Category Archives: Dirt

A Walk Through a Sacred Garden

View of some of our gardens at Lughnasadh!  Here you can see our main garden (on the left, annuals) and the meditation garden (on the right; smaller perennials). We also have other perennial patches we are cultivating on other parts of the property.  And of course, our wonderful greenhouse in the center!  Behind the greenhouse is a compost tumbler.  In front of the greenhouse, you can see our duck enclosure (more about that later).  Towards the back in the center, you can see our guinea/chicken enclosure and goose enclosure.  The compost area is off to the back left.

Today, we are taking a walk through the sacred gardens at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  There are so many lessons to learn with a simple walk in a beautiful garden.  Today’s Lughnasadh garden walk reminds us of the power of nature to heal wounds, strengthen our spirits, and help us through challenging times.  For more on the creation of some of these gardens, please see the meditation garden with hugelkultur beds and creating our greenhouse from an old carport. You can also learn more about the principles behind this garden through sacred gardening principles as well as permaculture design. These principles are what we use to guide our decision making in the space.  With that said, let’s begin our walk….

The way I’ve written this article is that the main text in between the photos offer spiritual lessons, while the captions on the photos describe what you are seeing.  You might choose to read captions first, and then go back and read the main text.  It is a weaving of inner teachings with outer practices.

The mighty mullein, garden gaurdian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!

The mighty mullein, garden guardian, standing tall in the back of our vegetable garden!  Mullein is a medicinal plant that can support the lungs (leaf) and also help address ear infections (flower).

Three sisters garden- corn, beans, and squash. We had trouble with corn germinating due to the drought.  Three sisters is an ancient technique used by the Native Americans to create balanced growth: the beans replace nitrogen in the soil, the corn supports the beans and squash, and all is abundant.

All gardens are always in the process of cycling and change. The cycle and progression of the season are constant.  Each season progresses through seed starting, planting, growth, harvest, and fallow times.  Gardening brings us powerfully back into the cycles and the seasons and reminds us to enjoy the moment, for the change is always afoot.  Plants bloom, they produce flowers and fruit, they go to seed, and they die or go fallow.  This cycle repeats again and again–both in the garden and in our own lives: times of new seeds being planted, times of growth, times of harvest, and times of passing on. Taking part in this in a sacred garden can help us have a deeper insight into these patterns and cycles in our own lives.

Upper garden beds just before the garlic harvest. Weeds got a little crazy this year, but the plants still grow!  We have alliums in our upper beds this year along with perennials: lemon balm, asparagus, strawberries, clove currant, and more.

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden.  It took about three years for it to be this healthy and abundant–the caterpillars kept eating it to the ground. Milkweed is a fantastic edible plant with at least four different harvests–learn more about it here.  And of course, it is host to many butterfly and moth populations, including the endangered monarch butterfly.

While these larger cycles and seasons are always at work, each season is also uniquely different.  A single season is different than the year before, even if there are similarities and broader patterns. For example, this year, we’ve had one of the driest years on record (and two years ago, we had the wettest year on record) and are in a borderline drought.  From this, we learn adaptation, we learn how to grow with more heat and less water–it has been a hard summer.  We learn, for example, that certain plants thrive in this heat (sages, rosemary, monarda, mugwort) while others struggle (annual veggies, especially squash with broad leaves).  This is the nature of gardening now, with unpredictable weather patterns and climate change.  Just like other cycles we humans face–some of us struggle and some of us thrive, depending on the individual circumstances.  Seeing the land respond to this intense sun and heat has helped me respond to many intensities in my own life (and the lives of us globally at present). I learn to take on the quality of sage, basking in the seemingly eternal scorching heat and growing strong despite months with no rain. I learn to grow thick like monarda, to protect my roots with my leaves and flowers.  I learn to bask in the sun like rosemary, with small leaves that can withstand drought conditions. I learn the rest need a lot of water, and I am grateful for the spring that provides.  I learn to carry on.

A medicinal flower and herb polyculture in our meditation gardens: sunflower, poppy, feverfew, st. johns wort, pumpkin and tomato, zinnia, and probably some more!  Polycultures, made up of plants that grow in harmony, are beneficial to the land.  Most of these self seeded from last year and now the garden just flourishes.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone heat sink wall to absorb heat during the day and relase it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime. We have hot crops and long-season crops in here: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.

Inside our greenhouse. You are looking at the back (north-facing wall) where we have a cob and stone passive heat sink wall.  This wall is most effective during spring, fall, and winter, where it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The shelves hold our seedlings in the springtime and can store supplies in other times a year. We have hot crops and long-season crops in the greenhouse at present: this year, we have two gourds, our hardy fig, a number of white sages, tomatoes, and kale. Everything but the fig and Kale will come out in the fall, where we will plant late fall/winter crops.  I let the grass in the paths grow till late in the year, this will provide fresh greens for geese and our tortoise.

Another lesson as we walk through this amazing garden at Lughnasadh is the lesson of reciprocation. I write about this often because its a lesson that is lost to most in our present age. The sacred garden reminds us that we are always in a relationship, as equals, with the living earth.  We tend and honor the land, and the land provides our needs. We can cultivate this same kind of relationship with the garden: the soil web of life, reminding us of the interconnection with all beings.  With the seeds that I harvested from our spinach just this morning–the spinach died back leaving the seeds of hope for a new generation to be born, trusting that I will make sure those seeds are planted and tended. This sacred relationship is why, at Lughnasadh, a time of first harvest, we make offerings.  The philosophy is simple: an offering encourages reciprocal relationships rather than one rooted only in extracting resources.  While we tend and honor the garden, the garden tends and honors our spirits.

Our main garden with tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and chives.  We regularly rotate our annual beds and support the soil web with no-till gardening using sheet mulching. We have multiple supports for the tomatoes, which get heavy and like to fall over this time of year.  Beans are rotated in after the tomatoes to ensure nitrogen and other minerals are put back into the soil.  We top dress with compost each fall.

A walk through a sacred garden is perhaps best at Lughnasadh, at least here in our ecosystem in Western PA.  This seems to always be the time when the garden is at its peak: peak vegetation, so many fruits, and vegetables being ready to harvest.  The bulk of the harvest is still before us, and the plants are just abundant and full.  Its a good lesson and good energy now, when we are in such challenging times.  We are weary.  The garden opens up to us, welcoming us, encouraging us to stay awhile, sit with that amazing energy, and remember that this cycle too will end.

One of the most integrated parts of the garden: duck enclosure on a hill just above the main garden. The ducks require clean pools each day, so all of that duck water is dumped into the swale in front of this “wet bed.”  This is where we grow brassicas and celery and other crops that like it very, very wet!  The duck enclosure also serves as our blueberry patch–so we are stacking many functions with this space.  The bed never dries out, and has been a real blessing during this drought.  Putting the ducks next to the garden also provides us on two sides with a “duck moat” – the ducks eat bugs that would want to fly or hop into the garden and give us trouble.

The garden gander, Widdershins! He oversees everything that happens on the property and guards the land.  He also loves dandelion greens and grapes. If there’s any trouble, Widdershins’ powerful honk lets us know to come outside.

I hope you have enjoyed this walk through the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead!  There are so many lessons to learn and take from any garden you visit.

PS: I will be taking a short writing break from the blog for a few weeks. I have been asked to spend the next two weeks reviewing the galley proofs from my publisher for my book that is coming out in 2021 – Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  I’ll see all of you in a few weeks!  If you have any topics you’d like me to cover when I get back, please let me know!

Introduction to Sacred Gardening: Connection, Reciprocity, and Honoring Life

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Walking into a sacred garden is like walking into another world, one full of joy, happiness, and wholeness.  Fruit hanging from happy branches, plants coming up from all angles inviting a nibble, a taste, a touch.  The pathways spiral and you get lost, looking at flowers, breathing in the fresh air, and tasting the tart berries on your tongue.  An indoor sacred garden is much the same – a bright window with a chair asking you to sit, stay awhile, and meditate with the plants (or even reach up and take a lemon-scented geranium leaf in your hand and breathe deeply).  Sacred gardens are places that are intentionally cultivated to be in harmony and balance, that are carefully tended by loving hands, and that offer many possibilities for spiritual practice and deeper spiritual connection.

 

It’s amazing to see that this year, so many new people are taking up gardening.  While I’ve written on these topics before (obviously, this blog is called the Druid’s Garden!), I’m returning to this topic today to offer an overall philosophy of sacred gardening that I hope can help you deepen your practice or start a new garden.  I’ve been engaged in these practices for over a decade, greatly aided by my permaculture design certificate and permaculture teacher training, which offered me much in the way of working with nature and developing deep observation, interaction, and ethical skills. I realize that other authors, especially those coming from different spiritual traditions, may have a very different take.  But this is mine :).

 

Sacred Gardening: A Triad of Reciprocity, Life Honoring, and Connection

To define sacred gardening, let’s start by looking at the definitions for the two terms.  A garden refers to a place where ordinary people can grow food.  Beyond that, gardens actually vary pretty widely based on the philosophy and practices of a gardener.  You can have gardens that are organic and holistically managed or those that are full of chemicals, weed killers, and poisons.  You can have gardens that are diverse and support life or those that are focused on keeping all life that isn’t intended out with some pretty violent means.  You can have large or small gardens, indoors or out.  They can be perennial or annual. Gardens, then, are defined by crowing food, cultivating plants for human benefit; they are often (but not always) very human-dominated spaces.

