The Druid's Garden

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

Cycles of Nature, Cycles of our Lives: Allowing for Fallow and Abundance in Spiritual Studies January 26, 2020

Preamble: Now that I’m the Grand Archdruid of AODA, starting in 2020, I will be doing one AODA Druidry-based post a month. A lot of my posts are already tied with AODA practices as it is my core spiritual practice, but I wasn’t always as explicit about it as I will be now! 🙂  All of these posts, while framed in the context of AODA druidry, will be applicable to many different kinds of nature-based spiritualities and druidries.

 

A beautiful cardinal flower in late summer

The Wheel of the Seasons offers us many lessons and one of the core principles in AODA is the principle of the Cycle and Season. In Western Pennsylvania, where I live, we have a growing season that runs from May to late October. That us, from Beltane to Samhain, during the light half of the year, we can grow vegetables, forage berries, and be in an abundant and lush landscape. Then, the first hard frost hits in late October. In less than a day, the land withers and the annual plants die. The leaves drop from the trees and grow bare. The landscape literally changes overnight and we steadily move into winter. As I write this, its late January and we have a snowstorm coming through. The withered husks of last year’s plants still line the fields and forests. The sun hangs low in the sky, seeming not to have enough energy to rise. Other than the conifers, the land looks completely dead. But deep within the soil, the roots rest. Within the trunks of the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts, the sap starts to run. The seeds that were scattered in the fall lay dormant, waiting for the warmth to burst forth. But I know that spring will return—it is just a matter of time. Without this fallow period, the plants here would not be healthy and grow. The land needs its rest so it can return to abundance once more.

 

This lesson is a critical one for our own lives. Here in the US, there is an “always-on” culture such that people have to work constantly, even when they are sick, when there is a snowstorm, or when we have national holidays. People themselves perpetuate this culture by the glorification of busyness. If you aren’t busy and overwhelmed, you are somehow lazy or unproductive. In a culture that is defined by its productivity and continual growth, this is a price that must be paid. The problem is, this is not sustainable, healthy, or reasonable for any of us. Our culture operates like it is always in high summer, requiring us to constantly be productive. But this is how a landscape grows exhausted, how fields fail to produce yields. And just like an over-farmed field, most people you see are beyond exhausted, balancing too many things and doing none of them well.

 

When people start working on a degree in a druid order, such as the first degree in AODA, the always-on culture can have a detrimental effect. Some people go full steam ahead, eventually burning themselves out. Others find it difficult to make progress because there is no room in their lives for these practices. Still others make good progress, then have something with life get in the way, and then can’t get back on track. When any of these things happen, the guilt sets in. I have heard many newer druids describe their own shortcomings and shame for not finishing a course in a particular amount of time. I think a lot of this guilt and such comes from the “always-on” culture that makes us think, even for our own spiritual practices, that we need to always be moving forward. But as John Michael Greer has said on multiple occasions, “Growth at all costs is the ideology of a cancer cell.”

 

The reason I started this piece with the wheel of the seasons is that it provides us an alternative way to think about our own path of spiritual development. Spiritual development works a lot more like the wheel of the seasons than a straight linear path of productivity (like we may have experienced in our formal education). Depending on what is going on in our lives, our spiritual practices may need to respond in different ways. Fallow periods are as necessary to us and our development as periods of high growth and harvest. As an example from my own life: I’ve been a druid for almost 15 years. I’ve completed the courses of both OBOD and AODA in that time and have studied and grown through other projects and practices. I regularly take fallow periods where I allow myself not to do anything and just fall into the basic nature-based spiritual practices—being out in nature, doing some light meditation, and allowing myself to regenerate. This fallow time, this unstructured time is not when I’m checking items to do off my list, but rather, where I’m simply allowing my spirit and body some rest. This fallow time often leads to very rich understandings and a deeper sense of self. Because just like in nature, the fallow periods have function and purpose—they allow our subconscious to work. When the land goes into slumber, the roots grow deeper. When the human body fasts, within 24 hours, the body is making tremendous amounts of cell repair and regeneration. When we go fallow for a time, our spirits do that same kind of work.

 

Sometimes fallow periods in our spiritual life come because we choose not to plant anything in the soil. But sometimes they come because life sends us a curveball, something painful or wonderful that we did not expect but that takes up a good amount of our energy. Our attention, for a time, may be diverted from our own spiritual development. I think anyone who has been on this path for a period of time has had a fallow period—or several—happen And for those who haven’t yet or those who are going through this now—to you I say—it’s ok. It may be a necessary part of your path. Given time, this fallow period will end and you will find yourself once again in the place of high summer. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize the difference between a fallow period that is temporary and is healthy vs. never accomplishing what you set out to do. That’s a different kind of problem, almost like a multi-year drought.

