The Druid's Garden

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

Honoring the Ancestors of Land, Tradition, and Blood October 15, 2017

As the world  (where I am at, at least!) gets bathed in frost, as the plants wither and die, as the trees bathe themselves in color and then drop their leaves, as the cold wind blows and as the darkness sets in, we in the druid tradition–and in any other traditions–turn to think about the ancestors. In this post, we’ll explore the global traditions surrounding honoring the dead that tie to August-October and honoring the dead to see similarities, we’ll discuss three types of ancestors the druid tradition recognizes, and then we’ll explore ways to honor the ancestors.

 

Food for the Ancestors!

Food for the Ancestors!

Global Ancestral Traditions

When you start digging into ancestor traditions around the world, some striking similarities seem to emerge.

  • The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a blending of European traditions and Aztec honoring of the dead, goes from Oct 31 – Nov 2. As part of this celebration, Mexicans that believe that the souls of the dead return to the living and elaborate and colorful altars of food and gifts are prepared.
  • The Japanese Buddhists celebrate Obon in August; Obon also honors lost ancestors and the Japanese believe it is a time when ancestors temporarily return to the land of the living.
  • In Korea, Chuseok, which is a three day celebration of thank-giving and honoring of the ancestors, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is either in September or October. This holiday includes thankfulness for the harvest and visiting the graves of the ancestors.
  • In China, Buddhists and Taoists have an entire month dedicated to the ancestors called “Hungry month” where the dead are said to walk among the living (held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, or August). The spirits are fed and given offerings on an altar to appease their hungry spirits.
  • Gai Jatra is a festival of cows and the dead in Nepal, held in August. The Cow, the Hindu sacred animal, is led through the streets to help deceased family members cross over.
  • Finally, in Cambodia, Pchum Ben, a festival of honoring the dead, is celebrated in mid-September to mid-October for 15 days. Cambodians believe the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at this point and dead ancestors may return to seek out the living. They dress in white (Cambodian colors of mourning) and visit temples and also offer food at temples for the hungry ghosts.

 

The festival of Samhain itself came from the Gaelic tradition (which also celebrated Imboc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh). On the Hill of Tara, a mound called the Mound of Hostages built between 3350 and 2800 BCE has a cave that is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. In the Samhain tradition, it was believed that veil bewteen the otherworld was thinner and the souls of the dead could pass through. The souls were thought to return to their homes and seek hospitality, so offerings were left for them. Great fires burned for various rituals to protect livestock through the winter. People often dressed up in costumes and went about door to door for food to confuse the spirits (which is where modern Halloween traditions come from).

 

These tradtions are all notably similar in their understanding of what happens with regards to the dead, what should be done, and when it should be done. Sometime in the fall, somewhere bewteen August and early November, something changes in the fabric of the world and the “veil” grows thinner and those who have died are able to briefly return and walk among us. They are often hungry and in search of their fanu, and so, various preparations need to be made in order to honor them which may involve preparing home altars, visiting temples, feasting, and making offerings of food.

 

Three Kinds of Ancestors

For many of the cultures above, those living on ancestral homelands–the ancestors would include spirits who lived on the land, who created and passed on the traditions, and who were blood ancestors. In the druid tradition, particularly in non UK contexts, we have roots from many places.  And so we often honor at three kinds of ancestors. We honor the ancestors of the blood: the contributors to the physical DNA within us, our genetic heritage, people of our family lines that came before. We honor the ancestors of the land: those who lived and tended the land before us.  And we honor the ancestors of our tradition: those who helped create the druid tradition and bring it into being (both ancient and modern). Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:

 

Ancestors of the Blood.  This is the most common definition of “Ancestors” in the US and usually around the world.  We carry the genetic heritage and legacy of our ancestors.  We know now, for example, that genes can be expressed or repressed by how people live; our ancestors’ and their lives, are literally written into our bodies and into the DNA present.  The work of our ancestors are also present in the landscape: how they lived, where they lived, what they did while they lived, and so on. Even in the US, with its lack of attention to the metaphysical realm, you’ll hear people talk about a deceased grandmother that they feel is “watching over me” and so on, so even if there isn’t a fully expressed ancestor tradition, there are small pieces.  We also have Memorial Day, which is a close to an ancestral tradition as we have, where, at least in my family, in late May we visit the graves of ancestors and tend to them. It is to these ancestors that have literally brought us into being that we give thanks.

 

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Ancestors of our lands. For those of us living in North America, especially on the East Coast where I live, the peoples who once tended these lands for tens of thousands of years are no longer generally present.  These are people who tended this land for generations, who understood and interacted with the spirits of the land, and who were merciessly driven from it or forcefully relocated to other parts of the US. Now, by no means am I advocating appropriating any of their traditions. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable and relevant to honor those who came before–I have always gotten a good response when making such offerings. I think this is especially important for druids who are honoring the land–in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, she makes the strong case that not only were native people critical to creating an incredible abundance found in the Americas, they also did plant breeding work, allowing certain plants to thrive through their careful propagation. The land that we love as druids is a land that was so carefully tended by their hands.

 

Also as part of the ancestors of the land, for me, are the 1930’s conservationists who did so much to establish the state and federal park system here in the US.  After I visited Shenandoah National Park a few years ago and saw the careful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enormous amounts of people who were put to work creating the park systems, I wanted to honor these ancestors as well.  The conservationists of that era did us a tremendous service by having the vision to preserve land, to set it aside, and to make it freely accessible.  That is well deserving of an offering!

 

Ancestors of the Tradition. The final kind of ancestor we could honor are ancestors of our tradition–those who have influenced the practices that we hold.  I generally honor three groups here: the Ancient druids (a lump group, since we dont’ know any of them by name).  The druid revival druids, many of whom we know, like Iolo Morganwg. Morganwg has gotten a terrible rap. Let’s be clear: Iolo Morganwg is one of the key ancestors in our tradition and if were not for him, I believe we would not have a tradition. In the more modern movement, we might look to ancestors of the tradition like Ross Nichols, who, with Gerald Gardener who sat in a bar in Glastonbury and developed the modern wheel of the year and founded OBOD, or Dr. Juliet Ashley, who was instrumental in developing many of the frameworks currently used by AODA and Mother Betty Reeves, one of the Archdruids in AODA who helped pass the tradition to John Michael Greer so he could bring the order back into a healthy place. My point is, without these ancestors’ contributions, we would not have a druid tradition–and the specific traditions I pratice–today. Its important that we honor them, as they are ancestors of this path.  Your own ancestor of tradition path may look a little different than mine, of course, depending on what specific path you follow.