Sacred refers to something that is dedicated to a spiritual or religious purpose, something that is deserving veneration, being worthy of awe; and/or something that is entitled to reverence and respect.  When we think of something that is sacred, it is a special place where we offer honor, respect, and reverence.  Where we tend to our interactions and be intentional in our practices. For thinking about nature as sacred, several concepts emerge that are critically important to our discussion here they are: connection, reciprocity, and honoring life   It is in these three concepts that we can arrive at a useful definition of sacred gardening.

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

Actions here represent the third aspect that is important to define.  The ultimate point of most gardening is growing food, using whatever means an individual chooses.  What makes that gardening sacred is how the gardener chooses to interact with the land, the specific choices and behaviors that gardener engages in, and the intentions put forth into the space.  As with many things, while intentions matter a great deal, it is actions that determine our relationships and reality to the land. You can have all of the sacred intentions in the world, but walking into your garden with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up sends a very different message.

 

At the same time as actions speak intentions into the world, it is also important to recognize that the physical and metaphysical are affected by each other and that there are many metaphysical aspects that can affect a physical space and vice versa.  Thus, we can think about sacred gardening as being about both inner and outer practices, practices that help not only support the physical presence of the garden but also the spirit.

 

Thus, I see three guiding principles, a triad in the druidic sense, that can help us with a full definition of this practice:

Three principles for sacred gardening:
Deepening inner and outer connections with the garden
Engaging in reciprocity with the garden
Honoring and creating spaces the diversity of life in the garden

Thus, sacred gardening is a practice of cultivating a space (indoors or outdoors) that allows for not only growing food but also spiritual connection, reciprocity, and honoring life through both inner and outer practices.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll explore these three concepts and offer both “inner” (metaphysical) and outer “physical” practices

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

The first principle is connection.  Sacred gardening is connected gardening, where a big part of the goal of sacred gardening is to cultivate a deep relationship with the garden: which might include plants, soil, bird or insect life, stones, and other features.  Connection allows us to learn and grow in the garden by building a deeper relationship with that garden. Connection can mean many things in a garden setting, from developing a long-standing relationship with seeds that you carefully harvest and save each year to learning more about your space.   So now let’s look at three “inner” and “outer” connection practices.

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Inner Connection Practices for sacred gardening. These three practices don’t have to be taken up all at once. I suggest you start with one of them and build to others over time–it can take years to establish deep connections. Think about inner connection work as taking a seasonal approach: each season you can grow and deepen your practice

.

  • Plant Spirit Communication. Learning how to directly communicate with your plants and the spirits of your land is a fantastic way to build deep connection.  By practicing and learning these communication techniques, you can learn from nature and grow in deep ways–as plants have been teachers of humans long, long, before recorded history.  Many of our garden plants, especially the culinary herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, and sage, have extremely long relationships with humanity and are almost always willing teachers.  For more on plant spirit communication techniques, see Plant Spirit Communication 1, Plant Spirit Communication 2, Plant Spirit Communication 3, and Plant Spirit Communication 4.
  • Meditation. Meditation techniques, including walking meditation and meditation where you are in stillness within the space, are excellent ways to build connections.  Consider doing your regular meditative practices in your garden as often as you can.  Even taking 5 or 10 minutes a day in your garden to meditate and connect can be a very positive experience–for you and for the garden!
  • Planting and Harvesting Rituals.  Relationships are built, in part, by recognizing the spirit in the plants and honoring that spirit.  I have found that planting, blessing, and harvesting rituals are a great way to build a spiritual connection between yourself and your garden plants.  Here are a few rituals for you to try: land blessing, planting ritual 1, planting ritual 2.

Outer Connection Practices.  Outer connection practices help signal to the spirits of the land your intentions.  Humans in this age often take the easy and quick ways out (e.g. plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers), and those easy and quick ways are often at a high ecological cost.  By taking things differently, and slowly, we can demonstrate sacred intent.

  • Supporting the soil web and soil health.   One critical physical connection in gardens is the soil and building soil health.  I would suggest as part of your connection to the garden, you work to attend to your soil–of which there are many different practices.  One of the most important is, for outdoor gardens, taking up the practice of no-till gardening, for example, using sheet mulch or hugelkultur approaches.  Supporting a healthy soil web begins with avoiding tilling a garden; tilling each year destroys the soil web and is quite destructive on the soil bacteria, nematodes, worms, mycelial networks, and more.  Adding rich compost (finished compost, coffee grounds, etc) and natural amendments help cultivate rich soil.  Here’s more on a few compost techniques: composting for city dwellers, composting options for outdoors, and vermicompost.
  • Observation and interaction. One of the first principles of permaculture design is a very useful one to list here.  To build a connection, you have to interact, to be present, and to do so frequently throughout the season.  Observe your plants as they grow.  Spend time with them, watch how they grow.  Look at them at different points in the season and at different times of day.  Take a full moon walk and see the glistening of the dew in the early morning.  This kind of walking meditative practice, where you are simply present with your garden, will offer you much.  More on observation and interaction. 
  • Seed starting and seed choices. Another connection practice focuses on seeds.  Seeds today can be difficult to navigate and choose because of the proliferation of GMO seeds (which I don’t recommend for sacred gardening)–this guide offers some suggestions for seeds.  Once you’ve selected some good seeds, you can start some for yourself (even starting a few will really give you a connection with the plant).  And I would suggest saving at least some varieties of seed from year to year.  For example, I have tobacco seeds that I use for ceremonial purposes and I’ve cultivated a many-year relationship with those seeds. At this point, each time I welcome up the new tobacco, it is greeting an old friend!

Connection allows us to begin to establish deep relationships with our sacred garden both in inner and outer ways.  I believe that connection is a basic requirement for sacred gardening–and the other two steps begin with this one.  Let’s now turn to the second principle–reciprocity–and see how it leads directly from connection.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

Reciprocity refers to the ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial where each side continues to gain positive benefits from the relationship.  In the case of a sacred garden, abundant land produces yields to sustain you.  In the case of the gardener, the gardener does things to improve the diversity and health of the land and ecosystem–not only for the direct benefit of growing food but beyond.

Inner Reciprocation Practices help us to shift our mindset from those commonly assumed and indoctrinated in our culture to something more sacred and reciprocal.

  • Offerings and Gratitude.  In a sacred garden, whether it is indoors or outdoors, I like to have a space reserved for gratitude and practice gratitude regularly–this is the first step.  I usually build some kind of small shrine (whether that is on the windowsill or in a corner of a larger garden) and leave regular offerings. Offerings may be physical, musical, or spiritual (energetic).  More on gratitude practices from an earlier post.
  • Meditations and critical thinking work. Another good practice here is to spend time dismantling (though discursive meditation or other thought processes) the underlying assumptions about nature that we might not even consciously be aware of.  Our present culture has a constant assumption that 1) nature is there for our benefit and profit and 2) we can take from nature heedlessly and constantly.  These kinds of assumptions run through everyday life in unexpected ways and it can take some serious work to distance ourselves from them and to develop more healthy and productive beliefs about our relationship with nature.  For some good reading on this topic, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the LIving Earth.

Outer Reciprocation work helps us create gardens and plans that give back as much (or more) than we take, and establishes balance and harmony with us and the living earth.

  • Closed-Loop Systems and replacing what is taken. One of the reasons that chemical fertilizers are so popular is that as we remove nutrients from the soil, they have to be replaced (even so, we know that these kinds of farming techniques have caused a considerable nutritional decline over the decades).  Ultimately, the loss of nutrients permanently from the soil is a problem with reciprocation.  At minimum, we need to be replacing nutrients that are lost through erosion and harvest–but I’d argue that we need to do one better and add even more than was originally present. Practicing composting is one way, and for more radical folks, humanure and liquid gold offer ways to have a truly closed-loop system. Adding healthy amendments (I especially like to get coffee grounds from nearby coffee shops and interrupt other waste streams to divert to my garden).  Gathering up fall leaves and using them as part of your gardening practice is another resource.
  • Reduction or Elimination of Fossil Fuel Use. Another issue with reciprocation has to do with our over-dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence upon which is literally killing life on our planet and threatening our very existence as a species. As an act of reciprocation and acknowledgment of the problems with fossil fuel, I make it a point to do as much of my gardening by hand as I possibly can (even in a 1000 square foot garden!).  When I must make use of fossil fuels (such as to bring off-site compost to establish new beds), I make sure that I am making minimal and conscious use of these resources.
  • Scattering Seeds and Wildtending. As part of the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have a “refugia” where grow a number of rare medicinal species and regularly scatter their seeds to wild and untended places, particularly places that have suffered ecological devastation after logging or other disruption (common where we live).  We grow both full sun perennials (like St. Johns Wort and New England Aster) as well as shade-loving woodland medicinals (wild ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot).  We also make sure to give seeds and seedlings out to others as much as we possibly can.  This is a direct response to many of these plants being lost in our local ecosystem and offers one way to give back.

