Category Archives: Forests

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!

Sacred Tree Profile: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)’s Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

 

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

As we move into the dark half of the year and move closer to Samhain, the temperatures drop, the killing frosts come and the plants die back. The leaves grow brilliant and then fall.  Brown and tan dominate the land as the earth falls asleep. But there in the waning light is the brilliant, beautiful golden yellow of the  Witch hazel!  Around here, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginia) begins a magnificent display of tiny yellow flowers, appearing to explode outward with many delicate yellow petals.  As the last of the leaves fall, if you walk through a forest with Witch Hazel, you are struck by the beauty of these wild and warm yellow flowers. everything else may look dead, but Witch Hazel is alive and thriving. The time of Witch Hazel is the time of late fall and early winter, and it is a powerful and magical tree indeed.

Witch Hazel is also known as winterbloom (for fairly obvious reasons), snapping alder, spotted alder, tobacco wood, pistachio or wych elm.  John Eastman describes that the name “witch hazel” may be derived from the Anglo-saxon wych (which is related to the word “whicker”) which means “bending.” Because the leaves have an elm-like quality, it was sometimes called wych elm.

Growth and Ecology

Witch Hazel is often found as an understory tree in both evergreen and deciduous forests.  Here in Western Pennslyvania, you can often find it as part of the understory of the Eastern Hemlock/Beech forest or even the Oak-hickory forest.

Witch hazel just as it emerges….

Witch Hazel loves a part-shade or full shade damp place to grow, so you can also often find them along forest streams.  Witch hazels are shade tolerant, slow-growing, and often have a growth form with several smaller trunks coming up from a central stem; the trunks often grow crooked and at odd angles.  When the flowers open up in the fall, they also open up their seed pods, shooting out two black seeds from each pod.  While this has not happened to me, in John Eastman’s Forest and Thicket book (a fantastic book), he mentions getting hit by the flying seeds at distance up to 10-20 feet!  The lovely flowers are insect-pollinated by gnats and late flies.

I want to speak a little about the flowers of the Witch Hazel since they are so magical and unique. The flowers emerge just as the leaves of the tree begin to turn yellow in the fall and even after the leaves drop and freezing temperatures set in, the flowers continue to persist for some time.  Here, in Western PA, you can find them sometimes into late December, depending on the year. The flowers themselves look like a little yellow firework or sparkler–the bud opens up and over two dozen very thin, long flower petals unroll and twist around. From a distance, they almost look like little pompoms popping out from the branch.  They are quite special, with a warm sunny yellow that is just bursting with hope, life, and possibility.

The Medicine of Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is in common use today. What you purchase in the store called witch hazel is actually a steam distillation of the branches of the witch hazel. Witch Hazel branches are best distilled in the spring (for this you can use an alembic, similar to making an essential oil).   Witch hazel is easily found in the distilled form in drug stores, where it is used for mouthwashes, reducing inflammation, addressing skin irritation, addressing sore throats (especially inflamed), hemorrhoids, acne, wards of certain viral infections, and much more.  You can also make a tincture of it (1 part alcohol to 5 parts fresh bark and leaves) and you can create a very astringent rub that can relieve pain.

Witch Hazel Ecoprint (part of my in-progress Tree Alchemy oracle!)

Native peoples of North America saw Witch Hazel as a critically important medicinal plant. As described by Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes,  Native Americans used decoctions of leaves and twigs as liniments and mashed up inner bark as poultices for boils, tumors, and other external inflammatory items.  The Iroquois made a tea of the leaves, sweetened with maple syrup.  They drank the leaves unsweetened for diarrhea and other internal inflammation. Today, many of the same uses found traditionally can still be used.

Other Uses

If you are interested in creating sacred smoking blends, witch hazel (the leaf and inner bark) can be a nice addition.  One of the names for the tree was “tobacco wood” and I am guessing that witch hazel can be a good base for a smoking blend (as all astringent woods and plants make a nice smoke).  I’ve only briefly experimented with this, but I think it is well worth considering. Several foraging books, including Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggest that Witch Hazel seeds can be eaten but that they are rather oily and bitter. I haven’t tried them yet (I can rarely find them after they pop off of the tree). Although I do not know if it is done in the present day, Native Americans used to make bows from the branches as the wood is quite flexible (Erichsen-Brown, 177). I am unaware of any other uses of Witch Hazel.

Magic of the Witch Hazel: Dowsing, Water Witching, and Wayfinding

Virgula divina. (Diving Rods)
“Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice,
And (borne about) will strangely nod
To hidden Treasure where it lies;
Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”

From Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick by Samuel Shepard (1651)

As the poem by Samuel Shepard above suggests, one of the most powerful uses of witch hazel is the virgula divina, or the witch hazel divining rod, which can be used to find all manner of buried treasure or other hidden things.  European Hazels were used in Europe for this purpose, and when colonists arrived in the Americas, the Witch Hazel became the quintessential dowsing rod and was seen as a most magical of woods.

Witch Hazel branches in bloom

Dowsing is performed by turning the arms up and holding a rod in both hands. By observing subtle movements of the rod, one can sense the direction and location of various buried treasures, which can include buried springs, mineral deposits, gold and silver, salt, and potentially other buried treasures. As Erichsen-Brown describes, as early as 1631, there is a record of Witch Hazel branches being employed as “divining rods” (p. 177)   While water is the most commonly dowsed for, Erichsen-Brown also notes the use of witch hazel in the colonial era for finding gold or silver, salt mines, and more. This tradition was extremely widespread, even in sacred Mormon texts the witch hazel rod often had directions whispered to it, telling it where to help look for gold.

As Witch Hazel is native to North America, this dowsing tradition ties to the larger folk magic of Appalachia and beyond. In fact, I was told when we purchased our current homestead that our drinking spring on the property was found by a local dowser in the 1970s.  He used a witch hazel rods that he cut on the property from local wood.  He dowsed commonly and many springs and wells in our immediate area were found by him.  Although dowsing is not as common now as it used to be, it still has power and influence here in the Appalachian mountains.

One of the ways we can think about dowsing is that you can use it to find physical things but also to help find our way. Some dowsers have been able to use their rods to find anything, and this seems closely tied to the overall magic of the witch hazel.  In my own experience, Witch Hazel certainly fits that approach. It helps us find what we are looking for, in that way, it is a wayfaring or pathwalking plant.

Divination and Meanings of Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel brings light and hope into dark places and dark times. I think Witch hazel is a particularly powerful plant for us here in 2020, given the civil unrest, economic insecurity, climate change, and so many other major challenges that we are facing as a species.  It feels like our civilization is going through a very dark time–and witch hazel reminds us that we can shine in that darkness, that even if everything else is retreating and dying back, there is always room for a little hope and joy.

Witch hazel likes to bloom when the rest of the forest looks like this!

Witch hazel assists with finding hidden things. Witch hazel has the longstanding ability within the Appalachian and American folk magic traditions of finding nearly anything: water, gold, silver, salt, minerals, coal, or other buried treasure.  Thus, Witch hazel more generally can help us do that work both physically in the world and, as in our next point, metaphysically within our selves.

Witch hazel is a wayfaring tree.  The wayfinding properties of Witch Hazel make this an important tree to work with if you are on a journey, if you are seeking a new path, or if you are trying to find your way through uncertain times.

What a blessing the Witch Hazel brings us today, and always.

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Drought workings: A Druid’s Perspective on Drought and Dry Weather

2020 is certainly a year to remember for many of us in the human realm.  Here in Western Pennsylvania and up along many parts of New England, we’ve had an additional serious problem affecting the natural world—an extreme drought. This summer, the jet stream is way off of its normal course and so most of the major storms that would typically hit us have been forced south of us, creating the  “moderate” drought that we are now in and causing uncharacteristically dry conditions.  know there are other serious droughts around the world, such as the three-year drought currently happening in Germany.  Climate change is making these kinds of weather events all the more common and teaching us powerful lessons along the way.  In today’s post, I’ll share some drought lessons, drought land healing, and ways of working and honoring water.

Honoring Water and the Scarcity of Water

Altar for water healing

Altar for water healing

I think for people who live in areas that are usually abundant in water, it’s not something that is often at the forefront of your mind.  For example,  here we get about 40″ of rain a year and another 30″ of snow, and have precipitation an average of 140 days a year–so precipitation is a regular event that happens at least once a week, if not more.  I must say, before this year, I was guilty of this–water was just always present.  We had almost no need to water the garden, we would just wait for the inevitable rains to come.  I realize that this perspective must be hard to imagine for people who live in desert climates or other low-rain areas, but for people who live in areas like I do, I think it is quite common.

But a drought lets you reframe your relationship to water because it becomes scarce.  In modern cultures where we can literally buy our way into anything, we have been socialized to see scarcity as a bad thing.  Yet, time and time again, I have found that the lesson of scarcity is important to both cultivating both more connected and sacred relationships and in gratitude practices. Scarcity is a lesson that nature provides through each yearly cycle. Scarce things are sacred things; something that is scarce becomes more valuable and meaningful.  Any mushroom hunter knows this–if you hunt all season for the elusive hen of the woods (maitake) mushroom, and you find only one, it is truly sacred.  You may harvest it or not, but certainly, you would be thankful for the experience.  Perhaps you’d craft a sacred meal and enjoy it with friends. But if you find them all over, they become more common.  For us in a water-rich climate, water and precipitation was so common that you really didn’t think about it.  And then, the drought came. Scarcity came.  And you realized how sacred water really was.

