The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

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

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

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

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

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Timing and Weather

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

 

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

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

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

 

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

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

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

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

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

 

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

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

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

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

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

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

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

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

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

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

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

 

Things to Do

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

 

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

 

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

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

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

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

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

 

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

 

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

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

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

Save

Save

 

Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth January 15, 2017

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snow fall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

 

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

 

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

 

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)

Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

 

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world, also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

 

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

 

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter, after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think its not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

 

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typically, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

 

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

 

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks its a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

 

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of his leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, this certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

 

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–who also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” which which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months, when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA) and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

 

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

 

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, that Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

 

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, who is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.

 

Moss at the winter solstice!

Moss at the winter solstice!

Conclusion

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teaches me much about trees in my biogreion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

 

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

 

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons are simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

 

Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Lucky for me, a wonderful man, who I’ll call the Philosopher, has recently come into my life and he has some impressive construction skills (skills that I am sorely lacking).  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the Philosopher offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, the Philosopher simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the Philosopher’s father’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.

 

The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods, or Cultivating Receptivity December 4, 2016

I think we’ve all had periods of our lives where we feel like we are moving like a stack of dominoes; we have so many things piled on us that we have to keep going, going, and going. In fact, I had a hard conversation this past week with a loved one, someone who is close to me and sees the everyday patterns of my life.  As part of this conversation, I realized that I had been, since moving to a new job a year and a half ago, literally zipping about. Most of my days were just like those dominoes–falling one after another. As soon as I completed a task I would move onto the next one, hardly taking a breath in between. Since moving and taking the new job, I find myself still settling in, still finding my new rhythms, and trying to fit my usual things into less time and space.  He recognized this in me, and asked me to take a few minutes to reflect on it. I’ve written about this before; our culture demands and glorifies the busification of our lives, the constant moving, doing, and pressing ever forward. We see this not only in the workplace, but in our expectations of our daily lives. I think this is especially true as we grow closer to the Western holiday season, where everything seems to be moving much more quickly than usual. It seems that celebrations and time off would be the perfect time to slow down, but instead, it seems that everything speeds up.

 

Time to slow down...

Time to slow down…

 

So today, I’d like to spend time focusing on the opposite of the hustle and bustle: the importance of observation and interaction through meandering, pondering, and wondering and the benefits of doing this work for our own health and nature-based relationships.  This post continues my “Permaculture for Druids” series, and focuses on some additional work with the “observe and interactprinciple.

 

Projective and Receptive States of Being

One useful way of framing today’s topic of being too busy too often is through two common terms used in many western magical systems: projection and reception. We can frame these two principles like taking a hike in the woods.  The first way to hike is with a set goal in mind: a trail we want to walk, a particular landmark we want to see, mushrooms to find, or some other goal to achieve.  This is the projective way of hiking: we are going to take X trail for X hours and see X landmarks.  We are going out to X spots to find X mushrooms.  But remember: that trail has been crafted by someone else, there are lots of people surrounding that popular landmark and our own plans can be disappointing. Or perhaps, the mushrooms are just not in the spot you’d hope they would be!

 

The protective principle is that of the masculine, of the sun, of the elements of air and fire. Projection in the world means that we are out there, doing something, working our wills and using our energy to enact change.  When we are projective, we are often setting ourselves a dedicated path and following that path; it implies that we have an end goal or destination in mind. This is the place we are in often–making plans, enacting them, working to push things forward, engaging in our work in the world.  Projectivity implies a certain kind of control–we are the actors upon our own destiny.  A projective view suggests that we have the power, and we are using that power to achieve our own ends.  Projectivity is both an inner and outer state–focus, determination, drive, and mental stamina are all part of the inner projective place while our specific actions towards a goal help propel us forward.  While projectivity certainly has its place, it can be rather exhausting if that is all we are doing. (And, I’ll just note here, that I wonder how much of these busy schedules really control us?)

 

The alternative way to hike, of course, is to enter natural spaces with a different kind of intent: the intent of wandering with no set goal, no set time frame, and simply seeing what unfolds before us.  This means that we engage in many activities that don’t necessarily have a positive connotation in our culture (but really should): mulling about, being directionless, meandering, and simply taking our time to smell the roses.

 

In western magical systems, the receptive principle is connected to the feminine energy of the moon and the elements of water and earth. And like those principles, receptivity means being open to those things, especially unexpectedly, that come into our lives–allowing things to flow in, allowing us to offer ourselves up to the experience without a set expectation or outcome. Receptivity means taking time to wander and wonder about things we aren’t sure of, to give space and voice to those things before firmly deciding any course or action or solution.  The receptive principle is all about creating space enough, slowing down enough, and turning off our projective natures, long enough to allow nature to have a voice and to take us by the hand and show us some amazing things.

 

Sometimes receptivity also means sitting back and not engaging in the world or putting off driving forward with plans; other times it means doing what we can and having faith in things beyond our control.  Sometimes, it means that the time is not right and the best thing you can do is wait. A lot of us have great difficulty in surrendering our control and simply trusting forces outside of ourselves to bring things in or waiting for a more opportune moment.  Sometimes, the more we try to make something happen, the less likely that thing will be the thing we really want to experience or the less likely it will actually occur. Receptivity applies both in terms of our own minds (cultivating a curiosity, pondering, wondering, and openness) and as well as in our outer experiences.

 

Trail into the woods....

Trails into the woods….

Since most of us have difficulty in particular with the receptive principle, I’m going to spend the remainder of this post talking through some specific activities with regards to interacting in nature that I think can help us cultivate receptivity, to observe, and to simply interact without a specific goal or agenda in mind. Nature is the best teacher with regards to most things, cultivating receptivity being no exception.

 

The Outer Work: The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods

I remember a warm summer day several years ago when three druids went out into the woods for the sole purpose of exploration. We literally picked a “green area” on the map and said “we wonder what’s there?” We had no set goals, no set timeframe, and a few backpacks of supplies–and off we went. It turned out that we had stumbled upon a recreation area/park that was no longer quite maintained by the township, and we had the place to ourselves.  The road we wanted was labeled “closed” but we went down it anyways and parked along the edge. We found a number of paths that were not exactly clear to walk on, as debris and fallen trees had come down in places.  The wildness of the place really added to the adventure. We found morel mushrooms growing up among the paths (which later made a delightful dinner). We found a downed sassafrass tree and used a small hand saw to harvest the roots; we also found a huge patch of stoneroot for medicine.  The further in we went the further in we wanted to go. And, best of all, we druids literally found a small stone circle there, tucked away in the forest along one of the abandoned path. We spent time in the circle, amazed at finding such a treasure.  This day, and the magic of it, remains firmly tucked in my mind as one of the most memorable and pleasurable I had had while living in Michigan for the simple fact that it was an adventure and none of us had any idea what we might find next.

 

When I say the art of getting lost in the woods, I’m not necessarily talking about physically getting lost (although that may also happen) but rather, to allow ourselves to get lost in the wonder and joy that is the natural world.  Getting lost with no set direction and seeing where nature leads.

 

I believe one of the best activities cultivate an open, receptive state is to enter the woods (or other natural area) with no set plans, agenda, or time frame–just like my story above describes. That is, to simply let the paths and forest unfold before you, to lead you deeper in, and to allow you to simply be. To slow yourself down, to make no plans, and to enter with an open mind, heart, and spirit. The key to all of this is to cultivate a gentle openness that is not in a rush to get somewhere, not on a time frame, and certainly not out to find something specific. The more that you try to project, the more that your projection frames your experience rather than nature and her gifts.

