The Druid's Garden

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

Plant Spirit Communication Part III: Spirit Journeying September 2, 2018

Plants have been teachers and guides to humans for millenia. Deeply woven into our own DNA are receptors for certain plants and plant compounds. Our ancestors understood this, and in different parts of the world, cultivated thousands of medicinal plants, healing plants, teacher plants, for use on mind, body, and spirit. While the physical plant can offer much to our bodies in terms of healing, strengthening, and support (which is the basis of herbalism practice), plant spirits can offer the same thing to our hearts and spirits.  While there are lots of ways you might go about doing this, one useful tool is to enage in plant spirit journeys.  This is the third post in my plant spirit communication series; if you haven’t yet read the first two posts, go here and here.

 

Journeying is a catch all term that describes “inner” experiences that people have where they go to new places, meet spirits and guides and other beings, and interact in various ways. Depending on the tradition, worldview, and belief systems of the practitioner, these journeys be described as taking place in the realm of the imagination or on alternative planes or dimensions that are as real as the material plane we inhabit. While what you believe about the experience is important, especially to your own processing of it, it doesn’t actually change the fact that, with practice, anyone can do spirit journeys regardless of what they believe–as long as they are open to the experience. The act of journeying is ancient, from accounts and records of indigenous peoples all over the world and the myths and legends worldwide, this practice was a common practice, a human pratice, a tradition of many ancestors in many places. Sometimes, and in some cultures and traditions, journeys are supported with the use of teacher plants or mushrooms to put people in a more receptive state; other times, they are supported with chanting, drumming, or other ways of achieving a deep meditative state. Today’s post explores the idea of inner journeying for the purpose of connecting with plant and tree spirits. What I’m offering here are some of my own techniques that I’ve adapted and developed for specific use with plant spirit work; these techniques are heavily informed by both my studies in the druid tradition as well as my experiences studying the Celtic Golden Dawn.

Spirit of Tobacco Painting (Part of my Plant Spirit Oracle project)

Spirit of Tobacco Painting (Part of my Plant Spirit Oracle project)

 

Just as we experience on the physical plane, journeys have power. In our everyday lives, journeying to new places and experiencing new things helps us grow tremendously. A journey offers us a chance to step away from our everyday rhythms and life, to see new things, eat new foods, meet new people, gain new insights, and go new places–all of which helps us process old wounds and grow as people. Journeys can offer our physical bodies and minds relaxation and rejuvenation. Everything that I just wrote about “outer” journeys an also be true of “inner” journeys, including plant spirit work. In both cases, the journey helps us experience new things and do deep work on ourselves, our healing, and our own spiritual and mental development. And in the case of journeying with/to plant spirits, the plants have much to offer us in terms of teachings, healing, and insight.

 

Preparation of Mind, Body, and Space

Plant spirit journeys do require a few kinds of preparation. Preparation helps ensure a good and productive plant spirit journey.

 

Preparation of the mind.  Building your own skill in meditation and focus can greatly aid you in your plant spirit journeys. I shared some of the fundamentals with regards to getting ready to do deep work with plants in my earlier post, particularly concerning meditation. I suggest if you haven’t read those two posts, please review them.  Before you do a plant spirit journey, it is also helpful to check your mental state: if you are in a place of high emotions (anxiety, anger, elation, etc) you may not be in a balanced place to have a good journey and your own emotions may cloud or otherwise disrupt the journey. I would suggest choosing a different time for plant spirit work where you are calm and in a good mental head space.

 

One of the skills needed for inner journeying is visualization. In conjunction with meditation, it also can be a skill that takes time to establish. If you haven’t done exercises in visualization before, here is one to get you started. Begin with the candle meditation (described in my earlier post). Focus your eyes on the candle as it flickers and continue your breathwork. Have the image of the candle firmly in your vision. Now, close your eyes; continue to see that candle in your inner vision. Practice this, and eventually, you can attempt to visualize other things: forests, stone circles, anything you like, to practice in preparation for your journey.

 

Preparation of the body. Preparing yourself physically can also help you get into a receptive state of mind for the journey to take place. There are a lot of options here, and you should choose what most appeals to you. I like to do a bath in candlelight, and then don simple yet comfortable cotton robes to do my plant spirit journey work. If you don’t have time for the bath, you might do a simple smudge technique. Again, what this is doing is helping you prepare, washing or smudging away some of the worries of the day, and so forth.

 

Preparation of the space. Physically preparing the space where you will do your plant spirit journey is also helpful. If you are outdoors, you might have to find the “right spot” and then perhaps setup a small altar for the elements.  If it is during anytime where bugs would bother you (and oh my goodness, can mosquitoes ruin a good journey) I would suggest finding a way to keep them off of you.  I actually use my backpack tent; it has a fully screened inner area (and an outer rainfly). If I set it up (which takes all of 5 min), I can then go into the tent, still be outside, and not let the bugs bother you.  This isn’t always necessary, but in areas where there are dominant horse flies and mosquitoes (pretty much anywhere I’ve lived from July to September) it is a wonderful way to maintain your focus and still be out in the world.

 

If you are indoors, again, setting up a small altar or lighting the space with candlelight can be useful. I have my main altar in my art studio; under the altar is a thick carpet that is perfect for laying down and doing journeying work. I will tend the altar (setting up the elemental bowls, getting incense lit, lighting candles, etc) before I begin.  If I have a specific plant I want to meet, I will use a piece of the plant (physically) or image of the plant and place it on the center of the altar.

 

Prepare others in your life. Minimizing distractions is a really important part of inner journeying.  You don’t want to have your partner or child disrupting your journey work–it can be extremely disorienting (and rude to the plant spirit). So make sure you are able to find quiet for this work–that might mean doing it late at night or early in the morning before others you live with are awake, etc. It also means tending to any pets that may be disruptive (not all are, my cat, Grimalkin, will often join me in my ritual space and serve as a gaurdian). The point here is to give yourself a quiet, safe space for this work–and give yourself a span of whatever time you need.

 

Preliminaries: A Sacred Space and a Sacred Grove

Establishing Sacred Space

Before you do any journeying work, you need to establish a sacred space from which you can work. Many traditions offer you tools to do this. In the druid tradition, we open up a sacred space (what we call a sacred grove) by doing some combination of the following:

  • Declaring our intent for the ceremony and announcing the opening of the grove
  • Declaring peace in the quarters (May there be peace in the East…)
  • Saying the Druid’s Prayer or other prayers
  • Offerings to ancestors, spirits of the land, plant spirits, etc.
  • Calling in the four (or seven) elements; possibly also doing banishing work to remove negative influences of those elements from the space; possibly using them for blessing, consecration, or raising energy work
  • Casting a circle or establishing a sphere of protection around the space.

At the end of the journeying, you take the sacred space down: thanking the elemental powers in the four directions, perhaps saying another prayer or two, perhaps making another offering, unwinding the circle/sphere of protection, and declaring the ceremony over.

 

It is important to establish your sacred space each time you sit down to do journeying. Establishing a sacred space helps put you in the right frame of mind; it also assures that any unwanted influences, spirits, and so on, are kept from the space for the duration of your plant spirit journey.

 

Your Inner Sacred Grove

Spirit of the Birch

Spirit of the Birch

Many traditions that use journeying, including both the Celtic Golden Dawn and OBOD Druidry, use an inner grove, or series of inner groves, to help you establish a safe space for journeying work. Establishing a safe space on the inner planes is critical for long-term plant spirit work, and can put you in a place of comfort from the very beginning.

 

Your Sacred Grove.  The first stage of plant spirit journeying should be in establishing and exploring a space that you find or designate as your inner grove. Your inner grove is a space that your visualize and travel to that is your starting point.