The drought has been a really good opportunity to reframe my relationship with water and honor all water as sacred, both in mundane ways and in ritual ways. Here’s an example.  Our geese have a big plastic swimming pool (our pond is away from the house and is home to snapping turtles and other wildlife, so we opted for this closer pool).  We have the swimming pool out in our front yard where we can easily fill it with the hose and where the geese hang out.  At the beginning of the summer, I used to “bail” the pool–I had a large bucket and would keep bailing water out of the pool and dumping it on the ground until the pool was empty.  The water would just spread all over the lawn and be absorbed. I didn’t think about it much, just checking off one more homestead chore to do before moving on to others.  But as our rainless days stretched into rainless weeks and then into rainless months, the dirty water in the goose pool became sacred. That water became the most precious resource on this drought-stricken land: we could use it to conserve our water supply (we have a spring and cistern), a way to help the many plants in this drying up the landscape, and a way to honor every drop.

I would instead move the water into our wheelbarrow and wheel it around the property–into the gardens, into the perennial beds, into the edges of the woods, into the milkweed patch I was trying to cultivate.  Every two days, I hauled water and prayed for rain.  It became a kind of ritual in itself–offering what I could to this parched landscape, honoring the water, and singing for the rain.  When we “dump” water on the ground, we are literally disposing of it and in that disposal mindset.  If we instead offer water, honor water by pouring it with intention, returning it to the earth, and sending it on its journey back into the hydrologic cycle–this is where your own relationship sifts.

Other small amounts of water, too, became sacred.  The water leftover in our big pressure canner became something to provide the forest plants with relief.  Each drop mattered.  I’ve been thinking about our bathtub upstairs and how to rig a greywater system.  This drought prompted a new connection with water and an opportunity to engage in sacred action through our everyday lives.

Land Healing Practices During the Drought

A healed and restored river (the Clarion!)

The Clarion River

Because land healing is an important part of the spiritual work we can do as nature-based spiritual practitioners and druids, I decided to work to address the drought spiritually. Within land healing, as I’ve outlined before, different kinds of practices exist depending on the situation at hand: energetic healing and palliative care.  It is important to know what you are attempting to do if you are going to be engaging in land healing work.  With regards to a drought, energetic healing is for lands that are damaged but in a place to heal (e.g. the drought has ended and now the land can heal–this is a good time to raise energy for healing). But for a drought-stricken landscape in the middle of a drought, palliative care is most appropriate: in this case, we would work with the spirits fo the land to minimize the worst of the pain and offer hope that rains will return.

The Water Grove of Renewal

If you are living in an area that is experiencing a drought, here is one palliative care technique that you can use to provide some relief.  This is a play on my “grove of renewal” practice that I shared some time ago. For this, choose a small section of land that you have easy access to or that you own, or even a potted plant on a windowsill.  For my water grove of renewal this summer, I had recently planted ramp roots in a small patch of forest.  These were saved from the path of destruction at my family property.  You should select if at all possible, an area that normally would not get watered intentionally by you (e.g. not your garden).  Mark the space in some way (with flags, stones, sticks, etc.) so that you give it some kind of sacred boundary so that you know where to water.  My water grove of renewal had a natural boundary; a small clearing in the forest surrounded by trees, about 3′ across.

This is the place that you will keep watered as a sign of hope and solidarity to the rest of the landscape.  Every few days, bring an offering of water and water the earth.  As I leave the offering, I say a small prayer that I wrote for the grove

Parched earth, dry soil, cracked clay.
Know that the rains will come.
Withered roots dried vines, drooping leaves
Know that the rains will come.
I leave this offering of water here as a sign of hope.
Know that the rains will come.
As this small grove of renewal radiates outward.
Know that the rains will come.
Endure for a little while longer.
The rains will come.
The rains will come.
The rains will come.

Do any other kind of sacred work here as you see fit: I brought my drum and flute and offered some music. I also offered my sacred offering blend.  Spend time in this grove and remember–the rains will come.

Honring the watershed

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

During a drought, it is a good time to learn about and honor the watershed that you live in.  There are many ways to engage in this practice, so I’ll share a few of them.  The first thing you should do is learn about your watershed–what watershed do you live in? If you are in the USA, you can use this tool produced by the EPA.  Once you learn your watershed, you can honor the tributaries, visit the headwaters (where the watershed begins) or visit a major river of your watershed.  For me, our homestead is along the Twolick Creek/Blacklick Watershed, a minor tributary of the Conemaugh watershed, which is part of the Ohio watershed.  I have worked during this drought to visit several spots along the watershed and do the following:

  • Water blessing and healing rituals (some of which are offered here).
  • Simply sitting and interacting with the waterway, which could include meditation or conversing with the spirit of the waters or watershed
  • Making offerings of music, healing waters, or herbal blends
  • Spending time in recreation at waterways, such as hiking or kayaking (provided the water levels are high enough).

Honoring the waterways is a fantastic way to attune to water, anytime, but especially during a drought.

Rain Workings

A final thing you may be tempted to try is rain magic or rain workings.  These things can be done, and with great effect, but also, at great risk.  I outlined one such rain working in an earlier post which you can try.  Even something simple, like using a rain stick, calling to the sylphs and undines to bring rain, or making offerings can help.  Rain magic and rain workings are a bit beyond this post, but I’ll pick them up at a later point in more depth!

And the rains come…

And, as things often happen, while I was composing we had temperatures in the 90’s and no rain for over two months.  As I got ready to post this–the rains came. Two beautiful days of storms and gentle rains, courtesy of Hurricane Laura coming through our region.  While two days of rain will not end the drought, it certainly gives much relief to this parched landscape.  The rains will come.

When the rains came over the last two days, I saw it as an event worthy of sacred practice, of ritual action, and of celebration.  I went out into the rain to dance, sing, and be merry.  I stripped most of my clothes and ran through the wet and dripping landscape, allowing the rain to soothe me.  I laid upon the earth and allowed my body to soak up the rains, just like the earth around me.  I felt refreshed and renewed after so many long months of trying to keep everything alive.  I rested in the gentle arms of that blissful rain.

Regardless of what happens in the future, I am in gratitude for the experience that was the drought of 2020–that I could more mindfully honor the waters of life, the waters that sustain us, and that water now holds a deeper and more central place in my practice.  And I understand, more than ever, why my ancestors tied their spiritual practices and lives to the seasons: to honoring the harvest, calling the rains, and bringing abundance and life to the land.  This is a lesson too easy to discount in the 21st century–but yet, the drought brought it to the fore.

PS: I also wanted to share a few updates on publications and the like!  I finished going through the page proofs of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  It should be released sometime in 2021–as soon as I’m able to share more details here, I will!   I also was able to finalize the layout on the updated Tarot of Trees: Artwork and Meanings book.  The 10th-anniversary edition should be available for release sometime in October (we are waiting on the printer to ship everything now).  Thanks for your patience while I took this hiatus from the blog!   If you have topics you’d like to see for the rest of 2020, please reach out!

The Allegheny Mountain Ogham: An Ogham for the Northern Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA

By Dana O’Driscoll, The Druid’s Garden Blog (druidgarden.wordpress.com), Copyright 2020.

The Ogham is an ancient alphabet, used to write early Irish and later Old Irish. The inscriptions that survive of Ogham, some 400 or so primarily on stone, are found throughout Ireland, Wales, and England. The inscriptions are thought to date from the 4th century and onward, although how old the tradition is is subject to some disagreement. In the modern druid tradition, the Ogham has also been associated with divination, and many druids use Ogham as a means to connect with sacred trees in the landscape. However, for people living in places outside of the British Isles, making local Oghams allows them to connect both with some of the roots of our tradition in druidry but also wildcraft and localize their druidry. This Ogham is designed for the Northern Appalachian mountain region in the United States while being rooted specifically in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania.

The Northern Appalachian Mountains range from the Mason Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and into Eastern Canada. This Ogham is specifically based in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania (Laurel Highlands and Pittsburgh Plateau regions), so some adaptations may be needed for people who live at other parts along the Appalachians. This Ogham would be most appropriate for druids living in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Virginia, but could easily be expanded outward.

When creating this Ogham, the selections are based on the following criteria:

  • Prominence: I selected trees that are abundant and widespread. Abundance varies from region to region, however, so you might want to make your own adaptations. The reason to use abundant trees is twofold. First, abundant trees have a considerable impact on the ecology and landscape. Second, for people who want to make their own Ogham, it is helpful to be able to find all of the trees. (This is why trees like pawpaw and chestnut are not on this list, even though they are important to this region).
  • Equivalency: In over half the Ogham fews, we have equivalent trees in the Allegheny mountains to the traditional Ogham (like Oak, Elder, and Birch). But there are also other very abundant trees that should be included in any North American Ogham like Hickory, Cedar, and Maple which have no equivalents in the British Isles.
  • Ecology: How the tree functions in the ecosystem is another critical factor for developing a regional Ogham, especially when looking for equivalents to the original Ogham fews. Does the tree grow quickly and help regenerate damaged parts of the forest? Is it an understory tree? Nitrogen fixer? How does the tree interact with other life in nature? Additionally, a preference for native trees is present.
  • A final factor is the health of the trees and tree species. Ash tree populations, including all mature ash trees, have been decimated on the US East coast due to the Emerald Ash Borer—thus, I’ve replaced Ash as the Ash here in the US cannot hold the energy that it traditionally did in the British Isles. Eastern Hemlock is also under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but at the time when I wrote this, the Eastern hemlock populations are still strong in Western PA—but may not be where you are located. Considering the health of the trees can help make decisions on Ogham inclusion or exclusion.