 

This is especially a powerful practice if you are able to go somewhere entirely new. When we visit new places, our minds are opened up to new ways of thinking, new experiences, new patterns, and new ways of being.  Find somewhere new, even if its local, and explore that place.  Even better–go to an unfamiliar ecosystem and give yourself a few days to explore it.  For example, if you a mountain-and-forest person (like I am), the rocky shore, lowland swamp, or sandy desert would be wonderful new spaces that could help you cultivate receptivity, observation, and peace.

 

If you are going more local, my favorite thing to do is pick a “green spot” on the map, show up there, find a trail, and begin walking (if its a very secluded area where getting lost might mean I don’t get found for a long time, I might get a park map, but often, I find a map itself is too constraining and instead focus on trail marking).  Sometimes I will go out wandering by myself, and other times, with friends.  A compass or finding your way techniques (like those discussed in Gatty’s Finding Your Way Without a Compass or Map) are necessary.  Just use your intuition and go where you feel led to go.  Bring along a hammock and tree straps if its a warm day–you’ll be glad you did!

 

I have also discovered the usefulness of “river trails” for this kind of activity.  This is where a river will decide where it wants to take you and how fast you will go.  For one, if you are used to being on the land, the river or lake offers a very new and delightful perspective.  For two, the river has a path of its own, and you are simply along for the journey of where it plans to go.  A long weekend with a few nights camping on the shore can be a wonderful way to allow nature to lead you in new directions and to new experiences.  The last river trail I did (which was a half day excursion on the Conemaugh river) allowed me to see three bald eagles–the first I had ever seen!  A gift indeed!

 

Unexpected mushrooms!

Unexpected mushrooms!

I’ll also note that winter is a really lovely time to do some of this work.  Put on your wool socks and warm clothes and just go.  If there is snow, you never have to worry about getting lost anywhere as you can simply follow your own trail home (and see the entire journey from a new perspective).  Winter and snow offers its own unique insights and lessons.

 

Sometimes, perfectly good trips are ruined by my strong desire to find some tasty mushrooms (and I have my mushroom eyes on, rather than just cultivating an openness of spirit and excitement for the journey).  Then, all that I do is look for mushrooms and feel disappointed when I don’t find them, rather than just enjoying my trip into the woods with no set purpose in mind.  The best times are when I go into the woods not to find mushrooms but simply to enjoy the journey (and then really unexpectedly come across a boatload of mushrooms).

 

Nature always has things to teach when we open spaces for her to do so, when we take time to get lost in the woods.  It makes it easier if we cultivate this through relinquishing our own control and simply taking the time to experience and explore new spaces with an open mind.

 

The Inner Work: Cultivating Openness and Curiosity

The inner landscape, too, greatly benefits from this same kind of “open space” that is free of both our own self-directed activities as well as other people’s words and ideas. Obviously, the material above on getting lost in the woods is of deep benefit to our inner landscapes as well.  But also of benefit is the simple act of inner pondering, wondering, and rumination.

 

Cultivating openness

Cultivating openness

I think the key here is cultivating openness. And I stress the word cultivation here, because, culturally and educationally, we are quick to make up our minds and stick to it and be in a perpetual protective state.  There is real value in withholding judgement, staying open, and gathering in more information that we initially think we need.  Continuing to ask “what if?” is a good way to start this process along.

 

There’s a lot of value in rumination, in simply thinking through things, wondering, and not settling on any one thing too quickly. Open and boundless spaces allow for creativity and awen (divine inspiration) to flow. Pondering is useful, in that it allows us to spend time asking “what if” over and over again until we reach an idea that we are satisfied.  One of my best teachers, Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio used this technique a lot as she taught natural building–she would take time to simply ask the students questions, come up with possible solutions, and ask for more until the class had exhausted many possibilities–only then would we move forward with a particular design decision or solution to the building problem we were facing.

 

Journaling and free association activities can be a great way to engage in pondering, as can discursive meditation on an open topic or theme.   Even conversations with the right kind of person, an open minded person who asks good questions and questions assumptions, can help you cultivate openness and receptivity. I use all of these often.

 

In permaculture design, this openness and receptivity is a very important part of the process. We are encouraged to spend a full year observing and interacting with our surroundings before completing a design and modifying any space–and it is really good advice.  Making plans to quickly leads to half-thought out designs. It is through the gentle time spent in nature, observing and pondering, and through focused meditation on key topics, that we might have the ability to craft and create designs that help change the course of our own lives, and our communities, for the better while regenerating our ecosystems around us.  While I think we are all pressed to act, acting too quickly can be worse than acting at all.

 

Finally, I want to mention briefly about screens, since they have become so pervasive and all-encompassing. Screens have a way of bringing in everyone else’s projections–and they literally project them into you.  Cultivating openness and curiosity means, for a lot of folks, seriously limiting screen time (try it with an open mind!)

 

Balancing Receptivity and Projectivity

The key to getting lost in the woods and finding your way back again is finding a healthy balance between receptivity and projectivity and understanding when we need to take control and when we need to surrender it.  I think when people think about doing the work of regeneration, of permaculture practice, of sacred gardening and the many other things I discuss here on this blog, they think about their own actions and plans. However, I have found that sacred healing work in the world, through permaculture practice or anything else is about the interplay between projectivity and receptivity, that is, between ourselves and nature. That is, while we are often those who make plans and initiate changes within a system (a garden, an ecosystem, a home, a community, etc) but also that we observe, creatively respond, and reflect upon what happens beyond us. We have to work both with enacting some changes, and also sitting back and simply observing what happens.  We have to be willing to receive nature’s messages and intentions before setting any of our own.

 

Spiraling at Samhain: Building a Classic Seven Circuit Labyrinth October 30, 2016

The final light labryinth being walked

The final light labryinth being walked

In many sacred spaces throughout the world, we see the labyrinth.  It is reflected in the spiral, the pattern in nature that repeats often, and asks us to engage.  It offers us the ability to slow down, to wind around, to wind things up–or unwind them as we walk through and out.  I have done many a ritual in a labyrinth at Samhuinn: one of my favorites is a simple walk.  This is a lovely ritual for this time of year, as the wheel turns and the days grow darker.  A labyrinth of lights, in particular, is a nice way to connect with the energy of this season. In this post, I’ll share how to setup a labyrinth for Samhuinn and how to use the labyrinth as a ritual activity for this time of the year.

 

True to the energy of this season, this past weekend, I was asked to lead the constructions of a labyrinth at our local UU Church for a harvest festival.  I think every druid should have the opportunity to set stones, put in a stone circle, and setup a labyrinth from time to time, so I jumped at the opportunity.  I wanted to share our process for doing so, as it can help you build your own labyrinth: I found that there is not a lot of good information on how to simply and effectively construct a labyrinth, so I hope these instructions are of some use! Our labyrinth took only one hour to setup with four people working–if you were doing it on your own, it would likely take several hours.

 

Walking and Wondering, Meandering and Pondering

Before getting into the labyrinth instructions and how to use it in ritual, I want to share a few thoughts about meandering, walking, wondering and pondering.  There is a lot of value in setting aside time simple to wander, to ponder, to think, to reflect, and to meander.  We don’t do enough of this; our fast-paced culture asks us to pack in so much and always be stimulated with something beyond ourselves.  One of the values of the labyrinth, I believe, is that it physically creates a space for doing just this.  On its most basic level, we walk a physical sacred pattern, and it opens up time simply to move, to clear our minds, or to ruminate about something.  To allow what is within to rise to the surface for consideration.   At the end of this post, I’ll talk about some more intentional rituals you can do using labyrinths at Samhuinn, however, using a labyrinth just to slow down and reflect is a powerful activity in and of itself.