 

How do we honor the ancestors?

Honoring All Ancestors: As described in the worldwide traditions above, some of the ways we can honor the ancestors are as follows:

  • A Spirit/Ancestor Altar. Creating an altar to honor the ancestors and make offerings either outdoors or indoors (or at another sacred place).  You can leave offerings of food here.
  • Making offerings of other kinds. A pinch of tobacco for native peoples of the land, a bit of burbon, picking up trash in the forest in honor of the conservationists, and so on, may be useful offerings that can be made to honor certain groups of ancestors. Remember that an “offering” doesn’t just have to be a physical symbolic thing that you give–it can also be your time and energy.
  • Feeding the Ancestors. This may include something called a “spirit plate” that is left outside (traditionally in the west), preparing a feast for them, food offerings at an altar, and so on.
  • A Dumb Supper.  A tradition circulating within various forms of pagan celebrations is a “dumb supper” where you invite the ancestors to dinner.  In this case, two plates are set for each participant–one for the participant, and one for their ancestors.  The way I’ve done it most commonly was that we create two plates of food and eat in silence, listening for the voices of the ancestors.  A cup of mugwort tea may also be enjoyed to open the senses for the voices of the ancestors.  Aftewards, the spirit plates are left on an outdoor altar till morning.

 

Honoring the ancestors of our blood: To honor the ancestors of our blood, you might also choose some additional activites.  For example, I believe it is a wonderful honor to find out as much as you can about your ancestors, where they came from, and who they are.  In the USA, in particular, we have often completely lost these cultural traditions. finding out who they were, learning about our histories of our own memories of our families.

  • Writing our own histories so that when we become ancestors, or children and children’s children will have that material. My ancestors didn’t do a good job of this; or if they did, this has been lost and it is of great sadness to me.
  • Learning about the history of your last name. One of the ways I did this was to study the cultural heritage of my last name, O’Driscoll. I managed to find this book on the Internet from the O’Driscoll Clan, in Ireland, called O”Driscolls: Past and Present. I now have a much better understanding of who the O’Driscolls were and the name that I carry.
  • Learning and practicing one or more cultural traditions from your ancestors.  If you are like me, you don’t have any cultural traditions of your ancestors left.  I have decided to learn some of them and carry on traditions from my ancestors.  One of these is creating pysanky eggs, information which I shared on this blog before.
  • Learning the stories of the ancestors.  Learn a story or two from the lands where you can trace your genetic heritage.  Perhaps, perform it for family members!

 

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land: The ancestors of the land are many and diverse where I live. We have the Native Americans of various tribes who used to live here  (such as the Shawnee, who were the most local to my area). We have those who came here after, and who unfortunately, pillaged the land to build industry–and for me, these are also ancestors of blood. Finally, we have conservationists who have worked to preserve a beautiful park system throughout the state and country.

  • Honoring Native Ancestors: Learning to tend the land.  There are lots of ways to honor the native ancestors of the land, but to me, engaging in their work and tending the land is one of the best. I believe that we need to re-learn how to inhabit a particular place, tend it, and bring it back into healthy production for the benefit of all life. We need to reclaim our last heritage of humans interacting with the land–again, I point to the incredible gift that M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild is–her book showed that it was by the judicious use and propagation of the wilds that the native peoples brought abundance and a deep ecological knowledge. The best thing we can do to honor the ancestors of this land is to treat this land with reverence and respect and to learn their knowledge. Because of this, I study native plant uses, I study the traditions of the ancestors of the land, and I learn how to culitvate and harvest plants. In other words, I re-establish my relationship with the land, and through that, the ancestors of the land.
  • Conservation Activities: Because I recognize not only native ancestors of the land but also those in the CCC and other groups who essentially “saved” large parts of land for state and federal parks, I believe that the best way you can honor these ancestors of the land is by continuing their work. This may be political advocacy to save lands that they had a hand in protecting, trash clean up work, re-introducing native species to lands, and more.
  • Reparation work. Given that my own ancestors also helped to damage the lands and contribute to some of the ecological challenges faced here in my local ecosystem, I also do repiration work on behalf of my ancestors. Most often, I do this through land tending through the practice of permaculture (see the first bullet point) but also do land healing work.

 

Ancestors of our tradition: we do have many ancestors in the tradition of Druidry. They are important ancestors, and I mentioned some of them before: Iolo Morganwg, William Stuckley, Ross Nichols, and those who brought forth and continued the druid revival and continued it. We don’t now all of their names. But I still think they are desrving of our honor.

  • Readings.  One of the things I like to do to honor the ancestors of the tradition is to read a short paragraph of their writings in a sacred space (if a text is available).  It is a simple act, but acknowleding their work, their efforts, and their life energy is also important.
  • Altar: I like to honor my ancestors of the tradition on my main druid altar.  I made an ancestor oracle recently (see next week’s post!) and have all of my ancestors there on the altar, including those from the druid traiditon.

As druids, I believe it is very important we think about where we came from. Iolo Morganwg and others of the early druid revival have gotten their names sloshed through the mud in an unfair way. Iolo didn’t plan on having his papers published; it was also quite common in the day to “discover” ancient texts. Why are we making him have the same standards as academic scholarship in the 20th century? There’s this body of sacred wisdom and knowledge that we have been given access to, that has been tremendously helping us through these difficult times. We need to honor those who shaped this tradition.   I think this is very appropriate for ritual, but I also think studying those ancient works and using them, integrating them, is also really important.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought–my goal was to tease apart the idea of “honoring the ancestors” and show how rich and incredible this work can be.  Next week, I’ll share details of how to create an ancestor oracle to further some of this work.  Blessings as we continue into the dark half of the year!

 

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Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana) June 4, 2017

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

Save

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VI: Working with Sites that Will Be Destroyed April 2, 2016

As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, the energetic land healing work that you do is largely based on the situation at hand–what is occurring, what has occurred, or what will occur. Sometimes, you are aware in advance that the land will be severely damaged or destroyed. Trees being cut down for new human structures, pipelines being put in the ground, new strip malls being built, new highways going in, scheduled logging, routine “cutting” of trees under power lines, massive surface mining operations and mountaintop removal, and much, much more are very common these days. Lands and waterways all over the place are under duress at present, and this kind of destruction is common in every corner of the world. Its one thing to hear about these issues, and its another thing to be directly confronted with them.  Today’s post is going to look at what we can do to help energetically and physically with sites that are going to be destroyed.  We’ll also briefly explore the self care strategies necessary for this kind of work. Today, we tackle what I consider to be the hardest situation of healing work: knowing that impending destruction will take place–and being willing to do something about it.

