The Druid's Garden

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

What can Druidry offer in dark times? October 7, 2018

Things seem broken right now. These last two weeks have been a very hard week for many people. The national conversation here in the USA grows more difficult by the day, and it seems nearly every nation is facing many kinds of serious issues. These challenges are happening concurrently at many levels—internationally, but also in communities we care about, in our families, in our homes. Things are tough. They seem tougher for many of us today than they were yesterday. Many of us fear that they will likely be even tougher tomorrow. This is the reality of industrial decline, the reality of the climate crisis before us.

 

The questions that I’ve had for myself, and my fellow druids is a simple one: what can druidry offer us in these dark times?

 

I’ve been thinking about the role of druidry in all of this, this question a lot, not only over the last several weeks, but over the last few years as it becomes more and more obvious that humanity has chosen for itself a course that we cannot escape from.  I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts and practices that you, too, may find healing and strength in them.  I’ll group my answers to this question in three areas, reflecting the three major branches of druidry: that of the bard, the ovate, and the druid, and then offer some overall thoughts on the tradition and druidic philosophy itself.

 

Bardic Responses: Within and Without

The bardic arts within the druid tradition are varied and multiplicitious. In my OBOD 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture, when I researched the bardic practices of almost 250 druids worldwide, I found that nearly all of them saw their bardic practices first and foremost as a spiritual practice that gave them peace, strength, and the ability to function better in the world. For a much smaller portion of people, art was a medium for them to express their feelings, hopes and dreams–about nature, about the crisis of our age–through their bardic expression. We’ll now consider each of these in turn.

 

Bardic Arts as Inner Healing

Art journals for processing and healing

Art journals for processing and healing

For many of us, during these difficult times, it is important to have something to retreat to.  Soemthing that calms us, provides us distance, space, and perspective.  For those of us who practice a bardic art, the practice of that art can certainly be a source of refuge. Druids from around the world use the bardic arts as a way of making meaning of the world, processing difficult things, and grounding.

 

Some bardic practitioners work best when they are in a “healthful” headspace, however, and feel that they can’t create something if they aren’t happy.  But my response to that is–create.  Express.  Get it out.  The audience for some of our bardic expression can be only us, never anyone else, and that is healthful and helpful for these dark times.  For me, I use art journaling as a bardic expression that is meant solely as a healing medium–one that nobody else has to see, and not even one I necessarily hold onto after it is completed (I’ve thrown many a journal in the Samhain fires to release the energy I put into them!). The point here is to find something you can do from a bardic perspective: song, dance, drumming, photography, artwork, writing, singing, movement, woodworking, and so on–and let it help you find peace.  If you aren’t sure how to get started in this, you might check out my Taking up the Path of the Bard series of artices here, here, and here.

 

Bardic Arts as Outward Response and Change

It has long been the case that artists, musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, and the like, helped carry parts of culture with them, respond to culture, and work to change culture through their art.  Consider the power of a photograph, a story, or a song. Sometimes, a single image can impact people–and enact changes in perceptions and behaviors–in ways other forms of communication cannot.

 

And so, for those of us drawn to it,  the other way our bardic practices may help us respond and deal with the crisis of our age is through external expressions–bardic practices that help us get our message out there, help us help others, help others see a new perspective, and so on.  Unsurprisingly, for me, that’s a lot of the writing I do on this blog–I can’t control what is happening more broadly, but I do feel, at least in this small corner of the web, that I am doing something good.  It doesn’t have to be big, the important thing is feeling empowered to do something.

 

Ovate Responses: Seeking Solace in the Living Earth

Part of the challenge in present culture is the constant flow of information, the constant bombardment. These larger cultural currents seem to crash over and over again like powerful waves, knocking us over, beating us up, and then knocking us over again. Finding ways of shielding against this flow of information and getting regular—and long—breaks from it can be very helpful. For this, I like to find quiet time in nature.

 

Grounding and Flow, or the Druid Elements of Calas and Gwyar

A while ago on a similar topic, I wrote about the interplay between calas (grounding/stability) and gwyar (flow/adaptablity) and how both are necessary in these times. Seeking solace in nature can offer us either–or both–of these things as we need them.

 

Seeking the stabilizing forces of nature can help give us strength in these difficult times.  Work with stones, the earth, trees, mountains, or caves can be particularly powerful to help connect with Calas and offer us grounding. The Oak tree down by the river is not going to throw re-traumatizing bullshit my direction, she is not going to bombard me with things I don’t want to see, or frustrate me with her lack of integrity. She is simply going to be as she always is: stable, welcoming, and powerful. When I sit with her, and simply breathe. I can sit with her for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and she will always offer me the grounding and stability of her presence.

My favorite spot for connection on my land

My favorite spot for connection on my land

 

Similarily, these times require us to be flexible, to be adaptable, and to be willing and ready to change, even if change is difficult.  Nature also offers us the energy of gywar for this purpose, primarily through clouds, wind, and water. When I go out on my kayak on the Clarion river, I am offerd both zero cell phone signal (so no unwanted intrusions) and the activity of learning to go with the flow, to float, and to let the river guide me. Likewise, laying on the solid earth and watching the leaves blow and the clouds flow is another excellent way to connect with this energy.

 

Retreat and Rejuvenation: Nature Heals

In this broken time, I like to places that are damaged and in the process of healing.  Nature is a master healer, and learning to read her landscape and the healing that happens in each breath can remind us of our own capacity to heal. Old fields that are now bursting with life, logged forests that are coming back into health. The dandelion, in her bravery, pushing up through the sidewalk and giving no care.  The mushrooms on the stumps that offer the promise of new beginnings from old wounds, breaking down the old so that the new can come in.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, almost all of our forests are in a state of healing. 100 years ago, according to the 1898 PA Department of Agriculture Forestry publication, 98% of Pennsylvania’s forests were logged. Stripped bare,, used to support mines, lay rails, and make charcoal for steel production. Some of these forests are so regenerated that its hard to tell that they had ever been damaged. Others show the tell-tale signs of ecosystems still regenerating.  I like to go to these places, these healing-in-progress places, and be reminded that nature can heal all wounds, given time. We are part of nature, and therefore, we, too, can heal. You can also take this idea much further by doing a druid retreat–retreat into nature for a time (a few hours, a day, a week or more).