 

Materials and Planning

Materials Needed for a Labyrinth of Lights:

  • 350 tealights; you could use other things as well, but tea lights are movable and easy to use.  We used the little battery operated ones due to the weather issues–they can be reused over and over again.
  • Optional: mason jars, paper bags, or something to set the tea lights into.  Mason jars with a bit of sand work really well–even if you use them only for the gateways and along the outer edge.
  • A 50′ length of hose (rope will also work, but hose is a little better in windy conditions)
  • Several yardsticks
  • At least one tape measure
  • Small flags (like the kind that mark gas lines) to setup your initial grid
  • Plans/Designs (you can print them out from below).

 

Size of the Labyrinth: This process can be done with 2′ or 2.5′ paths; the one we made had 2′ paths and measured around 36′ feet across.  2′ paths is a cozy walk that is do-able for most people.  2.5′ foot paths gives more space, however, it requires many more lights (probably you would need 450 for this design).  2.5′ paths are a little harder to manage in terms of measuring, but still do-able.   The assumption is that you can space a light ever 1′ or so,

 

Review the plans before beginning. If you are setting up the labyrinth with anyone else, it is helpful to review the plans or send them out in advance.  I would also suggest, if this is your first time setting up a labyrinth, you get some grid paper and draw it out a few times using these instructions.  It can really help you envision it and enact it on a larger scale.

 

The Process

The following is a graphic that shows the full process.  I used different colored markers to show each step.  I will refer back to the graphic in the instructions and will also include photographs (you can click on it for a full size image).

Visual instructions for labyrinth

1. Select a location.  You should choose a location that is flat and has at least 40′ of space on all sides.  You can check your circumference by having one person stand in the center and measure out 20 feet with your tape measure.  The person on the outer edge should walk in a circle, making sure you have the 20 feet clear on all sides.  Do this first to make sure you have enough space for your labyrinth.  If you don’t have the space, move till you can get the clear space for the labyrinth.

 

2.  Mark your center point.  You will want to mark your center point in some way–we used three flags for our center point.  In the graphic above, the center point is the center of the red cross in the first image at the top right.

 

3.  Create an 8′ x 8′ grid, with flags at each 2′ interval.  The way we made our grid was to start at the center point and measure out the eight feet, placing our center point at the 4′ mark and then placing flags at 0′, 2′, 4′ (center), 6′, and 8′.  This gave us one line of flags.  We then measured out again, laying measuring sticks along the flags, marking out the 2′ mark, and then using the tape measure to measure out 8′ again.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a grid.

mapping out the 8x8' grid; we placed a flag every two feet

mapping out the 8×8′ grid; we placed a flag every two feet

 

Checking our measurements on the grid

Checking our measurements on the grid

 

4.  Set the first set of lights. The first set of lights forms a cross in the middle, four corners, and the four points. This will allow us to map out the rest of the labyrinth. See the cross and corners in red in the first image.

Setting out lights in our grid

Setting out lights in our grid

5.  Create the first arc. This first tiny arc sets up the rest of the labyrinth. The tiny arc is shown in orange in my first image.

 

6.  Create the second and subsequent arcs. The second arc (and subsequent arcs) all flow from the first.  Here is a graphic that shows all of the arcs in order. You basically make one arc after another, and use the previous arc to make sure your paths stay at 2 feet.

Seven Circuit Labyrinth

Seven Circuit Labyrinth

To make our arcs, we used a garden hose and then checked our measurements after setting the hose.  This is where having multiple people can really help!

Using the hose to map out the arcs

Using the hose to map out the arcs

Making sure the hose is at 2' to keep paths even

Making sure the hose is at 2′ to keep paths even

7.  Check your plans often. As you are working, check your plans, keeping track of what arc you are on.  After each arc, make sure you set your lights about 1′ apart (or less if you are using more lights).

Dana checks the plans!

Dana checks the plans!

8.  Mark your entrances and edges clearly. We decided to leave the hose in place for our last circuit; that way, kids running and such wouldn’t knock it over. We also clearly marked our pathway into the labyrinth so that folks coming into it could see clearly where to start.

Complete (but before jars were set out)

Complete (but before jars were set out)

9.  Encourage people to walk the labyrinth! Of course, a labyrinth is meant to be walked.  It took us about 10 minutes with 3-4 people to turn on the lights and turn them off at the end of the night.

Walking the labyrinth - the entrance is clearly marked

Walking the labyrinth – the entrance is clearly marked

 

Samhuinn Celebration with the Labyrinth

There are many ways to walk a labyrinth and ways to use it for your own spiritual practices.  I’ll share a few ritual ideas here–and please feel free to share more of your own insights in the comments!

 

One of the key features of the labyrinth is that you have an opportunity to “let go” and also to “raise up” as you go inward and outward.  The labyrinth that I posted above starts with a clockwise motion, but you shift between clockwise and counter-clockwise as you go through.  Different designs may offer other perspectives–winding or unwinding spirals, for example.  Given this “balanced” perspective, however, you can use the labyrinth to “unwind” certain things, to “wind up” certain things, or to do a bit of both.  Samhuinn is viewed by many as the new year, so I like to use an “out with the old, in with the new” approach to the ritual.

 

Walking the Labyrinth: Walking the labyrinth should not be a rushed activity.  It is a form of walking meditation, where we work to have an altered or elevated state of consciousness as we go deeper within the labyrinth.  I start with three deep breaths (or more) outside of the labyrinth to mentally prepare me for the work ahead.  If I have intentions (I don’t always), I state them also aloud before entering the labyrinth itself.  Then you can choose one of the following rituals/walks:

 

After the labyrinth has been walked, even after the lights are turned off, you can see the pattern in the grass...

After the labyrinth has been walked, even after the lights are turned off, you can see the pattern in the grass…

Setting a sacred space: I have done rituals that setup the sacred space around the outside of the labyrinth before proceeding inwards (I shared some photos about the snow labyrinth my grove created a few years ago at Imbolc, for example).  In this ritual, we did a standard AODA grove opening, visiting each of the four quarters, and calling in the elements.  One at a time, we went into the center of the snow labyrinth and laid down there for a time, in silence.  After a while, we slowly walked back out, having let go of many things, and working now to integrate and heal.  We closed the grove and enjoyed a feast and fire afterwards!

 

Out with the old, in with the new walk.  The most simple way to walk the labyrinth as a magical activity is thus: On the walk in, you let go of whatever you need to let go of.  Each step or each circuit can have you letting go of various things: this can be a type of discursive meditation, the physical journey of your feet takes you deeper within, allowing you to let go as you walk your way deeper inward.  The physical act of letting go might involve breathing it out, grounding it (barefoot), or simply saying “I release you.”  This is a very, very powerful activity within the space of the labyrinth. Its also a very powerful activity when done with others. When you reach the center, you spend time in meditation.  When you walk out, you re-energize and find your strength and grounding.