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

When you start thinking about connection and reciprocation, this is all leading to the most important sacred principle of all: that of honoring all life.  This is tricky–gardens are traditionally human-dominated spaces and the goal is traditionally to grow food for humans.  When the potato beetles or squash borers come knocking, “honoring life” is probably the furthest thing from your mind as you literally watch your hard tended squash plants wither and die on the vine.  This is when you might be tempted to go to your nearest big box store for a chemical solution. But it is exactly these situations that test us as sacred gardeners, druids, and nature-honoring people.  Nature herself has ways of bringing those squash beetles in balance, and there are many things we can do.  The principle here of honoring life is so critical because it is this principle that is so broadly lacking.

Inner Principles focus on cultivating a diversity of life principles as part of our gardening practice.

  • A full season of blessing rituals. Offering regular rituals in the space that bless and welcome life is a great way over time to affirm your relationship with the sacred garden and raise positive energy for the space.  Here’s one such approach based on land healing.
  • Inviting others in. One of the ways to honor the life of your garden is by inviting others in, sharing with them, and helping others understand these basic principles.  Once you’ve done enough that you have something to share, invite others in to learn, grow, and enjoy the space.  I try to do this often, and as I offer a “garden tour” I share not only what is going, but the life-affirming philosophy that is present in the garden space and how we bring that into reality.
  • Permaculture ethics. Meditations on the three ethics of permauclture (earth care, people care, and fair share) can really help one develop a mindest that honors life and the resulting behaviors. I like to regularly meditate on these concepts and also create signs for my home that remind me of these concepts.

Outer Principles

  • Welcoming the diversity of life – pollinator hedges and more.  When designing for spaces and when planning, I think its important to design just not for what we want to eat but to welcome in diversity, particularly insect and amphibian diversity.  Insect diversity can help us with integrated pest management (below) but also just with cultivating spaces that have room for life.  A simple way to do this, for example, is to use a pollinator hedge–fill it with perennial species like borage, mint, comfrey, sage, milkweed, and more.  These pollinator hedges help welcome in insect life into your space and create habitat, food, and forage for non-human life.  Another common feature is a small frog pond and bee drinking area; a place for frogs, toads, and other amphibians to lay eggs, shelter from the hot sun, and get a drink.  A final thing here to consider is that life-honoring gardens are usually a little more “wild” than their human-dominated counterparts!
  • Integrated pest management. There are so many ways to deal with pests naturally.  Planting pollinator species, particularly the kinds that attract parasitic wasps, can help you with a host of pest problems.  Letting your chickens or ducks run through the garden.  Using cayenne pepper or copper tape to address slugs–the list goes on and on.  Most garden pests have several natural solutions in the short term.  In the long term, fostering a healthy ecosystem allows the predatory species of insects to handle the ones that could cause you trouble.  This approach does take more work and knowledge than a chemical one, and you are likely to lose some crops along the way–but in the end, it will be a much more life-respecting and affirming choice.
  • Making full use of the harvest. Another aspect of reciprocation is to use fully what is harvested and not contribute to food waste.  I think its really important that, in a time where up to 50% of the food grown is wasted, we make every effort to honor what was grown and produced in our gardens. This often means taking up some kind of food preservation, such as canning or drying produce.  Another way of thinking about this is also offering the harvest up to other life–e.g. if I can’t eat all my tomatoes, can some of my neighbors or friends enjoy them? What about offering leftovers to my chickens who convert that garden produce into eggs and manure?

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

I hope these principles will help those of you who are starting gardens with the intent of having sacred gardens or for those of you who already have a gardening practice and want to make it more sacred and intentional.  I would love to hear from you in the comments about other ways that you’ve engaged in sacred gardening techniques and things that you do.

 

 

 

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

Web of Life Ritual for Interconnectivity and Awareness

Last week, we delved deeply into a critical aspect of land healing with two related concepts; thinking about the world in terms of (eco) systems and the interconnectivity of those ecosystems for all life. Last week was practical, full of discussions, definitions, and how you might design land regeneration projects with ecosystems and interconnectivity in mind.  And these things are critical on a physical level: all life depends on other life, all life is connected to other life, and all things great and small are interconnected. Thus, if we want to regenerate the land and engage in physical land healing, understanding and working with these concepts are critical. In addition to last week’s physical work, however, I think it’s really useful to develop ways of exploring these concepts spiritually and ritually. So today’s post takes us a step further and encourages us to explore these connections through ritual and journey-based meditation.

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

One of the reasons I believe that we should explore these concepts ritually is that human beings, in the 21st century, are living in some of the most disconnected times.  It is this disconnection and lack of awareness of the impact activities can make on broader ecosystems that have driven us into the ecological crisis of this age.  Ritual, meditation, and other spiritual practices help us better understand possibilities with different kinds of awareness: ritual and meditation practices help us feel through things, not just think about them in an abstract way.  They help ground us in them, spark energy with them–in essence, bring the elements together to create deeper awareness. We as humans have many ways of knowing.  Even if we understand these concepts intellectually, it’s important to build wisdom that can only come from experience.

 

Meditation on Interconnectivity

This first practice is a simple one, and uses a tool called discursive meditation to help you explore interconnectivity.  You can use the preliminaries for meditation discussed in this post if you are new to meditation. Go into a natural area, somewhere where nature is fully present.  First, begin by observing the world around you, paying attention to how things connect.  Where does the plant life grow? How does it connect to the water, the sun, the soil, the light?  Spend time simply observing and pondering these connections.  Once you have done this, close your eyes and envision yourself on this landscape.  In what ways are you connected to this place?  Explore those connections.  For example, you are breathing the oxygen that the trees are releasing. You are sitting on the soil where roots grow deep, and so on.  Now, envision yourself in the broader web of all life.  Recognize that you are, in some way, connected with every living thing.  Take time to explore this concept.  Finally, to conclude your meditation, visualize the connections between yourself and the broader world as lines of light–see the lines of light between you and the nearest tree, you and the waters, you and the sun, and so forth.  Feel those connections strongly present.  When you are finished, make an offering to the land.

 

Web of Life Ritual (Group and Solo)

This original ritual is designed simply as a awareness ritual: helping you as a human living in a very disconnected time to acknowledge, know, and honor the interconnected web of life.   I’m offering both solo versions and group versions; you can also feel free to adapt this as needed.

For this ritual, you will need nine strands of different colored ribbon, yarn, or string.  Ideally, these will be made from natural materials like cotton, wool, or help.  The nine strands represent the following:

  • The soil web of life
  • The waters of the world
  • The animal kingdom
  • The plant kingdom
  • The fungus and lichen kingdoms
  • The fishes, reptiles, and amphibians
  • The insect life
  • The celestial heavens (sun, moon, stars, comets, asteroids, etc)
  • Humanity (save this for last).

You can create as elaborate or as simple of a setup as you want for this ritual.  You might setup an altar with materials, etc.

 

Begin the ritual by opening up a sacred space in whatever means you typically do so (which may involve calling the quarters, establishing a circle or sphere of protection, calling in the elements, and so on).

 

Next, pick up your bundle of strands and choose the first strand and hold it in your hand. As you hold the strand, speak of the strand, calling those energies into the strand.  This should be spontaneous and from the heart.  Call forth the local representative for that group, or call on the group globally.  After you call them, spend time with that energy.  Think about your experiences with it, now it has touched you or you’ve interacted with it.

 

Soil web

Soil web

Here’s an example for the first strand, the soil web of life: Oh soil web of all life.  The millions of organisms who breathe life into every handful of soil. Fungal hyphae, nematodes, earth worms, bacteria, protozoa, all of the life that creates the building block of life.  Soil is sacred.  Soil is life reborn. The soil feeds us, supports us, and when we die, we return to the soil. I honor you, sacred soil web.

 

Now, envision energy coming into the strand from that which you had called.  Once you feel this is complete, move to the next strand, working your way

Save humanity for last, recognizing that despite the fact that we act and treat the world as distinct, we are not distinct or separate from it.  We are one.  Speak for humanity as interconnected and aware, bringing that energy powerfully into the strand.

 

Once you have done this with all nine strands, gather up your strands and tie them in a knot at the bottom.  As you tie, say, “We are all united in a sacredness of life, tied to this sacred planet and dependent on each other. We are interconnected.”

 

Now, attach the knot to something that will hold it while you braid it, taking three strands together and braiding them as one.  As you braid, say, “Weaving the web of life, weaving the web of spirit. All lives are connected, we are one.”  As you braid, envision the ecological web of life, the strands connecting each living thing and each living process.

 

After you are done, sit with the energies of the ritual for a time, allowing them to settle into you.  When you are ready, close out the space.  Hang your braid somewhere prominent or sacred to continue to remind you of the connection with all living things.

 

Web of Life Ritual: Group Variant

This ritual can be done in a group setting. Each person in the group can be assigned one or more strands to speak about.  If there are more than 9 people, you can also add more strands to represent other natural features (the winds, the mineral kingdom, the molten core of the earth, etc). Make the strands long enough that after they are braided, each participant can leave with their own segment of the stranded (tied off and knotted individually). During the braiding, you can take turns weaving the strands or you can assign one braider as their part in the ritual. At the end, anywhere you want to cut a part of the strand, tie it off and then cut it so that each person gets a piece of the strand to take home with them.