 

Summer sun

The other thing that happens to well-meaning people is thinking that there is some kind of “gold standard” of spiritual practice and trying to measure up to that standard. Again, our own cycles and seasons vary, and these practices thus need to be adapted to each of us. Meditation is a really great example of a practice that is quite varied and one in which many people struggle to establish. For example, a common suggestion in AODA is to meditate while sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair. For most people, this is an excellent suggestion as it keeps them focused and not too comfortable. But, I have a fairly sensitive body and some back issues, and after trying and failing to use multiple chairs comfortably for almost two years, I gave up and started meditating laying down on a yoga mat. What a difference that made! After making the change not only was I more inclined to want to meditate (as opposed to forcing myself), but my meditations also became much longer, more rich, and more focused. As another example, some members of AODA with ADHD have found it impossible to sit still long enough to meditate in any stationary position, and thus, have made walking meditation their core meditative practice. The key here is that while meditation is a core practice of AODA, how you fit this into your own life and make it a workable and regular practice for you may vary. This is *particularly* true in a flexible and self-directed order like AODA, where we encourage you to take the basic practices and adapt them to your ecosystem, local culture, and individual lives.

 

As you are thinking about how to adapt AODA’s practices to the cycle of your own life, some questions you might ask yourself are: Who are you? How do you function? How can these spiritual practices support a better functioning version of yourself? When is your energy the highest? How can you fit these practices into your own cycles of your life? When I look at these questions, I recognize a few things: first, I have a demanding job, and I know at the end of a long day, I can’t to deep spiritual work. Thus, I do most of my deep spiritual work (such as seasonal celebrations or ritual work) on weekends when my energy is highest. Second, because we have a homestead and lots of animals, tending our outdoor flocks in the morning is a regular part of my daily cycle. Thus, I do early morning spiritual practices with our flocks as a movement meditation and I always take about 10 minutes to engage quiet and stillness in our gardens and on our land after I finish tending them. This 10-minute daily practice never fails me because every day, regardless of the weather or my own energy, I have to tend the birds. It is fully built into the cycle of my life. At the end of the day, I perform the Sphere of Protection and use discursive meditation to help focus and quiet my mind before bed. I have found that bookending my day with my spiritual practices has been most beneficial in my life. It took me a while to find this particular approach to my spiritual practice. I also recognize that while this system works for me in my life now, if something radical about my life circumstances were to change, it would likely no longer work and I’d have to find a new routine. At my former job, my cycle was very different. A challenging work environment meant that the first thing I did every day when I went to work was to ground myself, do some deep breathing, and do the sphere of protection. My current work doesn’t require such activity, so I’ve used the SOP in my life for a different purpose. This example, I hope, also teaches another lesson: there are times when adapting our spiritual practices can offer us benefit in our lives. There are also times when we need to adapt part of our lives to our spiritual practice.

 

Tomato Harvest!

The last metaphor of nature’s cycles that I’ll touch on today is the role of a regular period of growth. In our homestead each year, we understand that a yield takes effort.  If we want tomatoes, we have to start the seeds in about March, water them each day, shelter them until they can be planted out, and finally plant them.  As they grow, we make sure they have a healthy and rich soil to grow in, have adequate light and water and are properly supported.  We need to keep an eye on pests and things that would damage the tomatoes and respond appropriately. If we’ve done all this, within 5-6 months, we will get our first yield.  This is a slow process.  It requires us attending to our tomato plants daily, putting a small amount of effort each day so that we can eventually reap bountiful rewards.  This lesson, part of nature’s cycle, is also tied to our own spiritual development.  Spiritual development, like any human development, is a gradual process. People often think that it’s the big events, the big breakthroughs that define us as people. But if you aren’t putting in the work regularly (like watering, weeding, and fertilizing those tomatoes) the big breakthroughs won’t come as readily because you won’t be cultivating that spiritual life.  Regular cultivation of a spiritual practice is the true way in which we grow over time. You can’t have tomatoes without planting them first!