For each of the entries, I have also included possible alternatives when they made sense. Alternatives can be used when you can’t find the trees or if you feel drawn toward other options. Finally, you are also most welcome to adapt this Ogham as you feel necessary to your own bioregion. Pronunciations are based on those described by John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook.

This page includes the quick guide, a visual overview of the Allegheny Ogham, an in-depth discussion of each tree, as well as various means to use the Ogham in druid practice, including through the Bardic, Ovate, and Druid arts.

Allegheny Mountain Ogham Quick Guide

Original Ogham Allegheny Ogham Appalachian Tree Keywords Pronunciation
Birch (Beith) Black Birch

 

Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) Beginnings, rebirth, purification, regrowth BEH
Rowan (Luis) Sassafras Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Protection, Judgment, Discernment LWEESH
Ash (Nuinn) Shagbark Hickory Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) Interconnection, Magic, Connections NOO-un
Alder (Fearn) American Sycamore American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana) Bridge between spirit and matter; spirit, transitions, individuality FAIR-n
Willow (Sallie) Black Willow Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) Change, cycles, fluidity, receptivity, flexibility SAHL-yuh
The Second Aicme
Hawthorn (Huath) Hawthorn Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) Patience, restriction, danger, protection OO-ah
Oak (Duir) White Oak White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) Power, strength, durability, grounding DOO-er
Holly (Tinne) American Holly American Holly (Ilex opaca) Courage, Challenge, Opposition CHIN-yuh
Hazel (Coll) American Hazelnut American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta); Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginaia) Creativity, Inspiration, Awen, Artistry, Fine Craft CULL
Apple (Quert) Apple Apples and Crabapples of all varieties (Malus spp.) Celebration, Love, Harvest, Contentment KWEIRT
The Third Aicme
Vine (Muinn) Wild Grape Vine Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia). Vitis spp.

 

Freedom, Honesty, Prophecy MUHN
Ivy (Gort) Blackberry Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) Entanglements, Slow Progress, Determination

 

GORT
Reed (Ngetal) Cattail Cattail (Typha spp.) Swiftness, Speed, Transformation, Healing NYEH-tal
Blackthorn (Straif) Black Locust Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) Upheaval, Fate, External Forces, Unavoidable Change STRAHF
Elder (Ruis) Black Elder Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) Resolution, Endings, Permanent Change, Otherworld RWEESH
The Fourth Aicme
Fir (Ailm) White Spruce White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana) Vision, Understanding, Perspective AHL-m
Gorse (Onn) Eastern Hemlock Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Hope, Potential, Learning, Possibility UHN
Heather (Ur) Mountain Laurel Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

 

Spiritual Power, Spirit connection, Energy, Creation OOR
Aspen (Eadha) Tulip Poplar Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes) Hard work, Endurance, Courage, Bending rather than breaking EH-yuh
Yew (Ioho) Eastern White Cedar Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis); Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) Legacy, Things that abide, Wisdom from Experience, Eldership EE-yoh
The Forfedha
Grove (Koad) Grove of Trees All trees in a forest Balance, Community, Conflict Resolution, Communication, Listening KO-ud
Spindle (Oir) Black Cherry Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) Obligations, Honoring Commitments, Persistence OR
Honeysuckle (Uilleand) Sugar Maple Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) Hidden meanings, secrets, subtle influences, mysteries ULL-enth
Beech (Phagos) American Beech American Beech (Fagus grandifolia);   Eastern Ironwood Wisdom, Learning, History, Ancient Knowledge, Memory FAH-gus
Ifin (Pine) White Pine White Pine (Pinus strobus); Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) Vision, Awareness, Making Amends, Self-work, Guilt EE-van

 

The First Aicme

Black Birch – Beith

Allegheny Trees: Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Original Ogham Tree: Birch

Pronunciation: “BEH”

Meanings: New beginnings, a fresh start, turning a new chapter in your life. Spring and the promise of things to come. Renewal, rebirth, and purification.

Ecology: In the Allegheny Mountains we have three dominant species of birch: White Birch, Yellow Birch, and the Sweet Birch / Black Birch. Any of these specific trees are excellent representations of Birch for Ogham. Birch is easily found in areas where trees were logged; many times the first trees that will come up in a large thicket are birch trees after logging. You can also find birch trees along rivers and in mixed deciduous forests. Black and Yellow Birches can be found mixed in Eastern Hemlock forests as well.

Alternatives: Birches of various kinds are quite widespread in the Northern Appalachian region. No alternatives given.

Sassafras – Luis

Allegheny Tree: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Original Ogham Tree: Rowan

Pronunciation: “LWEESH”

Meanings: Discernment about current events or people, using your best judgment, and protection from harm. Positive finances and financial futures.

Ecology: Sassafras tree was widely imported to Europe after early colonization of the US and was, at one time, believed to be a ‘cure-all’ for illness in Europe. Sassafras is a widespread and a quintessential “American” tree. It has fragrant roots and leaves that are used widely as a food and medicine. Sassafras trees grow in groves and propagate primary by sending new roots off of a mother tree to create a small grove of babies surrounding the tree. Due to the history and use of Sassafras, it has long been associated with protection.

Alternatives: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) or Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a good choice for individuals living north of the native range of Sassafras.

Shagbark Hickory – Nuinn

Allegheny Trees: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Original tree: Ash

Pronunciation: NOO-un

Meanings: Interconnectivity, interconnection, and connection of all things in existence. Magic, nature magic, and the magic of connection. The great web of life present in the earth, the soil, and the universe.

Ecology: The Hickory tree is a hardwood nut tree that is widespread throughout the eastern US. Hickory trees are slow-growing trees that can produce abundant nut harvests as they mature. Reaching up to 130 feet in height and featuring a variety of shaggy, gray bark, hickories form an important species throughout the region. They are easiest to spot in the fall, when their leaves turn a deep golden sun-yellow shade. The wood is very hard and straight-grained and most hickories have delicious, edible nuts, enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.

For the last decade, nearly all of the Ash trees in the US Midwest and East coast have been dying from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle—this destruction has radically shifted the energy of the Ash tree here in the US. Due to the millions of deaths of Ash trees, it cannot hold the energy of Nuinn in North America. Because of the plight of the ash tree here, I have offered an alternative in the strong and mighty Hickory tree, which like ash, offers strong and tough wood and a commanding presence. Hickory trees are strong, dominant, have deep root systems, and in the fall, offer a wonderful alternative to the Ash.

American Sycamore – Fearn

Allegheny Tree: American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

Original tree: Alder

Pronunciation: FAIR-n

Meaning: Bridging between spirit and matter; spirit transitions. Individuality. Oracular guidance, messages from spirit. Transitions between realm to realm. Using one’s instincts or intuitioin.

Ecology: In North America, the Sycamore tree, which is often found along the edges of rivers and thrives in damp river bottoms, swamps, and bogs is an excellent choice to replace the water-loving Alder tree. Sycamore trees with their gray, greenish, brown, and white mottled bark which flakes off as the tree ages. As you drive through the river bottoms in the Alleghenies, you will see the sycamores reaching up from the bottoms, their whitish branches stretching out. Sycamores produce small seed balls that stay on the tree throughout the winter, looking almost like ornaments, dropping and spreading seeds in the spring.

Alternatives: The original Alder tree in the UK is a water tree that grows in swamps and bogs; it is often used to construct underwater and the wood grows harder in wet settings. Any other trees that grow in wet settings would be appropriate here. One such tree is the American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana).

Black Willow – Sallie

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Original tree: Willow

Pronunciation: SAHL-yuh

Meaning: Change, growth, cycles, moon cycles. Women’s mysteries. Fluidity, receptivity, and flexibility.

<Ecology: Black Willows have a wide range within the Eastern US and Canada. Black willow is widespread, and grows thick and tall as it ages. As a water loving tree, it is often found along the edges of water. Willows are excellent for land and waterway restoration, as they have a high tolerance of pollution and can break down certain toxic substances in the ecosystem. The Willow, with its deep roots, can regularly handle flooding and changes in water levels.

The Second Aicme

Hawthorn – Huath

Allegheny Tree(s): Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), including Pennsylvania Hawthorn (Crataegus tatnalliana)

Original Tree: Hawthorn / Huath

Pronunciation: OO-ah

Meaning: Restriction, danger, warnings. Patience. Heart and emotional protection. Hawthorn’s thorns are not aggressive, as in the snag and tear (like blackberry) but rather they are protective, surrounding the tree closely. This offers insight on the kinds of protection that hawthorn provides: thorns that protect but do not attack, thorns that create space for healing.