 

Healing the Web of Life Ritual

Once you have your braided strand, you can use it as a as the key focus for various kinds of land healing.  Here is a simple ritual using this approach (and feel free to experiment!).  You can use this ritual in conjunction with the one above or do this at a different time, as you feel led.

 

Materials: you will need your strand (previously created) and an herbal blessing oil (recipe for oil here) or incense (something to offer a blessing).

 

Open up a sacred space in your usual way.  As part of your opening, make sure you call forth the power of the elements to assist you in your work; you will need energies other than your own for this ritual.

 

Pick up your strand, connect with the energies represented in the strand.

 

After you have connected with the energies in the strand, bless your strand with the herbal oil or incense.  Speak to each of the energies, as you feel led.  For example, for the soil web of life, you might  say, “Soil web of life.  I know you are under duress as we lose inches of topsoil every year, and as soil webs are destroyed by chemicals, stripping, and more.  I send you healing and light.”

 

Go through each of the nine strands: the soil web of life; the waters of the world; the animal kingdom; the plant kingdom; the fungus and lichen kingdoms; the fishes, reptiles and amphibians; the insect kingdom; the celestial heavens; and humanity.

 

After blessing each strand individually, focus on radiating those energies outward to the greater world.  Spend as much time as you need to visualize this firmly.

 

Finally, spend a few minutes in meditation and quietude, seeing if any insights or messages arise.  Alternatively, use a divination system at this time to see what additional healing work should be done.

 

Close out your space.

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land.  How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason.  Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land, but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county.  In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had impact beyond her.

 

The web of life

The web of life

The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life.  As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indingenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems, is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, its important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.

 

This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices.  Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.

 

In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity.  After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective.  Next week’s post will look at ecosystms and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness building perspective.

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems.  An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns.  Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.

 

For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types.  In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut.  Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem.  If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office.  Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countires often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival.  In many cases, that life has very specific needs.  A well known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs.  Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other.  Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around.  I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle:  as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking.  Where did this glass of water come from?  From the ground and land surrounding my home.  But where was it before that?  Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land.  In otherwords, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years.  Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places.  This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.

 

Another managable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedintary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while.  At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disasterous.  You don’t see the effects from one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch.  But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harms the body’s whole system.

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times.  We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.

 

As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing.  In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts.  In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in a ecosystems approach is really helfpul  Thus, its not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life.  One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:

 

  • Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
  • Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
    • Some examples: Most legumes and clovers.  More info on these can be found here.
  • Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
    • Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees.  Here is a more complete list.
  • Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.

When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, its useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life.  Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together.  This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and considering the role of interconnectivity.  In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more.  But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.

 

And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on?  I would respond: if you plant it, they will come.  The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that bring the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side).  The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales.  But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife.  So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:

  • Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
  • Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
  • A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
  • Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine

Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the major take aways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing.  We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.

Wine Cap Mushroom Cultivation: Wood Chips, Garden Beds, Recipes, and More

How many times have you seen your neighbors getting tree work done or had tree work done yourself? The landscape company often comes with the big wood chipper and truck and then, after cutting up the wood, hauls that beautiful pile of chips off to some unknown location. Last year, our electric company came through and was doing tree work along our driveway and road to prune and cut trees too close to the power lines. We asked them to dump the wood chips on our property, and they were happy to do so. A lot of times, companies have to pay or go far out of their way to dump wood chips, and they see them as a “waste”; they will almost always dump them for free if you ask!  But a pile of wood chips are harldy a waste–they can offer you multiple yields over a period of years.  In today’s post, we’ll look at mushrooms from a permaculture and druidic perspective and see one way we can use them to both understand nature’s alchemy as well as cultivate home-grown food, focusing on using fresh wood chip piles.

 

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

About Mushrooms

Mushrooms are amazing: they are in a kingdom by themselves (fungi) and are in a kingdom all to themselves.  They do not contain chlorophyll, so they are unlike plants. They are saprophytes, breaking down organic matter (usually wood) and feeding on the nutrients contained within. In this way, they work as part of nature’s system of decomposition, breaking down the old so that the new can begin again. Their “bodies” consist of fungal hyphae (which are white or tan lines or threads that run through soil, wood, etc). The threads are also called mycelium. They also consist of the fruit, which is what we call a mushroom. The fruit of the mushroom is actually its reproductive system, which is what the mushroom itself sends up to reproduce (via spores, in most species).

 

I think we can learn a lot from the mushroom  kingdom, both from a permaculture perspective as well as a spiritual/druidic perspective.  On the permaculture side, the mushrooms remind us that nothing is waste: they can break down not only wood but also many of our own human wastes: cardboard, newspaper, office paper, and coffee grounds.  Amazingly, they can also be used to pull toxins and do “mycoremediation” to help damaged sites heal.  this includes pulling toxins and pollution from soil as well as pulling toxins and oils in water contaimination.  Mushrooms are truely amazing!  On the spiritual side, the mushroom is one of the great alchemists of nature: taking waste (dross) and turning it into soil which can then can nourish plants–soil is what the entire ecosystem is based upon!

 

The mushroom we are talking about today is the Wine Cap mushroom, also known as King Stropharia (stropharia rugoso-annulata), sometimes also called “Composter mushrooms” or “Garden giants.” You can purchase these online from a variety of mushroom companies; my spawn came from Tradd Cotter’s Mushroom Mountain. I’ve had the pleasure of taking multiple workshops from Tradd at our local Mother Earth News Fair, and I like his company and ethics a lot!  The nice thing about these mushrooms in particuar is that they are versitile and easy to keep cultivating. Once you have some mycelium, its possible to keep spreading these mushrooms as long as they have something to eat.  So if you have your own chipper, a ready supply of leaves or other compost waste, these mushrooms will keep on going!  So let’s talk about a few ways you can work with Wine caps.

 

Wine cap mushroom

Wine cap mushroom

Wood Chips

The techniques that I am sharing today only work on a fresh woodchip pile (less than a few weeks old). If you try this with an older wood chip pile, or in a pile that has been dead wood recently chipped, it is likely that other species of mushrooms have already colonized your pile.  What this means, then, is that when you try to colonize your pile with your own mushroom spawn, there may be considerable competititon and you may not get the mushrooms you hope to get (You also need to be *very* careful about ID in this case).

 

As I mentioned in the introduction, wood chips are fairly easy to obtain in many parts of the US, at least.  You might be able to get them from local muncipalities, and certainly, from local private tree services.  Most of them are all too happy to drop off piles of mulch to you so they don’t have to drive far to dump them and/or pay to have them dumped.  You may also be doing some of your own brush clearing; again, any fresh woodchips will do for this process.

 

Seeding Your Pile

 

To seed your pile, simply break up your mushroom spawn into smaller pieces, dig holes in your pile (a foot or less down) and add the spawn.  After the pile was dumped, in early August, a few of my druid friends and I seeded our pile in about 15 minutes.

Layers of mycelium with mushrooms growing out the top. I was removing mulch for other areas and got this amazing photo!

In addition to moisture and food, mushrooms need oxygen.  If your pile is too tightly compacted, you may only get mycelium growing on the top of the pile.  Never fear–once you remove some of the mulch for other purposes (see below), the mycelium can colonize further into the pile.

 

Fruiting

At some point, typically for Wine Caps, when the temperatures hit above 60 degrees, your pile will start to fruit.  Our pile started fruiting in April, and is still fruiting at the beginning of June.  Thus far, we’ve harvested at least 20 lbs of mushrooms from the pile.  As exciting as the huge wine cap mushrooms are, they often get buggy and full of worms.  Thus, it is best to harvest the smaller mushrooms to eat and leave the larger ones in the pile to spore and to produce food for others.

 

Spreading the Mushroom Love: Mushrooms in the Garden and More

Once you have an innoculated pile, you can use your wood chips all through your garden and as mulch.  Anywhere you do this, you are likely to get mushrooms popping up, which is an amazing food production source!  Here are some of many possibilities:

  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Paths: Add several layers of cardboard to your garden paths and then mulch with a thick layer of innoculated wood chips.  Your paths will last at least 2 years, and probably at some point, they will fruit with mushrooms.
  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Beds: All garden beds benefit from mulching. If you look at a forest, you will never see bare soil on the forest floor: it is always mulched with a rich pile of leaves, etc. This helps the forest prevent erosion and retain  nutrients. Many gardeners leave their soil bare, which allows the sunlight to quickly strip it of moisture. By adding a thick layer of mulch (straw, leaf rot, or wood mulch) you can prevent the loss of mosture, and likely, never have to water your garden again.  That’s my method: layers of mulch equals never needing to water, unless we have some kind of severe drought!  Adding your mushroom-innoculated mulch to your beds benefits the whole garden.  This page offers a lot more details on this practice, debunks myths about wood chips in the garden, and offers information on why it works.  Keep your wood chip mulch to 2-3″ deep at the most and you will have no probmes–and you will get more mushrooms. In fact, every place that we have spread this mulch has fruited at least once this spring!
  • Mulched Tree Areas: Your trees, likely, can also benefit from some innoculated mulch. I put this around my fruit trees, being careful not to mulch the trunks too closely.  This does the same thing for the trees that it does for the garden!
  • Mulched Paths: You can mulch any other paths with this approach, including forest trails and so on.  I am working on some forest trails through our wooded areas, and these mushroom mulched paths are a wonderful addition. Again, I use thick layers of newspaper or cardboard (when necessary) or simply mulch (if the forest floor is largely bare, as mature forests sometimes are).  You can further get fancy and line your mulched paths with stones. Part of why I do this is that our tick issues in Western PA have grown extremely intense; it is better for us to mulch and keep nice wide paths than to be covered in ticks (we also have guinea fowl and chickens for tick patrol, and they do a great job!)
  • Mulched Planters: You can also mulch container garden pots and planters with a light layer of this mushroom mulch.  You may not get any fruiting mushrooms (I haven’t seen any on ours yet) but you certainly will get the benefit of the water retention!