 

To begin to establish a sacred grove, you might think about an outdoor place that you really love or envision an outdoor place that you’d love to be in. This space should be completely peaceful and safe for you. What features of this space do you want to include? A stone circle? A ring of trees under the moonlight? A beach with the waves lapping against the shore? Once you have decided upon a space that suits your needs.   Start by visualizing these features in your inner eye. Work to establish this image as firmly as possible; the first time you go in. If you are new to journeying work, it may take some time–and that’s ok. There is no rush, and these practices take the time they take. (As a reference, when I started this kind of work in my adult life, it took me several months of regularly journeying work to get to a place where I felt comfortable in and around the sacred grove).

 

You might also find that it is helpful to create a “key” to enter your sacred grove. A tune of music, a particular drumbeat, a specific word or chant–something that helps put you in a receptive space to enter that inner grove can be very helpful. Train yourself to your key by using it just before you aim to enter the inner grove.

 

Once you have the grove established, you might do some exploration–what is where in your sacred grove? Do you see paths, gateways, and so on?  is there an altar? Objects on the altar? What is growing? Is there anyone in your sacred grove? (You might already have spirit guides, plant spirits, and other guardians in that space to interact with). You will likely find that a whole landscape begins to grow as you do this work. The more you put into visiting and exploring the sacred grove, the more rich experiences you will have.

 

Preliminaries: Plant Interaction

If you are preparing to meet a particular plant spirit, it is very helpful in the day(s) before you do that journey, you have interaction with the plant on the physical plane if at all possible.  Interaction can mean a lot of things: planting seeds or harvesting part of the plant, sitting with the plant in meditation or observation, drinking a tea or eating some of the plant, smoking some of the plant, making things from the plant, working wood from the tree, you get the idea. Use the plant, interact with it, and if at all possible–bring it into your body in some way (if it is safe to do so). This “primes” you for the spirit connection.

 

You can do this priming for days or even weeks in advance.  For example, put rosemary in your food, create a rosemary smudge stick, sit with your potted rosemary and tend her, drink a rosemary tea–and when you go to do your plant spirit journey, you are likely to have gotten Rosemary’s attention. The plants, particularly the healing plants, want to work with us, but we have to show them that we want to work with them too.

 

For example, I primed myself for meeting tobacco on the inner planes by harvesting it at Lughnasadh in a ritual, laying it out for drying, and also writing about it on my blog. When I went to do another plant spirit journey as part of developing my Plant Spirit Oracle, it was unsurprising that Tobacco showed up with his wisdom and offered me a painting for the deck!

 

Going on a journey--where will it lead?

Going on a journey–where will it lead?

The Plant Spirit Journey

You’ve prepared your mind, body, and spirit for the work.  You’ve established a safe inner grove that you can begin with–now the time comes for the plant spirit journey itself–which has several steps.

 

Prepare your mind, body, and space.

 

Open up your sacred space. 

 

Make an offering: Begin your plant spirit journey ceremony by making some kind of offering to the plant.  Offerings can be many things: compost, music, liquid gold, cornmeal, tobacco, even a bit of special rainwater you collected, etc.  Let the plant spirit know that you are calling to them and honor them–get their attention.

 

Prime yourself. As you begin your inner journey work, you may find it helpful to prime yourself with the plant–drink a tea, use an oracle card or image to focus on the plant or a piece of the plant or the potted plant.  Have it with you physically in some way as you enter your inner grove.

 

The Journey.  Make yourself completely comfortable (sitting, laying) so that you can stay still for an extended period of time.  Enter your inner grove.  Call out to the plant spirit and ask them to guide you. Wait for the spirit to arrive (helpful plants, like herbs, are almost certain to come! Other spirits may take more work and multiple calls, especially those who are less connected with humans).  Let the spirit guide you on the journey.

 

Journal. Keep a journal about your experience; I suggest writing in your journal prior to even closing out the space. I literally keep my journal next to me as I do my journey, and as soon as I come back to my physical body, I write everything down.  If you wait too long, your mind will no longer be in the state it was during your journey, and you may lose details (and the details are important!)  So get it all down so you can reflect on it later.

 

Close out the space. Thank the spirits and powers you summoned, bring yourself back to this plane.

 

Do some grounding. Ground yourself after the experience–eat something, allow yourself time to re-integrate back into your life.

 

Meditate on your experience.  Spend some time reflecting and meditating about the experience in the week or so after your journey.  You will often find that you can have additional and deeper insights if you meditate on portions of the journey each day in the days after the journey.  This meditation process can take some time.  For some journeys, it can take weeks of reflection to “unpack” everything that is present in the journey!

 

Plant spirit journeys are amazing ways to connect deeply with yourself and the plant kingdom and it can be a regular part of your spiritual practice offering deep awareness, insight, and joy.  I wish you blessings on your travels!

 

Plant Spirit Communication, Part I: Your Native Langauge August 19, 2018

When I was  new to my first job, a colleague had given two of us both who had been recently hired an elephant ear plant seedling for our offices. Our offices were next to each other, both with the same window. Each plant was planted in an identical pot and in identical soil. My elephant ear plant grew quite large and beautiful, while my colleague’s plant kept sending up small shoots and dying back. Finally, she said to me, “Why is your plant doing so much better than mine?” And I responded as a druid, totally without thinking, “I just talk to the plant and it tells me what it needs.” She rolled her eyes at me, let out an exasperated sigh, and walked away. She was never a very pleasant person, but she was particularly nasty to me for some time after that. Perhaps she thought I was mocking her, or unwilling to offer the right information, but I wasn’t. What I had said to her was true, but she couldn’t accept it. Eventually, I saw her watering the plant a tiny amount, and I bought her a bigger watering can and some organic fertilizer (I used my own liquid gold, but that is certainly not something I was going to tell her!) and eventually her plant did grow. But, this short interchange offers some insights into the cultural challenges present for those of nature-based and animistic paths with regards to plant spirit communication.

 

A great place to commune with the plants

A great place to commune with the plants

It seems that only modern western industrialized civilization scoffs at the idea of plant spirit communication, or any spirit communication. Further, this culture insists such things aren’t “real” because they can’t be scientifically observed and measured; and science is often put at odds with spirituality. This means that for those of us growing up in mainstream westernized cultures, particularly here in the US, it means that that we likely haven’t acknowledge or had the opportunity to cultivate a whole set of human gifts that humans in other places and times have.  For some of us, it takes a while to strip this cultural conditioning to be able to communicate–but we all have this ability.  It’s just about acknowledging it and honoring it.

 

Westernized culture is a bit of an anomaly in terms of spirit communication, however. In ages past, and in most indigenous cultures still today, the idea of communicating with the spirits of animals and plants was a daily part of life, something that at least a portion of the population did regularly. In fact, you can see examples of spirit communication in nearly every major culture in the world other than modern western culture. For some cultures, every person had this ability, but in many, often it was certain people who had the gift or were selected and specially trained to communicate with the spirits in more deep ways. Some cultures–ancient or modern–had an animistic perspective (see Graham Harvey’s amazing book on animism for more on this) while others preferred to talk with other non-corporeal entities, like ancestors, spirits, deities, and so forth, but the basics of spirit communication is the same. Deep listening, respect and reverence, and time are all needed.

 

In a recent post, I talked about developing deep relationships with plant spirits through cultivation, harvest, and sacred relationship.  In an earlier post, I’ve also talked about listening to trees on the inner and outer planes, both of which connect to today’s topic. So for the next few weeks, we’ll explore plant spirit and tree spirit communication in more depth. This applies to all kinds of plants, large or small, and I’m just going to use “plant spirit” to mean pretty much everyone.

