongoing, subconsciously, whether or not we can see it.

 

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Look to the lichen for Slow and Steady Healing. Nature reminds us through the lesson of ecological succession that healing can happen in quiet, small ways.  Lichens are one step in complexity above algae, quite simple in their structure, and yet, they have a tremendously important role in our ecosystem in offering the first building blocks of life.  This is a reminder to us that it’s not just the “big” things we do, but the small, invisible, and quiet practices that can make a difference.

During this time, perhaps that means attending to our spiritual practices and things like daily interaction with nature, daily meditation, spending time just being with ourselves, spending time with our creative practices.  Its the small, gradual things that have the biggest difference in time.

 

Communities matter. Ecological succession is a wide variety of species working together for the same goal.  We heal better when supported and surrounded by others who are also healing, and also working towards our healing.  Nature teaches us that we aren’t meant to do this work alone.  This is, perhaps, a hard lesson during the pandemic when communities are the very things that are no longer as present in our lives.  But although we are isolated physically, we are still all together in this. And being supportive of each other, hearing each other, and growing together will get us through.

 

Healing is dynamic.  Just as different plants fill ecological roles and are replaced by others as the ecosystem heals, we might apply this same concept to our own healing.  At first, we need the pioneer species–those plants to come in quickly, cover up bare soil, and help get healing going.  But as time passes, what we need changes as we process, understand, and move through our challenges.  This suggests that healing is a dynamic and mutable process for us–and being aware of that will help us from getting in a rut.

 

In the pandemic, many of us are finding that our typical practices for healing aren’t always working–requiring us to shift directions.  I’ve been speaking with many others who have firmly established bardic arts/creative practices, and they are having a hard time engaging in them–but they are finding other things that work. I know that is true of me. In honoring the dynamic nature of healing, some of the things I usually do to ground and heal have to be set temporarily aside as I explore things that help me in this moment. Healing is dynamic, and what we might need changes.

 

All heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle – time for some healing!

Conclusion

 Nature is our ultimate teacher, and I think she has a lot to teach about the ways in which ecological succession can heal us as participants in this larger web of life.  By meditating on, understanding, and engaging with nature’s primary healing process, we can help make a difference in the lands around us and in our own lives during this challenging time.  Once I’m back to blogging, I’ll share a very practical application and example, showing how we at the Druid’s Garden Homestead are working with nature to support and speed up ecological succession after logging.

 

Finally, like many, I’m struggling with focus during this time. This is affecting my writing practice and I’m having a lot of difficulties getting my regular blog posts out. I always take a blog break in mid-May each year, but I’m going to take my blog break now for a few weeks. My plan is to be back in 3-4 weeks with regular content.  Thank you for understanding and supporting the Druid’s Garden blog! 🙂

A Bardic Sigil Technique

Sigil creation in progress!

I open up a sacred grove with intention.  After opening the grove, I sit for a few moments, breathing deeply and centering myself.  When ready, I pick up the chalk pastel and I allow the chalk pastel to move across the page, closing my eyes at points, emphasizing lines at points, and letting me be in the flow of the moment.  I keep refining the design, moving pieces of it to new areas of the paper.  I don’t focus too much, paying attention instead to my overall intention: a specific land healing sigil, a sigil that will link different sacred sites I’m working on and work with ley line energy on the landscape. After a number of versions, the sigil seems complete, and I work to transfer it to a wooden round–the process of transfer allowing it to undergo yet another, final, revision.  In today’s post, I’ll share this technique I’ve developed and will discuss how you might use these kinds of sigils for a range of purposes, particularly for gratitude practices and land healing.

 

What is a sigil?

The concept of a sigil, a magical symbol imbued with intention, has been a longstanding part of many esoteric traditions. All through the history of hermetic magic and western occultism, sigils have been used for a variety of purposes (such at those found in the Three Books of Solomon, including the most famous Lesser Key of Solomon).  The term “sigil” derives from Latin, meaning a “sign, mark, or seal”.  It comes from the earlier terms sigillum and sigilla (statuettes, little images, seal).  What was a seal, after all, but a sign of power and authority? Sigils have a wide range of uses within various magical traditions and there are lots of possibilities for creating them, empowering them, and employing them.

 

Part of our ground sigil at MAGUS 2018

Druids don’t seem to use sigils much as part of our tradition, but occasionally they surface. For example, one of the big rituals we put together for MAGUS 2018, a land healing ley line ritual, used a giant sigil on the earth to help focus our intentions and movement. I have been incorporating sigils for a long time in my own spiritual practices, especially for land healing work and gratitude practices on the land.

 

One of the ways I like to think about sigils within the framework of Druidry is that they are a synthesis of all three of the druidic expressions: we use the bardic arts to bring them to life, but use druid and ovate wisdom in order to help create the spaces and intentions for their work. It is through this synthesis that the sigil itself can emerge–born of our bodies, minds, and spirits. I think there is a lot of potential for sigil work, both within the bardic arts (integrating specific sigils into your visual arts) and also as part of a larger nature spiritual practice.

 

In the rest of this post, I’ll share one sigil making technique, adapted and expanded from Jan Fries’ Visual Magic.  Early in his book, Fries describes part of this process–what I’ve done is add my own take to it, expend it, and make it fit within a more druid framework.

 

Preliminaries

My chalk pastels (garage sale find!)

Supplies. In order to make sigils, you don’t need much. You need something to draw with and you need some paper.  I prefer to do sigil making on large paper rolls of recycled paper (you can get brown recycled paper rolls easily).  The larger roll allows for more free expression while the sigil is being created. The second thing you will need is some kind of media for drawing: I am using chalk pastels (which show up beautifully on the dark background).  You could use a box of crayons (which would work great on white paper), colored pencils, oil pastels, etc.  I think you would get a different effect if you used wet media vs. dry (the dry media allow you to pay less attention to the needs of the media, like mixing paint colors or using water).  But by all means, experiment!