 

Druid Responses: Stability in our Practices

Spiritual practices offer much in the way of healing and strengthening us in these difficult times, and in the druid arts, these primarily center around the practices of ritual and mediation.

 

Daily Meditation as Emotionally Beneficial and Balancing

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Daily deep breathing, mediation (of any form, but especially nature based) and simply being quiet for a time can greatly aid us.  Even taking three deep breaths when we get upset, maybe closing our eyes for a few moments to let the intense emotions slip away–these simple mediative practices can be incredibly sheltering during these times.  More and more research is coming out on the benefits of mediation as a way of promoting more happiness, less anxiety, and better approaches to handling stress and strain.  A daily meditation practice offers you such benefits–and certainly, it is a core part of our tradition.

 

Meditation in the druid tradition is often combined with being in nature–walking meditation, meditation in stillness or focus, or simply, sitting quietly and not allowing your thoughts to overtake you.  Discursive meditation also ofters a powerful tool to step back from emotions and think through them.

 

Here are a few powerful tools:

  • Observation meditation: Find something you want to observe for a period of time (an intricate flower, a lizard, a bird, a tree).  Do three deep breaths, then return to a normal breath pattern.  Observe and be in stillness.
  • Oneness meditation: Similar to the above, find a part of nature with which you want to connect.  A waterfall, a stone, a tree, etc.  Mind your breath and then imagine that part of nature encompasing you, and bringing you in line with its energy.  Take that energy within you with each breath, and on each outbreath, release any pain or suffering.
  • Discursive meditation.  Discursive meditation helps with focused thinking; the idea in a nutshell is that you choose a theme for meditation.  This can be something that is causing you pain or something you want to understand more.  Now, think deeply about it, following one thought to the next.  If you find yourself deviating from the original thought, trace it back through.  I have found this strategy particularly helpful for working to get at the root of emotions–why am I having this emotion? And once I have the root, I can work on it directly.

 

The Wheel of the Year and Ritual Work for Clearing and Healing

In the Druid’s wheel of the year, we recognize that the dark times are part of the natural cycle of things, that they are part of life and the passage of time.  Still, it is difficult to live in a time of decline, when we know that winter is quickly approaching, and there is nothing we can do to shelter from that storm. Take advantage of the season that is upon us for introspection and healing work that the dark half of the year provides.  It allows–and encourages us–to go deeply within, to cast off that which no longer serves us, to re-orient our relationship to the darkness of this time, and to bolster ourselves and strengthen ourselves for what is to come.

 

Ritual work can be highly effective for this goal.  Writing simple rituals for yourself, tied to the wheel of the sun and the phases of the moon (or simply, when you need them) can greatly aid you in these dark times.  Rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs, they can be simple.  Some ritual actions you might take include:

  • Releasing: Letting go of emotions, feelings, pain, other things that are not serving you any longer.  Rituals where you throw things into water or where you release things with water are particularly helpful here.
  • Cleansing: simple rituals to cleanse you (particulalry after releasing) can also be helpful here.  Smudging with herbs, asperging with water, doing a naked or barefoot forest bath, clearing yourself with the energy of the sun–all of these can be powerful cleansing rituals.
  • Energizing/strengthening: Bringing in energy to help bolster you during these difficult times. Drawing in the power of nature, the energy of the sun, the strength of the oak–whatever you need to help strengthen and ground you.
  • Shielding:  Shielding rituals are particularly effective in this day and age, and I suggest every person develop one and use it if they don’t already have one.  I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (which offers banishing, energizing, and shielding in one 5 minute or less ritual)–using this daily helps clear me and offer me balance and strength.

These are just some simple ideas–the important point here is to work with nature, work with whatever other powers you have, to find ways of strengthening you, cleansing you, energizing you, shielding you, and releasing the pent up emotions of these hard times.

 

Druidry as an Alternative Life Philiosophy

Observing and interacting with nature in a sacred manner offers us much in the way of re-aligning ourselves, and our worldview, towards that of the living earth.  Modern industrial and consumerist culture has a set of beliefs that have spiraled us into many of the challenges we face–and druidry offers us alternative perspectives and philosophies that can be counter-balancing in these times.  These include:

  • Tertiary thinking. Tertiary thinking encourages us to avoid false binaires and to consider alternative perspectives beyond those which are given
  • Recognizing the cycle and season. Modern American culture (and I suspect many others) demand that we are always in what I’ll call “high summer.”  High summer is high energy, with lots of activity, long days, lots of abundance. But life isn’t like that–and the more that you follow and align yourself with a wheel of the year and the cycles of nature, the more that this view will shift into a view that embraces, or at least accepts, that we also go through cycles in our lives, and cycles in our culture.
  • Nature as sacred and healing. Unlike much of culture, which sees nature as something that can be exploited, we druids recoginize the sanctity of all life, the sacredness of the living earth, and her power to heal.  This can, by extension, put us in different relationship with everything–for all things, ultimately, come from her and return to her.
  • Understanding time differently. Living by the seasons and wheel of the year also puts us in a different relationship with time; rather than time being a line, time can be a circle or spiral, which offers us powerful tools for reflection and strengthening. I wrote more about this in my series on time a few years ago here, here, here, and here.

 

Druidry as A Response to this Age

If you think about what druidry does, what the different paths do, it very much is a way of reconnecting us with those things that are the most important: our connection with nature, our connection with core practices that sustain us, and our connection with our creative spirit. It offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, relfect, and ground.