 

To conclude, looking to nature’s cycles can help us understand our own spiritual development and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we aren’t “progressing” as we think we should. Also, we can use the lesson of nature’s cycles to make the most of our own cycles for spiritual practice—recognizing that we have them and working with them, rather than against them. Look at the cycles of your own life and think about when you have time, energy, and built-in existing activities that may benefit from one or more of AODA’s regular spiritual practices. I think there is much to reflect and meditate on here concerning the principles of cycles and seasons—both those in the broader landscape and the lessons they hold, but also how our own cycles and seasons contribute to our spiritual paths.

 

PS: I am indebted to my fellow Archdruids of AODA, Adam Robersmith and Claire Schosser, for planting the seeds of this conversation and encouraging me to write on this topic.

 

A Tree for Year Challenge January 12, 2020

Into the trees

One of the most common questions that people ask when they start down a druid or other nature-based spiritual path is: how do I connect deeply with nature?  Connecting to nature can happen in such a wide variety of ways.  It can happen through connecting with our heads, through learning, study, and engaging with books or classes.  It can happen through our hearts, where we emotionally connect with nature and places.  It can also happen through our bodies when we physically experience the natural world.  It can be through our spirits when we connect with the spirit of the tree.  But regardless of which of our selves and methods we use, it requires an investment of ourselves, our time, and building a relationship.

 

A while back, I wrote about the Druid’s Anchor Spot, which is a spot that you can use to regularly engage and observe nature–a spot that you return to, again, and again, and learn through observation, interaction, and quietude/meditation.  Drawing upon this concept, I’d like to issue a challenge to my readers for this year:  Spend a Year and a Day with a Tree.  The idea is simple: find a tree, commit to visiting it each day for a year (or taking a piece of it with you if you are going to travel) and learn from the experience.  Here’s how to go about this:

 

The Druid Tree Challenge:

Find your tree. Find a tree or plant that you connect with and that is willing to engage with you in this work. This should be a tree that you can have daily access, such as one living on your street or your land.  Choose any tree that you are drawn to.  This tree should be willing to work with you, and before you begin this, make sure this is so (for how to communicate with trees see my communication links below).

 

Establish your relationship. I would suggest starting with communication with your tree and ensuring that the tree is willing to do this deep work with you.  If you are still developing your plant spirit communication skills, here are some possible communication strategies:

As you do this work, ask the tree what you can do in exchange.  The tree may want regular offerings or you to plant some of its seeds/nuts.

 

Visit your tree every day this year.   Visit your tree, even for a few minutes, each day.  Visit your tree regardless of the weather (this is good as it gets you outside). At least once a week, spend at least a half-hour with your tree, including some time in meditation. If you travel, see if you can take a piece of the tree (a leaf, a nut, a stick, etc) so that you can still spend time with your tree, even at a distance.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

Keep a journal of some kind. You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but do document your experiences with your tree regularly.

 

For some, what I’ve written above will be enough to take on the tree challenge.  For others, I have offered some additional suggestions by month so you can keep moving forward and learning and growing with your tree.

 

Tree activities by Month:

January: Offer your tree a blessing or wassail. This week — January 17th — is a traditional day for wassail ceremonies, and thus, anytime in late January is good for offering your tree a blessing. I have a post on two kinds of January tree blessings–I suggest you do one of these blessings for your tree before you move too much further into the year.  This is a very good way to start your year with the tree and ensures health and abundance for your tree.

 

February: Learn about the history and ecology of your tree. Start learning about your tree.  What kind of ecosystem does your tree grow in? What kind of life does it support?  How old might your tree be?  One of my favorite resources for this is John Eastman’s set of books–he shares not only information about trees and plants in terms of growth habits and botany but also, the web of life and key species that are connected to those trees and plants.  Observe.  Identify anything that you can around the tree, such as moss or lichens that may be growing.  If you live in North America, you can also look back through my list of trees that I’ve written about: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, Apple, and Black Locust.

 

March: Learn about the traditional uses of your tree.  How have people used this tree before? How do they still use it?  Books on edible wild plants are good places to start, as are books like Eric Sloane’s A Reverence of Wood that teaches much about the traditional uses of trees.

 

April: Practice deep listening.  Hear your tree’s story. Learn about its history on your landscape.  Simply listen to the tree for this month.  You can use my series on plant spirit communication for guidance: part I, part II.

 

May: Learn and practice the magic of your tree.  Each tree has its own magic.  Some of this you can uncover with books, stories, and legends (such as through my own “Sacred tree” series above) but I would suggest you look beyond the books.  Hopefully, by May you will be regularly communicating with your tree and your tree will be able to teach you some of its own magic.  Ask and see what happens.