 

The Ancestor Walk.  Another good way to use a labyrinth at Samhuinn in particular is to do an ancestor walk.  Open up the sacred space, light up the labyrinth, and ask the ancestors to join you for the walk.  When I have done this, sometimes, I have walked and communed with a single ancestor; other times, each circuit has a new ancestor who wishes to connect with me.  I combine this with an ancestor altar at the center of the labyrinth and/or an ancestor tea.

 

The Ancestor Tea: A variant of the ancestor walk is the ancestor tea.  Prior to the ritual, boil up some water and place it in a tea pot with herbs; place it, along with something to sit on and some candles, at the center of the labyrinth.  Then, open your sacred space.  Then, walk the labyrinth, making sure to let everything go and come into the ritual space as part of the walk.  When you get to the center, you pour two cups of tea–one for yourself and one for the ancestor(s) you wish to commune with.  The tea goes on as long as necessary, until all of those who you have wanted to honor are present and have had tea.  Then, you walk back out and close the space.  The tea that I typically use for this is a mugwort tea (which is very bitter on its own); usually I combine this with hawthorn, sage, or lavender.

 

These are just three of many ways that you can use a labyrinth for a Samhuinn celebration this season.  You can make these indoors or out (although I really love being outside this time of year, as the leaves settle to the ground and the cold winds blow!)  I hope everyone has a blessed Samhuinn and blessings upon the coming season!

The labyrinth builders!

The labyrinth builders!

 

Permaculture Principles for the Inner Landscape (Mind, Spirit, and Heart) October 16, 2016

Patterns in Nature

Patterns in Nature

Let’s start today’s post with a short exercise. Take a look at your hand–look at the patterns of veins under the surface. What does that remind you of in nature? Now, look at the creases on your fingers, again, looking at the patterns of nature.  Turn your hand around and stretch out your fingers, pointing your hand in front of you.  What does that remind you of in nature? Next, make a fist and  keep your arm pointed out. What pattern in nature does your knuckles remind you of? Finally, turn your fist to face you. Take a look at the spiral there, in your fingers. What this exercise shows is that the outer patterns of nature, the patterns we work with in permaculture that I described in my last post in this series, are literally embodied within us. I only just shared a few of nature’s patterns you can find on the human hand: the pattern of the river or leaf (veins), the pattern of the waves/clouds/sand (creases in hand); the pattern of the river delta or branching tree (hand outstretched with fingers apart); the pattern of the mountain range (knuckles); and the sacred Fibonacci spiral (closed fist). Our bodies replicate so many patterns of nature, as we are, after all, part of nature. But we only need to look to our own bodies to remember this important fact.

 

The landscapes of our inner lives are rich and varied. Moving within, our minds are rich landscapes of thought, experience, wisdom; conscious and unconscious realms; these realms allow us access not only to our selves in this life, but our higher selves.  Some of us don’t like to go within our inner worlds, for the fear of darkness or pain we might find there. As we grow older, time creeps up, and more experiences pile on us–things we don’t want or didn’t ask for enter that can weigh us down. But as the ancients understood, and certainly as many magical traditions today explore, the rich landscape of the inner realms knows no bounds and has no limitations–only those we place upon ourselves. It is another landscape, the landscape of our inner lives, and one that very directly reflects outer landscape–the inner and outer worlds are reflections of each other, two parts to the whole.

 

And so, the inner landscape, the landscape of our immediate souls and inner worlds, is well worth considering through the permaculture design principles. Our bodies, and our lives, are a different of landscape from the external one that a permaculture designer would typically explore, but the principles can apply all the same. Today’s post explores some tools for working with our inner landscapes and the possibility of permaculture as a framework for some of the inner work that we can do there. (If you haven’t read my post on design principles, you might want to start there and then return to this one).

 

 

Bee on a sunflower!

Magic of the bee!

Spirit Principles: The Wisdom of the Bee

On the inner landscape, the principle of spirit and the magic of the bee asks us to do the work of transformation. We do not live in perfect bubbles of happiness where everything always goes as planned, and one of the key ways to stay healthy and happy is by learning to transform negative experiences and inner states into growth and healing.

 

Observe, Interact, and Intuit. On the inner landscape, this first principle is critically important. We don’t spend much, if any time, stepping back to fully observe our own patterns, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings because we are typically up close and living those experiences.  Stepping back and simply understanding those patterns is key. I want to clarify here the difference between observation and evaluation (evaluation is covered under “reflect and revise” below). Observation here is simply the act of non-judgmental understanding and acknowledgement. There are many ways to do this, including druid retreat, meditation, deep and open listening of loved ones who know you well, stepping back in an intense moment to re-see a situation, or keeping a journal of our thoughts and feelings (which can help us understand patterns in our lives). Any of these are all observation techniques that can begin to better understand ourselves and our own patterns. Once we have a sense of our own patterns, conscious, subconscious, and unconscious, we are better in a position to do inner landscape work and healing.

 

Reflect and Revise. Stemming from the first principle, the ability to critically reflect on our experiences and patterns and “revise” is tremendously helpful as it facilitates our own transformation, growth, and healing. This is where evaluation comes into play. It might be that we need to re-see painful or difficult experiences in our past and work to transform them. There are lots of ways of doing this, depending on the nature of a painful experience.  For example, I find it helpful is to revisit an old would and explore what good has come of it (for example, I have experienced a number of traumas in my life, and it has really helped me to heal by recognizing the harm/wrong that was done, but also how I was able to transform it and use it to help others in my own life). Reflection and revision also asks us to look at where we, perhaps, wronged others or wronged ourselves and allows us to think about how we can grow to ensure that never happens again. Revision allows us to move forward with the promise of change for the future.  Meditation on these issues is one of the primary tools I use for this work, although I also use the visual arts (and art journaling for healing) when I feel led.

 

Work on Multiple LevelsInner landscape work, like all work, works on multiple levels within our lives. One such level is the relationship between our inner worlds and outer realities: how we manifest inner hurts or joy as our outer realities; also, how inputs from the outer realms become our inner states (see my discussion on waste for one example of this). A second way to consider this principle from an “inner landscape” perspective is that of the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious (which I consider a connection to the higher self).  When we are pained, we are often not only pained consciously, but that pain works deeply within us, causing us to behave in ways that we aren’t always conscious of. Sometimes, we have to work on things consciously for a time, to do some deep inner healing work.  And then our subconscious and unconscious take over, facilitating healing at those multiple levels.  Yet another way to think about this principle is the connections between the mind, body, heart, and spirit–understanding that all of these levels need our attention. This principle asks us to understand that we are multiple-leveled individuals, with multiple kinds of levels, and these levels always present. We can maximize our own growth by attending to them and working with them through healing, reflection, and ritual work.

 

Hawk flying high!

Hawk flying high!

Air Principles: The Wisdom of the Hawk

The air principles on the inner landscape ask us to use our knowledge and logic to work through inner problems before us.  The hawk flies high, and it allows us to gain a new perspective through the application of wisdom.

 

The Problem is the Solution Sometimes, limitations in our thinking prevent us from moving forward. We become stubborn, using words like “can’t” or “impossible.” Some people are defeated before they begin. They go to face a problem believing they will already fail, and they haven’t taken the time to find the solutions through the problems they face.  That, in itself, is a magical act that disempowers them! Or people use words like “I can never change” or “these problems are too big” or “this is how I live” accepting the situation and feeling defeated.  We don’t just hear these on the outer landscape, but we also apply these ways of thinking to our inner worlds.  This is self-defeating talk, and with this talk, the problems really are insurmountable–but they need not be.  There is always way forward, and this principle asks us to turn the problem on its head, look for the solution within that problem, and use this as an opportunity rather than a hurdle. I like to use discursive meditation to work through problems of this nature and see the various perspectives.