 

Cultural Deprogramming

To develop plant spirit communication techniques, many of us from Western civilization have to engage in some cultural deprogramming before we can begin the actual plant spirit communication. The first is illustrated in my opening interchange–getting past the “disbelief” that this can’t really happen, that it is a made up fantasy, that it is not real. Because these things are continually reinforced in daily interactions, moving beyond these cultural mindsets can be hard thing to do and it can take considerable time. It may also take time due to the programming our birth religions may have left us with (this was a real struggle for me). This work ultimately involves deprogramming ourselves of that “inner voice” that tells us that we are “making up” and encourages us to disbelieve.

 

This deprogramming process can take time, and it is certainly a cyclical process that you may need to return to as your own practices deepen. A few things that helped me both with cultural and birth religion deprogramming are as follows:

  • Talking to others on the path. Having a second person, or group of people, validate your experiences, and share plant spirit communication experiences of their own is deeply gratifying.
  • Avoid the “shoulds/Shouldn’ts”.  Don’t tell yourself what you should believe, what you should do, what you should or shouldn’t experience.  Just be open to the experience and try to withhold judgement.
  • Examine places where you feel uncomfortable. These may have to do with longer unexamined ideas or patterns from culture, birth religion, etc. Getting to the bottom of these places can help you understand them and move beyond them.
  • Going in with an open mind and open heart. Be willing to suspend judgement and simply experience what comes. Set aside preconceived ideas about what you may experience and simply be open.

 

Ultimately, this deprogramming and coming to a place of acceptance is a matter both for the mind and the heart. To me, some of the primary work is move us out of a “head centered” or “logic dominated” space and into a “heart centered” space of feeling and intuiting. Its not that we discount the mind and its inner workings; its just that Western ways of thinking essentially deny heart spaces, they deny intutition, and these non-physical ways of knowing, and so its important to recognize, and cultivate, and opening of the heart.

 

Plant Spirit Communication: Your Native Langauge

Wild strawberries - friend of humans!

Wild strawberries – friend of humans!

In working with a lot of different people over the years wanting to learn spirit communication, what I’ve found is this: we each have a “native language” when it comes to spirit communication. This native language can manifest in a lot of different ways:

 

  • Clairaudience: Being able to hear the plant spirits speak.
  • Clairvoyance: Being able to see things on the inner planes, or see the spirit of the plants
  • Empathy: Being able to feel emotions tied to spirits or places
  • Intuition: Having a deep “knowing” about a plant, a knowing that comes from within
  • Energetic: Being able to sense the flows of energy of a plant or place
  • Tool-based: Being able to read and interpret messages with the use of tools (pendulum, tarot, ogham, runes, bones, etc)
  • Signs and Omens: Reading the physical landscape for signs and omens (a breeze, clouds, movement of birds, swaying of leaves, etc.)

 

When a person starts out exploring plant spirit communication, he or she will likely find that you have a “knack” for one or more of these, but may have great difficulty with the others. For example, one member of my grove had an incredible ability to read the energies of plants and sense emotions, but couldn’t hear or see anything. I, on the other hand, started out the opposite–hearing messages clearly, but not seeing or feeling much for a long time. With time and patience, all of these different gifts can be cultivated powerfully.

 

I’ve found that the key to cultivating your plant spirit communication is to start by discovering what your “native langauge” is and then strengthening it, working with it first, as much as possible. This is going to be what is easiest for you and what you’ll get good success with, especially initially. Once you have a good handle on that form of communicating, try branching out into one or more other areas. Recognize that these are skills that need to be cultivated, and that cultivation takes time. For some of us, these are entirely new ways of engaging with the world, so be patient and kind to yourself as you learn.

 

Meditation as the Gateway

The spiral of spirit (painting by Dana O'Driscoll)

The spiral of spirit

Westernized culture is afraid of silence. It fills our minds constantly with other people’s images, words, and chatter: from televisions in waiting rooms to smartphones to constant news streams in airports and doctor’s offices, it is as if our minds never have a moment to be quiet. This culture seems to fear quiet and fills it as best it can. Because of this, deep inner listening for the voices of the plants can be difficult at first.  If all these other voices are talking, and if our own voices are talking, the soft voices of the plants have no room to be heard. Even for those of us who have worked to create a peaceful space in our lives and homes, we can’t always easily avoid the pressures of daily living or their regular stressors. This means we still need a “buffer zone” in order to effectively cultivate or use any of the above methods. Meditation is this buffer zone, and daily meditation can create this safe space.

 

There are many ways to meditate, but I’m going to focus on suggesting three that are particularly useful for setting you up for plant spirit communication:

 

Empty Mind / Candle Meditation. This technique I see as almost the prequel to many other kinds of meditation. Set a candle in front of you and simply focus on your breath. Begin by taking three deep breaths and focus on looking at the candle and breathing. If thoughts come into your mind, let them go. See if you can get to 10 or 20 breaths (harder than you think!). The point of this is to help clear your mind so that spirits can communicate. If you always have a running narrative in your mind, or your mind is full of other people’s noise, you won’t have any room to allow the spirits to speak.

 

Nature-Based Observation Meditation. This next technique is a variation on the first, but using a natural setting (preferably, near one of the plants where you want to communicate). Seat yourself comfortably near a plant and quiet your mind. Breathe naturally and lightly. Observe the plant – notice features of the plant like its petals, leaves, the way it moves, the way the sunlight or rain interacts with it. This second meditation can lead directly to one form of plant spirit communication, see next section.

 

Music / Drumming Focus. A third precursor to the actual meditation work is to use some kind of musical aid to help you with your focus. Many traditions use a steady beat of some kind – a drum, a rattle, an instrument playing low tones – to engage and focus the mind. You can do this by playing yourself, using a recording, or listening to someone else play. Even regular music, like classical music, can be used as a focus aid, where your goal is to only listen to the music and lose yourself in it (or get into a trance as it is called). The point here is to let the beat focus you so that you can listen.

 

Practicing regular meditation is the single-most helpful thing you can do to prepare yourself, and your own spirit, for plant spirit communication.  Even if you do nothing else for months or years, this preparatory work will aid you considerably.

 

Next week in this series, we’ll look at different aspects of plant spirit communication and techniques you can use. Our final post will go into more depth about plant spirit journeying.  May the blessings of the plants be with you!

 

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees May 20, 2018

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!

 

Elder (Sambucus Canadensis): Sacred Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Uses of the Elder Tree March 4, 2018

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

I remember when I first found the massive elderberry patch. It was a few summer solstices ago. There is an overlook deep in the state forest lands, where the roads are more goat path than vehicle worthy, and it takes about 45 minutes to go only a few miles. The overlook is facing east and you can see across multiple counties, for countless miles. Visiting the overlook earlier in the summer, I had said to my mother how much I’d love to witness the summer solstice sunrise from that spot. And so, at 4:30 am on the morning of the solstice we got up and were dismayed to find that it was overcast and drizzling. With hope in our hearts that it would clear, we made our way up the winding path, avoiding potholes and huge rocks, and eventually to that mountain overlook.  It was still gray and overcast, the opposite of what I had hoped to witness that day. The sun was not interseted in coming out to greet us. We were a bit saddened by the experience, and began our drive back. Suddenly, something caught my eye—a whole lot of something. A massive patch of hundreds of elderberry bushes, all in incredible bloom. We had bags for foraging in the car (my family is rather obsessed with foraging and mushroom hunting; you don’t leave the house without foraging gear) and so we stopped to pick them.  It was magical.  and I made my first batch of elderflower cordial later that day.

 

That morning so dreary, and the elder was so bright. She lived in a swampy area, so my sandaled feet were covered in mud. She had brambles growing all below her, so I was scratched up from tangling with the brush. But getting to pick that beautiful cluster of flowers, and taste the joy of the elderflower cordial—it was a true delight. There is so much transition here–and transition is one of the key themes that Elder offers. And so, in today’s post, we will explore the magic, medicine, folklore, and mystery of the elder tree. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. We’ll do this to understand elder’s role on the landscape and what gifts she may offer us—and how we, too, may seek her deep mysteries.