 

Druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age.  As druidry develops, as we figure out what the druidry of the 21st century should be (as opposed to the druidry of the 19th century or even druidry of the 20th century), I think all of us have much to contribute to this conversation.  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us during these dark times.

 

Awen!

Awen!

 

Plant Spirit Communication Part IV: Medicine for the Body and the Soul September 9, 2018

In the last few weeks, we’ve considered various ways in which we might communicate with plant spirits, work with them, and engage in spirit journeys with them. In this post, I am beginning to make the transition to talk about plant medicine and herbalism for a few weeks–both medicine of the body and medicine of the soul. I think that herbal medicine is something incredibly powerful to add to any earth-based spiritual based practice, both to keep you in good health and to create inter-dependency between you and the living earth. In order to do that, I wanted to talk today about plant spirits and the connection between medicine for the body and medicine for the soul. To do this, we’ll delve into animism and an animistic worldview as well as consider deepening plant relationships.

 

Amazing reishi!

Amazing reishi!

Medicine of the Body

Plants have physical bodies and various kinds of chemical constituents that make up those physical bodies. Over millennia, humans have come to depend on those chemical constituents and use them for a variety of healing practices. And so, on the basic level, plants have physical bodies which can aid healing and supporting humans’ physical bodies. As a specific example: the chemical compounds in Reishi mushroom have been well studied scientifically; we know that this fungus fights cancer and free radicals and boosts the immune system, among many other things. It has specific compounds that combine in the body and that can be directly observed and measured. If we took this mushroom extract every day, we would gain the physical benefits of Reishi. For some herbalists, particularly those adopting our radically positivistic and rationalistic culture–that information is enough.  It is enough to know that Reishi can support the immune system, and so, giving reishi to someone with a compromised immune system is likely to help.

 

Even most of today’s modern pharmacology movement is mostly derived from plants. For example, one primary constituent in Bengay, Terrafreeze, or IcyHot is methyl salicylate, which is found in black birch or wintergreen.  When you smell these plants (or chew some wintergreen gum) you’ll smell a minty kind of smell–that is the methyl salicylate. While methyl salicylate is now synthesized in a lab, it was, for many years, derived from natural sources.  I am torn about the synthesis of plant compounds–on one hand, I’m glad that black birches aren’t being cut down to put Bengay or IcyHot on the shelves.  On the other hand, synthesis removes us further and further from the spirit of the plant; as though the essence of the plant can be broken down into specific molecules only.  One of the issues of concern to many herbalists is illustrated in this example–for most of human history, whole plants were used in healing.  Modern pharmacology, however, seeks to isolate and explore individual chemical components (when each plant contains hundreds, if not thousands).  We are no longer concerned with whole plants as healing agents, but rather, isolating, extracting, and synthesizing small parts of their healing potential.  From my own perspective as an animist, this creates distance between us, the plant, and the healing spirit of that plant–and that is a problem.

 

In sum, for medicine of the body, we can look at what science says, or what common folk knowledge over centuries tell us: hawthorn works on the heart, catnip works on the GI system and nervous system, black birch infused oil helps sore muscles, and so on. All of this medicinal content is found in material medicas and are incredibly useful. They are useful, in part, because the chemicals contained within the physical bodies of the plants are predictable; the hemlock reishi doesn’t change its chemical composition much, if at all, from occurrence to occurrence; the mushroom is what it is, and it offers its healing energy to all. But in some ways, this medicine for the body is knowledge created by humans, for humans, to help humans cure physical ailments–and is therefore only a piece of what the plants can offer us in terms of medicine.

 

There are lots of ways to create medicine for the body, and we’ll explore some of them in upcoming posts: salves, oils, tinctures and teas are just a few of the ways!

 

Medicine of the Spirit and Animism

Stump with reishi growing!

Stump with reishi growing!

By connecting with the spirit of the Reishi (which appears to me as a male), using many of the techniques described in my last posts,  I know that Reishi can offer inner healing in addition to the benefits he offers my physical body. Reishi help our spirits overcome trauma and suffering; it breaks down the old so that the new can be kindled. This is what Reishi does here in my ecosystem; by observing Reishi in his natural environment, I understand the role this mushroom plays and can use it for healing of a different kind. This kind of “spirit” healing, however, requires a few things. First, I believe it requires conscious acknowledgment of the work to be done and the connection to the spirit of the plant (in some capacity).  Second, it requires reverence and respect of the plant, and that is built through connection (either for yourself or by way of a skilled medicine maker/herbalist). Will it still work for you without those things?  I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it.

 

And so, when it comes to plant medicine, I don’t think its enough to learn about the physical body of the plant and what it may do in certain circumstances. I believe that working with the plant’s spirit is critical to working with that plant and the medicine it offers. That is, developing a relationship with the plant spirit, you can learn more about the plant, its healing medicine, how to use it, and I believe, increases its effectiveness for you as a medicine maker or medicine taker. There’s lots of discussion about this in the herbalism community; more than once, and by more than one teacher, I was told that in order for a certain plant effect to manifest to me, I had to “develop a relationship with the plant.”  Part of that meant working with the plant physically and taking it for healing purposes. But part of that advice was rooted in this animistic worldview, to get to know the plant spirit.

 

Medicine of the spirit is, then, working on an entirely different level than medicine of the body. Do the physical chemical constituents matter? They matter to the body, but I’d argue, they don’t matter one bit to the spirit. The spirit works in different ways, just as matter in general is of a different nature than spirit.  Medicine of spirit is rooted in energy and in a relationship. It is rooted in connection.