 

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine Cap Cuisine

Wine caps are a mild and delicious mushroom, with a growth habit similar to a portabella.  They do not have a strong flavor, and when they cook, they produce a lot of liquid, which needs to be accounted for in any recipe.  For the best way to taste the mushroom flavor itself, you can simply fry these in some olive oil or put them on the grill brushed with olive oil.  You can also stuff them (I like to stuff them with rice, veggies and cheese) or make a simple cream of mushroom soup.  Essentially, any recipe that calls for a portabella mushroom can be instead used with a wine cap.  Here’s one such recipe I made this week

Wine Cap Mushroom Soup

  • 1 lb of wine cap mushrooms, washed and sliced
  • 1/2 cup marsala wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • fresh thyme, chives, and parsley
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup sliced kale
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the mushrooms in olive oil until they start to soften (about 5 min).  Add the wine, onions, and garlic, and simmer for an additional five minutes.  Add the broth, herbs, and salt/pepper and put a lid on your soup, allowing it to cook for 15 more minutes, until the mushrooms and onions are tender.  Remove from heat.  Add kale and heavy cream, and let the flavors meld on the stove for 10-15 min before serving.  Serve with some fresh chives on the top.

 

Examples of older wine caps, not as good for cuisine due to the worms. Cut the small ones instead.

Radical Mushrooms: Kitty Litter and Other Decomposition Projects

I didn’t stop with the wood chip pile with regards to how to keep working with the Wine Cap mushrooms.  I wanted to use mushrooms t help break down other “waste” products at the house.  have three cats, and they have long been using natural plant-based cat litters, usually a pine base or a wheat based litter.  I saw instructions like these, knowing that people use kitty litter (fresh) for mushroom cultivation for eating.  While I had no intention of eating mushrooms grown in used kitty litter, In this case, I was wondering if the mushrooms would work in this litter to help break it down (and thus not put it in a landfill, but return those nutrients to nature).  I first started with a regular compost pile, putting a few palattes together, which in about 1.5 years, was full of cat litter.  I put some mushroom spawn in the pile in the fall, at the same time I seeded the much larger mulch pile, but nothing happened.  I think it had too much ammonia and not enough oxygen.  I took the palatte composter apart, and instead, spread the kitty litter in a thinner area, only about 6″ deep.  I again seeded it with mushroom spawn: and this time, it worked.  I now have a kitty litter composting area.  I add litter only to one side, and allow the mushrooms to slowly break down the litter that has sat longer.  This simply stays on the edge of the woods, effectively eliminating the landfill and returning those nutrients to the earth.  I call this a mushroom win!   I will also note that I do *not* pick or eat the mushrooms in this pile, but other wildlife seems to enjoy them.

 

I hope this brief look into how to tranfsorm “waste” into resources for the druid’s garden is helpful and inspirational to you!

Foraging for Pigments from Local Rocks: Making Watercolors, Oils, and Egg Tempera Paint from the Land!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

When I walk along the landscape here, I am greeted with the deep oranges and yellow oxides of our soils laden with heavy amounts of clay and iron.  These colors are reflected each time I dig into the subsoil, and as I drive through the countryside where mountains were cut through for roads. In other places, I might be greeted with reds, blues, or greens, all reflected in the geology of the land. Each region carries its own colors, and you can find the palate of the land in every stream bed.  Even an hour drive in any direction puts one in a new geological region–and this changes the colors of the stones and the soil.   You might think about these colors like a language–each landscape has its own language that you can learn to read and speak. Each landscape has its own unique set of colors, found in every stream bed. Today, we can think about expressing that language in visual form.

 

In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to forage for local pigments and learn how to grind them and prepare them as paint. That’s right, you can make your own paint from locally foraged rocks!  What is amazing about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s palate will depend on the local geology.  As you forage for pigments and then turn them into your own paint, you know exactly what goes into the paint, where it came from, and you know that any paint water or other materials can return to the land. You might discover things only you, in your unique ecosystem, can discover!

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

Everything is derived from nature, but in the 21st century, consumerism practices and “distributed by” labels often mask manufacturing processes which almost never tell us how something was made, where the raw goods came from, who produced it and under what conditions, or, what it even contains.  Art supplies are notoriously bad; labels tell us almost nothing about the pigments, and art supply companies are very tight lipped about how they produce their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint, unless they are *really* bad and carry a CL warning or other kind of warning label. These kinds of warning labels mean they are toxic to you and should be used with care: but no labels tell you about the toxicity of your products for the planet.  This means, in my art studio and in studios all over the world, people often have no idea what they are using to produce art with or what the environmental cost of those materials may be.  And for something like paint, paint water and paint byproducts often get dumped down the drain, making their way into local water systems. When I use commercial paint, I literally have no idea what I’m putting down my drain–and by way of my septic drain field–out into the land and local waterways.  Since our spetic field sits about 40 feet above a local (clean) stream, this is of serious concern to me.

 

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of the bardic arts, I am always looking for better ways to practice my visual art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on fragile ecosystems. Before, I had played around with various natural arts, including making my own berry inks and dyes.  The berry inks and dyes are not usually lightfast, though, and can’t be taken with me in my watercolor palate. But most of the time, my artistic medium of choice is watercolor, so I wanted to learn more. After my favorite watercolor paint supplier no longer offered watercolors in the US late last year, I started researching alternatives.  One of the things I came across were tiny watercolor companies that sourced natural ingredients and charged quite high prices for their paint.  I was intrigued, and figured that if they could do it, so could I.  I wanted paints that were more sustainable and less questionable in terms of ingredients.  So this post will share some of my successes and ideas for how you can do this yourself!

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

A stream bank behind the homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments....

A stream bank behind our homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments….after each flood, new stones wash up on the bank!

Natural pigments literally everywhere, and if you travel, you can find a wide variety of colors.  Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil and of sand and of stone.  Deep greens and oranges and the colors of sunrise and mountains.  Deep reds and browns, blacks, and grays. You can also get into other kinds of pigments (lapis lazuli has long produced blue pigment; malachite has long been used for green), but for our purposes here, I’m assuming that you are working to source things locally and are going to find stones in your ecosystem.

 

You can find pigments in a lot of places, but some places are particularly good.  Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments. Around here, fabulous places to look are what we call boney dumps; these are old piles of rocks and other mine waste that have lots of different rocks on the surface. You can find some pretty neat colors in these places  (finally, a sustainable use for a boney dump!).  The boney dumps are particularly useful for pigments becuase they would set the mines on fire and somehow use fire to process certain ore; so you also get stones changed by fire (and fire can certainly change pigment colors).  You might not have these (and be thankful you don’t), but looking for other sites where earth and stone have been dug up or exposed is good (the exposed bank that was cut in for new construction, for example).  Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones.

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

Because you want pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft.  You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a harder rock.  If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the other rock’s surface, it is likely a very good choice.  You can see immediately what your pigment may look like. You want the consistency of the pigment to get quite fine.  Grainy rocks like sandstone can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more work and some you can’t get down that finely by hand.  Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, then let them dry, and then grind them up, removing any large or hard rocks. You have to really see which pigments work and which do not–some clays I’ve used have been wonderful, and others haven’t had much pigment at all and create a sloppy mess.  Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.

 

 

Other pigment opportunities also exist. Both soot and charcoal make great pigments, so keep this in mind if you are having fires indoors or out. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces more of a cool black.  I harvested both from our indoor fireplaces. You can also make a “bone black” from burned bones, turned into charcoal.

 

A few years ago,  I visited a mineral spring and found loads and gobs of pigment flaking off the walls from the spring –I dried this and saved it in a tin for later use.  Recently, also, and what started me on this adventure, I was given a container of iron oxide from the Tanoma Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Remediation site.  This iron oxide is what makes many of our streams, creeks, and rivers too acidic; a site like Tanoma creates pools and uses a process called tromping to help precipitate out the suspended particles, clearing the water before it goes back into the stream.  After the iron precipitates, it settles to the bottom of the pools; this can eventually be collected and used by local artists! And it requires very little processing.