 

About the Elder Tree

The Elder tree (Sambucus spp.) has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the Eastern US, the most common elder we have is Sambucus Canadensis, or the black elder. I will focus the remaining post on the black elder as this is the elder that I have the most experience with, but do recognize that most of what I’m discussing can likely apply to other kinds of elders. Sambucus Canadensis is known by a variety of names including the common elder, American elder, black elder, elder blow, Canada elder, sweet elderberry.  According to Grieve in her Modern Herbal, more names for Elder include Pipe tree, bore tree, bour tree, hylder, hylantree, eldrum, and ellhorn.  All of these names have rich histories and are seeped in lore and tradition.

 

Elder typically grows in areas that are damp or wet such as ditches, flood plains, near streams and lakeshores, but I’ve also seen it growing in typical moist forests as well, either along the edges or as an understory species. It can grow in full sun or part shade, but shade will likely reduce the number of flowers and berries produced. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman describes the cup-shaped fungus (auricularia aricula) that grows on elder in the spring and fall. This mushroom, called a “Judas ear” or “Brown ear” is a delicious culinary treat. In rich wet soil with ample sun, elder can produce an amazing amount of flowers and berries that provide habitat and foraging for over 40 species of birds along with a host of mammals including squirrels, foxes, mice, and groundhogs. And, as anyone who has gone to gather elderflowers at midsummer knows—ample insect life. Not to mention, delicious flowers and berries that humans can enjoy.

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderberry is an incredible food and medicine for humans, and we have long cultivated a rich relationship with elder. As a food, Elderberry is high in Vitamin C, as well as A, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium. However, fresh from the bush, elderberry has a bit of rankness or skunkyness; this is completely eliminated by drying or canning. Some sources suggest that the fresh elderberries should not be eaten raw because they can sometimes cause an upset stomach. I’ve read this statement in a lot of books, and maybe it is true, but I’ve never heard anyone who has actually gotten a stomach problem from them. As a child, my cousins and I enjoyed them every year and ate them fresh from the bush. We were fine, but we are also hardy mountain people!  It may be that this is true of Elder species other than Sambucus Canadensis.

 

The fruits and flowers both are culinary treats, used in creating beverages as well as jams and jellies. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (which is, to this day, one of my very favorite foraging books), Euell Gibbons describes his version of elderberry jelly, to which he also adds staghorn sumac. I’ve modified his recipe as follows to be a lower-sweetener/sugar version employing Pamona’s pectin (for low sugar canning) rather than normal pectin. First, you begin by stripping the berries of stalks (the easiest way is actually to freeze the berries—then they pop off of the stalks easily). You don’t want the stalks as they are not edible. Next, cover the berries with water and simmer for 30 min, mashing them as they cook in the water. While the berries are simmering, take several heads of staghorn sumac, break them up, and soak them in water for 10 or so minutes). Strain both elderberries and staghorn sumac. Combine 1 cup of staghorn sumac juice to 3 cups elderberry juice (or any higher amount, using this ratio) with between ¼ or ½ cup sweetener (I use honey or raw cane sugar) per cup of liquid (so this recipe would call for a minimum of 1 cup sweetener and up to 2 cups sweetener). Add 4 teaspoons of Pamona’s pectin and 4 teaspoons of calcium water (which you make with the Pamona’s pectin) and bring the whole mix to a hard boil for one minute. Mix these very well, then add to sterilized jars and hot water bath can them for 20 minutes. Gibbons also offers a “juice” version of this that uses no pectin, but in similar ratios to the above to taste. I want to make a note about the pectin used here—Pamona’s pectin is a special low sugar pectin that allows you to “set” jams and jellies using very low amounts of added sugar; normal pectin requires high amounts of sugar for setting.

 

 

Another recipe Gibbons offers is an “Elderberry Rob”, which is where you take a quart of the elderberry juice (prepared in the manner I described above) and add 1 stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and a whole nutmeg. You boil this for 30 minutes, and then add a cup of sugar or honey (if you add honey, you can also use this as a cough syrup). If you are adding raw honey, wait till it cools down so that you also get the medicinal benefits of honey. Finally, a recipe I have yet to try is Gibbon’s “Old time face cream”, where you add 1oz lanolin, 8oz cocoa butter and a handful of elderflowers in a double boiler, then strain and pour into small jars. I like the sound of this!  Elderflower is slighty asringent, so it would make sense that this cream would tone the face beautifully.

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

As children know, you can make a simple instrument or blow gun from the Elder tree. Culpepper describes this in his herbal, “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” A youngish stalk can have the pith hollowed out to make a hollow tube. The tube can be used for a number of things including flutes, blow-guns, and even, taps for maple syrup trees (homemade spiels), as Gibbons describes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. As the elder matures, the walls of the stalks thicken and the soft white pith gets less pliable, so younger stalks are often better for these than old granny stalks (and who would want to cut old granny stalks of elder anyways? That would just lead to bad things).

 

In fact, the etymology of the Latin term for elder, Sambucca, has an interesting history. I have found references to a Sambuca (or Sambuke in Ancient Greek) that is an ancient instrument that apparently gave Elderberry its Latin name. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood explains that panpipes were originally made from Elder and tied to Pan, the lord of the forest.  As someone who plays the panpipes, I can attest to the truth in this statement!

 

What I haven’t been able to find in any detail is how to actually craft the panpipes themselves out of elder—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, as panflute is my primary instrument. So far, I’ve failed primarily in the harvest department—the wood gets thicker and thicker till it’s too thick for a good tube. That’s about what I’ve learned so far—there’s a lot more work on this project to be done and someday, I will post more about it once I figure it out. There are some good instructions on making more simple elderberry flutes, for those who are interested. But, I do wonder, what does the elder flute sound like? What haunting melodies would emerge from a Sambuca? Would it only play for the spirits, or would human ears be able to hear it? Given the richness of the elder “song” in the Native American legends, I cannot wait to hear it for myself.

 

One of Elder’s anachronistic names also offers some additional insight: the Anglo-Saxon term “aeld” means “fire.” According to Grieve, Aled eventually became Elder. The original “fire” use referred to the hollow stems being used as a fire tube for blowing oxygen onto the flame. I actually think this is a really important aspect of Elder here in the US and one not to be overlooked.

 

Medicine of the Elder

The Elder is a highly medicinal tree with a range of uses for the bark, leaves, flowers, and berries. The flowers are primarily used as a diaphoretic, that is, they increase periphery circulation and are used for fever support. According to herbalist Adele Dawson, Elderflower is a wonderful support for influenza, especially for addressing the achiness that is so present in the body. Elder increases circulation and sweating, which helps rid the muscles of some of the toxins that build up during influenza.  Herbalist Jim McDonald recommends using elderflower in conjunction with boneset for supporting a healthy fever response (which is not the same as suppressing a fever). Here is a great video of Jim teaching about elder.

 

Elderberry is a strong immune system supporter and can be part of a daily herbal routine to combat regular seasonal illnesses (such as the horrible flu that goes around every year). Elderberry and Echinacea Purpea form a very powerful immune support team.  As I was taught about this plant from herbalist Jim McDonald, elderberry is best used for daily immune system support, to keep you from getting sick. Once you get sick though, it is better to take Echinacea because that stimulates an acute immune system response (through increasing white blood cells).  I actually make an elderberry elixir, a recpie I’ve shared on this blog before, and take that regularly during the year to avoid sickness and boost the immune system.