 

Mushroom Eyes. One of the unfortunate cultural sicknesses we have at present is what herbalist David Winston calls a “hardening of the mind.” The mind, like the heart, can harden to the point where we become so set in our ways that we can’t see beyond it. We close down, we refuse to see anything other than what we want to see (and for evidence of any of this, I point to the US election at present).  Mushroom eyes asks us to get beyond hardening of the mind by applying multiple lenses and many approaches with which to see the world.  This can mean working to see something from someone else’s point of view, or someone else’s set of experiences. Or to see something with our own lenses removed. It asks us to cultivate an openness and wisdom to see into the heart of issues within and without. This reseeing, through new perspectives, helps guide our inner growth with wisdom and grace. A second way of considering the principle of mushroom eyes for inner work is through the importance of the ternary and ternary thinking within the druid tradition. Western civilization loves binary thinking and often, issues are framed as having only two “sides” when the reality is that three, four, or even dozens of different perspectives may occur. I try to cultivate this practice in my own life by talking to those of diverse perspectives about their experiences, practicing deep listening, and really trying to put myself in other people’s shoes. Speaking to those of different cultural backgrounds and experiences, and even visiting other cultures and places can really help us develop inner mushroom eyes!

 

Design from the Patterns to Details. The hawk flying high asks us to consider our overall goals and patterns, and to use those overall goals and patterns to enact change on a daily or even minute-by-minute detail.  Its not enough to say “I want to change” but rather, we need to set the broad goals that can help us work down to the specifics. Articulating our overall goals, and time frames for those goals, in big terms; seeing how they can weave into the existing patterns of our lives, and then creating a long-term plan are all simple ways to develop inner landscape designs.  There are lots of ways to do this: I like vision boarding, which allows my subconsious and spirit to speak, rather than using my concious mind.  Second, I like setting personal goals for myself–not just what I want to accomplish, but what I want to cultivate (like good listening skills, joy in my life, less tangible things). Setting goals, even for our own inner transformation can help fuel our growth.  For example, if I wanted to work on my own sensitivity to others, I might set that as my larger goal and then set weekly goals of self-monitoring when I am easily upset or offended.  I check in on the progress of my yearly goals during the eight holidays of the year–and set new “yearly” goals for my own growth and development at each winter solstice. 

 

Fire Principles: The Wisdom of the Great Stag

Fire is the embodiment of energy and change; it is the fuel through which we enact transformations on our inner landscapes. The stag in the heat of the chase facilitates our own healing and growth.

 

Catch and Store Energy (Holmgren)On the inner landscape, we should pay attention to our own energy flows and find out how to best harness them–for being masters of our own energy is one way to help us grow. Ultimately, how much energy we have on a daily basis determines everything in our lives: if we can pursue and adapt to our creative gifts, if we are able to meet our goals, how we balance our life and work, how we balance other demands–attending to our energy, and harnessing it for the things we really want to manifest, is key. There are many, many, aspects to this, so I’ll share a few here. First, we need to find out when we can best express our creative gifts or have the right energy to accomplish what we set to accomplish (for example, I like to write creatively during sunrise, and I drafted this post as the sun was peeking through the mountains!). Second, we can also explore ways of balancing our own energy and cultivating the positive aspects of energy in our lives (for this I like the daily protective working of AODA’s Sphere of Protection and OBOD’s light body exercise). Third, I’ve talked at points on this blog about the outer practice of using herbs for healing and support; they can be allies in helping us catch, store, and replenish our own energy. Finally, and most importantly, we need to see how our resources–especially our physical energy–is being replenished. If we are constantly drained and overworked, we are not catching and storing energy for our own growth and work that is most important to us. We need to evaluate our personal lives, work lives, and family lives to see how our energy is being used, and make sure it is in line with our goals (see above, “Design from the patterns to the details.”) A really interesting perspective on life energy and work is found in a book called Your Money or Your Life–it will totally change your relationship with your work!

 

Spiraling Changes (Use small, slow solutions, Holmgren): Spiraling changes also asks us to attend to our energy, but in a different way. This principle suggests that when we make change, we need to make it in a way that is both slow and spiraling; these changes in our inner landscapes are more effective than rash quick ones that can’t be maintained. This principle is about learning to sustain our own energy to  in our inner landscapes and our own healing and growth over the long term.  Spiritual development and inner work on ourselves is a long-term project; think of it like a snail shell where we are every growing, and yet, coming back around to visit things again and again from a deeper perspective.  Keeping momentum going, but momentum you can reasonably sustain, is key here. I’d also mention here the use of small daily reminders and rituals that can keep you on the path of positive change: a five minute daily ritual, even, can offer tremendous growth in your life in the long run.

 

Creatively use and respond to change (Holmgren). When I was in North Dakota some years ago, I went on a trail ride near the Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  The horses had walked this same trail so many times, that at points, the trail was at points 5 or six feet deep and quite dusty–we were literally walking in a deep rut in the desert, made by those horses feet over a period of decades.  This, to me, is a physical representation of a deeper truth:  how we can get stuck in the neural pathways of our own thoughts the more we engage in those thoughts. Change is a constant reminder that we either have to learn to adapt or be like those horses, only seeing the rut that we have inhabited for so long. That we are going to encounter difficulty and that things are going to change is inevitable–how we approach and use that change in our own lives determines so much of not only the immediate outcome, but the long-term growth we are able to have. A key part of this work recognizing change as an opportunity for growth. A good book on this subject is Carol Dweck’s Mindsets.  She describes two mindsets that people can have: growth (where change/challenge is viewed by an individual as an opportunity for growth) and fixed (where change/challenge is viewed by an individual as something to be defensive against).  Its more complicated than that, of course, but these two mindsets surrounding change and challenge really do have tremendous long-term implications for our own growth and development.  Seeing change in a positive light and looking for the good and opportunities even in challenging situations can seriously facilitate our own growth as human beings long term.

 

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Water Principles: The Wisdom of the Salmon in the Sacred Pool

The Salmon and the element of water focus on interconnections and relationships—this is certainly true of our inner landscapes as much as our outer ones.

 

Integrate rather than Segregate (Holmgren). There are certainly many ways to take integrate rather than segregate. The one I’ll focus on here, however, is one that plagues so many of those in the druid community: the desire to live a whole, authentic, and unified self. So many of us find ourselves in unsupportive environments where we don’t feel we can be unified, and so, we live fragmented lives. We are “druids” in our houses or forests, and “professionals” in our workplaces and “parents” or “children” in our families…and this fragmentation grates on our souls. It takes facing your fears, cultivating the ground slowly, and really considering all aspects, for us to work to integrate our spiritual lives with our physical reality. Part of this means, of course, is finding ways of being open about who we are that allow us to navigate those tricky boundaries; a second part of this means living our principles and living in honor with the land through regenerative and sustainable living practices.  A third part might involve conversations with loved ones about our paths. This work is certainly not easy, but it is worth working towards: the integration and fullness of living who you truly are. I’ll be working on a post just on this topic in the near future!

 

Layered Purposes (Each element performs many functions, Mollison).  Layered purposes suggests, on the inner landscape, that many of the things we do can have more than one purpose. One of the challenges I put before me, for any inner work, is to see if I can find more than one take away or outcome from it: perhaps meditation gives me peace of mind, helps me work through a difficult problem, and reconnects me with nature.  Seeing the purpose, and the multiple purposes, of our daily spiritual practices are certainly useful!