 

Note: Today’s post continues my land healing series, and if you haven’t read the earlier posts, I would strongly suggest you read them in order first, as this post builds on the previous ones and doesn’t explain terms that I’ve gone into depth with before. Here are links to the full series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

 

Remember that THIS is why we heal the land!

Remember that THIS is why we heal the land!

Self Care Strategies, Mental Health, and Environmental Destruction

Going to a place that will be destroyed prior to its destruction, holding space for it, and witnessing the aftermath, is in my opinion one of the hardest situations to work with as a land healer.  And so, before we can attend to the land, I want to briefly through the mental health implications of such work.  Grist magazine recently ran a story on the mental health implications of mountaintop removal, one of the first stories I’ve ever seen on this topic. As the article suggests, the loss of “homeplace”, places where one grew up or is intimately connected with the land, has severe mental health consequences.  Of particular note, high rates of clinical depression and higher rates of suicide are linked with such destruction. While the Grist article focused on mountaintop removal, other articles and studies have looked at the overall linkage to environmental destruction and mental health in places all over the globe; one study in Australia is of particular note. I don’t really think we need scientific studies to tell us how bad watching environmental destruction is firsthand is–however, maybe knowing there is scientific research helps us feel less “unbalanced” or “crazy” after working on such a site. What I really worry about are the people who feel nothing, the people who actively destroy.

 

The truth is, This is the really difficult stuff, the stuff you wish you didn’t have to see, the stuff you wish you didn’t have to experience.  No amount of daily protective or energetic work takes away that pain and suffering that you feel as a witness. I just want to clarify that, and tell you that it’s OK to feel this way. As I wrote about last week, part of what we have to do is start acknowledging, paying attention, and holding space.  It’s also OK if you feel you can’t handle something, or if you have to step back for a bit.  This stuff is overwhelming at times (especially depending on where you live).  I’ve been feeling a bit unbalanced in this regard since coming back to PA because of the many kinds of destruction here present: logging, fracking, mountaintop removal, acid mine runoff, factory pollution–to name a few.  Its hard to deal with seeing this stuff everywhere, often, and even trying to go into a natural place free of fracking wells, for example, is a difficult thing to do.

 

Given this, its important that as we do various healing work on sites–particularly those that will be destroyed or undergoing active harm–we practice self care. I have found, personally, that doing this energetic work outlined here in this post really helps me overcome the strain and pain of these kinds of situations.  For me, painting through it, or playing my flute, or visiting places that are protected for rejuvenation also helps (I’ll write about this in more detail in an upcoming post).  I’ll also note that going to places that are actively regenerating, and looking for the regeneration, and regenerating it physically is another way to work through the trauma.  But its there, and its real, and we can talk openly about it and acknowledge it for what it is.  And with that said, let’s look at some specific strategies for healing for sites that will be destroyed.

 

Strategies for Land Healing on Sites that Will Be Destroyed

 

Experiencing the powerlessness of visiting a site that will be destroyed is difficult, but you are not actually powerless.  I learned this lesson in Michigan–we had a replacement oil pipeline coming in, cutting across the whole state, to replace an old pipeline that was no longer in use.  The new pipeline required a lot of digging up of the earth, cutting of trees, damaging the land, and it was really awful (I blogged about it a bit here and some of the restoration work here; I also wrote about oil pipelines energetically here). This particular pipeline was doubly damaging because the pipeline was pumping tar sands oil through its veins, and that’s really bad stuff for the land. A good friend of mine had a number of acres of forests that would be cut along the pipeline route. She asked me to come and do what I could for the trees and the land, as a druid. And so, I and a few others came together and did what we could–and we were rather amazed by the experience.  I can tell you this–doing something, the somethings outlined here, make a world of difference when compared with doing nothing.  I’ll also mention that a lot of what you can do on such a site depends on if its private or public, and so I’m going to share some strategies that can work for different kinds of sites.  Most of these are energetic healing strategies, but a few have physical components as well, and doing some work on both levels is really effective.

 

Skunk cabbage coming back after the land has done some healing!

Skunk cabbage coming back after the land has done some healing!

Communicating with the land. I begin this kind of work by speaking with the land, using both inner and outer approaches.  For those who don’t know what I mean here, I would suggest reviewing my discussions of connecting with trees on the inner and outer planes–most of what I wrote in those posts applies.  I share with the land what I know will happen and when, and listen to what it responds in turn.  I offer to help and ask it of its needs.  Sometimes, I am asked to return at a later date.  Sometimes, I am asked to leave and not return.  But most of the time, I’m asked to stay and help as I am able.  This, as I wrote in the post on the process of unfolding, is the necessary first step.

 

Saving Seeds and Transplanting. For trees that will be cut, places that will be destroyed, etc, I highly advocate transplanting and saving seeds.  Even a single plant saved from a site that will be destroyed can be a very healing action.  For example, when my friend’s land was being logged in Michigan, I gathered hawthorn haws and apples from the trees; these I planted in fields where they would have a chance to grow.  I also saved a New England Aster plant that I transplanted to my homestead, and saved seeds from a number of other plants.  You can’t save everything, but you can save a few key things, and the land and her spirits find this kind of work extraordinarily healing. Even more powerful–if you save the seeds from those that will be lost, and later, you can go replant them in the same spot–you are engaging in extremely powerful healing work. I’ll also say that if you can bless those seeds, using something like what I wrote about here, and then replant them, that’s even better. What this does, essentially, is ensure a future for some of the plants and trees. You are saving this land’s offspring and future offspring. There is nothing more sacred and powerful than that act.

 

Now there is a whole other layer to this, I’ve discovered, through the practice of herbal medicine.  The seeds I mentioned above that I gathered are all healing plants and trees.  New England Aster, for example, is a fantastic lung relaxant plant and something that a number of people now take for treating asthma and other lung conditions (myself included!) When I replanted that New England Aster plant, I saved its seeds and I harvested some of the flowers each year for medicine. That medicine was shared with others.  So were the seeds–I started them–growing new asters, that I’ve given to people and made medicine from (in fact, I have some downstairs right now growing for new friends here in PA!)  Think about that energetically–here is a site that is devalued through human activity. When nature is replaced with something else, whether that is a strip mall, an oil pipeline, and so forth, the message is that nature is of little to no value in its current form. But, through herbal medicine, plant, and seed saving,  I’ve given that land a different narrative.  Showing that the plants it holds, through their very nature, are valued.