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Matthew Wood notes that elder bark is semi-toxic, and because of this, it.can be used for an emetic drink—to induce vomiting if that is needed. How like the elder–she’ll give freely of her fruit and flowers, but take her bark and pay the price! John Eastman describes that the Onodaga would drink a brew of elder bark to try to remedy for poison hemlock poisoning (it would make you throw up the poison if you drank it quickly enough). Given that elder and poison hemlock have very similar growing conditions, this makes sense; a lot of “cures” can be found right next to the “poison” itself.  Although I think the best approach would be to avoid poison hemlock to begin with….

There’s a lot more to say about the medicine of the elder—I just detailed several of many uses.  You can see Jim’s video (above) and the link to Grieve’s entry on Elder here for more information.

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

Because of its place as an Ogham tree and potent magic, Elder has long been recognized as an important plant ally and has an incredibly rich tie to magic and folklore.

 

Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet. It is distinguished by five lines and is tied to the Ogham letter “R” and “Ruis.” The Elder, as an Ogham tree, has strong connections to the fairy realm (as both a gateway as well as the tree representing the Queen of the Fairy, in some tales).  In Ogham, the general divination meaning of Elder is tied to Venus (as a water-loving plant) and to the element of water. Her meanings are many, but are often tied to transformation; regeneration; life, death and rebirth; endings; and fate.  In the Celtic Tree Oracle, for example, Liz and Colin Murry tie this “rebirth” quality to the Pair Dadeni, the Celtic cauldron of rebirth, which is said to be able to revive the dead (as described in the second branch of the Mabinogi).

 

Like any powerful magical plant, Elder has both beneficial aspects as well as warnings to heed, as with any other very potent plant ally. In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes Elder as both “harmful” and “helpful” depending on how it is used. As long as elder is kept out of the house, it can bring a host of magical protection. People have planted elder outside of their houses, for example, for deflecting hostile magic; similarly, elder was planted in cemeteries to allow the dead to rest in peace.  Elder was used to fasten doors shut or tied to windows and doors to keep out the fey as well as other kinds of hostile magic and also used in barns for this same kind of protection.  If the elder was gathered on Beltane eve, it was particularly potent for this purpose. In Hoodoo, likewise, elder pegs were dressed (rubbed) with High John the Conqueror oil  and driven into the earth around a business or home to keep the law away (see Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, for more details).

 

All of these good and protective qualities, however, go away if you take Elder indoors in most cases—the tree spirit gets a bit angry and feisty. If you burn elder wood, you summon evil spirits. A baby crib made of elder for example, angers the tree spirit and the spirit pinches the baby till it is bruised and crying. Similarly, napping under an elder tree is a very bad idea; it is believed to cause madness (probably because of its association as a gateway to the otherworld and fairy traditions).

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

In the American Hoodoo tradition, it is similarly used as a protective herb; when leaves, berries, or roots are carried they offer protection, particularly against illness. In Hooodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode shares a particularly interesting ritual involving elder.  First you cut a fresh elder stick, draw a circle in the dirt around you, standing inside the circle, and make your wish or prayer.  Hoodoo practitioners don’t seem to have the prohibitions against elder being indoors that the Old World magical traditions seem to have.  For example, hoodoo practitioners use pieces of it inside the house to protect the house from thieves, shield one from prying eyes, and proved physical and spiritual protection. I wonder if this has to do with the different nature of the otherworld on American soil vs. European soil—or perhaps Sambucus Canadensis is simply more friendly than its European counterpart, Sambucus Nigra.

 

Matthew Wood, in the Earthwise Herbal describes how the North American Indians and Europeans were in the tradition of making offerings to the elder.  North American Indiana made offerings at each elder plant when picking them for use. Europeans believed Elder was the “elder mother” or “hylde moer”, who was Queen of the Fairy or Queen of the Underworld—a powerful and potent force. Each elder tree had a “little elder mother” that lived there; they would make offerings at the base of the elder tree, to the little elder mother, to encourage good harvest and potent medicine from the elder.

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

Native American mythology offers us some additional insight into the magic of the elder tree, as it manifests on the soil here in the Americas.

 

In one Miwok legend, How Tol-le-loo Stole Fire, Tol-le-loo has an elderberry flute that he takes with him to a village. Tol-le-loo has the intention of stealing the villager’s fire; to further his goal, he plays his flute and all of the villagers start to fall asleep. Wit-ta-bah, a robin, sees what is happening and spreads his wings over embers to protect it, but the flute eventually puts Wit-ta-bah to sleep as well. Tol-le-loo cuts a hole in Wit-ta-bah’s wing to get at the fire, steals the fire embers, and puts the fire in his flute for safekeeping while he climbs up to the top of a mountain. The fire stays in the flute till he takes it out.

 

In  a second Miwok legend, the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, there is but a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, in the world at the dawn of time.  This single elder tree was located “where the sun gets up” in the east, surrounded byt a den of rattlesnakes.  The passage from the story is so beautiful, I want to share it here:

 

“Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Near by he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.

 

So in the first legend, the song of the elder flute put people to sleep, but in this case, the song of the elder tree allowed the star-people to keep working and created the “soft whistling song of the elderberry tree.” But these people aren’t normal people, they are star-people and chiefs, so that might be part of the difference. Eventually, Wik’-wek is able to secure a piece of the elder tree and plant it all over the country to offer the Indian people food, music, and medicine. In another tale, which talks talks about this same legend from a book called Tower Legends, the author notes that since all of the elderberry trees came from that singing tree, elderberry trees sing even when there is no wind.

 

In the Tsimshian Texts, a brief note is indicated that Elderberry bush gave birth to her children before little stone, and this is part of why Indians do not live as long. There is not more than this short story, but it does also give the “life and death” theme we find above.

 

Elderflower in hand....ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Elderflower in hand….ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Finally, in the Hoo’-Koo’-E’-Ko legend, “How O’-Ye The Coyote-man Discovered his Wife”, O’-ye the Coyote man is the creator of the world.  The world was covered in ocean, but eventually the waters receded and there was enough land. O’Ye planted the most important trees to the people: buckeye, oak, and elderberry with many other plants in order to help make the world.

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

The Elder is a tree richly steeped in lore and mysticism around the world. Given all of the above, here are several magical and divinatory meanings, based on the tree’s role here in North America:

 

  • Elder is a tree of transitions.  Elder is a boundary tree; she gaurds the boundaries between life and death, between sickness and health, between this world and the otherworld.  Like any transition point, this can be a dangerous road to travel, but can also lead to rich rewards.

 

  • Elder “sings” and offers a magical spirit song that can be used for a variety of purposes. Elder’s long associate with woodwind instruments (sambucca, flutes in the Americas) as well as the many legends about the elder trees in song suggest that a magical sound comes from the tree herself as well as any instruments created from elder branches.  These instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to slow things down (putting people to sleep, into a revere, into a quiet meditation) or to speed things up/raise energy.  It is all in the intention of the tree or the musician.

 

  • Elder requires caution and wisdom in use. In both of the magical uses above, Elder has two sides: a healing and a harming side; a side of death and a side of life. Knowing how to use her well, how to seek her as a guide, is something that requires wisdom and knowledge of her inner workings.  Here, I also point to the elder’s use as a fire blow stick–she is a lot like the fire itself.  Tend and respect the fire carefully and you have a warm house and a hot meal.  Fail to respect her, and she will burn your house to the ground. And so, failing to use her medicine and magic wisely can end you in a lot of trouble (being caught in the rattlesnake den, trapped in the otherworld, or being tortured by the spirit of the little elder). Tread carefully, friends.