A practice you can use if your tree doesn’t reveal one is tree energy work (adapted from John Michael Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn work). If you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, put your back against the tree and exchange energy.  Your nervous system will connect with the tree and slow down, connecting to the tree’s rhythms.  Breathe deeply into the experience.  If you are feeling depleted, do the opposite, by hugging the tree.  Again, breathe deeply into the experience.  This is a useful practice to do often with your tree.

 

June: Engage in spirit journeying with your tree.  A step up from learning the magic of the tree is asking the tree to take you on a spirit journey.  See what happens and what you learn.

 

July: Focus on experiencing your tree with your senses. This month, use your senses to experience your tree. What does your tree smell like?  Feel like?  Look like? Sound like?  Engage in a sensory experience with your tree.

 

August:  Daydream. Plan unstructured time with your tree.  Simply sit with your tree and be this month.  Unstructured time can be one of the most creatively inspiring and engaging.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

September: Create with your tree. See if your tree will offer you a bit of itself, or wait till a branch comes down in a storm.  Learn how to make something, even something small, from the tree.  You can learn an entirely different layer of your tree if you work with wood, nuts, leaves, etc.  Making something from your tree can encourage you to learn about it on another level.  If you can’t create something from your tree, or, in addition to this, ask your tree to teach you its song or offer you some other kind of inspiration. create a dance or painting, or any other bardic art that is inspired by your tree. Let the awen flow.

 

October: Align with the seasons. If you live in a temperate climate, this month will likely have many changes for your tree, physically and energetically.  Pay attention to those changes and work to align your energy with that of your tree as we move into the dark half of the year.  This is a powerful practice that will allow you to more effectively adapt to the changing season and the dark and cold times (if you live in the souther hemisphere, consider doing this in April intstead!)

 

November: Gratitude. Spend time this month in gratitude for your tree.  Again, ask if you can do anything for your tree.  Bring offerings.  Gather up its seeds/nuts/fruits if at all possible and plant them. Hug your tree. Here are some gratitude practices you can try.

 

December: Reflection. Reflect on this experience with your tree.  Look back through your journal, if you kept one, and think about how your journey has changed and this experience has changed.  Decide what the future holds for your relationship.

 

Closing Thoughts

My own plan for the year is working with a large oak on our property.  This is a black oak, the largest and oldest tree on the druid’s garden homestead property. In December, the tree reached out to me and we began these practices in early January, learning and growing from each other.  I’m excited to see what the year brings and how this work deepens my relationship with nature, this land, and of course, this wonderful oak.

 

As a more broad issue, as we move into further into the 21st century, and now into 2020, things are more than a bit uncertain and terrifying. The more obvious it becomes that humans have to radically change our behavior, the more those in power work to send us and this planet into a downward spiral of pain, death, and extremes. I think a lot of us need some grounding.  Tree magic roots us, grounds us, and gives us strength.  Choosing a particular tree to work with for this year will help you bring that tree’s wisdom, magic, and medicine into your life in a time when we all can use it!

 

On Being a Minority Religion and Paths to Building Respect November 17, 2019

“I’m sorry, I’m unavailable to meet on that day.”

A pause, “well, why is that? This is an important meeting.”

“Because it is a major holiday for me, and I am taking a personal day to celebrate it.”

Another, longer pause.  “Wait, your holiday is Halloween? That’s not a religious holiday.”

“No, my holiday is Samhain, which is a holiday dedicated to my ancestors. Modern Halloween traditions actually derived from this much older holiday.”

Another pause. “Can’t you celebrate it on another day?”

“No.  The timing is critical to the celebration. Would I ask you to meet on Christmas or Easter?”

Another pause. “That’s not the same thing.”

 

The above interchange is a fairly common interaction fairly typical of my workplace experiences in being a minority religion, a druid, here in the USA. In fact, I had this exchange with someone just last week. Since this kind of thing seems to come up around Samhain, in particular, I thought I’d take some time today to share my perspective on some of the challenges that people like me, walking a minority religious path, face.  But most importantly, I’m going to share some ideas for how we can build bridges and build respect (beyond mere tolerance, but actual understanding).

(*I use the word “religion” understanding that this word represents the dominant term for people who have a spiritual path.  A lot of druids don’t like it, and I don’t necessarily like it either, but it gives certain credibility and legal standing–so I choose to use it.)