 

This perspective on sacred plant medicine, like everything I write, comes from an animistic worldview. This perspective understands that plants, animals, places (rivers, forests), and many objects (stones), have a spirit/soul and that spirit can be interacted with using various techniques. This perspective understands that all spirits that have agency; they are not necessarily passive recipients of the world around us. This interaction between you and the spirit of other things can lead not only to deep spiritual insights, but cultivating a relationship with this plant can also affect both the non-physical and physical worlds. Most animistic worldviews also recognize that the world of spirit is quite close to the physical world and both affect the other and that there is close interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit. In other words, some of the hard boundaries that are present in the thinking of Abrahamic religions and modern Western culture (that only humans have a soul, that the links between heaven and earth are rigid, or that scientific view that you should believe only in what can be observed) are non-existent in an animist worldview.  Further, some animists are non-theistic. Others may believe other things as well; further, they might be monotheists, pantheists, or polytheists. Whether or not you choose to adopt an animistic perspective has a lot of implications for how you interact with the world at large.  More specifically, it also influences how you might choose to take up a practice of herbalism and working with sacred plant medicine.  For some, the science is enough.  For others, it is barely scratching the surface.

 

There are lots of ways to create medicine for the spirit. Two of the most potent that I know if is spagyric tinctures (plant-based alchemy) and through floral/plant essences (which I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post).

 

Developing Your Own Plant Relations

In working with medicine of the spirit, its important to develop your own relationship with each plant if at all possible.  It isn’t always possible (and we’ll get to why and what to do at the end of this section).  But assuming you can, there are a few reasons to try to do so.  First, times are changing, the worldwide ecosystem is under stress, and plant spirits are under duress. It might be that 90 years ago, when these flower essences were developed by Bach originally, the plants were in a different place than they are now.  Some may now just be struggling to stay alive as a species, which certainly will change their ability to heal and work with you (this is why I argue so strongly for cultivation and regeneration/healing of the land as part of herbalism practice). I wrote about this a lot when I talked about the ash tree earlier on this blog–the Ash tree in America is radically different energetically due to the destruction of nearly all adolescent or large ash trees due to the Emerald Ash Borer.  You can’t even begin to work with the ash tree here in the US without acknowledging and understanding this reality.  Many healing plants are the same way–American Ginseng being a great example. Ginseng used to be one of our great healers; now, her physical body is being stripped from the landscape. Buying ginseng from an unknown source is highly ethically problematic, and causes problems with plant spirits (and not just ginseng, but potentially, other medicinal root species that are close cousins or that share ecosystems).

 

Second, it might be that a lesser known aspect (or unknown aspect) of a plant is actually the one that you need for plant spirit medicine. Plants are people; some are straightforward and what you see is what you get (plantain being a nice example–she is consistent and clear in her interactions and healing with humans). Others are quite complex and multifaceted (Elder being a good example).  Plants can take on multiple meanings or offer multiple kinds of healing depending on the person. You likely won’t get that from a simple list in a book. You get that from direct experience and interaction.  Sometimes, you get that if a human teacher passes it on to you through their teachings or through ceremony.  Sometimes, you get it if you spend enough time with the plant.

 

Finally, plants change based on local circumstances and are individuals. The information I shared above about reishi being able to help break down the old pain is something I learned directly from observing reishi working on the stumps in a logged forest. Maybe the Reishi in non-logged forests doesn’t have that particular quality, but the reishi in my forests absolutely does here due to the logging that takes place in Pennsylvania’s forests. All this is to say that the information in books and lists is useful as a starting point when you have no other knowledge, but as you grow in your own plant spirit communication and herbalism practice, you may develop different meanings. If the plant for you has a different meaning than what is generally known–your spirit may interact with that spirit in a different way.  And with subtle energy medicine that is critical and useful.

 

Additional Thoughts

There are three more points I want to make about the spirit of plants and plant spirit medicine are as follows concerning teachers, experiences, and first-hand experience.

 

First, I do think that teachers are extremely helpful in learning about both the medicine of the body and of the spirits.  I love learning about plants from others.  Sometimes, its not even a specific thing I learn about a plant–but rather, a way in which someone interacts with a plant. I remember this a few years ago–I was taking a natural crafts course at the North American School of Bushcraft.  It was a great day, and as we were carving spoons and weaving baskets, our instructor talked to us about “sister ivy” and his relationship with poison ivy.  This deeply resonated with me–I realized by changing the name from “poison” to “sister” changed everything about how I saw this plant–and led me to write about her about a year ago on this blog. Teachers with these kinds of perspectives are actually quite easy to access in the herbal community; my own two primary teachers both offered me teachings that helped me understand herbalism in both material and immaterial ways.  Most herbalism teachers focus on the medicine of the body (some exclusively so), but for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear, the subtle layer of spirit is there.  Herbal conferences and gatherings are great opportunities to meet some of the more famous herbalism teachers and see if any of them resonate.

 

At the same time, understand that nobody should tell you what to experience or “seed” certain experiences for you.  Each of us cultivate and have different relationships with plants. A good teacher will share their experience, teachings, and techniques, not force you to think the way they do or believe the way they do.  Each of us should have our own opportunity to learn from the plants directly, without interference.

 

There are also circumstances where a person (due to injury, illness, disability, or lack of access) may not be able to cultivate direct relationships with plants. In this case, a good medicine maker and herbalist can be a real asset. If someone else is making a medicine for you, that connection the medicine maker has with the plant can connect and transfer through to you, and the medicine of the spirit will work well.  This is why skilled healers are so effective–they have built their own relationships with plants, and leverage those relationships for the good of others.  This can be another result of the above work–the ability to “transfer” that healing relationship to work with others.

 

So to summarize,  healing with plants takes place on multiple levels: the physical chemical constituents of healing plants work on the body, while the subtle energies of the plant work on the spirit.  If we connect not only with the body of the plant but with the spirit, it helps the healing of the plant work on those multiple levels, and it honors the plant for the incredible person it truly is.  So we’ll explore these different ways of making medicine over the next few weeks, as always, thank you for reading!