 

As the new spring season is quickly upon us, you might see if you can seek some elder this year–and learn the many things she has to teach.  Blessings!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: White Pine’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings December 3, 2017

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend, there was a terrible conflict between five different nations of people. This conflict was rooted in cycles of pain, revenge, and chaos. A messenger of peace sent from the Great Spirit, the “Peacemaker,” sought to unite the five warring tribes. After convincing them to unite, they came together to make peace, but they still carried their weapons. The Peacemaker uprooted a White Pine tree and had them throw all of their weapons into the hole. He then replanted the tree, and the underground waters carried away the weapons. On the tree, the needles grew in clusters of five, to represent the five nations who came to find peace. The roots of the tree spread out in four directions, to the north, south, east and west; the roots are called the roots of peace. An eagle perched on top of the tree to watch over the roots of peace. Under the tree, the branches spread wide for all to gather. It is from this Native American story that we can understand why the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is called the “Tree of Peace” and why the White Pine carries such power here on our landscape. In today’s post, we explore the White Pine and his peaceful energy, examining the mythology, magic, medicine, and uses of this incredible tree.

 

This post is from a larger series on sacred trees that have included Sassafrass, Ash, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut. I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

The White Pine is a magnificent tree reaching up to 100 feet in height.  With beautiful green needles that have a soft, feathery appearance, it is one of our most iconic forest trees on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. The further north you travel up the East Coast, the more dominant White Pine becomes in the ecosystem. Here in PA, we have White Pine planted primarily in urban and suburban areas with fewer of them found in forests. Because they like it cold, you can often find them up on the ridges. Another reason we have less here is that White Pine doesn’t tolerate logging well; hemlock and other shade-resistant hardwoods (maple, cherry, beech, birch) will take the place of White Pine if they are cut.  But if you head further north, into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and those areas, you will see that White Pine is an incredibly dominant tree.

 

White Pine grows tall and straight, with a massive canopy of feathered, soft needles stretching out from long and strong branches. You might find White Pines in clusters or planted in rows–she makes an incredible “cathedral” tree for sacred spaces and people to gather.  In fact, in New Hampshire, a place called the “Cathedral of the Pines” exists. For many years, White Pines stood in and around the gathering space. A tornado devastated many of the ancient pines in that place in the late 1980’s, but old photos show how incredible this sacred place was with the White Pines towering over all (and there are still some nice white pines there!) I have been to other places where White Pines were planted in a long line and have this cathedral appearance.

 

History and Early American Uses of White Pine

In New England, Eric Sloane writes that White Pine survived logging primarily because it made really poor charcoal; the “coaling” activities that were fueling industrialization at the turn of the 20th century decimated many other species and yet left intact patches of White Pine. This means that even where coaling and logging were dominant, we still have many old-growth forests with White Pines, a true beauty to behold. However, today, White Pine is now used extensively in construction, cabinet making, pattern making, and more; it is a soft, warp-resistant and light wood, meaning that these old trees are sought out for their economic value.

 

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

According to Using Wayside Plants, by Nelson Coon (1969), straight White Pine trees were known as “mast trees” in British Colonial days as they were used as masts for ships. The emissaries of the king would go through the woods a mark the White Pines with the King’s Broad Arrow indicated that tree would be used as a mast on one of the British Fleet. This symbol told anyone else that this tree was the king’s property and none other could cut it. Interestingly enough, the “broad arrow” mark in some, cases, looks a ton like the Druid’s Awen symbol /|\.

 

In Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane writes about the White Pine as being one of the most important trees to early Americans, as from it, people could produce paint, tar, turpentine, firewood, building materials, lampblack, tanbark, resin, and pitch. White Pine was most frequently used for creating these products, followed by Pitch Pine. Sloane also notes that even though they are called “blackboards,” most early colonial blackboards were actually white pine boards that were sanded and painted black. Further, he writes that, in the 18th century, many houses in the MidAtlantic and New England were built from White Pine due to its soft, strong, and workable qualities. Early Americans also used the branches to make wreaths and to create ropes.

 

If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall that Thoreau built his house out of White Pine and interacts with white pine often.  He writes, at one point, about an old man who used to come fishing at the pond who used a White Pine canoe.  The White Pine canoe was fashioned from two logs, dugout.  The old man hadn’t made the canoe, and as Thoreau puts it, “it belonged to the pond.”

 

According to Using Wayside Plants, the cambium (inner bark) of the White Pine was used as a food both by Native Americans and colonists. The cambium could be powdered and used as a flour (or added to flour in order to stretch it further). White Pine seeds are very spicy and were used by Native Americans to cook meat (I will add that they are generally not easy to get–the squirrels always have gotten to them before me!) The material suggests in this section that White Pine is an incredibly useful tree to humans and has been in relationship with humans for a very long time.

 

White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

White Pine, being an American tree, doesn’t get any considerable coverage in the Western esoteric literature (although more generally, pine of other species does get such coverage). For example, in the Ogham, Alim is either translated as pine or fir (or “conifer” more generally).  In the Ogham, this symbol is often associated with healing, wayfinding (that is, finding one’s life purpose, finding a home, setting one’s feet upon the path), protection, and purification.

 

Hoodoo, an African American Magical tradition, looks at pine in a very similar way. In Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, Yronwode describes it as a as a spiritual cleanser. Pine needles (fresh) in a bath help offer clarity and remove mental negativity. Burning pine wood can be used to clear a new home of unwanted spirits. Unopened pine cones help bring in health and longevity. If you keep a pine cone near you, as long as it stays closed, it will bring this in. Yronwode writes that if the pine cone starts to open, plant it and get a new one. Pine of all kinds also are connected with abundance or finances. Its evergreen nature also means it draws in steady money.

 

In the “Book of Sacred Magic by Abramelin the Mage“, a 15th century magic manuscript translated by S.L.M. Mathers, the Ambramelin describes the sacred place for which magic is to happen (what he calls the “operation”). In the many details he gives, he indicates that the floor should be made of white pine and swept clean.  Ambramelin does not specify why the floor should be of white pine, but given some of the other lore associated with it, one might infer it is for the purifying and protective nature of the tree.

 

Medicinal Uses of White Pine

White Pine, both physically and energetically, appears to be able to draw things out.  This is true not only of the pine pitch but also of the simple presence of pine.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine for people who have problems with breathing due to smoking. Further, Wood describes how White Pine was widely used by Native Americans (primarily, the bark was used medicinally) and adapted for use by colonists and early doctors in North America. Chewing the inner bark was used for respiratory infections (especially with sticky green phlegm) or used when an infection started to keep it from getting worse. Native Americans also used a “patch” of pine pitch to seal up wounds and prevent infections (White Pine, like Blue Spruce, is antiseptic and will also draw debris out of a wound). White Pine pitch can also be used on wounds that are already infected to draw out the infection and heal the wound. Wood also notes that the Ojibwe use White Pine bark (along with wild cherry and wild plum) to treat gangrene.

 

Pine is used as one of Bach’s flower remedies.  The essence of Pine is said to help with nervousness, allow for deeper contemplation/introspection, and help release any guilt or self blame. Pine more generally can be used as a “pick me up” by placing a few drops of pine oil or fresh pine needless in a bath for general tiredness, especially if one has been “burning the candle at both ends” so to speak.

 

Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

I’ve already shared what I believe to be the most important legend of the White Pine, the Iroquois story of White Pine as a tree of peace. Here are three other stories that give us some deeper insight into the White Pine:

In one Micmac legend, three brothers seek out a great magician, Glooskap, in order to be granted three wishes. The first brother wants to be exceedingly tall so that he would be admired by all of the women. The second brother wanted to stay in the forest, beholding its beauty, and never work again (a man after my own heart!). The third brother wished to live in perfect health till old age. The way to see Glooskap was fraught with trials and difficulty, but the brothers persevered and arrived. After sharing their wishes with Glooskap , Glooskap calls upon Cuhkw, the earthquake, and asked him to plant the three brothers feet in the ground. And they turned into three white pines. The first brother was the tallest white pine in all of the land, he towered over everyone. The second brother got his wish of staying in the forest as a magnificent tree. The third brother stood healthy and strong.