 

The New England Aster seeds

Saving the seeds…

Putting the Land in Hibernation. One of the best things you can do in this circumstance, and what a lot of these other strategies that I describe next are getting at, is to put the land in stasis or hibernation energetically, to help it disconnect in some way from the pain and suffering that will happen. This is really the underlying key this kind of work. If you can find a way to lower the energetic vibrations and consciousness of the land, to disconnect it, to help send its spirits away, that is the best thing you can do. Its kind of like giving a suffering person a pain killer–it helps make the process bearable, even though its still painful.  We’ll look at a number of techniques aimed at doing this–and you can also let your own intuition guide you in this respect.

 

 

Working with the Stones. I have found, at times, that with logging or other surface destruction (something that is not impacting the bedrock), you can preserve the energetic patterns of the land by sending them into them into the bedrock, into the soil, beneath the land.  This is another “putting the land to sleep” kind of strategy, and one that is particularly powerful. The rocks can hold this energy for a time, sometimes, a very long time. Its hard to put this practice into words.  Essentially, every living landscape has knowledge, wisdom, energetic patterns, that are in need of preservation in the face of destruction.  These energetic patterns are part of the land uses to heal and regenerate when the time is right.  I believe, that if you do this work with the stones before destruction, it can help regenerate the land much more effectively once regeneration can occur.

 

Part of the reason that this works was revealed to me when I was at Ohiopyle State Park in the Laurel Highlands region of PA late last year. I was walking there with a fellow druid and dear friend, and we came across all of these fossils there on the edge of the Youghiogheny river. The fossils were from very ancient forests, ancient trees and branches, shells and more. I realized, at that moment, that the stones and the living landscape were extremely intimately connected–the stones themselves had been living plants at one time–and now they are all beneath the living landscape. I had been using these connections could be used for healing work for some time, but this realization helped me understand why.  These stones, fossilized stones in particular (of which we have layers all over the planet) can handle living resonances particularly well.  And hold them for as long as necessary.

 

My method of doing this is simple–I enter a state of meditation and open myself up to the rhythms and flows of the land.  I explain what is happening, and show the spirits of the land what I could do with regards to the stones. If I get the affirmative, I essentially take those same energetic patterns, and, using the solar current, push them deep within the stones, deeper than any destruction can go. IMoving energy in this way can take a lot of effort–and a lot of practice.  Many of the energy healing practices (like Reiki) or magical practices help attune you to the movement, raising, and flowing of energy, and so those are particularly helpful for doing this work, especially on a larger scale.  Reiki practice and other esoteric forms of energy work, for example, teach you how to work with others’ energy (whether that other is a person, plant, or landscape) while not sacrificing your own or sending your own somewhere else.  Make sure, if you are doing this work, that you are practicing extreme caution in this regard.  Otherwise, this work can be extraordinarily depleting, which is not what we are going for!

 

I’ll also note that this particular “stone” technique would not be as effective for fracking and mountaintop removal.  Oil pipelines that go only 10 or 20 feet below the surface would probably be OK. I am in the process, now, of developing strategies for the fracking wells and mountaintop removal–and when I’ve done so, I can share those as well.

 

This is ghost pipe when its a little past its prime and is going to seed. There is a wild bumblebee on the flower! You can also see the dried ghost pipe sticking up as they complete their growth cycle.

This is ghost pipe when its a little past its prime and is going to seed. There is a wild bumblebee on the flower! You can also see the dried ghost pipe sticking up as they complete their growth cycle.

Working with Ghost Pipe to Distance the Pain. One particular plant spirit energy is good for this kind of work, especially for when the destruction starts happening or is ongoing. Its a plant called Indian Ghost Pipe, Ghost Flower, Indian pipe (Latin Name: Monotropa Uniflora). This plant, when used for human herbal healing, offers distancing from pain and suffering or, as Sean Donohue writes, it helps in “putting the pain beside you.” Ghost pipe also functions as a plant that helps cross the boundaries between the worlds, very useful when destruction is imminent or just beginning. I have worked extensively with this plant over a period of years, and I have found it to be an extremely potent ally for land healing work–both for you as the healer and for the land.

 

What this plant does, energetically, is essentially provide a buffer to the pain and suffering the land experiences both before the event and in the middle of ongoing destruction.  Its an exceedingly good plant to use for palliative care applications as well as this specific one.

 

Usually, to work with this plant spirit in land healing, I will do one of several things.  My first method is to see if there are any ghost pipes growing on the land (they come out in midsummer, after good rains, usually for me here that’s late June into July and August).  If they are present, I sit and connect with them.  A lot of times though, Ghost Pipe isn’t present on the land.  And so for this, I tincture the plant (I make a tincture in the same method of my write up on magical crafting and hawthorn). Note Ghost pipe is particularly watery, so a high proof alcohol is needed for the tincture.  I water the tincture down quite a bit, putting a dozen or so drops in fresh spring water (blessed through a healing ritual). Then, when I go to do the land healing work, I will bring the ghost pipe-blessed water with me, dropping it at intervals around the location, usually on trees and roots. If I can, I will try to drop it on at least the four quarters of the space, or find other prominent markers (large dominant trees work well).  Alternatively, if bringing the ghost pipe tincture and spring water isn’t possible, I will place the tincture on some stones that I will bless, and then bring them with me to the site. If I don’t have any tincture or stones, I can still summon this plant in my mind’s eye, and envision the Indian pipe rising up out of the ground and covering the land (I’ve used that particular strategy when I witness suffering–like a truckload of factory farmed chickens going off to the slaughter while driving down the highway, for example).  This year, I’m also going to make a magical anointing oil with ghost pipe (probably dried ghost pipe due to its high water content) and use that as well.

 

I would suggest if you want to use this plant in the manner I am suggesting here, you should start cultivating a relationship with it in your own life: finding it in the forest, sitting with it, tincturing it, taking some tincture when you need it, etc. In fact, it works extraordinarily well in regards to giving you processing space from the mental health difficulties associated with this work.  This plant is extremely distinctive and nearly impossible to mistake for another (and yes, its a plant, not a mushroom).