 

The Ancestors, the Descendants, and the Stones September 4, 2018

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

The Stone Circle at Four Quarters

What would our descendants say about this time period? How would we, as a people, be written into their histories? What stories would they tell of us? Perhaps our ancestors would say that this was a time of recklessness, willful ignorance, of extravagance, and of excess. They might mourn the loss of ecological diversity and habitat that we did not protect, they would lament the loss of cultures and languages, the loss of so many things. Perhaps our descendants would say that we pillaged the land and many of its inhabitants by not knowing how to curb our own greed; that we were victims to our own quest for abundance; and that we filled the air with carbon simply because we wanted to move faster.

 

Or, perhaps, our descendants will tell a different story. Yes, they would say, the larger culture and government leaders didn’t want to make change and thereby created a more difficult, less ecologically stable, world. But there were others, their ancestors, who thought differently.  Their ancestors saw with open eyes the destruction surrounding materialist patterns of life, and they worked to change them physically and spiritually. Their ancestors paved the way for a new paradigm of thought and action: one of balance, respect, and nurturing for the living earth and all her inhabitants. And the reason that the descendants are here to record this history was because of their ancestors’ bravery, determination, and commitment to the sacredness of the land and the interconnected web of all life.

 

The stones await their newest additions

The stones await their newest additions

It was with these thoughts of future generations, and what legacy that we might leave them, that I journeyed to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for my second year at Stones Rising. As I wrote last year, as we engaged in the physical activity of raising a very large standing stone to add to the growing stone circle, we created something powerful. Stones rising is not just about us in the present moment, but rather, about building something that will last generations and cultivating a community that allows that work to continue to happen. And so, as I arrived at Four Quarters for Stones Rising, I was on the land once again, I was with my tribe once again, and we had sacred work to do.

 

As we gathered at the top of the mountain in the quickening darkness in preparation for pulling our first stone, we sensed the heaviness of that moment. Our ancestors were watching. Our descendants were watching. In the deepening darkness, by torchlight, we strained at the ropes to guide this new stone carefully, perilously, towards its new home. The magic is in the pull–the quiet on the lines, the breath of anticipation, the stone crew guiding the process. Fire and earth are in perfect synthesis as we complete our journey to the stone circle with the first of our two stones. Our ritual that evening invited us directly to engage with the past and the future.  We call forth and talked with our ancestors in front of the western “father stone” in the circle.  They are proud of the legacy that we are now living.  We then called forth and talked with our future descendants, in the east, near the “mother stone.” We listen to their voices, spanning through the ages, thanking us and urging us to continue our work now, so that they may come into being.

 

The next day, we prepare for the long pull. It is aptly named–we are pulling the second stone, the one we will also be raising this year–and it is a 5 ton stone, two tons heavier than what we pulled the night before and we have to pull it a much longer way. We once again assemble at the top of the mountain; our stone is strapped to a simple wooden sled, ready to join its brothers and sisters in the circle. We take three breaths and pull.

 

We pull for the ancestors, whose DNA floats in our veins and whose song we can hear on the breath of the wind.

 

We pull for the descendants, those young people among us, those in the womb, those yet to be conceived.

 

We pull for the land, our battered and beaten land, who, despite humanity’s treatment of her, still has skies that fill us with air, whose soils still produce our food, and whose rivers and storms still quench our thirst.

 

We pull for our community, strained as though it may be, knowing that this work is good work, and necessary work.

 

The stone does not move.  We strain at our ropes. Living in this time sometimes feels like the first long and desperate tug on that rope–when you keep pulling and pulling and nothing happens. When your feet slide in the grass and sweat drips from your brow and nothing happens.  When you feel your muscles straining to the point of collapse, and nothing happens. When everyone around you is likewise straining, giving it their all, and nothing happens. And then, when you know you can’t pull for another second, the stone finally moves a few inches, and then it moves faster, and you know no matter how hard it is to pull or how much time it takes, you will get there.

 

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Pulling the stone during the long pull

Hours later, we arrive with our stone in the stone circle. We break, and have more ceremony, feasting, and song.  The next day, the entire tribe gathers, first to be fed the delicious rolls of bread baked all night by the corn mothers. With nourishment in our bellies, we go as a community into the stone circle, making our commitments to the work, the land, and each other. We hold space as a community, and participate as we are able, to raise the stone into its place in the circle.  People sing, the drummers offer a steady beat, the crones offer a cup of tea, and the most delicious pickles can be found at the snack table. We sit among our tribe, celebrating this moment. Ropes are brought out and we move the stone into position.

 

Everything happens very slowly, ever so slowly, as only a stone can move. The stone raises up, inch by inch, with careful guidance and steady hands. The stone is a lot like the cultural and ecological challenges before us–the stone can only move an inch at a time.  It is a very heavy stone. We can’t expect change all at once. We need to endure, we need to understand that we are beginning the work of generations, and it will take us and our descendants to fully realize the dream of centering us, as humans, back in line with the living earth.

 

The stone is seated into place; a cheer goes up among the community. Now, we celebrate. Now, we feast. Now, through ceremony and song, we welcome the new stone into its home in the east. The East. The direction of the descendants; the direction of spring; the direction of new beginnings and new hopes. There in the east, our descendants stand watching, holding their breath, and dreaming of a tomorrow not yet here.

 

Our newest eastern stone, raised!

Our newest eastern stone, arisen!

The challenges we face as a world are so severe. Sometimes, I can’t fall asleep at night, my spirit heavy with the burden of the now, and even heavier with the burden of the future. When I look at little children, I think to myself, how will this world be for them when they grow up? What can I do now to ensure that they thrive? What about their children’s children?  When we welcome that new stone in the east, I felt my heart lighten. We are in incredibly difficult times, where change seems impossible, but like the slow raising of the standing stone, we–as a an earth-centered spiritual tribe, as a people dedicated to the land–are building a better paradigm for ourselves, our community, and our descendants. Each stone we move is a legacy for those yet unborn and for the stories they will tell, for the histories they will write.