 

Use the Edges and Value the Margins (Holmgren).  When I was taking my permaculture teacher training course this past summer, Lisa DiPiano shared the idea of “pushing your edges.” Each of us has an edge space–this is the space where we move from comfort to discomfort, the space where we don’t quite feel as at home, or the space where we are really in new territory.  Perhaps for our inner landscapes, these are the edges between two parts of ourselves (the “professional” and the “druid”), or the spaces between the “light” and the “darkness” within us, or the other places where we feel less comfortable. It is important to safely explore those edge spaces, as those are the spaces of the most change and growth.  Lisa suggetsed that we all bush just beyond our comfort zone–not so far as to get overwhelmed, but just far enough to know we are experiencing the discomfort that comes from learning and growing. You might think about the edge space like the rings of a tree: a tree grows each year, its bark expanding and another layer of life being added. Each time we push our edges, we are like the rings of that tree, growing stronger and more steady the more we are able to engage those edges and integrate those experiences.

 

Starry heavens

Starry heavens

Earth Principles: Wisdom of the Great Bear of the Starry Heavens

The element of the earth and the great bear focus on the material aspects of our lves; for the inner landscape, we focus on the outcomes and resources that we have.

 

Obtain a Yield (Holmgren). This might seem on the surface like a principle that wouldn’t fit in inner landscape work, but truly, it is one of the most important.  The “fruits” of our efforts–of spiritual practice, of going into nature, of daily meditation, of inner healing work–can be difficult to measure and take stock in because the “yields” are less tangible–but not less real.  I think its important to consider our yields in our own lives: what do we cultivate and bring forth? Happiness? Peace? Creative gifts? Nurturing of others? Calmness of spirit and mind?  One of the ways I like to recognize the fruits of my efforts is to keep regular spiritual journals (a practice I started over a decade ago in my AODA work).  Then, usually at the Spring Equinox, which was the time when I began the druid path, I take time to review one or more of those journals, and to consider my journey ahead.  It is a tremendously useful practice which allows me to see just how far I’ve come and recognize the yields that I’ve gained. And, just as I discussed in the outer principle in my previous post, we need to expand our idea of “yield” to think about the many yields we can have: clarity, peace of mind, joy, creative projects, self expression, depth and understanding, better relationships with loved ones, and more.

 

Waste is a resource (Mollison):  As I’ve written about in past blog posts, we have a lot of waste in our culture, in both our outer lives and in our inner realms. On the inner realms this often includes the wasting of our own time and energy on things that do not help us grow.  I can (and have) written a lot on this subject in the past, so I’ll be brief here. Monitoring our own wasted time (for most, especially with electronic devices) and turning that waste into a resource that we can use is a really important part of our inner landscape work and growth. This is not something you do once but rather is a continual process of self monitoring and adjusting. Limiting time on social media, removing television from our lives, all of these things can help us get back in tune with ourselves and turn waste into a productive resource.

 

Embrace Renewables (Use and value renewables, Holmgren): On the inner landscape, we might think about those things in our lives that renew and replenish (and that renew and replenish us) vs. those things that drain us (temporarily or permanently) and work to embrace renewing activities.  This might mean that we spend time with certain people or we work to bring in certain activities that we enjoy and that bring us energy and peace. We don’t want any “fossil fuels” in our inner landscapes, burning out and polluting the place!  I think the practice of self-care fits here; it is critically important in our own inner and outer work.  If we are not engaging in renewing activities, we will never be able to have enough energy for the inner transformations and healing that we seek.

 

Meditation: One Key to Inner Landscape Work

 

I want to conclude this post by offering a key suggestion for enacting many of the principles above: meditation. Meditation is a practice that can–literally–open up our inner worlds before us.  There are many, many, different practices of meditation, many with different goals.  Most of the meditation I do on inner landscape work is either discursive in nature (a type of focused thought) or inner journeying work.  I find the more culturally dominant “empty mind” meditation or “mindfulness” meditation good for cultivating peace and tranquility, but not good for actually helping me work through various things on the inner landscape.  Now, I need peace in my life and I need to learn to quiet my mind–and these empty mind kind of meditations are really good for that.  But a lot of the work involved in the principles above are about directing your thinking and feeling in particular ways–and this is where I believe discursive meditation really shines.  So if you are going to take up the practice of meditation, understand that there are many different kinds of meditation and that these practices often accomplish very different goals. One meditation style may not yield everything that you need; it is better to have a few different styles available to you for different purposes.

 

Before you can benefit from any of the deeper aspects of meditation, the first step is establishing a regular baseline practice of breathwork and calming the mind.  Some good preliminaries are found here. For those seeking to establish such a daily meditation practice, I would recommend John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook for more information. The techniques which JMG teaches, including color breathing and the four-fold breath (breathing in for four breaths, pausing for four breaths, breathing out for four breaths, pausing for four breaths) are great introductory ways to open the door of the mind to deeper transformation. Once you’ve established a good practice, you can do some of the more advanced inner landscape work.

 

Conclusion

I hope that you enjoyed this post–I would love feedback on the concept. (As those familiar with permaculture would note that  I am certainly pushing this series, and this post in particular, well beyond the typical uses of permaculture design principles). Blessings!

 

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part II: What to do During Your Druid Retreat August 12, 2016

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Following the path of the sun and the moon we can learn much about the work of a druid retreat in our lives. The daylight is where we typically live–it is bright, it is loud, people are about, lots of activity is taking place. The daylight offers us a particular way of seeing the world, of interacting in it, and while everything is bright and illuminated, it is so bright that we see only what is there. We scurry about, we live our busy lives, the sun blazes down upon us.

 

Retreat allows us to transition out of that sunlight for a bit and have respite. As the retreat grows near, the sun begins to set, and things begin transitioning. You set your goals for the retreat; you pack your bags, and you do some initial spiritual work. Then, the retreat occurs: night is here,the incredible full moon and blanket of stars provide a different kind of vision and illumination. The sun may allow your physical body to cast a shadow, but the moon shows the shadow of your soul. You spend time in that darkness, exploring what you need to explore, letting go of what you need to let go of, scrubbing your lightbulb (discussed in part I of this article) clean so that shines upon the world clean. As you begin exiting the retreat, the sun’s energy begins to rise once again, and dawn approaches. The stars slowly fade (always there, but not always visible). You transition out of the retreat and returning once more to the sunlight once again to live your everyday life–rejuvenated, healed, and whole.

 

Last week, I introduced the idea of the Druid Retreat, discussing what it was, preparation for the retreat, decisions to make about the retreat, the possibility of fasting, what to take and what to leave behind, and herbal allies for your retreat.  This second post talks about the retreat itself: what do do leading up to the retreat, what to do when you get there, and how to transition back into everyday living.

 

Dusk: Leading into your Retreat

As I’ve hopefully illustrated above, transitioning in and out of your retreat is just as important as the retreat itself–we must help our bodies, minds, and souls enter into the sacred space of retreat and then exit peacefully again.  This requires some work on our parts, of course.  Here are the things I do to transition into this retreat space.

 

Setting goals and intentions for the retreat. It is a wise idea to articulate some basic goals for your druid retreat prior to actually going to the retreat.  They might be really broad (personal healing, spiritual rejuvenation, etc) or they might be quite specific (a new life path for myself; clarity on an important decision, etc). Before your retreat, spend some time in meditation and consider what you might need out of the retreat at this time. Write your goals down and have them accessible somewhere during your retreat.