Ecology: The Eastern US has over 70 native species of Hawthorn. While leaf patterns vary widely, all has the ubiquitous thorns, 5 petaled flowers in the spring signaling the return of spring (Beltane), with ripening haws (fruit) in the time between the fall equinox and Samhain.

White Oak – Duir

Allegheny Tree(s): White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)

Original tree: Oak / Duir

Pronunciation: DOO-er

Meaning: Wisdom. Durability. Be strong and steady like the oak. Find your grounding. Power within and without. Growth. Protection.

Ecology: The Oak is one of the keystone species in the Eastern part of the US and into Canada. The White Oak can reach 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity, with a massive canopy and deep root system. White oaks live up to 300 years or more. Oaks produce acorns, but often do not produce large crops of acorns until after their 50th year of life. Every 3 years is a mast year, where Oaks produce a very large crop of nuts. Acorns were the staple food of many indigenous cultures and can be used in a wide variety of cuisine.

American Holly – Tinne

Allegheny Tree(s): American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Original Tree: Holly / Tinne

Pronunciation: CHIN-yuh

Meaning: Facing challenges, being a warrior, being dynamic and responsive. This is a plant of warriors and protectors. It also ties to the changing of the seasons, courage, and moving forward, and bringing light into dark times.

Ecology: The American Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly. It is shade tolerant and can live in the understory of most forest canopies. It is spread across the southern and northern Eastern US, find in wild areas as well as cultivated areas. The holly berries are dominant at the winter solstice.

Alternatives: Any other evergreen species is appropriate here. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), which is north of the native range of American Holly, is an excellent alternative for more northern areas.

American Hazelnut – Coll

Allegheny Tree(s): American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Original tree: Hazel / Coll

Pronunciation: CULL

Meaning: Poetry, wisdom, divination. Bringing ideas to the surface, awen; artistry or creativity; inspiration; divine inspiration, finding the muse. Honing one’s craft or skill in a subject. Letting the flow of inspiration (awen) come and opening to that experience.

Ecology: The American hazelnut is a shade-tolerant small tree or large shrub, usually not reaching more than 3-10 feet tall. It grows in large thickets and even when cut back or coppiced, can powerfully regrow. It is shade tolerant, often growing in the understory. Hazels produce delicious nuts that have a high protein content and can be enjoyed both by humans and wildlife.

Alternatives: Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgniana) is a different species, but may be appropriate as a substitution.

Apple – Quert

Allegheny Tree(s): Apple (Malus spp.)

Original Tree: Apple / Quert

Pronunciation: KWEIRT

Meaning: Celebration, love of all kinds, harvests and success, contentment. Paths of learning that are open. Making a good decision. Learning and growth.

Ecology: Although many species of apples were introduced to North American in the 17th centuru, the “crab apple” is native to the US. Crab apples are edible like their more cultivated counterparts, but are usually smaller and tarter due to lack of thousands of years of cultivation. Today, it is common to find crabapples and abandoned apple orchards all through the Allegheny mountain region.

Alternatives: Another domesticated fruit tree.

The Third Aicme

Wild Grape Vine – Muinn

Allegheny Tree(s): Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia), New England grape ( V. novae-angliae), Vitis spp.

Original tree: Muinn / Vine

Pronunciation: MUHN

Meaning: Freedom, truth, honesty, trustworthiness. Release of prophetic powers, prophecy and divination.

Ecology: A variety of wild grape species grow in the Allegheny region; all are characterized by flexible steps that send out tendrils to cling, grow, and climb. Wild grapes often have gray bark that peels easily off the vines. Some wild grapes can grow massive and create a canopy of grapes that, if too heavy, can pull down trees around them.

Alternatives: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Blackberry – Gort

Allegheny Tree(s): Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

Original Tree: Ivy

Pronunciation: GORT

Meaning: Making slow progress, being entangled or prevented from moving forward. Having delays, setbacks, and unforeseen challenges. With these setbacks, however, comes the determination to keep going. This is a time of persistence and determination.

Ecology: Blackberry is a native perennial shrub that can grow up to 7’ tall with many canes. Canes live for two years—the first year, the cane is green with many thorns. In the second year, the cane goes a dark red/brown with thorns. After the second year, new canes can sprout up from the same root system. The fruits are abundant and purple-black when mature, excellent for pies and jams—if you are willing to brave the thorns and canes to get them. If you’ve ever been caught in a big blackberry patch, you understand how the blackberry canes can catch, snack, and stall you.

Cattail – Ngetal

Allegheny Tree(s): Cattail (Typha spp.)

Original Tree: Reed

Pronunciation: NYEH-tal

Meaning: Swiftness and speed, the idea that things are moving forward, perhaps rapidly. Transformation. Healing and the healing that only changing circumstances can bring.

Ecology: Cattails are upright perennial plants that live on the edges of ponds, lakes, and other slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water. They are characterized by their long tall leaves and the stalk that produces a brown, elongated head, which, over the winter months, eventually turns to small seed fluff and flies off. Cattails are a keystone species in much of the Appalachian region and are also a useful wild food source.

Alternatives: Rushes, Phragmites, and other water-loving woody species.

Black Locust – Straif

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Original Tree: Blackthorn

Pronunciation: STRAHF

Meaning: Unexpected or unavoidable change, upheaval, or chaos. Fate, external influences, and external forces working for change, such that change happens regardless of your own actions. Having courage through such having courage through these circumstances.

Ecology: Black locust is a native tree that blooms late, drops leaves early, and has a general skeletal appearance with thick gray-brown bark, and large thorns on young branches. The black locust produces a very dense, strong wood that is rot resistant, and thus, useful for a variety of building applications. Large clusters of pea-shaped white flowers with a yellow center bloom on the black locusts usually in early June; these fragrant clusters are edible and delicious.

Alternatives: For those that are within the range, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) is a fantastic alternative for Straif.

Black Elder – Ruis

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Original Tree: Elder

Pronunciation: RWEESH

Meaning: Endings, with the understanding that something new will come. Life in death, death in life; changes from old to new. Having resolution and closure. Connection to the otherworld, gateways to the otherworld, and fae connections.

Ecology: The Black Elder is a widespread, native tree to the Eastern US. Black elder can be found in full sun, part shade, and full shade, although it is often found along the margins of forests and fields. By the summer solstice, it produces beautiful clusters of tiny flowers, reaching up to the sun. By Lughnasadh, these clusters have turned into ripe, purple berries, bending down to the earth. The Black Elder has a hollow core and pith like other species of Elder in Europe. In Europe, the “sambucca” was an ancient woodwind instrument made of elder; and that’s where the Latin name to the plant comes from.

The Fourth Aicme

White Spruce – Ailm

Allegheny Tree(s): White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Original Tree: Fir

Pronunciation: AHL-m

Meaning: Having clear vision, being able to see what is to come, having insight into a situation. Perspective and the ability to look at a situation in a new way. Having an understanding or coming to an understanding about an issue or situation.

Ecology: Spruces are an important tree in the Appalachian mountain region, along with several other conifer species. Spruce trees can live up to 300 years and grow to a height of 150 feet tall. All spruces have a whorled branch structure (a spiral pattern) and a conical form (like many other conifers). The world’s oldest living tree is thought to be Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce located in Sweden, which is though to be 9,550 years old.

Alternatives: Any other conifer species would be appropriate.

Eastern Hemlock – Omn

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern Hemlock

Original Tree: Gorse/Furze

Pronunciation: UHN

Meaning: Hope, potential and possibility. Hope in a brighter future. Learning and growth. Possibility.

Ecology: The Eastern Hemlock is a keystone species in the Eastern US. It is a shade-loving tree, often found in deep forests or along the banks of forest streams and rivers. The world’s oldest known hemlock is in Tionesta, PA, being 554 years old. The tree can reach up to 170 feet tall and 5 feet across. The hemlock needle underside has two light green lines and the hemlock, for its large size, produces tiny cones less than 1” in length. Hemlocks are currently under threat from the hemlock wooly adelgid, which was introduced to the US in 1924 and has been in the range of hemlock trees since the 1960’s.

Alternatives: Any other dominant conifer species.

Mountain Laurel – Ur

Allegheny Tree(s): Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia);

Original tree: Heather

Pronunciation: OOR

Meaning: Spiritual power, spiritual connections, energy, and creation. Passion and generosity. Close contact with spirit world and healing.

Ecology: Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with broad leaves in the heather (heath) family. When it flowers in early June, the flowers range from pink to white and look like beautiful little parasols. In the more southern end of its range, mountain laurel can grow to the size of trees; in the northern end of its range it stays shrub size.

Alternatives: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) is an excellent alternative, and functions in much the same way in the ecosystem (showy flowers in June, evergreen leaves, shrub or small tree size, similar growth habit).

 

Tulip Tree – Edhadh

Allegheny Tree(s): Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Original Tree: Aspen

Pronunciation: EH-yuh

Meaning: Hard work leads to success. Endurance, courage, and will. Bending rather than breaking, the ability to endure and triumph.

Ecology: The Tulip tree (also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or whitewood) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It can grow up to 160 feet tall, and often grows very straight in large stands in the region. Flowers, looking like beautiful yellow tulips, grow on the tree in May or early June, eventually turning to seedpods. Even in the winter, you can still see the remnants of the dried pod, reaching up from the tree.