 

We are in the process of becoming ancestors. Whatever our larger culture may offer future generations, we can leave a legacy that offers the seeds of hope, of re-connection to the living earth, and of living in balance. And, we can leave them the stones.

 

Plant Spirit Communication, Part II: Communication in Many Forms August 26, 2018

I remember taking a drive with some friends and friends-of-friends some years ago. As we were driving through a really nice forest preserve with some old trees, one of my friends in the car said, “There’s so much money there in the trees, some of them would be worth more than $1500.” He went on to talk about how his family had recently logged their property and earned over $25,000. Other people in the car jumped in and talked about the forest’s beauty and argued against him; and I just listened. Finally, I responded and said, “Every living being has a spirit. I hope that forest stands forever. They deserve to live as much as you or I.” Before this conversation had started, I was listening to the singing of that forest, so happy, so safe to be preserved. This experience stayed with me, and was a good reminder about the many lenses through which we might view the world.  One person sees a forest and sees money, and another ones sees spirit. The spirit in all things, the singing of the trees and of the land.  It is a way of attunement, a choice to see certain things and set aside certain others.

 

Ancient roots offer ancient wisdom

Ancient roots offer ancient wisdom

And so, we pick up where we left off, in the realm of spirit.  In last week’s post, I explored the preliminaries to plant spirit communication: cultural deprogramming, learning your spirit language, and meditation techniques to get you started.  If you haven’t yet read that post, I suggest you start there and then come here. This week’s post gets into a few different kinds of plant spirit communication that you can do.

 

A Few Principles for Plant Spirit Communication

Before we get into the communication itself, let’s talk about a few principles that are helpful to understand:

 

Communication comes in many forms. It might not be a message that you get but a song, a phrase, an image, a feeling, a bit of laughter or joy. It might not be anything profound but “I’m hungry!”  Just accept what comes. Plants are people too. Not everything is always super serious.

 

Plants work by the seasons. Time is different to plants, and part of why meditation (as I discussed last week) is so helpful is that it encourages us to slow down enough to be present with the plants and to move more at their pace and speed.  It might be that a single message takes a long time to convey–a period of days, weeks, months, or years.  And that’s ok–if you want to communicate with nature, you have to be moving at nature’s speed.  I wrote about this in my tree series–the trees and perennials go deep within their roots and slumber during the winter, so you can’t always communicate with them certain times of the year.

 

Not all places and plants are “awake.”  Depending on the kinds of land use history and previous interaction of humans in the last few generations on your land, the land may have gone to sleep and the spirits may be present, but not very active, or at least, not attuned to humans wanting to communicate. I think this is why the “approaching” material that I offer next is so important.

 

Not all plants have direct experience, but they do have ancestral knowledge. Its also possible that for the plants, as well as for us, communicating is nothing more than an ancestral memory.  I’ve been to forests here where the trees said I was the first to talk of them in several generations, certainly in their lifetimes.  They conveyed to me that they knew it could happen but they hadn’t ever experienced it.  So it is like we are all learning together–and that is a very exciting place to be. This is likely to be more true in places where indigenous peoples were eradicated from the land several centuries ago–it is likely that those indigenous peoples were the last that spoke to them.  Here, that would be at least two centuries, most unfortunately.

 

Not all plants jive well with humans. Certain trees and plants don’t have energy–or physical plant matter–that is beneifical for humans. Elm is notoriously known for this in several cultures.  Many of the poisonous plants, like poison ivy or poison hemlock, also may not really want to talk.

 

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Some plants really love humans. On the other hand, some plants really love humans and have been working with them for millenia.  These are often cultivated plants (think about how far humans have spread apple trees!) or healing herbs like rosemary, parsley, sage, lavender, lemon balm, and more.

 

Personal gnosis is personal. Each of us may get different things, our own “truths” as part of plant spirit communication.  This does not mean that what you experience is the same as everyone else–or should necessary be shared with others.  This is for two reasons: first, this work is deeply personal, and there are messages that are meant only for you; others may need to find their own way to this work.  But second, different plants may reveal different aspects to you (which may appear contradictory and actually isn’t).

 

Plants are individuals. Just like not all humans who grew up in the same town and look similar have tremendous variety in terms of ability, interests, and personality, so do plants.  Plants and trees are each individuals; keep this in mind when interacting with them.  Plants are people too.

 

Approaching and Honoring Plants and Trees

And now we begin the work of communication itself. Just like with any other kind of communication, not every tree or plant out in the world is excited to talk to you and wants you in their space.  I actually think going up to a plant or tree and assuming that they do want to interact with you intimately is kind of like going up to a random person on the street and starting to talk their ear off.  Plants are not ours to do what we want with; they deserve our respect as any other person would.

 

If you are approaching a new plant or tree with the interest in communicating, I find that approaching a plant in respect first, and asking to communicate, is generally a good way to begin. If you begin the nature meditations I talked about last week near plants or trees you want to communicate with, that can already help pave the way for plant spirit communication.

 

If you are approaching new plants, here are a few things I like to do:

  • Find a plant or tree to which you are drawn. Perhaps you are walking in the woods and a certain tree or plant catches your eye, and you feel compelled to go over.  Or you have a plant or tree you are drawn to every day on your walk to work. These are great plants to start working with in this way.
  • Sit quietly with the plant and see how it “feels.” Do you feel invited in? Do you feel like the plant wants me gone?  Most plants are usually pretty friendly, but not all are.  Further, given the history of land use (spray, cutting, etc) the plant may want left alone (or not be willing to do anything more until land healing or repairations can take place).
  • Making a simple offering. I usually use my home-grown tobacco or cornmeal for such an offering, if I feel a physical offering is warranted.  Singing to the plants, playing music, or drumming with them is also a wonderful offering. Finally, your own liquid gold (urine) diluted 1 part urine to 10 parts water, is a fine gift to be poured on the roots.  This is part to honor the plant, but also to help with the “awakening” pieces I discussed above.
  • Tend the plant if it needs to be tended.  Maybe you can aid the plant in some way–scattering seeds, removing pests that are eating the plant, adding some mulch, etc. Make sure you are helping and not harming.