 

A recent painting of ghost pipe I did to study the plant further

A recent painting of ghost pipe I did to study the plant further

I will end by saying that Ghost Pipe has a tremendously large range in North America (see this link).  However, if you live outside of its range or in a different part of the world, I am certain that you can find another plant with similar features–you’ll need to consult local herbals (or herbalists, medicine makers, wild men/women, etc); alternatively, you can trade for some from someone living in an area where it grows (like me!).

 

Distance Palliative Care and Healing Work

A final technique that I’ll share for now involves taking a stone or some other natural thing from the land (a piece of branch, etc) that can then be worked on further at a distance. I did this kind of work when I was in Michigan a lot with regards to this pipeline and some other sites that needed ongoing palliative care–if I felt led, I would take a stone with me and bring it to a special altar I had setup on my homestead. The altar had protective warding around it (both stones and water) that helped shield the rest of my sacred sanctuary from anything that might be brought in with the linked stone. Then, at regular intervals, I would do whatever healing work I could–play music there, just sit there and hold space, pour blessed water over the stone, etc.  Sometimes, at a later point, I would return the stone to the land. Sometimes, it would stay for a long period of time, just sitting there.  I use my intuition in this regard.

 

I think that’s enough for this week–I’m over 3000 words here, and there’s lots more to say.  We’ll continue to work through these different techniques–and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences with what I’ve just posted.

 

A Druid’s Primer for Land Healing, Part V: The Magic of Witnessing, Holding Space, Apology, and Remembrance March 27, 2016

Sometimes, the hidden, the unacknowledged hurts are the worst kind. These are the kind that you bury, deep within yourself, or that a society pretends never happened. We hear stories of these every day–massive cover-ups of the truth of crimes being revealed, people coming forth after decades of silence, the relief that one feels when one can finally talk about something he or she experienced. If you’ve ever been in this situation, where something happened to you, and you were forced to keep it silent, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here. Having others know, to see, to understand alone are acts of tremendous healing power. And it is in this topic where we continue our series on land healing, and the work we can do as druids and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, permaculturists, and those who fight for a better today and tomorrow.

 

In my latest post on this series two weeks ago, we explored the first steps towards land healing–that of deep listening, ascertaining the nature of the healing work, and building trust. In today’s post, we explore the beginning of healing techniques: the magic of acknowledgement, witnessing, holding space, and apology. These are techniques that are appropriate for the many different kinds of healing we can enact, including both palliative care and land healing.   These are techniques that I almost always use for my land healing work, sometimes as part of ritual and other work, and sometimes on their own. I find that they are almost universally appropriate, even when some of the techniques we explore further on in this series are not.  So let’s take a look at what these techniques are, why they work, and how to enact them.

 

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Rolling Hills and Mountains (small painting by yours truly)

Acknowledgement and Witnessing

Many times, in land healing work, we discover something that is in the middle of happening, or something that has already happened. We aren’t all powerful, we don’t command sums of money or influence that can change the destruction of our lands in many cases–and we certainly can’t stop what has already occurred. But what we can do is to bear witness. To see what is happening, or has happened, to remember, to share the memory of what has been lost (see remembering, below). I find myself doing this work often with cut trees—remembering them and honoring them long after they are gone.

 

To go back to the example I opened up with, there is deep healing power in acknowledging the suffering of another.  Acknowledgement is where we start–its the first powerful step we take in healing work of any kind. We cannot address a problem if we fail to acknowledge that there is one.  I believe that  acknowledgement is one biggest issues we have at present–there is this collective blindness, this collective unwillingness to engage, see, or acknowledge, what is happening around us.  I see this a lot firsthand here where we have a lot of fracking and environmental degradation. People don’t really talk about the oil wells, the equipment, except to comment how its “good jobs” for the area (that is the truth, and in an economically disadvantaged area, fracking jobs are very good jobs).  Just as people don’t talk about the continual raping and pillaging of our forests, the damaged and destroyed waterways from mining.  If we fail to acknowledge these things even exist, if we fail to talk about them  or draw attention to them, we cannot being the repair work necessary to heal.  The longer that a painful issue goes unacknowledged, unseen, the more deep rooted the pain surrounding the issue can be.

 

Acknowledgement requires us to both be capable of seeing and be willing to see. These are important distinctions.  Being capable of seeing means that we have enough knowledge and wisdom to interpret what we are seeing and recognizing it is a problem.  I think most of us are capable of seeing, and understanding, many of the challenges we face.  Being wiling to see means that we are capable of seeing and willing to do so-we choose to engage.  We put aside the inner dialogues or cultural baggage that tells us these things are normal, that everything is fine, and instead choose to see destruction, damage, etc. for what it is.

 

There is tremendous power in acknowledgement.  All of our healing work stems from this. Being ready to heal, ultimately, first means being ready to acknowledge. I have practiced being in a state of acknowledgement and openness with each day.  I pay close attention to the land, in whatever state it is in, engage, and interact with it.  If I see something awful, like a forest being cut, I do not look away, but instead, I acknowledge.  Stating it aloud is even more powerful, “I see your suffering.”   This leads us to the next steps:  and holding space. Acknowledgement requires us to directly look, to see what it is that may pain us, and to take it all in as it is.  To see with a compassionate heart, and an open mind, and to simply take in what is happening.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

We need to acknowledge this stuff.

Acknowledgement alone is rarely sufficient for healing work, but it is the first deeply important step.  You might think about these activities as being on a set of stairs: you have to start with acknowledgement, and then you can move into the remainder of the steps here today.

 

Holding Space

When something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–this is the work of palliative care, as I discussed in an earlier post.  This is especially true with places that have active suffering happening to them–mountaintop removal or fracking are very good examples here, as are polluted rivers with active dumping, etc.  A good metaphor for some of the work we can do with these places is to think about a friend who is very sick, in a hospital bed. You wish you could do something to help this person, but some things are beyond your control. Instead, you do the thing you can do, which is to make sure they are not alone—you sit quietly with them, laugh, talk, and do some energetic work.  You spend the time to help them.

 

The land is no different–when something is suffering–a friend, place, animal, plant, forest, waterway, whatever it is–holding space might be appropriate.  Holding space is a powerful form of healing for the land, and goes well beyond just acknowledgement.  You can hold space in many different ways–all of them require presence and active engagement.