 

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Tools for Paint Making

You will need to gather some basic supplies for making your own paints from foraged materials.  While you can make a primitive paint literally by crushing the pigment between two rocks and adding some water or oil, the following supplies will help you create a more refined pigment that would be suitable for paintings. Tools for creating paints:

 

  1. A mortar and pestle, dedicated to this use. You don’t want to use a mortal and pestle that you use for grinding herbs or food; get a separate one for this.  Or you can use something else; two hard rocks from the land can also work great.
  2. A glass muller or other grinding agent  Again, this is not necessary, but most fine pigments need a final ground, and this works well.  if you don’t have a muller, other glass tools may work like the edge of a small round jar. The key is you want a wide, flat surface on the bottom of whatever you use as it grabs the pigment and binder and mixes it well.  This is the most pricey of the materials ($50-$90).
  3. A palate knife, cake decorating knife, or old credit card.  You need something to be able to scoop up the pigment.
  4. A slab of glass or granite.  You need something to spread your pigment out and mix the paints carefully.  Right now, I’m using a smaller granite slab that I’ve had in my studio for various purposes, but I want to use a piece of glass instead, and will get one when I can find something recycled.
  5. A very fine mesh sifter for sifting out larger particles.  This is really useful if you are grinding your own stones.  get the finest mesh you can find. I found a strainer with 0.2mm holes, and this produces a usable paint but for certain stones, may still be gritty. A strainer with 0.1 mm (called a 100 strainer) is even better.  Look for these with sides from a scientific supply.  It is possible to refine your pigment and separate out particles without a strainer through a water suspension method, but the strainer really helps.
  6. Containers for your paint and pigments (shells or containers for paints; jars for extra pigments).
  7. Googles, gloves, and a breathing mask.  Paint pigments are not good for your lungs, and you need to take serious precautions!

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

In order to know how to turn pigment into paint, its helpful to know how paint works.  Paint consists the pigment (color), a binder, and usually things to extend the life of the paint or improve viscosity and flow.  A binder is what “binds” the pigment to the surface; if you used only water and pigment, the pigment would flake back off the page after it dried, and your paint wouldn’t last.  In other words, a binder helps keep the paint on the page.  Gum Arabic or Linseed or walnut oil, and egg yolk are common binders.  A lot of modern paints use chemical binders, so we want to stay away from that stuff.

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

Watercolors are made with a combination of gum arabic and honey; glycerine can be added as well to prevent cracking.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder; that which helps the pigment stay on the page.  Since its water soluble, Gum Arabic is a great choice for watercolors. Honey helps improve the viscosity and flow of your pigment, and glycerine helps prevent the pigment from drying out or cracking.  I am currently using honey and gum arabic in all of my homemade watercolors.  You can purchase 1 lb bags of gum arabic in powder form, which you can just mix up and store in the freezer.  This is really economical, compared to buying it already prepared from an art store.

 

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

I’m currently researching a more local ingredient than gum arabic.  I’ve read some old books that say you can use wild cherry sap, ground and dried, which makes sense as it is also water soluble.  Pine resins would not be an appropriate choice for this as they are not water soluable (but they have other uses). I’ll report back on the cherry sap once I’ve experimented with it, which will be over the summer once I am able to harvest and dry some.

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

For oil paints you’ll need linseed oil and melted beeswax along with your prepared dry pigment.  Walnut oil may be a more local choice for you, and it will work almost as well as linseed oil.

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

For this you’ll need an egg yolk, water, alcohol, and your dry pigment.

I want to note that you can also make your own acrylics, but acrylics are plastics, polymers, and those go right back into the ecosystem when you are done. The materials above are more naturally sourced and based and represent more traditional sources.

 

Preparing Your Pigments

To prepare your pigments, you will need to get them ground finely while not breathing in any dust. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:

 

1. Break up rocks into smaller pieces.   First you need to break up your rocks into pieces that can be finely ground down with a mortar and pestle.  I usually use a hammer for this and a plastic bag.  Break the rocks up as fine as you can using this method.   In my case, I am using a thicker bag that is non-recyclable (this is a bag that chicken and guinea fowl treats come in). This process gives this bag a bit more life!  Put the rocks in the bag and start the breaking down process. You should do this outside and if it isn’t windy, consider a breathing mask.  If the stones are particularly strong, you might want several layers of bag (or a thicker feed bag, old tarp, etc).

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

2. Grind the pieces down in a mortar and pestle as finely as you can.  After you get the pieces much smaller with the hammer, you can start to get them finely ground. I have a granite mortar and pestle of a fairly large size for this purpose.  I grind down the pieces, working in very small batches.  You can see this reflected in the photo below–I work with smaller and smaller batches as I work the stones down into a fine pigment.  Again, use a breathing mask and do this outside if you can.  Here I am grinding down the local slate stones a friend and I found on a hike.  You might notice that the color has changed from the stone to the pigment–that often happens!  Everything is a surprise.

Slate pigment at various stages

Slate pigment at various stages.  The pigments often are a slightly different shade than the rocks themselves.

3.  Sift.  Sifting is probably the most critical part of the paint–if you don’t have a fine enough strainer, your particles will be too big and your paint will be gritty.  The goal is to get the finest particles possible–below I am using a .02 mm x .02 mm sifter.   I will take whatever won’t go through the strainer back into the mortar and pestle for a while. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind.

 

In this case, whatever isn’t sifted is put back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding.  You can also store the extras in a jar for the next time you want to make paint. I’ve been talking to other natural paint makers, and the grinding and sifting is really an art form in and of itself–some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the stone. It all takes patience and can be a very meditative practice.

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar/pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter (I might add some simple "walls" to it at some point!)

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter.  Since taking these photos, I purchased two additional sifters that are even better than this one!

Another option if you can’t get your particles fine enough is to do the long route using water.  If you grind up a lot of pigment, you can put it in a glass jar with a lid (I use a 1/4 pint or 1/2 pint jar for this).  Shake the pigment up well, and then quickly pour off everything but the very heavy particles that sink to the bottom.  The lighter particles are suspended in the liquid; they will likely precipitate out to the bottom.  (If they don’t, some paintmakers use a bit of alum to help them drop out).  Otherwise, if you have a small amount of water, put it in a greenhouse, dehydrator, or other sunny location and it will dehydrate.  What you are left with is a *very* fine pigment, fine enough to be a high artist quality grade paint.  The heavy particles can be dried as well and further ground up.

 

Making Your Paint

For watercolor: Place your pigment in the center of your glass plate.  Add about 1 part Gum Arabic for every 2 parts pigment, and then about 1/8 part honey. Some paintmakers are also adding a drop or two of clove essential oil for preservation, but I don’t have any so I’m not using it at present.  You can pretty much eyeball this.  If the pigment is too dry, add more gum arabic.  If its too wet, keep working it and the air will dry it out in a few minutes.

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Next, move to a muller or other tool that you can use to spread out and grind the pigment further. If you don’t have a muller, try something that can help grind the glass–like a flat glass bottomed jar. The muller is completely flat, and you can easily rub it over the surface to mix the pigment.  After you spread it out, use a palate knife to scrape up the pigment and use the muller again (see second photo, below).

Mulling pigment. This one doesn't have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.

Mulling pigment.

This first photo doesn’t have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.  If your pigment looks like this, it needs a finer grind and will be very gritty when complete.  You might need a finer sifter or to separate it with water.

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

The difference between these the above photo and this one is striking–and so are the results.  The second pigment here (iron oxide) has a very, very fine ground!

 

Here's the slate pigment--it turned into a pretty nice paint!

Here’s the slate pigment–it turned into a pretty nice paint because I was able to get a very fine grind and sift.  It still had a little bit of graininess to it, but works great.  A water separation or a finer sifter would have helped get the particles even smaller.

 

You may have to mull it for quite a while to get all of the pigment and binder together.  Usually 5-10 min. Once you see it as completely consistent, you can scrape it all up with a paint knife and put it in small containers to dry.

 

I have been using sea shells that I’ve had sitting around to put my paint in, but anything that has a lid (like an old Altoids can or lip balm can) would work just fine. I also had some empty plastic half pans I picked up at a yard sale, and I have also been using them.  If you want a full container of pigment, you usually have to make paint several times and add layers to the pans (as the pigment dries, it shrinks and cracks).

 

When you want to use your paint, rewet it and use it like any other watercolor.

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board.  This is a fireplace soot paint.

 

For Egg Tempera, you will want a small jar.  Start by removing the egg yolk from the white.  Egg yolks have a sack that holds the inner yolk; break the yolk and remove the sack.  This is accomplished by either puncturing the yolk and letting it drip in, or simply fishing out the sack after you’ve gotten the yolk punctured.  Add a small amount of water (1 tbsp) and put a lid on the jar, shaking your paint until everything is mixed.  Now, place your pigment in the center of your glass plate or other non-porous surface.  Add small amounts of alcohol to your pigment, and grind it or use your knife or muller (see photos above).  Finally, add enough yolk water to you get to the consistency you want and grind it some more.

Egg tempera is best used within a week; without preservatives it will go bad fairly quickly.  I will keep mine in the fridge between uses.  I don’t make these very often, but they are nice for certain applications (like traditional folk painting).

 

For Oil Paint, The process for making oil paints is the same as above, only instead of gum arabic and honey, you are adding linseed oil and a small amount of melted beeswax.  If exposed to the air, oils will eventually dry out within a week or two (just like commercial oil paints).  A lot of people will purchase metal tubes so you can keep your paint in a metal tube, just like commercial producers do ,when making oil paints – as it would be hard to mix up a whole palate anytime you wanted it!

 

Using Your Paint

Once you have your paint made, you can use it on anything!  I like the watercolors best for this process because they don’t require special storage–you just dry them out into cakes, and then they can be used and rewet as needed.  If you get a fine grind, you can make watercolors and other paints even *better* than what you can find in the store: rich, inviting, and completely made by you!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

The Water Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle; The tan paint in the roots is from my own handmade watercolors: the AMD Iron Oxide–the first paint I made using this method!