Alternatives: The range of Tulip poplar stops in mid-new York and the bottom of Massachusetts. Other good options for those further north would be Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)

Eastern White Cedar – Ida

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis)

Original Tree: Yew

Pronunciation: EE-yoh

Meaning: Death and rebirth. Legacy. Things that abide (like ancestral knowledge, traditions, or lore). Wisdom from experience. Eldership and honoring the elders. Endings.

Ecology: The Eastern White Cedar, also called the Arborvite or the Tree of Life, is a small-sized conifer averaging about 40 feet high. Scale-like leaves form massive branches that go out in many directions. Eastern White Cedar trees are some of the most long-lived trees in North America; some trees on the cliffs of Lake Superior are known to be at least 1600 years old. Even in death, cedar lives on through rot resistance in the wood.

Alternatives: Eastern Redcedar / Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is an excellent alternative. Although it is also called a cedar, Juniper is actually in a different family.

The Forfedha

The Druid Grove – Koad

Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.

Original Tree: Grove

Pronunciation: KO-ud

Meaning: Resolution of conflict with others, peacemaking, and deep listening. Being a peacemaker and promoting a path of peace, justice, and understanding. Communication with others, particularly to promote understanding and harmony. Community and tribe.

Ecology: Forests are made up of thousands of species: trees, plants, insects, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, macrobiotics life—and within a forest, within a grove of sacred trees, there is harmony. This Ogham represents the grove, in whatever ecosystem you live in—this is harmony, community, and the circle of trees around you.

Black Cherry – Oir

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)

Original Tree: Spindle

Pronunciation: OR

Meaning: Fulfilling one’s obligations, honoring one’s commitments, and staying true to one’s word. The determination, dedication, and persistence sometimes needed to complete obligations.

Ecology: Cherry trees are widespread in North America, the black cherry spans from Florida the whole way to Newfoundland. Cherry trees are pioneer species, often rapidly growing after a forest has been disrupted. All cherries produce small “cherry” fruits, although the flavor of the cherry fruits vary widely, and thus, are usually eaten by birds. The cherry seed reminds us of the meaning here: cherry seeds have incredibly tough shells and require scarification to germinate (the surface scratched, perhaps by going through an animal’s digestive system). Determination is necessary for these seeds to sprout.

Sugar Maple – Uileand

Allegheny Tree(s): Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)

Original Tree: Honeysuckle

Pronunciation: ULL-enth

Meaning: Hidden desires, pleasures, and possibly distractions. Finding our true selves, and discovering insights along the path of our own growth. Subtle mysteries, secrets, and hidden things.

Ecology: Maples are widespread in North America, and since they are also planted for show, they are easy to find even in urban areas. The fall color of maples is fantastic, ranging from deep purples to bright reds, oranges, or yellows, which is why some maples are called ‘fire maples.’ Maples all produce a delicious sap that can be boiled down into syrup or sugar, although tapping trees and boiling it can take some effort. The maple encourages us to look within and find our true selves.

American Beech – Phagos

Allegheny Tree(s): American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Original Tree: Beech

Pronunciation: FAH-gus

Meaning: Wisdom, learning, history. Ancient knowledge, memory. Beech trees have long been associated with human learning, particularly through words, books, and stories written down.

Ecology: Smooth and light-barked beech trees are often found growing with Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar maple on rich and wet slopes here in the Alleghenies and represents a final stage in ecological succession. Beeches are shade tolerant but can also reach up to 115 tall. Throughout history, the smooth bark has invited humans to carve “arborglyphs” into the bark of the beech—some of these in North America date back to pre-colonial times.

Alternatives: Eastern Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is an excellent alternative.

White Pine – Ifin

Allegheny Tree(s): White Pine (Pinus strobus);

Original Tree: Pine

Pronunciation: EE-van

Meaning: Vision, awareness, perception. Self-work and shadow work. Guilt. Making amends, possibly after a long and bitter time.

Ecology: White Pine is a dominant species on the US east coast, spanning throughout the Appalachian regions and beyond. As the tallest tree in eastern North America, White Pines have been recorded up to 230 feet tall and they can live up to 500 years. Needles that are long, green and flexible, typically come grouped in bundles of 5. White pines were heavily logged in the US in the 18th-20th century for shipbuilding and industry, but still some old-growth forests that contain White Pine (and often also Hemlock and beech) remain. These are a spectacular sight, walking within them is truly like walking in a cathedral. White pine can live up to 500 years.

Alternatives: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

 

Using the Allegheny Ogham as a Bard, Ovate, and Druid

            Working with any Ogham system can be a long-term learning process. The Ogham is a flexible system that you can use for magic, divination, meditation, art, studies in ecology, and more. This section offers some ideas for how to best work with the Allegheny Ogham.

Preliminaries: Creating Your Ogham Set

Foraging for your Ogham Set. For long-term Ogham study and developing a deeper understanding of the ovate arts, you might want to seek out and forage for each of the Ogham fews that you are going to work with. While the symbols are useful, having the wood itself and meeting each of the trees can be a very effective way to work with the Ogham and understand it from the perspective of the ovate arts: that is, the perspective of ecology, identification, and experience.

Foraging for your own Ogham can take considerable time, sometimes a period of months or years, depending on how often you go out. Once you find a tree, you will want to spend some time with the tree. Ask permission to harvest a few from the tree (living or dead, your choice) and make sure you leave some kind of offering (I like to use a home-grown herbal blend. I also will pee on the base of the tree to offer nitrogen if I do not have any of my regular offering blend).

As you collect your Ogham, you can work with and meditate on each of the fews, doing some of the other work as outlined in this guide.

Ogham for dyslexics!

Ogham for dyslexics- with all of the words burned in.

Creating Your Own Ogham set: There are two ways to go about creating your Ogham set. The first is to use a single wood (maple, apple, etc) and create all of your fews from that wood. I recommend that if you want to get into the Ogham and start working with it immediately as a divination tool, you consider this option. You can also use this initial set as you are foraging for your own Ogham, as described above.

To make your set, you want to start by making sure that each of your fews are about the same length. A pair of hand pruners is an easy way to cut them to size. I would then recommend at least some light sanding to take the hard edges off of your Ogham staves. From there, you will want to burn in the images of each of the Ogham. The most common way is to take a sharp blade (knife, box cutter, or the like) and shave off an inch or so of the bark, cambium, and some of the wood so that you get a smooth surface. From there, you would draw, paint, or woodburn the specific Ogham symbol into the wood. If you have difficulty remembering the symbols (or you have dyslexia), you could also burn the name into the wood or add some other detail to help you, like an image of the leaf.

In this specific Ogham, Cattail and Blackberry are not trees, so they do not have a woody stem. For those, I would not cut away any of the branch structure but would rather mark the symbol right on the wood.

Storing your Ogham. You should have something to keep your Ogham in when you aren’t using them. Traditional materials include linen or silk, both of which are known in esoteric circles to be fairly neutral energetically. You can also store them in anything else you like—a small leather bag or small wooden box also works great. If you want to use a casting cloth, you can also store your cloth with them (or use the cloth as a wrap itself).

Ogham and the Druid Path: Divination, Meditation, and Magic

Ogham for Divination. Learning how to use the Ogham for divination is an art form—while its easy to get started, you can also deepen your understanding over a period of time. You can keep it simple or get very advanced with casting cloths and stave directions. Here are three such ways to start to use the Ogham. I would also recommend a book-length work for more info on using Ogham for divination such as Ogham: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie and the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

The Daily Draw. To start to use Ogham, and to continue to build your skills, I suggest a daily Ogham draw. This can be an Ogham few that offer you a message for today—something to reflect upon, meditate upon, and carry with you as you go forward in your day (or if you do it at night, as you rest and start your new day). Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, arriving at this moment and allowing other thoughts, feelings, and issues to retreat. Set your intention for your divination. Reach into your Ogham bag and feel for an Ogham few that speak to you. Pull that Ogham, and look at the meaning. Reflect on it for a few moments.

Three Rays Draw. The three rays draw has a number of different possibilities and interpretations. For this, you will be drawing three staves. The three staves can represent any of the following (choose in advance what you’d like them to represent)

  • Light aspect (right), Dark aspect (left), how to bring them into balance (center)
  • Current situation (left), suggested action (center), possible outcome if action is taken (right)
  • Mind (left), Body (center), Spirit (right)
  • To bring stability (left), to bring flow (right), to bring balance (center)

To engage in any of these draws, you will use the techniques described in the daily draw and draw three Ogham fews. Lay them out, look at their meanings, and meditate on the message.

Additional draws and options. Once you’ve done the above draws, you might want to get more elaborate in your divination. Many different methods exist for this. You can start by selecting a number of Ogham (three or seven) and then dropping them on a surface to see how they land. Pay attention to the interaction between them (e.g. are any of them touching? Which direction are they facing? How do they interact?) This gives you additional insights and experiences with the Ogham. Once you’ve practiced this a while, consider adding a casting cloth to your experience. A casting cloth allows you to “cast” any number of Ogham (I usually use 7) and where they land on the cloth, and in what direction, can help you interpret the meanings. You can create your own casting cloth or purchase one (there are a number of options out there, including some typically used for runes that will work great for Ogham).