 

Challenges Druids and other Nature-Based Religions face

Minority religions face a lot of challenges in general in the modern US.  Some of the challenges we druids face are shared by other minority paths, and others are unique.  Here are some–certainly not all–of some of the typical things that people walking the druid path may face.

Just being a druid!

Just being a druid!

 

Invisibility. The Pew Forum offers some general demographics on Religious life in the US.  If we use the numbers from their Religious Landscape Survey,  nationwide, the category “pagan or Wiccan” (which is the closest one can likely get to druid) has about 0.03% of the population.  In other words, my path isn’t even listed on the survey, and so, we are much lower than 0.03%.  Some druids do identify as pagan, others do not, so it is really hard to tell exactly how many of us there are.

 

But regardless of the specific percentage, because there are so few of us, people have no idea who we are or what we do.  This is actually beneficial in some cases, as assumptions are hard to change (ask anyone calling themselves a witch about that!)  I’m of the opinion that a blank slate is better than a slate filled with misinformation. A blank slate means that I can educate people who ask me about it in a productive way (at least some times) and define “druid” in ways that actually represent our practices.  Recently, for example, I told my employees that I was taking Samhain off. They were supportive, and one of my newer employees asked me, what’s a druid? And I was able to respond in a productive way, and we had a good conversation, and she wished me well on my holiday!

 

On the other hand, you do have things like RPGS, World of Warcraft, and D&D that paint druids in a certain light.  If people find out I’m a druid, I sometimes people get the impression that I run around in robes lobbing globes of green nature energy at villians. Again, not necessarily a bad impression, but also, not quite right.

 

This invisibility also means that holidays aren’t recognized, and as my opening example discussion shows, that can lead to other kinds of difficulty.

 

Intolerance.  Like any other religion with a “pagan” label, a lot of druids worry about what happens when their conservative Christian neighbors learn about who they are or what they might be doing. Some druids choose to do public ritual to help build tolerance, while others simply want to be left alone to do their own thing.  Last year, the Wayist Druids in Tennessee decided to do a public ceremony and had some trouble with the local conservative Christians. But often, these protests are more bark than bite.  The Wild Hunt reported on two recent events that were slated to be protested by conservative Christians, and in both cases, the protesters, few in number, showed up briefly and left pretty quickly. And yet, even one or two intolerant people can make doing anything public very uncomfortable. One of the things that I worry about where I live, for example, is that I’m in a rural area that does have a fair share of hate groups. There’s a Moose lodge nearby that is a known hate group hangout, very rural, only about 5 miles north. Their presence so close to where I live certainly gives me pause.

 

Lack of Basic First Amendment Rights and legal protections.  I am a legally ordained clergy member through the Ancient Order of Druids in America, a federally recognized religious organization in the US.  Despite this federal legal recognition, I am not permitted to perform religious ceremonies in my home state (Pennsylvania) because PA state law says that in order to be recognized at the state level, my “church” must have a building and meet regularly.  With the 15 or so practicing druids in my region, this is simply an impossibility. Technically, we do have a building (our home) and meet regularly (about 3-4x a year for grove events).  But this doesn’t “count” from the state’s perspective–they only want organized religions that look and act like Christianity to be legally performing ceremonies.  You find a lot of these kinds of things–assumptions that “religion” equals things that look and act like Christianity.  Many states have laws that are really designed only to allow traditional religions to be recognized, and that’s a sad thing.  But things are changing if the battle over veterans’ tombstones is any indication.

 

Small altar in the woods

A simple altar on public land

Lack of Places to Celebrate. Especially in urban and suburban areas, it’s surprisingly hard to find quiet places to celebrate your path and to do outdoor public ritual.  I can’t tell you how many rituals were disrupted over the years because I thought I had chosen a quiet space to celebrate a druid holiday or just do some of my own ritual work, but it turned out, I did not.  Hiking deep into wild public areas is a generally safe approach.  Renting private places for a weekend is a safe approach. Doing things on your land or someone else’s land is a safe approach.  But doing outdoor public ritual otherwise is a gamble: it might go fine, or it might draw the ire of someone who is not supportive and will cause a scene (in the middle of your Samhain ceremony!)  Lots of groves and individuals find workarounds, like designating 1-2 people who are there to keep outsiders from disrupting a ceremony.

 

Part of this is because we are druids.  It’s so nice just to be outside, at some amazing place, and be able to celebrate there.  Or even just have a quiet moment.  I think if druidry and other nature-based paths were more well known, there would be more opportunity to have ceremonies in public places and a lot more tolerance of those ceremonies.