 

watercolor swirl painting--all of the browns were from foraged paint!

Watercolor swirl painting–all of the browns were from foraged paint!

I hope this has been inspirational and informative. Now that spring is here, I am excited to see what pigments my landscape offers and do some western PA specific paints with this local and eco-friendly palate of colors!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging as I am in the final preparation for releasing my Plant Spirit Oracle deck, plantng out our gardens on the homestead, and attending the MAGUS druid gathering and doing some camping.  I’ll resume posting in early June!

A Seed Starting Ritual for Nourishment, Connection, and Relationship

All of the potential and possibility of the world is present in a single seed.  That seed has the ability to grow, to flourish, to produce fruit and flowers, to offer nutrition, magic, and strength.  Seed starting offers us a chance to connect deeply with the seeds we plant, and to , from the very beginning, establish and maintain sacred relationships with our plant allies. Seed starting is a truely magical druidic practice, and in today’s post, I want to talk a bit about the magic of seed staring and share a simple ritual that you can do to bless your seeds as you plant them. Some of my earlier posts on seed starting can be found here (a general philosophy of seeds from a druidic perspective) and here (recycled materials for seed starting).

 

Seeds coming up!

Seeds coming up!

One of the most important parts of a druid practice, in my opinion, is integrating sacred activities into everyday life. I think working to live our regular lives in a sacred manner is one of the ways we can stay balanced, happy, and connected in an otherwise unbalanced world.  But I also think that this is part of what living druidry is all about–finding sacred moments, sharing them, understanding that each moment can have its own kind of sacredness. This is important in each aspect of our lives, but certainly, in activities that tie us directly to other kinds of life and allow us to interact with other cycles of life.  To me, there is nothing more sacred than starting seeds. And while this may be considered a “mundane” activity to some, to me, it is an incredibly sacred one. Because the seeds we will start are such a blessing to so many, and are part of the sacred cycle of nature, I think its critical to honor them and support them on the journey that they will take from seed to harvest.

 

Connection, Nourishment, and Relationships: What Seeds Offer

This is the time of year for starting seeds. Right now, we are just over 14 weeks out from our last frost date, and the first of our seeds are being started this upcoming week on the full moon, these include our greenhouse seeds (kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula), our alliums, and some slow-growing herbs (rosemary, lavender, white sage). These seeds will feed us, nourish us, and in the case of the white sage, rosemary, and lavender, also be used for sacred offering blends, smudge stick making, rituals here on our land, and other sacred activities surrounding our druid practices.

 

Last year, the white sage and lavender we grew from seed ended up being shared with members of the grove and other friends, mostly in the form of incenses and smudges.  It continues to be offered in our rituals, both individual and grove.  Last year, the vegetables we grew ended up with over 10 families, as well as in our bellies and the bellies of our animals here on the land. So part of the magic of starting these particular seeds is the magic of community, togetherness, and sharing.  I think that happens a lot when we grow things–we end up sharing the abundance.  The plants give and give to us, and it is only right that we give back to them.  One of the ways we can give back is do rituals that offer them the same thing they offer us: physical nourishment and metaphysical energy.

 

Alium going to seed, Summer 2013

Allium going to seed, Summer 2013

 

But there’s another piece of this too–seed starting is about relationships: establishing relationship with new lines of seeds, or, maintaining relationships with saved seed over a period of time.  Some of these seeds we are starting this week are brand new to me and have entered my life for the first time.  That is, we purchased them from organic seed companies or small sellers. These seeds should be welcomed and honored as friends.  But some of these seeds have been with me for a long time.  One of the alliums I am planing, a Long Red Florence onion, has been with me quite a while.  In fact, if you are a long-term reader of this blog, this isn’t the first time I’ve shown the photo to the right.  I began planting this seed in 2012, and I am planting the seeds of this particular onion’s offspring today.  A seed planting ritual, then, should also connect you deeply with the plants–both those who are brand new, and those who you have cultivated relationships with over time.  And so, a good seed starting ritual should be about establishing and maintaining relationships.

 

Relationships with perennials and annuals are a bit different, and I want to talk about that difference briefly here, as it has very direct relevance on the rituals I’ll share today.  Annuals, in a lot of cases, particularly in cultivated varieties that are not native or naturalized to your region, depend on you for continuing to grow.  It is rare for a lot of plants to come back (or they will come back at the wrong time, like a rotted tomato that dropped to the ground and then starts sending up babies from the sprouts 2 weeks before frost!)  These plants, due to their long cultivation by humans, need us.  Perennials need us too, but in that case, its more to visit, to honor them, to continue to make sure they have what they need to grow.  In either case though, we are talking about interdependency.

 

So from the above, we have four key pieces to a good seed starting ritual: physical nourishment, energy, relationship, and interdependency.  Let’s now take a look at some options for how you can build this into an existing seed starting practice.

 

Seed Starting Rituals

With most rituals, particularly in the druid context (where we don’t have hardly any ancient traditions to go back to), the intentions are what matter most.  You can do a lot of different things to get at the four points above, and you can do different things that go from very simple to fairly elaborate in terms of ritual.  I’m going to offer a few options, but these are by no means the only options you have before you!  But I think the key thing is to think about the principles above:  nourishment, relationship, energy, and interdependency.  Here’s what I like to do:

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Assemble all of your supplies. Before you start, assemble your supplies: potting soil, pots, seeds, a work area, and so on. Put your potting soil or any other nutrients (like coffee grounds, great for seed starting) in your work area.  Have a bucket or potting tray ready to mix.  Also have labels available and anything else you will need, like a small hand shovel, etc.

 

The Elemental Seed Starting Ritual.  

For this ritual, you’ll need something to offer the seeds from each of the five core elements: earth, fire, water, air, and spirit.

  • For earth, you can offer a good potting mix rich with nutrients, the most obvious thing for planting seeds.  If you can, grab a little bit of the soil that last year’s plants were grown in. As part of the ritual, you will mix the soil with nutrients and your own energy, so don’t fill up your pots in advance.
  • For Air, you have your own breath, which is better than anything else.  You can have incense, feathers, or other air-focused elements to supplement, of course.
  • For water, you can offer standard pure water, or, if you are particularly ambitious and want to build tremendous relationship and interdependency, offer a 90% water and 10% of your own urine in a mix.  I know this sounds crazy, but read my blog post here.  Its pretty simple–your urine is very high in nitrogen, which is one of the core building blocks for all plant life. Your waste product is their life–just as their waste product, oxygen, is yours.  Using your own urine puts you in a direct interdependent relationship that frankly, few other things, can do.  I usually have a pot of pure water for mixing and then the urine/water dilution for watering afterward.
  • For fire, you may use any representation of fire; if the sun is shining, I like to bring the seeds into the sun. If not, I like to have candles available.
  • For spirit, I prefer to use an herbal offering that I grew or some other spiritual offering. Anything you’d typically use as an offering will do.

 

A few notes before I describe the ritual:  You can start your seeds all at once, or you can start each different seed type one at a time, using the appropriate elements as needed.  What I’ve offered is just a suggestion of what you can do for the seeds; please feel free to adjust and add your own creativity into this ritual!

 

Establish a Sacred Grove or Sacred Space.   Many druid traditions, including OBOD and AODA, offer clear instructions for how to establish a sacred grove.  (I described one version of a sacred grove in a recent post on herbalism).  I like to start my seeds in a sacred grove, as a sacred grove in my tradition sets intentions for sacred work.  This helps with both energy and relationship. And so, before beginning to plant, I will establish a sacred grove.  While you don’t have to do this, I recommend it.

 

The Work of Earth: Mix your potting soil.  Begin by putting your potting soil, nutrients, coffee grounds, peat moss, whatever you are using as your typical seed starting mix in a potting tray or bucket.  Even if you are using a completely store bought mix, go ahead and put it in the bucket.  Begin mixing the materials together, and as you do, envision some of your own energy going into the soil.

 

As you mix, you might want to chant or sing.  I prefer to chant the ogham for Oak (strength, stability): Duir (doo-er).  So I will mix and chant.  It is  much easier to seed start with wet soil, so after I chant, I will add some pure water to my mix and mix it all well before putting my soil in the trays.

 

Put your soil in the trays.  As you do so, continue to chant.

 

Establishing and Maintaining Relationship through Planting Your Seeds. Hold your seeds in your hand for a moment, and connect with the spirit of the seed.  Welcome any new seeds.  For those who you already have a relationship with, tell them you are glad to see them.  Pause for a moment to see if the seeds have anything to share with you.  Then, plant each one.  As you plant, sing or chant.  I like to chant the Ogham for birch here (Beith) for new beginnings.  Once you are finished, say “My energy supports you, as you will support me. May the great soil web of life bring you strength.”

 

The Work of Air.  Label your seeds.  As you label, continue to chant Beith or offer other air blessings.  When you are done labeling, blow softly over each of the pots of seeds.  Say, “My outbreath is your inbreath, your breath is my life. May the blessings of the air sustain you.”