 

To give you an example of this, right now, a most of the hemlock trees in my town are fighting the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This is a small, aphid-like beetle that has been making its way east and destroying our hemlock populations. It slowly sucks the sap out of them until they die; and it covers the hemlocks with its little white cocoons and spiderweb looking tendrils. I discovered it only recently, when some branches dropped in front of me on my path. If these infestations are caught early, and if a lot of chemicals are used, some trees can be saved–but these trees have away too many on them already.  In the next few years, they will slowly be drained of their sap, their life energy, and pass on. And, in truth, it is deeply painful to me, since hemlock is one of my most sacred trees–the hemlocks shape the entire ecosystem around here.  Sometimes, I’d rather look away, to take a different path on my walk to work and avoid the hemlocks and their suffering–but I don’t.   To hold space for these trees, I walk by my friends, the hemlocks, each day on my way to work.  I note the branches that drop with the aldelgids.  I put my hand on their trunks.  Sometimes, I bring a little anointing oil for them.  I bring blessed stones, bury them at the roots.  I am collecting their seeds, to go into my freezer, to spread again and plant when I am an old woman in the hopes of bringing these trees back to our forests.  I know that in this act, I’m not just holding space for these specific hemlocks, but all of the hemlocks who are going through this transition–the tens of thousands of them here, in this county, the millions and millions in this state, and more beyond.

 

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

There’s tremendous power in simply holding space for these places.  In recognizing the suffering of another. Your very presence is so important.  Your presence is calming and soothing, you resonate “I am here for you” and “you are loved.”  “I see your suffering, and I am here for you.”  This is tremendously powerful work . We cannot abandon our earth mother during these dark times–if we want to walk the path of land healers, we must quietly and firmly, stand with her even in her darkest times, holding space for her. Holding space is about investing your time and energy. Its being available and simply there, for however long is needed.  Its being strong even when you see suffering you’d rather not see.

 

I also think that holding space is a way for us to work through our own emotions about everything that is happening around us.  Doing the work of land healing in this day and age can be tremendously difficult–but holding space gives us the peace of knowing we are doing something, and that something is important.  In fact, I’d say that’s true of all of the techniques described here–they help the land, which is their primary goal, but they also help us!

 

Apology

Just as there is tremendous power in acknowledgement and witnessing, and in holding space, so too is there power in apology.  Often, in seriously degraded places, like places were whole mountains are being removed (we have one such place not far from here), individual spirits of trees, plants, and animals, the spirits of places have been forced to leave may need an apology, to help pass on, to help heal. Apology is appropriate for any healing work–and sometimes, acknowledgement and apology is all that I do at certain spaces, especially spaces that are not willing to have anything else done.  When I do the work of apology, I apologize on behalf of myself and my species.

 

If your spiritual gifts allow you direct communication with the land and her inhabitants, sometimes as part of the work of apology you will be asked for an explanation.  I find that its helpful to give one, and that, too, is part of healing work.  Even if not, however, standing and witnessing, and apologizing, is a powerful healing act.  I described some of this work in this post–especially at the older sacred sites of others to whose tradition you do not belong, or at sites that are closed off to all human activity, this is the most appropriate healing work.

 

Remembrance

My Asatru friends have a saying: “Those who are remembered live on.” And I have adopted this saying for my land healing work, as I think it provides us with a potent and important form of healing–but also empowerment. Remembrance is an important part of land healing. I think its very appropriate to dedicate a holiday, or a day, to remembrance of places, spirits, trees, whatever it is, that have passed, and to honor them on this day.  Or, to maintain a small shrine for them in their honor.

 

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Stack of stones on the stump as an act of remembrance

Remembrance can be a potent form of healing work, especially when you know lands will be damaged/destroyed.  I remember the first tree I ever worked with in this way–it was a tree that I grew up near, a huge silver maple.  I witnessed it being cut, and was told that the people who cut it were new homeowners who “didn’t like raking up the leaves.”  I was so devastated, did the work of acknowledgement, holding space, and apology, and after the tree was cut, I managed to get a small piece of it. I kept this piece with me, and then, when I bought my property in Michigan, I met a second tree– a tree that had also been cut, the twin to the still-standing white pine tree in the center of my property.  There, I made a “shrine to the fallen” with a simple stack of stones, and around that stack, I placed the piece of the silver maple, and many others.  Over the years, I added much to the shrine, regularly tended it, and, at Samhuinn, made offerings of my homemade dandelion wine and cakes.  Since I left Michigan, I made a new shrine in the woods and have continued the practice.  It was a small gesture, not taking much time, but it has done a lot of good in the long term, I believe.  I felt it was important that I not visit the shrine more than once a week to tend it, and I only make offerings once a year.  I don’t want to focus my energies on the dead all the time (that’s not healthy) but I do want to honor them at appropriate times and fondly remember them, honoring them.

 

There are lots of ways to engage in the work of remembrance.  My shrine example is one such way.  Other ways include creating artwork, stories, songs, poems, and other bardic arts; growing a “remembrance” sacred garden; lighting a candle at a certain time of the year; honoring and remembering through ritual; or even doing acts of service for good in the community or land.  Planting a new tree of the same species to honor one that has fallen, for example (or even using that tree’s seeds or tending that tree’s offspring, for example, is a powerful act of remembrance).  Let your heart lead you on this journey.

 

Closing thoughts

I’m surprised at how long this series is taking me to write–but clearly, there is a lot to say on this subject and articulating all of this is helping many, I think.  Its certainly helping me to put into words the practices that I know and do often.  So thanks for staying with me as this series is unfolding! We’ll continue working deeper into the energetic healing work next week. I also wanted to let you know that I’ll be doing some  overseas travel for work in the next month, so I will likely miss a week or two of posting in April, but will begin my regular weekly posts in May.  Blessings of spring to all!

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part II: Energetic Healing vs. Palliative Care February 20, 2016

In my post last week, I discussed the different ways that we might heal the land including physical land healing, healing human-land connections, and various forms of energetic healing. Today, I want to delve deeply into the  aspects of energetic land healing, and further probe the difference between energetic healing work and energetic palliative care. I think this distinction is critical for how to develop rituals and how to work with the energy of the land in various ways.

 

To do this, I’m going to share with you a few different kinds of sites in my immediate surroundings in Western PA and look at the circumstances under which these sites might be healed. In fact, I’m picking some of the worst sites I know of physically on my present landscape here in Western PA–I figure that if we can talk about land healing at the worst kinds of sites that I know of, we can do quite a bit with smaller sites with less damage.  So here we go, with a visit to the boney dump and fracking well!