Ogham for Meditation. A second way to use Ogham is to use it as a meditation tool. Meditation on the Ogham, their meanings, relationships, and associations can help you have a deeper understanding of what the Ogham means and their divination meanings. Meditation on the Ogham can also put you in a deeper connection with these trees and your local ecology. Here are three meditation strategies:

  • Energy meditation. The first meditation is one where you simply feel the energy of the Ogham few. Relax and get into a receptive space (with breathing, candles, quietude). From there, breathe deeply and allow the air to flow in and out of your lungs. Once you have found quiet within, turn your attention to one of the Ogham fews. See how it feels in your hand. Run your fingers over the bark. Engage it with your senses. Now, close your eyes and feel the energy of this Ogham few—is it welcoming? Cold? Strong?   Try picking up a second few and comparing the two. What is the difference?
  • Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation is a type of mediation based on focused thought. Prepare yourself for meditation by getting comfortable, engaging in deep breathing, and grounding yourself. When you are ready, focus on one of the Ogham fews (one you draw or select in advance). Consider the meaning of this few. Work your way through this meaning, allowing your thoughts to go where they would like as long as they continue to focus on the meaning. If you find yourself straying too far from the Ogham few itself, retrace your thoughts and focus back on the main theme—the Ogham few, meaning, and the tree itself. You can repeat this meditation for each few and work your way through them. I have found it useful to meditate on each one as I was learning, and then, about once a year, return to these meditations as my own experiences with the trees themselves and working with the Ogham deepened.
  • Journey Meditation. A final way you can use these Ogham for meditation is through spirit journeying. Journeying can allow you to meet the spirit of the trees and Ogham directly. Journeying, in this sense, involves meditating on the specific Ogham you wish to connect with, envisioning an inner grove where you can meet that tree, meeting that tree, and engaging in conversation, travel, or receiving teachings on the inner place from that tree. While it is out of the scope of this article to describe this in detail, I’ve written extensively on spirit journeying with plants in The Plant Spirit Oracle: Recipes, Meanings, and Journeys as well as on my blog (see: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/plant-spirit-communication-part-iii-spirit-journeying/ ).

Ogham for Chant Magic

A final way you can incorporate the Ogham into your druid practice is to use it for chanting.  This can be simple, simply chanting the Ogham itself so that you can bring that energy into your life.  Or, you can do something much more elaborate, like this Hemlock Galdr ritual!

Ogham and the Ovate Arts

As I described above under “preliminaries”, foraging for your own Ogham set and finding all of the 25 sacred trees is certainly a fantastic way to connect more deeply with nature and learn about these Ogham trees. That search, in itself, is a very powerful journey that allows one learn a variety of ovate skills: plant and tree identification, observation and interaction, getting out in nature, and communing with nature.

Beyond that work, I would also recommend seeking out places where these trees are dominant and doing some ritual work in these places. For example, some of the trees on this list, including Oak, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine, can be found in old-growth groves throughout the East Coast. Visiting some of these groves and doing a kind of Ovate pilgrimage to these places is an excellent way to commune deeply with them. Bring your Ogham set with you (if you have one) and intone the Ogham as you sit among these trees.

Planting and tending some of the 25 sacred trees is another way to practice the ovate arts. You can get most of these from the Arbor Day Foundation (if you are in the US). Consider also learning how to forage for these trees for medicine or food—ethically and sustainably, of course.

Finally, you might learn about these trees in more depth: what other plant species are associated with these trees? What insect, animal, or bird life depends on them? What is their life cycle? How do they look at different points of the year? The more you can learn about the trees on the physical plane, the more that your spiritual connection with them will deepen in time.

Ogham and the Bardic Arts

Beyond making your own Ogham set (which is certainly a very Bardic skill), you can learn about the Ogham and work with them in a number of ways, both the trees themselves and with the symbols and sounds themselves.

The Ogham can be an inspiration for you for the Bardic arts. You might consider how the Ogham might be developed into chants, music, dance, or song. Poetry, short stories, or other literary works would also lend themselves well to considering the Ogham. If you are a visual artist, you might work the symbolism of the Ogham into various artistic creations.

Another option here for the Bardic arts is to work with the woods and materials from these sacred trees. Tulip poplar, for example, allows you to make amazing bark baskets—if you find a Tulip tree that has recently fallen, you can harvest the bark and learn basketry. The cambium of this same tree is excellent for using as kindling for fire starting. The woods of many of these trees, including Cherry, Sassafras, Oak, and Beech, are excellent for woodworking (including woodburning, turning, carving, and more). Learning each of the trees by working their wood in a Bardic tradition allows you deeper insight into the trees themselves.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has inspired you to work with the Ogham or deepen your practice. Questions and comments about the guide can be posted to this page.  I welcome your comments, feedback, and thoughts!

Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

Making Acorn Ink – Instructions and Recipes

Acorn Ink! (Great color!)

Acorn ink, derived from the mighty oak tree, can be a wonderful addition to your druid practice or art studio.  Inks can be used for all manner of useful things, from drawing and artwork to the creation of sigils, writing in a druid’s journal, or engaging in other magical work.  In this post, I’ll share a method for making an acorn ink as well as a rust garden (that you can use to strengthen the color of this and other natural inks, like walnut).  I’m posting this now because I have found that acorns are best gathered for this not right after they drop, but after they’ve sat on the ground for some time (such as over the winter months).  This is a way for you to use acorns pretty much year-round, connect deeply to the energy of the oak tree, and localize your practice.

Ink making was once a common practice before the advent of commercial inks.  It was a sacred practice, for the arts of literacy and materials for drawing, writing, and painting were rare and hard to produce.  Toady, with the over-abundance of everything at the expense of nature, it’s wise to practice some of these older ways and reattune with the balance, wisdom, and joy of our ancestors. Ink making is actually quite simple and very rewarding and you will get colors that you can’t purchase commercially.  If you are interested in this topic, you might also want to check out my earlier post on berry inks.

The Magic of the Oak

Oak trees are special, particularly to those in the druid tradition.  The ancient druids did their rituals in groves of oaks. The ancient Irish considered the oak one of the seven sacred trees.  Many cultures around the world venerated oaks, which we can see from the use in military symbols and coats of arms throughout the world. The oak is a symbol of strength, persistence, courage, wisdom, and honor.

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns in the fall months

According to John Michael Greer’s Natural Magic Encyclopedia, Oak is “the preeminent tree of power in ancient symbolism” being of particular use to those who channel high levels of energy, for weather magic, and for earth magic.  Acorns themselves are symbols of fertility in ancient times to the present. In the Ogham, Oak is represented by the word “duir”.  In ancient Sanskrit, duir literally means “door”.  Oaks, then, are not just symbols of strength but doorways to many other things (the inner worlds, worlds of spirit, new journeys, etc). It is tied with the time of midsummer.  The oak has very strong wood and was often employed as the Yule Log (where the oak’s power would allow the light to return to the earth once again!) In the Hoodoo traditions, oaks is used to remove hexes or jinxes, usually through a wash.  Oak galls (which you can also make ink with, also using iron) are specifically used in the hoodoo tradition to lend power to any other working.  So you can see how having some oak ink might be a useful tool!  What better opportunity to honor the sacred oak than by making some high-quality ink that can be used for drawing purposes, spiritual journaling, or magical uses.

Making your Ink

Making acorn ink is simple and requires a few basic ingredients and tools

  • Acorns, older are better
  • Something to crush your acorns with (mortar and pestle, hammer and plastic bag, etc)
  • Vinegar (preferably rust garden vinegar, see below)
  • Water to cover acorns
  • Strainer

Gathering Acorns. I like to make acorn ink early in the spring.  The reasoning here is simple–you can easily find last fall’s acorns, and whatever is left, wasn’t a viable food source nor will sprout. So you are using the true “castaways” from the oak–probably acorns that had a few worms, etc.  I also find the ink is stronger if you are using older acorns.  As always, ask permission to gather and make sure to leave an offering in thanks.  To make about a cup of ink, you can gather 2 cups acorns (a cup of ink is a LOT of ink, just FYI!)

Gather up some old acorns

Crushing Acorns. After you’ve harvested your acorns, you will need to crush them.  If you have a large mortar and pestle, this works great.  You can also crush them easily by getting a thick plastic bag (like an old used feed bag) and using a hammer.  Or just crush them up on a large stone.  Make sure you save the small bits.  The more that you crush, the more effective extraction you will get.

Crush up acorns and add them to a small pot with water

Cover acorns with water. Barely cover your acorns with water, just enough to fully cover them in a small pan.  The more water you add, the less of an extraction you will have.  So go for a small pot and barely cover them.

Soak overnight.  Soak your acorns overnight if possible.  While you don’t have to soak overnight, the ink is stronger and more potent if you do.

Simmer. You will want to simmer your acorn mixture for a few hours.  It’s better to go long and slow than fast and quick.  As you boil, keep a good eye on the water level.  Early in my boiling, I might add a little water, but later on, especially in the last hour, I let the water boil off.  The more it boils off, the more high-quality ink you will have.

Simmering acorns

Strain.  Next, using a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth, strain your ink.