 

When I am preparing for the retreat, I find that a series of meditations and nature walks will help reveal what is weighing on me or what needs I have concerning the retreat.  Keep a pen and paper handy, craft your goals, and return to them at least once or twice in the days and weeks leading to the retreat to have a clear vision for your retreat.

 

At the same time, don’t let the goals limit the scope of your retreat. Understand that these are some starting places for you–but the spirits will likely have their own work they want you to do.

 

Preparing physically for the retreat. If you are going to be fasting, or even if you are taking my advice of “eating lighter” during the retreat, I find that being mindful of my eating for a few days prior to the retreat can set my body up for deep healing work. By this I mean I avoid meat, fried foods, heavy foods, too much dairy and the like, and stick to light, fresh foods for the three days prior to my retreat. I find that this makes my body feel less heavy and more ready for the deep cleansing work. Part of this is that the heavy, greasy foods ground us firmly in the daylight of our lives, and we don’t want that kind of grounding during retreat.

The forest is calling you deeper....

The forest is calling you deeper….

Slowing down. Imagine a train moving at 100 miles per hour suddenly having to stop on the tracks.  That could cause a crash!  Because our lives are so busy, sometimes, going into retreat is kind of like trying to stop that heavy train immediately. A safe way is to slow the train down, to break, to make sure it pulls into that station carefully and purposefully. Given this, I try hard to “slow down” a few days before my retreat. No frantic running around, making sure tasks get done with grace, and so on. This helps me ease into the transition of the slow time that is key and present as part of the retreat.

 

Dusk turns to Night: The Preliminaries

Finally! Your retreat has come and you are ready to begin the work of the retreat…if you only knew what that work was to be! I have a few things I like to do on retreats, and I’ll share them here to help provide structure for your own retreat.

 

Slowing Down. Let your train fully come to a stop at the station; let the sun fully set and the moon and stars to illuminate once more. Once you arrive at your retreat, I would suggest spending the first hour or so decompressing, unpacking, setting up, and so on. Take your time with this–there is no rush. There is nowhere else you need to be but here, present, in this moment. Pay attention to all of your senses (how often do we do this?) and simply enjoy the work of setting up camp, unpacking, whatever it is that you need to do first.

 

Deep Breathing. After you allow yourself to slow down, do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation.  Let yourself settle in, let the slower rhythm weave into your bones.  Let your body and mind know, gently, that you can slow down and relax. Sit by a tree and breathe deeply, simply being, for a time, letting the stuff in the outside world slowly fall away. Once you’ve done some of this initial work, it is time to begin the more serious spiritual work of the retreat.

 

Cleansing.  I start my retreats with some kind of cleansing activity before opening up the space officially. There are so many ways you can cleanse, but for retreats, I like to do this in a few ways.  A glass of fresh spring water (or nettle tea) with a pinch of salt combined with a jump into a mountain stream, a cool shower, or bathing in cool water with a pinch of salt and vinegar.  I follow this usually with a full on smudge session.   You may also find it appropriate to cleanse the retreat space itself (this is good if its a rental cabin or something that a lot of people are coming in and out of; totally unnecessary if you are camping in the woods).  Once you have done whatever cleansing that you feel is necessary, you can go ahead and setup the sacred space and intentions for your retreat.

 

How to setup the sacred space for your retreat. Setting up the sacred space for healing as part of your retreat is also an important step. This might be something as simple as the following:

  • Start by stating my intention for the retreat: personal healing, rejuvenation, etc.
  • Call upon the four directions and four elements for their guidance
  • Make an offering in gratitude to the land and spirits of the land for hosting
  • Cast a circle around the space for the duration of the retreat

 

If you have a way of opening up a sacred space or grove, you can use that and keep it open for the duration of the retreat.  For me, I will use the AODA’s solitary grove opening, with some additions at the end like setting my intentions for the retreat and making an offering to the spirits of the land.  This opening ritual can be done, and the space open, for as long as the retreat goes on.

 

And that’s an important distinction: the retreat itself takes place in an open grove for the duration of the retreat.  The entire retreat is a ceremony, a ritual, a spiritual act.  Understanding this, and setting this up intentially, helps you do the work of your retreat.

 

Moon and Stars: The Work of Your Retreat

So at this point, all of the preliminaries are over with. Everything that you needed to do, you did do. This is usually when people start looking around and saying, “Ok, now what?” The work ahead is much less clear, and much more specific to each individual who is on the retreat. People who have been doing spiritual work: meditation, journeying, quiet jaunts in the forest, for a while likely don’t need me to tell them what to do at this point.  The spirits will do that for you! But those of you who are new to this kind of work, still fresh upon the path, might find the following suggestions really helpful.

 

Vision Quest Shelter

Vision Quest Shelter

No agenda. Its generally better if you go into a healing retreat without an agenda. You may find that you are lead to do different kinds of things, unplanned things, when you got there.  Its better not to plan it out, but let things unfold as they unfold.

 

Intuition. The most important advice I can give for what to do when you get to this point is let your intuition guide you.  You might get the idea of doing some things you would normally not do (screaming, dancing naked, cartwheels) or things that seem odd to you (placing stones in a ring around a tree).  Don’t evaluate or judge what you feel led to do–just do it.

 

Spirit Communication. All of us have the capacity to hear messages from the land, from the spirits, from whatever conception of divinity you hold. Maybe these messages come in physical form–animals, branches banging on a tree, the babbling of the brook. Maybe this comes from prayer to the divine. Often, these messages also have inner components.  I spoke about inner planes communication and messages with trees quite a bit in my Druid Tree working series, so I’ll refer you there for more details.

 

Being and Observing. One critical thing to do is to simply lay by the fire, or out in the snow, and simply be there, slow down, simply inhabit yourself and be present in the moment. We spend so much time darting from place to place, putting out fire after fire, that we don’t just get to sit.  A retreat should include a lot of sitting and being.  Ask questions, see how the land responds (and it will respond on its own time, which can be hours or days after a question is asked)!  The value in sitting for a number of hours (especially around dusk or dawn) is that you will see the forest in ways you will never see it if you are wandering about.  Sitting still means you will see animal movements; you will blend into your surroundings and become one with the forest.  There are incredibly deep insights and values in this kind of quiet observation and communion.

 

Staying put or Wandering. There are different beliefs about whether you should stay put or you should wander about during a retreat–and to you I say, try a bit of both.  When I went on my vision quest, it was very important that we setup our sacred space and then stayed put in about a 30 foot area of space.  This allowed nature to send messages to us, to sit in stillness, focus, and quietude.  And while I loved this, I also love the discovery of wandering through the forest (which will make noise, and not allow as many animals to visit and bring messages).

 

Looking for Signs and Symbols. Learn to read the messages that the land sends.  A book called Animal Speak is a nice one to bring along, although I don’t usually take too much stock in what books say about animal messages.  Usually, animals come for a specific reason and that reason might be very unique to you and your spiritual path.  So if a deer comes, its likely coming to you for a specific reason that you will understand and/or need to interpret.  Use your own intuition to interpret the signs you are given, and perhaps supplement with some resources.  Pay attention to directions and time (e.g. a hawk flies in from the east at dawn is a different message than the hawk spiraling overhead in the early afternoon).  You might also use divination systems here, but I find the retreat will usually provide the messages you need.