 

The Work of Water.  Take your pure water or urine dilution, and sing or chant as you water each plant.  I like to chant the ogham Willow here (Sallie) while I am watering.  After watering say, “My nutrients feed you, as you will feed me.  May the power of the water nourish you.”

 

The Work of Fire.  Sing or chant the ogham for Fir/Pine (Alim) (Aye-lim) and hold up the pots to the sunlight.  Alternatively, move a candle around the pots.  Say, “May the fire of the sun let you grow.”

 

The Work of Spirit.  Sing or chant the ogham for Apple (Quert) (or another ogham as you choose).  As you do this, sprinkle an offering lightly over the pots.  When you are finished say, “My offering today, for your offering tomorrow. May the Nwyfre flow through you.”

 

Additions: Singing and Drumming.  At this point, feel free to do anything else you like.  I like to drum or play my panflute a little for the seeds in a welcome and to raise good energy for them.

 

Close the space. When you are finished, thank the spirits and close out your sacred grove.

 

Trays of small plants from seed!

Trays of small plants from seed!

Final Thoughts

While it seems like a lot above, the ritual is actually quite simple.  I’ve used the energy of the Ogham, of sacred trees, and of sacred chanting to do the work of connecting to each of the elements.  But you could connect with them in any way you want, or replace what I’ve done with other sources of power that you work with (such as deity, etc).

 

If you have any other ideas for sacred seed starting, or if you have things you’ve done in the past, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!  Thank you for reading and blessings of the seeds!

The Lessons of Nature at the Winter Solstice

In the fall, I always feel like I’m fighting against the coming dark at the time of the winter solstice, and each year, I have to learn the lesson anew.  This year proved particularly challenging for a few reasons. After the time changes at Daylight Savings time, and the sun starts setting at 3:30pm.  It is down by 4:30 and completely dark by 5:15pm. As a homesteader, in preparation for spring planting and the winter to come, there always seems to be so much to do.  Bringing in the harveset, preparing the greenhouse, preparing and clearing garden beds, stacking wood, cleaning gutters, shoring up the hen house, and doing all of the necessary multitude of other preparations for the coming winter.  As the fall deepens, each day, the light continues to wane, and there is less light each day to work with. On many days when I go to work, I rise before the sun rises, I am on campus all day in a windowless office, and I leave campus after the sun has set–literally never seeing the sun, sometimes for days on end. These “lack of sun” issues were certainly heightened this year, by our region having the rainiest season on record.  Many of us in Western PA felt like summer never happened; an extremely rainy and cold July and August meant that the warmth never had a chance to seep into our bones. These climate changes are the new norm, but they certainly make it difficult to adapt! Finally, and perhaps most salient, I think the cultural darkness has also left its mark on many of us in 2018; it was a hard, dark year.  No wonder as the light wanes, I found myself really mentally fighting the coming darkness of the winter solstice.

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Snowfall at our homestead

But whether or not we want to face the darkness, it is now upon us, as it will be each year of our lives.  Earlier, I wrote about embracing the darkness at the winter solstice on this blog.  I’ve also written about enacting a winter solstice vigil during the darkest night of the year and about sustainable and magical activities for the winter solstice.  In re-reading these, I remind myself that the lessons of this year are powerful, and perhaps, each year, we must learn to embrace the darkness anew. So today, I offer three additional insights for the lessons of the winter solstice and thinking about embracing the darkness during this time.

 

Lessons of Darkness, Again and Again

The irony is that in my earlier posts about the winter solstice, they seemed so certain, so firm, as if I had found the answer that helped me embrace the dark.  The truth is, for this druid at least, there is no “one” answer to addressing the coming of the darkness.  I am in a different place as the wheel turns again, and the darkness of each year finds me in a different mindset, different life circumstances, different present time.  Such that, particularly for this holiday, learning how to work with the Winter Solstice must be learned and deepened each year anew.  Each holiday on the Druid’s Wheel of the Year offers us this same lesson–a chance to deepen our experiences with the magic of that sacred time.  For Alban Arthan, the darkness requires a different kind of interaction and engagement with the world–a time of quietude, slowness, of otherness.  And we must simply let ourselves be present in it and embrace it.  And for some of us, we have to teach ourselves this lesson again each year.

 

Perhaps, saying that we have to learn a lesson is not the right way of thinking about it.  It is almost like we have to come to a place of acceptance of this time, this dark, this cold.  There is something so joyful about the light of summer, and that light is so far away. As the light wanes to nothingness, those of us who are stuck indoors at jobs may notice that all of our “light hours” are gone during the working week.  Further, the cold and dreary days set in, and some days, it hardly feels like the sun is there behind the clouds at all.  Darkness requires us to step away from “business as usual” and re-orient ourselves to this time.  Culturally, this re-orientation is extremely difficult because the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in full effect. If anything, our lives are the most busy this time of year, yet nature is telling us hey, you’ve got to slow down.  I think this is part of why there is so much depression around the holidays: we are fighting our natural instincts. And perhaps that’s why each year,  it seems of all of the wheel of the year holidays, I find this one to be the most difficult to adapt to, to embrace, and to accept.

 

Indeed, my first lesson is that the darkness may always be difficult for many of us.  In the same way that nobody wants to have bad things happen in their life, experience pain or loss.  But like the dark, these things are inevitable, just as the darkness of the winter solstice is inevitable.

 

The Lesson of the Seed

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

In the last week, two seed catalogs arrived, reminding me that while it may be dark, planning for the coming season offers hope.  As I browse the seeds, thinking about their magic and life, I realize that we can learn a lot about embracing the darkness from starting seeds.  I think about all of the seeds of the self-seeding annuals, perennials, and nuts that the squirrels buried this past fall season: those seeds are there, covered in dark soil, awaiting the spring. Awaiting warmth, moisture, and a chance to grow. The darkness holds these seeds, preserves them, allows them to be in  a time of stasis before they spring forth.

 

In fact, many of the seeds of some of the most rare and medicinal plants require “cold stratification.”  The seed packets tell you to put the seeds in your refridgerator for a period of time, usually some weeks or months, for without this period of cold, the seeds will not grow. Black cohosh, a critically endagnered forest medicinal plant, is one such plant that requires cold stratification.  For years, I attempted to do just as the seed packets asked–putting them in the fridge in a damp paper towel for three months, as requeted, then planting them indoors with my other seeds and hoping they would grow.  For years, no sprouts happened. The seeds simply would not grow.  Last year, I stuck the seeds right in the ground in the fall, after clearing away and marking little areas.  Sure enough, in the spring this year, the seeds came forth and now I have several beautiful black cohosh plants growing on the property in addition to some live plants I had purhcased and planted.

 

I wonder: how many of our most sacred and magical ideas are just like that Black Cohosh, requiring that darkness and incubation period? There are seeds we plant that must have their own time of darkness and cold before they can spring forth into the light of day. We need the darkness, just as the seeds need the darkness.  We need the quiet, the slowness, the time for reflection and introspection, before the seeds of our ideas can sprout in the spring.

 

The Lesson of the Roots

Another aspect of nature reminds me of another important lesson about darkness. Roots on trees and plants are extremely sensitive and require darkness to live. If roots are exposed to air and light, they will almost immediately be damaged.  Enough exposure will kill the roots, thereby killing the plant. I remember the first time I was planting trees as a new druid.  I had no idea how sensitive roots were, and I had left a number of trees’ roots exposed to light and air while I dug holes.  These little planted seedlings struggled mightily, I hadn’t realized that I had damaged their roots by exposing them as such.  They eventually did live, but only after a tremendous amount of care: water, singing, sunlight, and sitting with them. This was certainly a powerful lesson for a new druid!

 

Roots go deep

Roots go deep

Even many root crops, like potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes, prefer to stay in the darkness and space within the soil.  When exposed to too much light, these crops go “green”; this greening produces Solanine.  Solanine is actually slightly toxic to humans, creating symptoms of nausea and upset stomach when consumed. How ironic that that which we want to embrace–the light–is so detrimental to the root crops.

 

But there is a deep lesson here about darkness and why we need this winter solstice time. Our own roots–that of our spirits, that of our creative practices, that of the core of our beings–are in need of the same kind of darkness.  Our roots are our grounding, the place of spirit and of the soul.   If the dark offers us a time for quiet contemplation, for rest, for rejuvenation: all of this is necessary if we are to bring any fruit into the world.  Fruit will not happen without strong roots, and strong roots do not happen without darkness.  Otherwise, we are just producing Solanine.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The seed needs dark soil to spring forth.  The roots cannot be exposed to light without damaging or killing the whole plant.  Potatoes go green in the light.  Maybe we are the same. The roots of our being are found only in the times of darkness: within ourselves, in our dreams, in the promise of a new beginning, in the quietude that can only be found in rest and open time.  We need the darkness as we need the air to breathe.  Blessings to you on the upcoming long night–may your spirit soar.

 

PS:  I’ll be taking a few weeks off of blogging for some travel and deep spiritual work over this period of darkness.  I will resume blogging again in mid January!  Blessings of the snowy white pine and sheltering Eastern hemlock upon you!

 

PPS: Larisa White, who is a fellow AODA druid and fellow OBOD Mount Haemus scholar, is working on a World Druidries Survey for her 2020 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture. If you haven’t already taken it, please consider spending time taking her survey!  Here is a link.