 

I will say that for plants that I’ve cultivated from seed planted as seedlings, they are always happy to communicate (as I helped them grow strong and tended them for likely months or years already), but for those I find out in the world, more of this kind of work is needed.  This work can take time and multiple visits to the same site before you are ready to move on–again, nature’s time is not always human time.

 

Types of Plant Spirit Communication

Now that we have some of the preliminaires out of the way, we can explore a few specific techniques for this work:

 

Listening to the plants

Listening to the plants

Inner Listening: The first type of plant spirit communication is a simple inner listening technique.  I say “inner listening” but it doesn’t just have to be using clairaudience, rather, it can be using any of the different communication techniques I listed above.  The bascis of inner listening are these: you begin by clearning your mind and then opening ourself up to any messages, whether they come in words, images, feelings, songs, energies, etc.  You can use the plant meditation above as a precursor to your inner listening–just pause, see what you experience. This is the first and, in my opinion, most useful step of plant spirit communication. You won’t always get messages, but you may, and the more you practice this, the better you will get (and the quicker messages will come) with time.  You might do this listening silently or with aid of a drum ,rattle, or other steady beat.

 

Group Listening: You can do this individually or in a group of people. I once remember a group of us sitting around a tree at a workshop; we tapped on the tree’s roots and listened to the tree as a group, each sharing our experiences of what we saw, heard, or felt. This allowed us to affirm and confirm what each individual was hearing; it was also fun to experience how different people in the group had messages with different communication strategies (some very visual, some auditory, others feeling based, and so on).  This is especially good for new people who are still learning to trust what they are experiencing and want some confirmation.

 

Divination Tools: Using a divination tool to ascertain messages from plant spirits is another technique that is quite effective.  You might use a pendulum for a simple yes/no, an oracle deck (like Philip Carr Gomm’s Plant Spirit Oracle), a tarot deck (like the Tarot of Trees), ogham, runes, and more.  Divination tools are often much more accessible than inner listening to beginners on the path of plant spirit communication–however, interpreting the messages from an oracle can be an art form in and of itself!  I would suggest you start with something really direct and clear if you are new to divination, like a pendulum or a coin that would give a clear yes/no answer.  Then you can move into more complex uses.

 

Inner Journeying: Inner journeying to meet a plant spirit and have a conversation or lesson, is another way that you can connect deeply with plants and learn from them.  this is a more advanced technique and will be discussed in next week’s post in more detail, as this post is already getting pretty long!

 

Outer Listening/Observation: Nature is wonderful at giving messages for those who are paying attention. Sometimes, you might get a clear outer message–asking a question and having a leaf drop right in front of you, watching the leaves or flowers bend in the breeze, having a hummingbird come up right to the plant you are working with.  It is helpful to keep one’s inner and outer senses open!

 

Energy exchange. Sometimes the main communication isn’t a message at all but an exchange of energy.  Placing your hands on the plant, sitting with it, or leaning against it (if its a tree) can all help facilitate this energy exchange.  Sometimes this energy exchange can be the precursor to other things.

 

You as a Plant Spirit Communicator

This is a little hard to put into words, but let me see if I can.  In classical rhetoric, there was something called “ethos”; this was one of the three ways that Aristotle articulated that could help a person be persuasive.The concept of ethos is useful here for plant spirit communication.  Ethos is your credibility, the reputation and personal force that you bring to the situation, or that you create for yourself.  Two kinds of ethos exist: invented and situated.  Invented ethos is when you have to build your ethos in a situation from scratch; e.g. whoever it is you are communicating with doesn’t know you or who you are.  Situated ethos is ethos you bring to a situation; they have heard of you before (good or bad) and so they are going in with some more information about you.

 

When you first start working with plants; plants of a specific species or area, whatever it is, especially if you haven’t done any other spiritual work in that area, you likely will have to prove yourself a bit.  Invent your ethos, so to speak.  Offerings, deep listening, not imposing yourself, and being respectful all help here a lot.  If you do that enough, those actions will carry with you, and you will build a connection (situated ethos) to those plants over time.

 

So on the other side of this, maybe you’ve been cultivating a relationship with a plant, or a plant species, or a particular area, for a long time.  The more you do with that plant species or area, even before you start trying to do some of the spirit communication I’ve outlined above, the more that the plants and land will be open to you.  You come in, then, with situated ethos.  (Of course, if you are doing bad things to the land, you can imagine how that would go!)

 

This is to say, plants remember.  The land remembers.  Plants speak to each other; you develop a relationship with a tribe of plants (a species, an ecosystem) and the more you work with one, the more all will be open. Over time, this can be a tremendous tool.

 

That’s it for this week’s post–I tried to cover all of the bases of plant spirit communication, at least the ones that I have used and know well.  If anyone has other methods or information, please do share in the comments!  Next week, we’ll explore plant spirit journeying in more detail.

 

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!

 

Walking the Path of the Ovate: Building Localized Ecological Knowledge May 13, 2018

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Everything changes in this wild place. The ebb and flow of the tides drives the ecology on this rocky shore. The landscape abruptly changes its appearance based on proximity to the sea and elevation. Firs and spruces dominate along with a groundcover of laurel and blueberry. Even old friends, like birch, maple, and beech, take on new skin. The mountain peaks offer a desert-like climate where air and fire dominate. I am in this wild place, letting it seep into my bones, into my breath, into my spirit. Desipte the books on ecology I’ve purchased, I really have no idea what I’m seeing, no real knowledge of the deeper mystery of this land and shore. Books cannot teach that kind of wisdom, only time and experience can. My eyes physically see, but I am seeing without any real understanding of what it is that is before me.