 

Signs and symbols  in wildlife during the retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the retreat

Pilgrimages.  If you are in natural places, taking a journey to a particular special spot is also a great thing to include in a retreat. For me, these are often healing or mineral springs (of which we have many in this area).  Perhaps you want to plan a hike and journey as part of your retreat (although I’d recommend foot journeys if at all possible–technology, like riding in a car, can disrupt the energy and flow of your retreat).

 

Inner Journeys. Inner journeying work is certainly another important part of spiritual retreats. Spending time in an inner sacred grove, or inner realms is an important part of the retreat.

 

To sleep or not to sleep. While I am on retreat, I prefer cat naps during the hot parts of the day (like afternoons, in line with most of the animals ) to full on sleeping at night; I try to stay up at least one full night out in the wilds, observing and being present.   I find that this gives me perspective and new insights.   If you are going to stay up all night, do it without a campfire or light–just let your eyes adjust to the darkness and be present in your surroundings.

 

The lifepath experience and answering hard questions. Sometimes, it is useful to review your path, in its entirety–how you’ve gotten here.  Think about the different things you’ve experienced, the different decisions that you’ve made, your soul’s spiritual journey, the key aspects of your personality.  You might also work through some questions, the kinds that we usually don’t get to spend enough time with:

  • Am I happy with my path? If not, what could I change?
  • What am I holding onto that I need to leave go of? Why am I not letting it go?
  • What makes my soul sing? How often do I engage in those kinds of things?
  • What do I think is ahead for me on the path?
  • What is my life’s work? How do I know it?
  • Who am I, as a person?
  • What are the things that are the most important to me? Why?

 

Self-Expression. After some of your inner work is done, you might also find that retreats are an excellent space for engaging in some of the bardic arts: music, poetry, song, dance, visual arts.  For me, I bring along my flute and typically my watercolors, and that way, if the opportunity presents itself, especially on later days of the retreat, I might create something beautiful.  Often, when I’m on retreat I am given new songs for the flute and that’s pretty incredible as well!

 

Journaling and documenting your retreat. Some people don’t want to write during their retreats, but I have found that this really helps me “continue the ceremony” long after it ends in the physical world, and it allows me to return to the ceremony again and again and make sense of what I have experienced.  If you want to do this,  make sure you devote adequate time to  during your retreat to journaling about your experiences as soon as you can after they happen–write while you are still in the alternative perspective of the retreat.  What happens is that when we are in ritual space (and retreat is an extended ritual) we are in a particular frame of mind.  As soon as we remove ourselves from that ritual space, we cease to be in that frame of mind, and things are quickly lost from our minds.  Write everything you want to write before you close your ritual space and return to the mundane of everyday living.

 

Dawn: Closing the Retreat and Continuing the Ceremony

Just as you worked to ease into the Druid Retreat, you will also want to ease out of the retreat–daylight can be harsh if we are not careful.

 

Conclusions, Insights, and Next steps. As you are nearing the end of your retreat, take some time to write down the insights and conclusions you gained.  Maybe that’s a set of spiritual practices, maybe that’s something you need to do for yourself, maybe its an actionable list of items.  Or maybe it is none of these things, but a sense of tranquility and calm, of completeness.  Whatever it is, you want to do your best to preserve that mindset–that state–those feelings and words.  I usually give myself at least 2-3 hours for this kind of work. I am a visual artist and an avid writer, so I will usually do something visual to represent my retreat and also write extensively in my journal.  These tactile experiences help start to bring me back into my normal rhythms.

 

Gratitude. Express gratitude to the land, the spirits, those that helped you on your retreat.  Sometimes they may ask for something in return–do whatever it is they ask gladly.  After all, they held the space for your healing.  I also make it a point that once I’ve returned from my retreat, I write notes of gratitude and give them to anyone who helped make my retreat possible (kid/pet sitters, significant others, etc).

 

Closing the Retreat.   Since you’ve just spent some serious time in a sacred space, you can close out the sacred space as befitting your tradition (I would use AODA’s solitary grove closing for this).  A simple closing works like this:

  • Announce your intentions to close the space
  • Give thanks to the four directions/quarters
  • Make an offering to the land/spirits/diety
  • Take down the protective circle/sphere/etc.

 

Grounding Activities. At the end of the retreat, especially one with light-ish food choices or fasting, you will want to start bringing yourself back into the patterns of everyday typical living.  I find that it is helpful to eat something a bit more hearty at this point to help me return. Maybe that’s some eggs and cheese, or a piece of turkey jerky–something that will help me ground.

 

Transitioning Back in. Be careful about how you transition back into your everyday living.  I’ll share a story here to see why this is important.  A number of years ago, I went with a friend of mine to a week-long earth-centered spirituality event.  We had a long drive back to Michigan.  I spent a lot of time both with others but also alone.  It wasn’t a solitary retreat, like I’m talking about here, but it was certainly a different kind of energy and space.  After we left, we stopped at a highway rest stop and went in for some food and a bathroom break.  I entered the rest stop, and was greeted by a wall of plastic encrusted food, screaming children, several TV screens, a sad guy at the cash register, music blasting–it was all too much for me.  Normally, I had no difficulty navigating such a space (I’d hardly be a functional human being in American society if I did) but after being away for 7 days, I was completely in shock.  Panicked.  I had to leave, and then I was greeted by more concrete.  Finally, I found a little patch of grass and closed my eyes, laying on it.  I felt better.  I had never experienced such a shock, but it taught me something really powerful: the transition needs to be managed with care.  Even if we are “used” to it, we need that transitory time.

 

A Transition day. If at all possible, given my discussion of transitioning above, I would suggest ONE EXTRA DAY, at home, or even 4 hours, at home, to transition back from your retreat.  Ideally, you need time just to process once you’ve returned, and to reflect and integrate.  I realize this is not possible often, but it is ideal!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

The Ceremony Continues

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about this kind of work comes from the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition, and it is worth sharing here.  Your ceremony continues well beyond the time that you were in the woods, in retreat.  They believe that for another 7 days, the ceremony continues on.  If you go home and begin talking about everything you experienced and learned, you can “talk the magic out of it.”  And so, I would suggest that you keep quiet about the ceremony and the insights you learned.  They are yours, and yours alone.  After the seven day period is over, you might find it appropriate to share bits of the experience with others, but never share much.  There are many things from my own retreats and vision quests that I have not, and will not, ever share–there is magic in silence, tremendous magic in silence (a great discussion on this topic can be found in John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge book).

 

Retreats as a Regular Spiritual Practice

A full blown druid retreat might be harder  to facilitate regularly, but I would say try to do one at least once a year if possible.  Even if you can’t do a full blown druid retreat, I have found that there is great benefit in a mini-retreat: an 4 or 8 hour retreat, where the same things can happen, but in a condensed time frame.  You aren’t going to get the deep insights you would get with a longer period of time, but even a short while away from things will do tremendous amounts of good in your life :).

 

Closing thoughts

I hope that this post series was inspirational for you and that you consider planning a druid retreat–even a short one.  I also wanted to let all of you know that I’ll be doing some retreat work myself in the second half of August and will be spending a week in the Hudson Valley taking my Permaculture Teacher Training course. Given this, I will not be posting new posts for the next two or three weeks, but I will return after my PDC Teacher training with an extended series of posts on Permaculture for Druids and some other spiritual gardening topics :).  Blessings!