 

In a second legend, a Kwakiutl tale (from the Kawkiutl Indians in British Colombia) the Great Inventor took a girl for his wife. He puts the gum of the White Pine in his mouth and lays with her, and she is immediately pregnant.

 

In “The Origin of People“, a legend from the Shoshoni people of what is now present day Nevada, the animals (Coyote, Mouse, Woodpecker, Crow, and more) work to get pine nuts from people who have hung them in a bag on a white pine tree. They play games with the people to distract them, and finally, succeed in getting the nuts. They eat and eat the nuts and then there is but one nut left. The humans woke up and grew angry and chased them down. Coyote’s people relay the nut to the fastest runners, and finally, Crow bites the end off of the nut, hides it in his leg, and runs. He is shot and killed but his leg with the nut in it keeps going up into the mountains. Now, white pines grow there in the mountains but not where the people originally harvested them (only Juniper grows there now).

 

Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

In summarizing all of the above with regards to the white pine, we might see that this tree is a powerful symbol and broker for peace in a variety of different ways.

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

The Work of Peace. The work of the White Pine in the opening story, especially here in the region where the tribes of the Iroquois once lived, makes it clear that this tree is powerfully associated with peace of all forms. Perhaps when we think of peace, we think of human relationships (and certainly, the White Pine is needed here).  But Peace isn’t just about human to human relationships, but relationships with the past of all kinds.

 

Human-human relationships. White Pine, as the story suggests, offers much to promote peace between humans. Given the contentiousness, seething anger, and intensity we have in these days, we might all spend some time with the White Pine to help facilitate peace among our friends, family, neighbors, community, and broader world.

 

Human-land relationships. I think its particularly interesting that while all of the other trees were cut down and coaled, the great White Pines largely remained intact. In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary. When I first went to speak to the spirits of the land on my old homestead in Michigan, the spirits were angry at having the land so mistreated. The only tree that would speak to me was a towering White Pine in the middle of the land–this tree taught me much about how to build a relationship with the land, do repair work, and cultivate peace between us. This tree did this, all the while the stump of its partner white pine, oozed sap after being cut down next to it. Since that time, I have found the peacemaking qualities of the White Pine to be true–the peace-honoring nature of white pine makes it a good choice for a variety of land healing and repair work.

 

Peace within One’s Self.  Perhaps one of the hardest ways to broker peace is within one’s self. Healing and growth begins with making peace with the past and coming to a place of acceptance. Begin angry at yourself, not letting the past go, and continuing to hold onto old hurts is so common for us as humans.  It causes wars and tension between people, and certainly, it can cause pain and stagnation within our own hearts. The White Pine powerfully suggests to us that it is time to let it go. To heal, to renew, to simply stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, or to stop holding onto what was done to us.

 

The work of peace is difficult work, and to do this, we can look at three other messages that seem present in the White Pine based on my synthesis of the above material:

 

Drawing Out. It think its no coincidence that this tree’s sap has been used to draw out poisons, splinters, infection, and other kinds of things unwanted from the body. In order for the process of peace to happen, we must pull all of the old pain and festering wounds  and allow peace to flow within us. The White Pine, in its work of peace, does this for us.  Drawing out past anger, sadness, and pain so that peace can take place. This can happen on every level: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual.

 

Cleansing and Purification. Also associated with the power of peace is the work of cleansing and purification. Once the pain of old wounds is drawn out, the site must be cleansed and purified for the work of peace to continue so that nothing else can work its way back in. White Pine does this work, and does it well, both on the physical body as well as the mind and spirit.

 

Wayfinding. After peace has been brokered, the question of where to go next is an important one. What happens to the solider when there is no longer a war to fight? What happens to a person when he or she finally lets go what has been occupying his or her heart for years?  This period of time can be confusing, disorienting, and potentially very scary–but White Pine is here to help us find our way and to see a clear path forward.

 

Conclusion

White Pine is an incredible tree with much to teach us in an age with so much pain, suffering, bad blood, and relational difficulty. As an evergreen, Pine tells us the work of peace is never ending–it is work we must continue in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, and in our hearts. When you see a White Pine, stop and enjoy his towering presence and his peaceful energy–and know that he is there to help broker peace in the many different ways we–as people, as a society, and as spiritual beings–need it.

 

Establishing Sacred Land: Shaping A Shared Vision November 5, 2017

In Tending the Wild, a book that has deeply shaped my thinking about humans, nature and relationship, M. Kat Anderson reports in her introduction that the concept of “wilderness” had a very different understanding to the native peoples of California.  To the native peoples, “wilderness” was a negative thing; it was land that was essentially “untended” and left on its own. Native peoples saw tending the land–scattering seeds, selective burning, cultivating various kinds of perennial and annual spaces–as necessary for the health and growth of the land.  And the abundance that is reported by early western visitors to California and all of what is now known as North America certainly supported that fact: the land was incredibly rich, diverse, and abundant.

 

Of course, today, we see “wilderness” as a good thing. It is something that humans haven’t touched, it remains pristine and unbroken. In the post-industrial western world, the typical “touch” of humans on the landscape are far from nurturing ,which is why the idea of wilderness is appealing. But as we’ve seen through the permaculture movement, humans are re-learning how to tend nature, how to become part of nature, and how to tend their lands.  It is from this mentality, that of “tending” and of “stewardship” that we can see how establishing sacred land requires a completely different way of thinking about you and your relationship to the land.

 

Abundance of the Land

Abundance of the Land

In my first post on this series last week, I discussed the concept of a “sacred landscape” or “sacred land”; an intentional piece of land where you can co-create a sacred place with the spirits of the land.  This sacred land may include multiple kinds of things: stone circles, gardens, wild spaces, but the overall intent is that the entire land is sacred and you dedicate it as such. Typically, this would be done on land that you “own” or have unrestricted access to. I’ll also note that I’m not implying that all land isn’t sacred–it very much is. However, I am saying that we are working to do something here that uses spiritual tools in charging land for spiritual purpose. In my post last week, I offered some background about language, ownership, and honoring. Now, we’ll talk about shaping a shared vision and doing some key ritual work to help bring this dream into a reality.

 

Inner and Outer Work

As I discussed in my long series last year on land healing and in several other places, the most basic magical adage comes from Hermes Trismegistus and has been modernly described as “as above, so below; as within, so without.” This is critical to know when creating sacred landscapes and sacred spaces. Any work we do energetically reflects outward physically; and any physical healing work offers energetic benefits on the land. I believe that the most effective way of co-creating sacred land is to attend to both of these sides, in harmony with each other. Your energetic work can begin immediately; the physical work on the land will likely unfold over a period of years. Keeping this in mind as you begin to shape your shared vision for your own sacred land is a very useful approach.

 

Shaping A Shared Vision for Sacred Land

As you are continuing to take care of the preliminaries I discussed last week: cleaning up garbage, honoring the spirits, being present with the land, you can start to move into the second part of the work: shaping a vision. I again want to encourage you to take the time that this process needs–don’t do anything too quickly or without a clear sense of the will of the spirits of the land. In permaculture design, before we create or design anything, we spend a period of time observing and interacting with the land around us (in an ideal setting, this would be a full year’s time to see the full cycle of the seasons and patterns of light, wind, rain, and growth upon the landscape). In terms of creating a sacred landscape, I would suggest a similar process: I think that we need a period of time in a shared vision and coming into an understanding of the work that should be done. It depends on where you are and where the land is in terms of how long this takes.

 

In the last several months, even as I was waiting for the house sale to close, I have been on the land as often as possible, watching the land transition from summer to fall and now, quickly, to early winter. I have spent a lot of time engaging in deep listening and visioning work, and each of the experiences has started to help shape, for me, the work the spirits would like to see here on this land: in other words, this land’s sacred purpose(s). There are countless strategies for how you might go about shaping the vision together–I’ll share a few that I’m using.