 

Lack of family / friend / loved one support.  Probably the most difficult of anything is the intolerance and lack of support that one gets for choosing a different path, particularly if you have strongly religious famliy members.  I’ve struggled with this in my own life; my Christian family largely still doesn’t support my path and its better not to say anything than try to push the issue.  I’ve made good inroads with my parents, but that was a very long and hard fight spanning over a decade.  My extended family, I don’t even bother with.  I let them think what they want because there is not really a way forward in that particular area.  I’ve had relationships (including some long-term ones) end because of my religious identity, and I’ve also had friendships end when someone found out what I was.  When I mentor other druids, I often find this is one of the most challenging things–its not the random strangers that you have to worry about but rather, the people that you love and that are closest to you.

 

Bridges to build

So now that I’ve outlined some of the major challenges druids face, I want to talk about strategies for building understanding and compassion.  Note that I’m not using the word “tolerance” for a very specific reason. The concept of “tolerance” gets a lot of airplay here in the US.  We want to “build tolerance” between different faiths. Dictionary definitions from Merriam Webster about the word “tolerance” say things like, “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something” or “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”. I think tolerance is the first step in what hopefully becomes a deeper understanding, respect, and mutual support of diverse paths. That’s my ultimate goal and what I’m working towards.  Tolerance to me isn’t enough–what that basically means is that someone “tolerates” my existence.  What I’d like to see is someone going well beyond tolerance and into invitations to share, mutuality, collaboration, and respect.

 

Bridge building is a really important step, and I find that this is best done individually.  I gave the example above about simple conversations, such as the one recently between my employees.  Part of why that conversation worked was that I’ve been working with these folks for a while, they trust me, and I have a good reputation in my workplace and in my field.  A good reputation, being well respected, makes something “weird” like druidry go down easier.  This is why timing really matters–I don’t want to open with “I’m a druid” to new people, necessarily.  I prefer to build relationships first, and then, over time, they can get to know this side of me after they’ve already formed a basic opinion of me. Those conversations will have much more impact this way.

Trail into the woods....

Trail into the woods….leading to understanding and respect!

One of the strategies that I find helpful is looking for similarities.  When I talked to my mother about druidry for the first time, I took her for a walk in the woods where she prays.  Then, I talked about my path of druidry and how it shared many things with her path of Christianity–she seeks messages in nature, she goes to the woods to commune and pray, and she recognizes nature as God’s creation.  I seek messages in nature, I got to the woods for reverence, and I recognize nature as a sacred place.  When you frame it in this way, what seems foreign becomes familiar.

 

Go-to-Responses. Let’s say you decide to be fairly open about who you are as a druid.  If you are, people will ask questions from time to time.  I prefer to be prepared and know what I’m going to say rather than flounder.  Thus, I have developed some “go to” statements that help me talk about druidry.  I usually practice these from time to time. I like to remind myself that hat the first impression is possibly the only impression you can make. Here are a few common ones and how I frame it:

What is a druid?  Druidry is a spiritual tradition rooted in connecting with nature.  For druids, nature is our sacred text and our church, in the sense that we derive deep spiritual meaning from nature.  One of the things we do, for example, is work to attune our own lives with the seasonal changes that are happening around us.  Especially with some of the challenges we face in the 21st century, we see reconnecting with nature critical to our own lives.

What do druids believe? Druidry is a set of spiritual practices, and we honor belief as an individual’s choice.  That means that different druids have a differing understanding of deity, the afterlife, and other such questions.  I am an animist druid, which means that I do not work with the concept of deity, but rather, understand all living beings and natural features (such as forests, rivers, or stones) as having spirits. I work closely with those spirits as part of my own druid path.

What is X holiday about?  I generally will explain the wheel of the year and how we look to nature for guidance; then I shift to talking about where we are at this point in the year and the closest holiday.  Most of the time, I get asked about Samhain, and I would share something like this:  Samhain to many druids is really about two things: honoring various kinds of ancestors and letting go  Ancestors to druids include blood ancestors, but may also include ancestors of the land, ancestors of our druid tradition, ancestors of our profession, and others.  We remember them, honor them, and commune with them.  If you look on the landscape right now, we’ve just had the first frost, the leaves are falling from the trees, and winter is setting in. This season is over, and a new one is beginning.  We work with that energy at this time of year.