 

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

Energetic Healing vs. Palliative Care

As I established last week, there are (at least) two different kinds of energetic work you can do on the land:

 

Energetic Land Healing  implies that you are raising some kind of positive energy to help enliven, awaken, and rejuvenate the land. One way to think about this energy is like giving someone who is has had an extended sickness some good chicken soup and herbs that are restorative and energizing in nature, and helping set them more firmly on their path towards healing. You may help someone who hasn’t walked in a while get up and take a few steps and encourage them in many ways. This energizes them, it enlivens them, and it allows them to more quickly heal from their illness. Energetic land healing functions in much the same way, with the goal being to raise positive energy for the land to help it regenerate physically and spiritually.

 

If you go to a place in desperate need of energetic healing, you’ll often feel a deadness there, a wrongness, either stagnation like nothing is moving, or other energetic problems.  It may be very closed off and skittish, like an abused animal, withdrawing and staying far away from any sign of new potential abuse.  I usually feel these feelings in the pit of my stomach.  Our English language lacks good terminology for how this feels, but its that heaviness and sadness you feel at a site that has been severely damaged and is struggling to heal, and doesn’t want humans to enact any more damage.  The longer the abuse has gone on, and the most serious the abuse, the more you’ll feel it using whatever spiritual senses you have (heck, even people not very attuned usually can feel it at strong sites). The site, as it regrows and heals, eventually resonates differently, feeling healthier and happier as the land can regrow around it. But you’ll also see the first signs of regrowth and life at these sites.  (Most of my experience in this area, by the way, is from logged forests and poisoned rivers returning to health–its possible that different kinds of sites would resonate differently than I’m describing here!)

 

Palliative care is a very different thing.  There are places on our physical landscape that do not need a jolt of healing energy–they need the opposite.  They need to be put to sleep, to be reduced in vibration and awareness, because the pain is just too great. Sites where active pain and suffering on behalf of the land, the animals, and anything else there are good examples: and as I’ll demonstrate in the latter part of this post, poisoned waterways and fracking sites are two of those sites.

 

Energetically, sites in need of palliative care often feel differently than those in need of energetic healing.  Usually, sites in need of palliative care feel like they are actively suffering.  They are awake through a horrific experience, and they actively suffer and mourn.  For example, once I was driving to a friend’s house on a new route and I was struck with this awful feeling–suffering, pain, misery, all through my stomach.  I had to pull over, and as I did, I got out of the car and climbed up on the ridge to see what lay beyond it.  There was an enormous strip mine that was stripping the land for gravel–hundreds of acres, horrible pools of chemically treated water.  It felt utterly horrible (nearly all of these kinds of mines do, I’ve found in the time since).  I uttered a short prayer for the land, promised to return, and went home and decided my next course of action (I didn’t feel prepared that day, and I had to meditate on what to do for the mine). This was a site not in need of energetic healing (as it was actively being destroyed) but palliative care.

 

Actively destroyed sites aren’t the only ones in need of palliative care, however. The most tragic, perhaps, are the sites that are fine at present, but are destined to be destroyed or stripped in the near future.  These are the hardest cases, in my opinion, because you are powerless to stop what is going to happen and the vibrant, living beings there are trapped and powerless–fear and mourning often radiates these sites. But here, you can do something, and that something is palliative care. You might think about a forest that is about to be logged or is in the process of being logged, but the loggers haven’t yet gotten to the area where you are at. The last thing you want to do is inject this space with healing energy and light–you want to put it to sleep, to soothe the wounds, to try to provide some energetic distance between the forest and the chainsaw. I’ve found myself in the position, many more times than I would have liked to experience. I shared suggestions for individual trees here, but I will add to those suggestions at the end of this article.

 

The key for energetic land healing vs. palliative care is in the nature of the damage, the nature of the healing, and the current situation of the site. To illustrate the finer points between them, let’s take a walk through Western Pennsylvania and see two critical situations that call for very different kinds of healing responses: the boney dump and the fracking well.

 

The Boney Dump: A Call for Physical and Energetic Healing

All through the landscape in Pennsylvania you can find what is known locally as a “boney dump” (they are also referred to as spoil tips, boney heaps, pit heaps, or gob piles in other parts of the world). They are common in areas where any kind of deep mining took place, and they basically represent everything that came out of the mine that wasn’t what was actually being mined. Because theses sites are near old mining operations, they may also have water ponds designed to collect some of the worst acid mine runoff (which pollutes local streams and makes them, in our neck of the woods, sulfurous and poisoned).

Boney Dump from Google Maps

Boney Dump with runoff pools (from Google Maps)

In the photo above is a really bad boney site, compliments of Google maps–it has various nasty colored ponds and pools full of various kinds of sediment they are trying to keep out of the waterways (which doesn’t usually work) along with the boney pile itself (which you can see in the bottom left of the image as well as in the bottom right–the areas that look like a pile of gravel with only a few trees or that look mostly bare). Most of the mines around here closed in the 1970’s or so, but some of these piles are much, much older than that. In 45+ years, they have not regrown in all of that time. After 1978, the US government required that companies “clean up” old mining sites with the passage of the Mine Reclamation Act. But a lot of these sites were there long before the cleanup act took place. And even for new sites, there is the letter of the law and the actuality of the law in practice. Let’s take a look at a site that was “regenerated” by the mining company. These are photos from the same site, just on the ground.

Runoff from a boney dump

The photo above shows a runoff area from a boney dump and some of those pools; poor management means that this is never regrown because it floods each year. Trees, plants, and so on can’t get enough traction to regrow. Of course, there is no soil at all on this site, so nothing can get traction even without the floods (see next photo).

Not much grows on a boney dump (this site has been "regenerated" by mining companies 30+ years ago, and still this is all that there is here!)

This is an area that doesn’t get flooded and is relatively flat, and yet, it still has not regrown either (this site was “regenerated” in the late 1970’s).  The site has no soil to speak of, and it lacks the biological diversity and scattered seeds to even begin to regrow soil.  They did plant some scrub grass, some red pine trees (see the trees in the background there), which barely make it on the soil.  Even the grass struggles to survive here, growing on straight rock.  Over fifty years, and still nothing is really growing.

 

So in terms of healing, we certainly have our work cut out for ourselves at these sites that span hundreds of acres and are dotted all over the landscape. I think its sad because when I was growing up, because these sites were all over the place, I never gave them much thought–its just how it was.  I think a lot of people feel that way–you don’t really talk about the sulfur creek or boney dump, you just kind of ignore them and avoid them.