 

Industrialization has taught us that local context is only a marketing tool, a demographic base through which to sell products. We have eliminated much of what made local contexts unique and have replaced them with the same worn-out stores selling the same worn-out products. But nature has her own wisdom. Nature teaches us that the local context is sacred: it is what gives us distinction, it is what gives uslife, it is what roots us in a place. My localized knowledge base, rooted in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA and in the wilds of South-East Michigan, offers me a familiarity and comfort with the plants and animals I know. These are plants and animals that I have developed relationships with over a long period of time. When I enter a forest in my home region, I see my old friends and that relationship deepens. With that deep knowledge of my own ecosystem, an opportunity to visit a new place allows me begin to understand differences, subtle or major, in new ecosystems.

 

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality and connecting with nature through walking the path of the ovate, our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls. These landscapes literally become like a skin that we wear, a skin that comes with us wherever we go.

 

Building Local Knowledge

Indigeneous peoples were woven so closely into their landscapes: their land forms, their bodies of water, the local plants. They ate the fish and animals they hunted, they ate the plants they gathered, they made medicine from what was around them. These elements of their surrounding shaped every aspect of their daily interaction and their culture. They preserved the land and tended the wilds because the land sustained them fully. They understood their landscape in ways no modern human, living indoors, can do. And so, much of that knowledge is lost at present. Certainly, some places in the world, that knowledge still exists–but in places, like where I live, long colonized by those who would seek to destroy native peoples, only fragments remain. In truth, it is likely that modern humans in current western society can never have the deep knowledge, developed from infancy and shared across generations, that humans living in other times or cultures had. But, we can build a start, and we can work to connect once again.  In generations to come, we may once again have that kind of deep knowledge of our world. Part of this connection, to me, is the most sacred work there is to do in this world. And part of this is building our own ecoregional druidries and localized understandings.

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

When we want to learn something today, especially about our local ecosystem, I have found that in person teachers are often hard to find (and if they can be found, expensive).  Books, then, become our teachers, and we can gain much knowledge of the landscape and our local ecology. The knowledge contained in books today was the kind of knowledge we used to have human and non-human teachers teach us: how to identify plants, how to use them for food or medicine, and so on. But there is no substitute for lived experience, the viceral and sensual experience of life–neither of which books can give us. There is no substitute that tells us that the ramps grow in this vally on the eastern side of the mountain where the emphermeal springs open up. Bridging the gap between book knowledge and direct experience is part of what walking the path of the ovate is all about–it is not just about the study of plants, animals, ecology, it is about connecting with that spirit of the landscape, weaving yourself into it, and reconnecting.

 

A basic knowledge identification skills and plant families can lead to many more deeper understandings, magical understandings, understanding the spirit of things. Now that I can identify many plants with ease and know some of their basic features, growth patterns, and uses, I want to understand them deeper. Who do they like to grow next to? What insects live on them? For the trees, what is their wood like? What do they look like at the different seasons of the year? What medicine and magic do they hold? And so, I wonder, wander, and walk through this landscape. A loupe (jeweler’s loupe) in hand offers me a more detailed perspective of the flowers. The more time I spend in the land place, the more I want to simply experience it.

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

When I spent time at Acadia National Park in Maine last year, and recently in the Konza Prarie in Kanas, one thing was clear to me: despite studying field guides that helped me identify plants, to really know either landscape, like I knew my own ecosystem, it would take a lifetime. Prior prior to this, I’ve had no exposure to Maine’s craggy and rocky coasts. I had no experience with the burned out prarie stretching into the distance. Intellectual knowledge in my field guide offers a stepping stone, but true understanding, this weaving into the landscape, would take years of regular interaction and time spent in nature.

 

While in Maine, I spent numberous hours in the same spot, on a place called Otter Cliff, first observing the spot at low tide, and a different day, watching high tide come in. I watched the way that the various seaweed adapted to the incoming waves, how different species lived at different heights and were exposed to different wave action. A field guide tells me that I’m seeing bladderwrack, rockweed, wormweed, barnacles, and mussels. But yet, nothing but observation can teach me how the waves crash into the bladderwrack, or how it feels in my hand, or how it is adapted to move with the waves that would rend my own flesh from my bones against the rocks.

 

And this is what visiting a radically different ecosystem can do. You are out of your comfort zone, the plants and animals may be similar, but not exact. It is an extremely good time to study plant families (like through the book called Botany in a Day). Even if you can’t identify the specific plants, you can certainly identify their families, which teaches you new and important skills. This newness and challenge leads to rich rewards, new learning, and growth.

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

Different regions also have different elemental balances. For example, I live in a land that is dominated by earth and water. The mountains, especially higher up, often have clouds and mist. The forests remain quite damp and the damp-loving trees like Eastern Hemlock are abundant, especially in dark forest valleys where the streams and creeks flow. On the Maine coast, this land is dominated as much by earth and water as it is by air–the winds, of which we have very little, are ever present here as the waves continue to crash on the rocks. High up on the granite-top mountains, fire and air dominate and life barely holds on. In Kansas, fire and air dominated the landscape–particularly fire–due to the recently burned prarie.

 

Visiting a new number of ecosystems has me realizeing just how much power nature has–I understood her power in the Alleghney mountains in PA, but I have no idea of her power in other places. And the homecoming, of returning back to the place where I belong, is powerful and meaningful–all the more so becuase you are back in familiar territory, where the plants and animals and ecology is familiar, safe, comforting.

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality, should our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls.  They become like a skin that we wear, literally, that comes with us wherever we go. We know the call of the birds, we know just how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction.  We understand the ebb and flow of the creek and know how the water runs over the stones. The longer we are in the land we are of the land, till we are one in the same.  This is what druidry, I beleive, is really about–becoming woven so deeply with your own place.