 

Public druidry.  The final strategy I use is some public outreach and public druidry.  For example, in the last few months, I’ve been asked to come and speak about druidry at the local UU church and offer a lesson in druidry for some of the middle school kids that go to the church.  Soon, I will also be giving a talk for a pan-spiritual group on campus who wants to know about druids.  I think that once you’ve been walking this path a while and you feel ready, this is good work to do. Every person who hears about you now knows something new.  That person in the future is more likely to build bridges with you and others.

 

Druid's prayer for peace painting

Druid’s prayer for peace painting

Subversive druidry. Finally, I like to get the ideas of druidry out there sometimes without even attaching the label.  For example, I have been giving medicinal and edible plant walks for many years.  As part of my plant walks, I talk about reciprocation, repair, regeneration–concepts that I understand because I am a druid.  These are concepts that lead people to deeply connect with nature and begin to see nature as not only a physical thing, but a metaphysical thing.  To be clear: I’m not trying to create new druids. But I am trying to expose people to some druid thinking so that perhaps later, when they hear the label, it doesn’t seem as weird.

 

The Work of Peace.  I want to close with what I consider to be the most important part of all of this work–the work of peace.  In the druid revival tradition, peace is a central part of what we do.  At the beginning of our rituals, we declare peace in the four quarters.  Really think about that–we magically and powerfully proclaim peace in the four directions.  We have druid’s peace prayers and an emphasis on aspects of peace in the druid’s prayer (understanding, wisdom, knowledge, justice, the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother). Each time we say one of these prayers or declare peace in the quarters, we are sending that prayer into the world.  Everything I’m saying here, is another way to pray for peace.  Even if we can’t do anything else, or aren’t comfortable doing anything else, we can always offer that prayer for peace.

 

I have a lot more I could write on this topic, but I think this is a good start to talking about these issues.  Readers, I want to encourage you to post with your own experiences and suggestions–things that worked well for you, things that did not, experiences you have had.  Thank you and blessings!

 

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?

 

 

 

Ancestral Herbalism and Samhain: Working Deeply with Rosemary October 27, 2019

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

As we quickly approach Samhain, it is a useful practice to spend some time with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and build her into your Samhain practices. In this post, we look into some of the magic and medicine of Rosemary, and I share a number of ancestor and Samhain-focused practices that you can use with Rosemary.

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

Before we get into what you can make or do with rosemary, let’s spend some time exploring and understanding this ancient herb. Rosemary has been with humanity almost as long as we have written records. Native to the mediterranean region, rosemary was first found referenced on cuineform tablets from Ancient Egypt that are from 5000 BCE–thus, humanity has at least an 8000 year old relationship with this herb (but I suspect it is much longer than our written history!). It was spread to China as early as the 2nd century CE, and to Europe in the middle ages.  It came to North America and South America in the 1700s and now has global reach.

 

The “officinalis” in Rosemary’s latin name indicates that this was an herb used as of the materia medica in ancient Rome and beyond. While Linneaus in the 18th century came up with the Latin taxonomy of naming plants, and thus gave Rosemary her official “officinalis” designation, the uses of this plant go back quite further.  In fact, the term “rosemary” derives from Latin, ros marinus (“dew of the sea”).  Even the word itself has a wonderful history.

 

Rosemary has been considered by many cultures as a sacred herb tied to memory and remembrance, and love. This was certainly known in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as in much of the other cultures in the Mediterranean, where rosemary was used both for weddings (in the form of sprigs or wreaths) as well as for funerals to honor the dead.  It is burned as incense, used in cooking, used as medicine and used in funeral ceremonies–a tradition that continues to modern times in Australia and other nations. Thus, you might say that Rosemary is an ally to us both in life, and in death.

Rosemary in flower

Grieve speaks of the different rosemary customs in her entry in A Modern Herbal, particularily surrounding memory and rememberance. This is a common and well known use, such as represented in Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”  Many herbalists recognize the usefulness of rosemary both for strengthening the memory, but also working with us a plant spirit ally in helping us remember. Memory can be a fickle thing this day and age, especially with phones rather than our minds and hearts doing the rememberance.  Rosemary, thus, is a potent ally for us, particularly at Samhain when reflecting back, honoring the past, and honoring those who came before us is central. 