Acorn ink is finished boiling and ready to strain

Add Rust garden vinegar or regular vinegar.  If you take the time to make a rust garden (highly recommended, see next section), you can add a few tablespoons of rust garden vinegar (about 3 tbsp per cup of ink) to your mixture.  This darkens the color and helps preserve it.  If you aren’t going to make a rust garden, you still will want to add a tablespoon or two of vinegar to help preserve your ink.

Adding rust garden vinegar to the ink

Storage. You can store it in a mason jar with a lid.  I recommend keeping it in the fridge as it will last longer. You can keep it in the fridge for quite a while (several years).  It is likely that over time, it will develop some bluish mold.  Just get a strainer or a fork and remove the mold–the ink is still good.

Mold is a common occurrence with natural inks–just strain and keep using!

 

Optional: Making a Rust Garden

Making a rust garden is a way to improve the quality and color of your acorn ink (it also allows you to make oak gall ink and walnut ink; I’ll cover oak gall ink in an upcoming post). All that you need to start your rust garden are some rusty objects (like iron nails) and some vinegar (any kind will do).  Gather up your rusty objects and cover them in vinegar.  If you want to help speed it along, you can actually remove the objects, let them be exposed to oxygen for 24 hours, and then put them back in the vinegar vat.  I find this to be a little tedious, so instead, I just shake up my rust garden every once in a while and let time do the work. You can start your rust garden in a mason jar. As the items continue to rust, the rusty bits get suspended in vinegar, eventually creating a beautiful dark brown shade.  In a few months, you’ll have a very rusty, brown-black vinegar and it will be awesome for making natural inks!

Finding some rusty objects with Pythagoras the Rooster’s help!

Adding objects to vinegar in a jar

The completed rust garden! Look at all that rust!

However, this practice takes some time – at least 3-5 months–so keep that in mind.  You can always make the ink, then store it in the fridge while your rust garden “grows” and then return to it later (that’s what I did in creating the ink shared in this post).  Or you can start your rust garden now, and it will be ready for when this year’s batch of acorns drop in the fall.  Be aware here that over time, the jar lid itself will actually rust away–you can see that already happening to my jar here.  Thus, I recommend putting either a plastic lid on the jar or else a piece of plastic in between the lid and the jar can help preserve it over time (it will take a few years for the lid to rust away due to the corrosion of the vinegar).  Not that I have ANY experience with this happening, haha!

If you use some of your rust garden, you can just add more vinegar and keep letting it rust further.  Keep it on a shelf and then anytime you want to make natural inks like acorn, oak gall, or walnut, it will be ready for you!

Using your ink

Once you have your ink, it is ready to use!  Here are just a few possibilities for using your ink:

Acorn ink dyed leather pieces in progress…these will be bag flaps for leather pouches.

  • Pen and ink:  An old fashioned dip pen works great with this kind of ink, provided it is well strained.  You can use your ink on journals, magical sigils, drawings, and so much more.
  • Sigils and other magical work.  Consider saving this ink for a special purpose such as writing in your spiritual journal or making sigils.
  • Natural arts.  You can do a lot of interesting things with such high-quality ink: ink drawings, ink washes, and more.
  • Leather and Wood dye.  This ink will also dye a lot of surfaces (if you want to use it in this fashion, you’ll have to make large batches, which isn’t unreasonable in mast years when you can harvest abundant acorns).  I’m experimenting now with it as a leather stain and its been great!

I hope this post inspires you to try to make some of your own acorn ink!  I feel like acorn ink making is a great practice for the aspiring bard or druid!

 

PS: I hope you like the new look of the Druids Garden Blog!  I’ve been using the same theme for so long, I thought a change was necessary.  Blessings!

Forest Regeneration at the Druid’s Garden Homestead: Forest Hugelkultur, Replanting and More!

 

Red Elder – helping the forest recover

The property was almost perfect: in the right location, a natural spring as a water source, a small and nice house with a huge hearth, areas for chickens and gardens, a small pond and a stream bordering the edge of the property….pretty much everything was exactly what we hoped.  Except for one thing: right before selling the property, the previous owners did some logging for profit, taking out most of the mature overstory of trees on 3 of the 5 acres. This left the forest in a very damaged place: cut down trees, lots of smaller limbs and brush, often piled up more than 5-8 feet high in places. I remember when I went to look at the property and started walking the land and just saying, “Why would they do this?”  It hurt my heart. Could I live here, seeing what had so recently been done?  But I’ve always been led to such places as part of my spiritual path, particularly places that have been logged.

 

A continual theme of this blog is land healing.  In some recent posts,  I have been sharing some details about physical land healing: what to do, how to do it, what ecological succession is and how that matters and also why you might take up the path of the land healer as a spiritual practice. In today’s post, I’m going to put these pieces together and share a specific example from the forest regeneration work we are doing at the Druid’s Garden Homestead. In the last two years, we have been developing methods to help support the ecosystem and foster ecological succession. With careful choices, ecological succession can be done faster and more effectively, helping shift our land to a mature ecological sanctuary for life. This is by no means a complete project but does offer a glimpse into what we are doing, some of the choices we made, and hopefully, after some time passes, I can offer some updates!  The goal then is to offer you a model and ideas for work that you can do to heal in your own ecosystem from a physical land healing standpoint.

 

One of the questions that sometimes come up for people interested in land regeneration is this-if nature already knows how to heal herself, why would any person want to intervene? Why do the work of healing an ecosystem if nature can just do it herself on a slower scale?  Most of the answers to these questions I shared in my earlier post on land healing as a spiritual practice.  But I will share my reasoning for this specific piece of land: I feel the need to use things like permauclture to help the land regenerate because of the broader challenges we are facing environmentally and the importance of peacemaking with the spirits of the land.  Given our situation here, it would take anywhere from approximately 50-100 years for this land to fully heal.  But there is a question if it could ever fully heal due to the loss of certain woodland species from our immediate ecosystem–species that belong here like ramps, trillium, American ginseng, and more are not easily spread and may take hundreds of years to return, if at all.  Further, our intervention could provide faster healing of this land and could build critical ecosystems and create a sanctuary for life in a time when it’s definitely needed.  Our land here is a small patch of woods surrounded by many farmlands growing corn, soy, and cabbage.  We are our own refugia here, and so, bringing this land back into a healthy place ecologically means that this can be a better refuge for life and support more animal, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile and plant lives.  Also, by using the grove of renewal strategy (which I developed as part of this work), we can radiate this healing energy out to the broader landscape–where it is sorely needed.

 

Observing, Interacting, and Deep Listening

Observation and interaction led to the discovery of this choked out sassafras grove

Each landscape is unique.  If you are coming into a new land or working with land you’ve known for years, the first step is to observe, interact, and practice some deep listening. Observation and interaction are just as they sound–this is a principle from permauclture that says in order to work to regenerate land, you have to come at that work from a place of knowledge and wisdom.  In order to know that land, you need to study that land–observe the land in different seasons and in different times of day, interact with the land, be present there always, seeing what there is to see, and coming to know it deeply. Understand what is already growing there, if it’s native or opportunistic (I don’t like the word “invasive), who lives there, what the ecosystems surrounding your land look like, what pollution and other pressures there might be, and more.

 

With so much of our land subject to logging, we spent some time observing, interacting, and in connection with the spirits.  What did the land spirits want us to do? What could we do that would be respectful to the land, that would help and not hurt further?  The general sense we had was that to respond to this situation, we knew that there were places we were going to let nature heal in her own way, but there were also plenty of places that we could help heal faster by applying permaculture techniques. Observation and interaction is the physical component of this and deep listening is the spiritual component to this practice. But I also want to share here that observation, interaction, and deep listening is a continual process. As you work a piece of land, you will keep working with it. What the land may ask you to do changes as you complete earlier work.  So keep on listening, every chance you get. I’ll now consider each in turn.

 

Observation and Interaction: The Lay of the Land

Being on the land after moving in was honestly overwhelming. Much of the land was impassible due to the huge amounts of leftover treetops, branches, and brush. The loggers had just bulldozed brush into large piles, taking much of the forest floor with it.  The first thing we did, even to begin to observe and interact, was to re-establish paths by moving brush so we could walk and be present on the land. Since this was so-called “sustainable logging” what we ended up with was most of the largest trees being taken and a smattering of mature trees left–some oaks, hickories, maples and black cherries. Thus, we have some mature trees.  But many of the mature trees that find themselves exposed to wind are experiencing secondary loss, where they lose their crowns.  These trees grew up in a mature forest with close crowns, without the protection of other trees, they are very susceptible to wind damage.  This is one of the things we are observing now–losing a lot of the remaining crowns of the largest trees, which is very sad.  We also have a good understory of hickory, oak, sugar maple, cherry, and a bit of sassafras–these trees will eventually be our new overstory, I think, once the secondary loss of the larger trees concludes.

 

The amount of brush also made it harder for smaller trees to grow and come up in a healthy way, and the brush is covering the trunks of many of the existing trees that were not logged, creating wet spots that can cause the trees’ bark to rot.  The forest floor wasn’t very abundant–we weren’t seeing a lot of the plants that should be growing here, particularly woodland medicinal species.

A good example of the “clearing” work to do–if we don’t remove this brush, it will rot out the trunk of this mature tree. There are several black elder in here that can also use some room to expand and grow.