 

Find the Dominant Tree(s) and commune. One strategy that I have used to understand and connect with the spirits of the land is to find the oldest tree on the land–the one that has presence. You know it when you see it–around here, the oldest, dominant trees were often once the corner trees of fields, marking boundaries, with stones from the field piled up around them. When the forests filled back in around them, they just kept growing. Find these trees and spend time communicating with them on the inner and on the outer planes (see links for how to do this work).

 

I found several such trees on my new land: a black oak in the west and a white oak in the east, down by the creek that runs on the edge of my property and have been working with them since I first came to this land. Just this weekend, I found a third massive oak to the south (so now, clearly, I just need to find the northern one!) I have already spent–and will continue to spend–time communing with these trees to understand the work that we are to do on the land. These oaks are the some of the elders here–they have witnessed much and have much to share. I’m delighted that they are Oaks–for many trees go to sleep during the dark half of the year, but the Oaks typically do not. So I will be able to work with them and several other conifer species during the winter months: eastern hemlock, white pine, juniper, eastern white cedar, and white spruce.

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Dowsing and Pendulum work. Even if you have not cultivated the kinds of spiritual gifts to speak directly with the spirits of the land (and these gifts can be cultivated with practice, meditation, and time), you can discern a great deal by using various divination methods. For example, if you wanted to establish a sacred space or stone circle on the land for the purposes of ritual work, you can use a dowsing rod or pendulum to help point you in the right direction. These tools do take practice, but anyone can learn them. For basic instructions on dowsing, Webster’s Dowsing for Beginners is a good place to start. For basic instructions on using a pendulum, see here. I’ve used the pendulum method myself–you set an intention aloud: I would like to establish a sacred grove. Then, you can walk around the land and see which way it is pointing you. When you get to the spot, it will often go crazy and in a circle. Things like this can help the spirits of the land guide you.

 

Observe and Interact. Working with the land isn’t just an inner principle–it is also part of the outer work we can do to create ecologically diverse and rich landscapes that serve a variety of functions and purposes. The rise and fall of the sun, the flow of water across the landscape, the issues of pollution and toxins, the patterns of shade–all of these also matter. These are basic elemental realities–and modern humans often choose to ignore them. In permaculture design, before developing or finalizing a design, a year of observation is considered to be the best practice, the one that can lead to the most successful and well-thought out designs.  This observation and interaction allows the designer to see how the changing seasons impact the landscape, to observe the flows of water, the sun, the wind, to find microclimates, to see what life is already there and growing. This, too, is part of how we align with nature–simply being present with it and understanding it as fully as we can.  Figuring out what the vision will be, working with nature’s flows, patterns, and rhythms to bring that into reality.  Thinking about small, slow practices that spiral and unfold like petals of a rose opening up.

 

These are just some, of many ways, of communing with nature.  The more time you spend on this process seeking deeper understanding, the more effective you will be.

 

Energetics and Ritual

A second thing that you can begin to do very early in the process of establishing sacred land is to do various rituals for the space.  Typically, these are are welcoming rituals and cleansing rituals. Rituals that help set the tone for everything that is to come. A few of the things you can do are as follows:

 

Land and House Cleansing/Blessing: You can do a simple cleansing and blessing using the four elements. Get a friend or two and carry representations of the elements around the property. A smudge stick/incense, a bowl of water, a bowl of earth, and a candle are all you need for this. If you are alone, bring a smudge stick that is burning and a bowl of salt water and you are set.

 

Smudge sticks for blessing

Smudge sticks for blessing

Land Smudging. I like the idea of employing specific herbs for specific magical purposes, and this kind of “introductory” work is also super helpful here. Building a fire and casting certain cleansing and healing herbs or tree branches upon it is one such way: eastern white cedar, white pine, sage, or lavender are particularly good for this purpose. Or, in a more extreme example, At the last OBOD East Coast Gathering, I ran a smudge stick workshop (based on this post). At the end of the workshop, we had some leftover materials of various kinds: extra white pine, cedar, sage, lavender, sweet clover, and so on. A friend and I made what we called a “smudge bomb”; we used two paper bags and layered in all of the material and then tied it up with white cotton string. When the Ovates met around the fire the next morning, they laid the smudge bomb carefully on the still-hot coals and it smoldered there, offering an incredible smell all around the camp (and cleansing smoke into the air many miles beyond).  In fact, I’m constructing several smaller smudge bombs for my work here over the winter months (maybe I’ll write more on this soon!)

 

Music and Dance. Play some music, dance in the land, show the land that you are happy to be there! I have some drummer friends, and within a month or so, weather providing, I will invite everyone out to drum up some good energy and simply be present on the land. If not, we’ll convene for such work in the spring!

 

Energy work. Many people practice a form of energy work like Reiki, etc. In AODA, we work a lot with the three currents (solar, lunar, telluric) and working with those through the Sphere of Protection is my most basic energy working. Doing any energy work you can to bring in positive energy to the land early on is very useful–it gives the land a boost to continue to facilitate deeper connections.

 

A Vision and Goals: The Story of the New Land

Throughout all of the ritual work, preliminary work discussed during the last post, and the listening and communicating work above, you should hopefully come to a larger vision or goal for the sacred land you are co-creating. In permaculture design, we might call this a “design concept statement.” Its a simple statement that offers us the overall goal for the space–this statement allows us to always keep in mind the overall goal when making any specific decision. In the visioning work I am doing, one of the goals that came forth was that this was to be a place of deep healing for many.

 

One of the things that has been weighing on me even during the purchasing process is the use of the land prior to my arrival. About 3 acres of the land has been “sustainably” timbered 4 times in the last 40 years, or once every decade. In fact, the owners timbered it again just before they put it up for sale (which deeply saddened me, but is, unfortunately, typical of the mindsets average Americans have towards the land as a resource-extraction machine). About six months before this, in my work with the land spirits in the region in doing land healing work, I was told that the land that was waiting for me would be in need of healing. Given this, I had been prepared for a lot of things–it is one of my callings in the world to heal damaged lands.

 

Breaking down the old and regrowth

Breaking down the old and regrowth

My path as a druid has taught me about the pain of the land, but also her possibility of healing. Here in PA, in visiting and traveling all over this region, I was able to witness what had been done to the broader landscape and listen about what was needed for the land to heal. I saw the darkness in the land, the pain, but also the incredible promise of things to come. I came to better understand the energetic problems with fracking and natural gas extraction, strip mining, “sustainable logging” and all of the extraction activities that are so prevalent everywhere (many of which I have blogged about in previous posts). But I also came to understand the beauty that healing brings–the spaces that have been set aside or preserved, the old forests that have regrown (like the amazing PA Wilds are!) and the healing power of nature.

 

The ancient oaks told me that this land would serve as a microcosm for healing across the broader land: that was the ultimate purpose of our sacred work here upon this land. Any land healing work or physical healing that is done on this land would radiate outward. This knowledge, then, will shape everything that I am going to do moving forward.

 

Further, as I walked the new land to which I belong, I thought about my own deep pain and hurt over in my lifetime, particularly over the last 5 or so years. I realized that the land and I were the same. We both had been partially timbered several times over the recent years, so to speak. To heal this land was to heal myself. But on an even broader level, as these oaks shared, to heal this land was to bring healing to everything surrounding it. This land, then, will be like a brightly burning lightbulb radiating outward to the rest of the land. This will be a place of healing for all who come here–and with that goal, things like healing herb gardens, sanctuary spaces, and more, may unfold. I know that there is a lot more to this work than what I’ve shard above, but it is a good start!

 

I’ll continue to write about my work on the land in the coming months and years–when I have something to share :).  In the meantime, blessings as November deepens and winter is soon upon us.