 

Rosemary is also an incredible herbal ally. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write of Rosemary and its many uses.  Modern herbalists recognize rosemary as useful both as an essential oil as well in its plant forms.  Every part of the plant can be used medicinally. Both the oil and the herb can be used as a carminitive, that is, offering beneficial and healing action on the digestive system and aiding in the reduction of gas and digestion of food (in fact, you will find that many culinary herbs aren’t just for taste, but have these same kinds of actions–which is probably why they were traditionally used in cooking!)   Rosemary, in tea or tincture form, can also be used to help calm the nerves.   Finally, rosemary is very useful in a hair wash to strengthen the hair and encourage new hair growth (I use a vinegar infused with rosemary often!)  Research has also shown that rosemary oil can be used to increase alertness and cognitive function, which is pretty cool!

 

There’s a lot more that could be said about rosemary’s virtues, but I think you get the idea–Rosemary is an amazing Samhain herb for so many reasons.  So let’s get to some of the stuff you can make and do with rosemary as a focal herb for this time of year.

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

Rosemary (on its own or combined with other herbs) make fantastic herbs for doing any kind of memory work or clearing work. Make sure you use fresh rosemary for your smudge stick making–dried rosemary is brittle and easily falls off the branch. I usually gather up rosemary in the weeks before hard frost (for me in Western Pennsylvania on the US East Coast, this is usually 1-2 weeks before Samhain arrives).  Some I save for culinary use, and the rest I use in smudge stick making. I have full details for how to make your own smudges and a list of recipes for smudges. For Samhain, and ancestor work, I like the following combinations:

  • Rosemary (alone) for deep ancestor work or memory work (such as working with the ancient art of memory mansions, etc)
  • Rosemary, Lavender, and Mugwort for deep dreaming work (which is best done between Samhain and Imbolc)
  • Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme for helping me shift my energies from the light half to the dark half of the year, and accept the frost and cold that is to come.

If you are growing rosemary itself, don’t overlook the roots as another useful part of the plant for incense and smudges–it has a more woody and deep aroma and is excellent!

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

You can construct an herbal oil using rosemary leaf and rosemary essential oil that excellent.  I like to use a combination of rosemary and borage for this work, but you can use other plant combinations.  To make your oil, crush fresh or dried rosemary and borage and place in a small mason jar.  Cover the jar with fractionated coconut oil (prefered over olive oil for this recipe, but you could also use almond or olive oil–whatever you have around).  Wait 1 week (for fresh herbs) or one moon cycle (for dried herbs) and then strain.  For a bit of added punch, add rosemary essential oil (2% dilution, or about 10-15 drops per cup of oil).

Keep your rosemary oil in an oil roller or jar and rub on your temples and heart for any kind of visioning or past life work.  It also doubles as an excellent “memory” oil for wanting to jog the memory or wanting to hold something important in your memory and not lose it.

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

One of my very favorite Samhain traditions is to invite my ancestors to tea.  For this, I typically make a tea of three herbs: rosemary, lavender, and mugwort (small amount of mugwort because it can be bitter) and I sweeten it with honey.  To make the tea, boil water, add your herbs (about 1/2 tbsp of herbs per cup of tea), let seep for 5-10 min, and then strain and stir in your honey.

 

The ritual is simple and can be performed anytime around Samhain (I like to do this Samhain eve).  To set up the ritual, you will need a teapot and two teacups and candles.  I start by  then light a candle and leave it in my western window (also traditional).  I light candles around my space and place a blanket on the floor for me to sit on.  You should also have a large empty bowl.

Rosemary

To begin the ritual, I open up a sacred space (using AODA’s Solitary Grove ritual) and when opening the space, indicate that the sacred space is traversable by any ancestor who wishes to visit.  I then pour myself a cup of tea and wait. When an ancestor arrives, I likewise pour them tea and we sit and converse using spirit communication techniques (if you haven’t yet honed your skill in this area, a divination system like an oracle deck would work great).  After we are done conversing, the ancestor has taken their tea energetically.  I then pour it into the bowl and see if another ancestor wants to come and have tea.  I have met many fascinating ancestors this way–of land, tradition, blood, and bone.

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

Samhain is one of my favorite times to really “cook” for a festival, particularly cakes, breads, and other doughy goodness.

If you are lucky enough to have chestnut flour available (which you can create yourself if you have access to some chestnuts), this is an amazing cake for Samhain that combines rosemary with the hopeful and strong chestnut.

For those who aren’t off hoarding and cracking chestnuts, I highly recommend this rosemary bread that you can make in a dutch oven.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Rosemary is such a powerful and potent plant ally for us, particularly at Samhain.  Dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Rosemary.  Let me know if you try anything here!

 

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply October 21, 2019

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.