 

And so part of the active healing work is simply acknowledging them and spending time with them, recognizing that these lands are in need of healing and of human touch.  However, given the enormity of these problems at these sites, if it weren’t for my druid path and permaculture design, I’d be at a complete loss as to what to do, and would probably cry for it and move on, or ignore it like the other locals. But no! We are going to do something to heal these damaged lands (and I feel a particular resonance with the old mine sites, given that so many of my own ancestors were miners). Around here they are abundant and take up thousands of acres–driving 5-10 miles in any direction is likely to have you encountering one or more of them.

 

How would we classify this boney dump in terms of the healing work at hand?  We must classify it both in terms of its relationship with people at present as well as its ability to regenerate. The good news is that the people doing the damage got what they want and are, for the most part, long gone, and with the exception of the acid mine runoff (which is a problem being actively addressed by a number of municipalities in the area), these sites are pretty much left alone. The mines aren’t here any longer and most of this land is essentially a no-man’s land.  Because nobody visits these sites, these are places that nobody cares about. This means, to me, the boney dumps represent the exact kind of place where you can heal on the physical and the energetic levels and do so effectively.

 

I truthfully feel more confident, at present, in my energetic healing abilities for these sites and that’s where the bulk of my first set of efforts have been going. Due to the lack of life and extremely long-term suffering, and the stifling of nature’s own ability to heal, these sites have a kind of numbness and deadness. These are the feelings that comes from lands that have been stripped bare for centuries–there is hardly any stirring of the earth energies, what is known as the telluric, in these sites. I’ll share too that before these sites were mined, they were clear cut, as I discovered from old photos of many of the sites.

 

This means we are talking, likely, several centuries of damage on the part of humans. What these sites need, then, to help jump start the healing is the burst of energy that can help these lands energetically and later physically heal (going back to the as within, so without principle). Given this, these lands are prime targets for some of the energetic healing work discussed above: they won’t be damaged again, nobody bothers with them, they are many, they are remote and open, and they are in prime need of healing. I’ll explore some of the ways of doing this at the end of this post and in my next post.

 

On the matter of physical healing (also discussed in my last post),  I’ve only returned to PA six months ago, but I’ve already taken my first steps in working out a plan using permaculture design principles to help heal a small patch of one of these sites to see what techniques will be effective. This plan is in its infancy stages, and its is part of why I was so interested in seed balls and refugia! To start my work, I have been scattering seeds for plants that can help build soil if they are able to take root–I believe its the soil-less nature, combined with mostly black shale that heats up and cooks all summer long, makes the sites inhospitable to plant life and susceptible to terrible erosion.  The stuff that is on the surface shouldn’t be there, so the best thing I can work to do is to bury it again! This is a slow process, and I’ll report on the physical angle more after I’ve done more experimentation on the boney dump I’ve adopted for this purpose :). At this point, I don’t know if any of my physical healing methods will work, but I am going to keep trying.

 

The Fracking Well: Palliative Care

Most people these days are aware, at least in a theoretical sense, of the problem with fracking wells and fracking more generally on the landscape.  But seeing these wells firsthand, feeling the horribleness of the energies that surround them, is an entirely different thing. Its like something goes heavy and cold in the pit of your stomach; they have a very toxic, burdened energy.  Many of the wells that have been there for a long time have literally an unsettling deadness that creeps into your bones the longer you stand near them.  But also at the site of the well, so much suffering is taking place–suffering, mourning, and sadness from the life that is stuck near the well.  You can feel that suffering, actively, in the plants and land directly around the well.

 

The active gas fracking well, as well as conventional gas well, is a site of damage to the land, to the waters, to the air, to wildlife, to the human populations–everyone and everything around these wells suffer.  People who are working near them are poisoned. The surface of the land is stripped to put in the well, disrupting the ecosystem. Gas companies spray around the well several times each year to keep the grass down.  They visit the wells frequently, “maintaining” the site, tearing up the land with their trucks and leaving, sometimes, pools of oil near the wells just exposed to the air.  They have huge tanks of water that have poison signs on them that make the air all around the well stink and smell really foul.  The waters beneath the land are poisoned and that poisoning creeps into waterways and into people’s drinking water.  The physical land beneath the site is poisoned. They are all over the place around here–I even found a number of different kinds of wells all through the Allegheny national forest, a site supposed to be “preserved” and instead is being actively desecrated:

View from Google Maps of active oil exploitation in the Allegheny National Forest in North-Eastern PA

View from Google Maps of active oil exploitation in the Allegheny National Forest in North-Eastern PA

Below is a photo of a conventional gas well (still very bad, but not as bad as fracking) on public land near where I live. This area was once all forest, now cleared and mowed to allow for the drilling equipment and the gas pipelines.

 

If you are wondering how this is possible, how so many of these wells of any kind are on public land, the answer is a bit complex and the reasons multiple.  But one of the big reasons has a lot to do with who owns the “mineral rights.” Many mineral rights here in PA are often disconnected from “surface rights” so companies who own the mineral rights have the right to get at them, destroying the surface in the process. There’s a lot of fossil fuel under the ground in the Marcellus shale, and people can make a quick buck by keeping their land and selling the mineral rights to the gas or mining companies: and that’s exactly what’s been happening here for over 100 years. (Its pretty much the equivalent of the water rights issue in the Western USA).

Example of cleared land around active well

Example of cleared land around active well

There are so many of these active fracking wells in Pennsylvania, and because of the active and ongoing damage, there isn’t a lot that you can do at these sites beyond palliative care. Physical land refrigeration, obviously, is not appropriate. But energetic land healing isn’t incorporate either. These are sites that are actively being harmed, over and over again. The pain and suffering is compounded through the systematic poisoning of the land, the water system, the plant and animal life, the human life, and the telluric currents (energies of the earth). And, the full long-term implications are as of yet unknown, and likely won’t be known, for several generations. Physical and energetic healing work will be left for our children, and our children’s children, and generations not yet born.

 

Given all this, palliative care is extraordinarily effective for these sites. For one, palliative care can do a number of things that energetic healing cannot, namely: helping to contain damage (sealing energetically), helping to preserve memories and resonances in the land, helping mitigate suffering on every level, putting the land “to sleep”, clearing some of the worst of the negativity. And, in doing this work, you can witness.

 

This wraps up my discussion of boney dumps and fracking wells and their relationship to energetic land healing.  I’m glad these sites have been used to serve at least a little good, in the sense that they helped convey a critical point on our journey of land healing–which will continue across the next few posts.