 

After I complete the sigil on paper, I like to make it more permanent in some way (particularly for the kinds of uses that my land healing sigils are for). For this, you might create a sigil in clay, in wood, or painted on a stone.  In my example above, I am using round wood slices with a wood burner.

 

Setting intention. The other thing you will need is an intention. Setting your intention in advance is a useful practice and can be done through a simple meditation technique.  I used discursive meditation (described in the link the last sentence) to help me set my intentions for my sigil work.  I think its important to spend some time with your intentions (the whole idea of being careful what you wish for!) I think it’s useful to consider carefully what intentions you might want to put into a sigil and out in the world: that your intentions are good and with sacred intent.

 

For today’s walkthrough, I am working on a series of land healing sigils.  I used to carry around just one sigil that I’d leave everywhere; like a general blessing sigil.  I crafted it many years ago and have been painting it with walnut ink on stones and on the insides of hickory shells and acorn caps.  I would take these in a little bag with me wherever I would go.  But recently, when I was at a site where they were doing mountaintop removal, I didn’t want to leave one.  The general “blessing” energy wasn’t right for that site–it needed a “sleep” and “soothing” kind of energy, and my sigil energy wasn’t working for that purpose.  So I decided to create a whole set of new land healing sigils (which I will share in an upcoming post so others can use them too).  My intention for the sigil in today’s post is a “linking” sigil for land healing work.  I have meditated on this concept and have been working with it for many years and felt it was the right time to put this intention into a visual form.

 

Sigil Making Walkthrough

Start by opening up a sacred grove or sacred space as your own tradition may offer. If you don’t have a sacred grove/space opening, something simple like calling in the four quarters, purifying the space with the elements, and offering a prayer or two (like the druid’s peace prayer) can work. You can then imagine a grove of trees around you, protecting the space and giving you the sacred time in which to work.

 

Once your space is set, return to your intention (or spend some time in meditation).  Feel through and think through your intention before starting the sigil and make sure it is aligned with your overall journey and goals.  Take all the time you need to do this work.

 

Now, take out your supplies and give yourself a lot of paper to work on.  Keep your intention in your mind, and start moving the pastel across the page.  Don’t worry about what it looks like or where you are going.  Just keep drawing.  As you draw, you might switch colors when one particular part of the drawing catches your eye.  I do this several times, working my way through my own intentions and allowing the drawing to unfold with different colors.   As I work, the sigil itself takes shape (if you see my first photo in this post, that’s after doing a single sigil for quite a while!)

Starting the ley sigil

Continuing to work on the ley sigil

First drawing is done

At some point, you may feel the first drawing is done, but the sigil isn’t complete.  Take a piece of that drawing, whatever piece speaks to you, and re-create it next to the first drawing on your paper.  Now keep going with the same technique as before.  Here, we can see part of that first drawing coming into the second one.

Second drawing underway

I did this a third time and worked with the final sigil a bit more.

Third drawing begins

Final sigil drawing on paper

Now, consider making it more permanent by transferring it to a more permanent media like wood, stone, thicker board, or ceramic.  I want to transfer my paper based sigil to some other surface, something that will actually seal the intention and magic into the sigil.  To do this, after meditating on the final sigil on paper, I switch it to a more permanent media (painted stone, woodburning, etc).  So for this, I took a cedar wood round and then allowed the wood to work with the sigil, which changed it a bit more.  Again, I don’t try to exactly replicate the paper sigil, but allow the wood to speak to the sigil and the final sigil to emerge.  Usually, the sigil may be further simplified during this final process.

The final sigil in wood

 

TAfter making your sigil, you will want to do additional ritual to empower it.  I prefer a “raising energy” approach, particularly as you used a more contemplative and inner approach to set your intention.  So, in a sacred space, drum around your sigil, raise your voice in song, dance, bring the power of the elements and the powers of nature and spirit that you work with, and ask them for aid in empowering this sigil.  There is no right or wrong way; feel your way into this work and do what feels right.

 

After that, you set it to work helping you with whatever intention that might be.  For this specific sigil above, I will create these and put them in a pouch that I carry with me, being one building block of my larger land healing and blessing work. That’s how these particular sigils are best put to use.  But other sigils may be put to use in other ways, depending on your intention.  If you are seeking a peaceful home, you might create a piece of art with that sigil and hang it on the wall in your house.  If you were working on a sigil for healing for a sick friend, you might create it (with their permission of course) and then give it to them to put by their bedside.  While there is no wrong way to use a sigil–the energy of it does need to get out into the world in some specific way.

 

Variants

Here are two variants you can try.  A more traditional sigil making technique starts not with random drawings, but with quickly written letters from the intention one on top of each other.  You write the letters quickly and stylistically, not even caring if they are legible.  Then you work with the layer of letters, in the same way I did above. If you are a very word-based person, you might appreciate this way to start your work.

A second variant is an ovate variant where you work with nature to create a sigil for a natural purpose.  Take portable media and materials out to a place that you want to work with.  Do everything as above, but rather than YOU setting the intention, put it out to nature to set the intention.  You are simply, then, the instrument that creates the sigil.  This technique is also very powerful for land healing, and I’ll also write about it in more detail in an upcoming post.  You can do this with snow sigils among other things!

 

I hope you find this technique useful and helpful!  I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you create sigils, how you use them, and how they might work within nature-spirituality based practices.