 

At present, after logging, the dominant plant that has grown up on our landscape is the Rubus allegheniensis, the common blackberry, native to this area of our land.  We now have large thickets of blackberry. We also have Devil’s walking stick, wild cherry, elderberry, spicebush, and beaked hazels growing up in very dense thickets.  We also have a lot of poison ivy, as it thrives on disturbance. These plants have quickly come into the spaces left by large trees to fill the void.  But if we want to support ecological succession, we’d work to plant and foster the hardwood trees as much as possible and help cultivate them towards adulthood along with supporting a rich understory of shrubs and woodland plants of more diversity than the opportunistic species that are present.

 

Our land is on the eastern side of a small mountain, so we get good morning/early afternoon light and get more shade in the evenings.  The soil is wet and fertile. The bottom of our property borders Penn Run, a stream that is clean and flowing where we live, but most, unfortunately, less than 1/4 mile from where we live downstream, we have acid mine drainage causing serious pollution. Thus, cultivating the health of our stream is of utmost concern as it fosters habitat that is degraded further down.

 

Deep Listening: The Will of the Spirits of the Land

The second part of this equation is deep listening. For generations, this land been the object of someone else’s desire–in the sense that whatever humans wanted to do to the land, they simply did, with no consideration of the will of the spirits of the land. As druids, we recognize that the land has agency–it has a voice, and we listen. Thus, part two of the observation and interaction is simply finding out what the spirits of the land want and desire–and following that will.  I really believe this is one of the most critical parts of land healing and any other spiritual work we do–and failing to do this part means we are no different than others who have come and did whatever they wanted.  For the last two years, we haven’t done much beyond our gardens, chicken coops, and infrastructure (fencing for garden, etc). We wanted to listen to what the spirits of the land wanted for the healing of the rest of the property, especially the forested sections.  Over time, a clear message emerged–certain areas to let “rewild” without any intervention and without any human interaction, while other places on the property places for spiritual activity, replanting, and active regeneration. The spirits gave us a map of the land and how they wanted us to proceed–and we listen.

 

 

Goals and Interventions

Most people who are working on conservation, permaculture design, forestry, and so on recommend developing clear goals that help you decide how to create a plan moving forward and make sure your actions align with that plan. I also think this is a really good idea. To replant our land and heal the forest, we started by identifying clear goals for our forested areas and for ourselves.  These goals include:

  1. Honor nature in our actions and in our intentions and work with nature as a partner in the regeneration process.
  2. Support ecological succession to help re-establish an overstory of hardwood nut trees and sugar maples in 3 acres of forest. This will include supporting a diverse ecosystem, modeled after old-growth ecosystems of the “Northern Hardwood Forest” type.
  3. Maximize habitat and food sources for wildlife and humans (including amble supplies of wild berries and nuts) focusing on perennial agriculture
  4. Establish a sanctuary for endangered woodland medicinal species in our 3 acres of forests in the understory (American ginseng, black cohosh, blue cohosh, trillium, bloodroot, ramps, etc, as established by the United Plant Savers)
  5. Designate “wild areas” (zone 5 areas, to use the term from permaculture design) that are untouched can regenerate in whatever direction spirits will.
  6. All human-focused and agriculturally-focused areas will be designed and enacted based on working with nature using permaculture design.  Human focused areas have the emphasis of people care, earth care, and fair share. Spiritual areas are designated for our grove and spiritual community.
  7. Learn how to support riparian and wetland ecosystems. We have a special emphasis on wetland areas and riparian zones, since our land contains both a small spring-fed pond and a clean stream.
  8. Learn how to use all of the materials on our land so that nothing is wasted. We have a lot of secondary tree loss right now, and we don’t want to add to the brush on the ground.  Thus, when a tree drops, we are doing our best to use it in some way, either for woodworking/arts/crafts, for natural building projects, or for firewood or hugels (see below).
  9. Build resiliency for ourselves, our domestic animals, and all life on our property.

 

These goals are evolving as time passes, but they represent our general desire to be good stewards of this land, allow for us to live here in harmony with life, and support more diversity of plant, bird, animal, and insect life.

 

 

Ecological Succession Support and Forest Restoration

The following are some of the main strategies we are using at present for regeneration.  We are still very much in the early stages here of this regeneration project, but we’ve got good momentum and are making progress!

 

Tree Replanting and Cultivation. We’ve been working to replant as much of the understory as possible so that we can establish, in time, a healthy and diverse overstory.  This included planting 25 American hybrid chestnut trees (blight resistant, 95% American chestnut genetics), to plant oaks and hickory nuts throughout the areas we could access, as well as establish a paw-paw understory.  There were very specific reasons for these choices: according to my own historical research, chestnut used to comprise about 30% of our forests here in PA and PawPaw were quite common.  The logging gave me a chance to try to establish a mature chestnut overstory in the long run. These trees are still small, but we are keeping them clear of brush and debris and doing our best to make sure they are established.

 

Forest Hugels cleared from the Sassafras grove area

Tree tending and thinning.  When there are dense thickets of small trees regrowing, only the strongest or fastest-growing will survive.  We have identified different patches of regrowing trees and are trying to cultivate those which will contribute most to a mature oak-hickory overstory and a wide diversity of trees.  One of the most recent projects was clearing the brush (through hugelkultur techniques, see below).  We cleared brush from a large patch of sassafras trees (the only on the property) and making sure they had room to grow. We have been thinning the dense thickets of the weakest trees to ensure more rapid growth, especially of the beaked hazels, which grow very, very quickly and can overpower our slower-growing hickories, oaks, and chestnuts.  This process of tending and thinning has created a lot of branch and pole material we can use for garden stakes and other spiritual building and crafting projects.  And doing some thinning like this helps tend the ecosystem. We never cut anything back without permission–and listen carefully to what the spirits of the land and forest ask.

 

Clearing brush and turning “waste” into a resource. Perhaps the most intensive of the work we are doing right now is clearing areas of the downed trees and brush.  As long as we have piles of 8′ brush, it makes it very hard to plant young trees, allow the small seedlings to grow, or replant the forest floor with woodland medicinals.  The brush has also been piled near living larger trees, which can create rot at the roots and cause more secondary tree loss.  We have selected several areas to target, being led by the spirits of the land, and have intentionally done minimal work in others, only enough to ensure that small seedlings aren’t trapped and that roots and trunks aren’t covered in downed wood debris. This involves primarily a lot of chainsaw work. We are using primarily battery-powered power tools and some hand tools; the battery-powered tools are charged by our solar panels, reducing our fossil fuel consumption.

 

We go into a brushy area where the brush is, and start clearing.  What we can take as firewood we will take as firewood. Its been two years since the logging, but because a lot of the wood is off the ground, we have a surprising amount of wood still to harvest for firewood.  For wood that is past firewood stage, we have been building forest hugelkultur beds (see next entry). Once the forest floor has the brush mostly clear, we can then plant other kinds of forest medicinals and plants.

 

Forest Hugels two months later as spring sets in

Forest Hugelkultur Beds. Hugelkultur, which basically means “mound culture” is an old-world technique popular in Germany that adds woody matter to create raised “mounds” that can be grown in.  This is a fantastic technique for us to employ here because we have an over-abundance of partially rotting wood and brush that we want to find a productive use for.  By making the hugelkultur beds, we take areas that are currently prevented from effectively regrowing due to the nature of the bush, clear the brush, and end up with a valuable resource–a new bed that we can plant. Most of ours hugels are in part-shade forest edges where we will plant shrubs and other shade-loving perennials to increase our capacity for food production for ourselves and wildlife: gooseberry, fiddlehead ferns, alpine strawberry, black and red currants, etc.

 

To build a hugel, you decide your location.  You can also decide at this point if you want to sink it into the ground (like a traditional garden bed where you’d dig down) or put it on top of the ground. We are doing above ground hugels primarily because our ground is so rocky and digging it out is almost impossible.  Once you have your location, you start with the largest pieces of wood and begin making a very dense pile of wood the size you want your bed to be (at least a few feet long and a few feet wide, realistically).  As you pile them up, usually to 3-4′ tall, you vary the thickness of the wood, such that the thickest wood should be on the bottom and inside the middle, and thinner sticks, etc, should be on the outside.  After you have your pile, you can add whatever other organic matter you have around–we clean out our chicken/guinea, duck, and goose coops regularly and are using all the straw bedding as another layer.  Stuff that material into any of the holes between the logs.  Finally, we top it with more layers of organic matter (leaves, compost, etc) and top it off with at least 4″ of finished compost.  The final layer is a layer of straw.  These layers, we allow to “season” for at least six months to a year.  By the second year, the hugels have settled enough that you can patch any holes with additional compost and then plant right in them.  Each year, as they season more and more, they grow more abundant.  We have some hugels we did dig down and create as part of our medicinal herb garden and they are incredibly productive and resilient after only two years! The goal here is that the hugels will edge our deeper parts of our forest and provide abundant food and forage for wildlife and humans.

 

I will also say that this kind of hugel building work in the way we are doing it is dark half of the year work.  If you clear in the winter, you don’t disrupt the soil or perennials that are going to come up in the summer months.  For us here, we can do this work from Samhain to somewhere close to Beltane–then we shift our emphasis on other things for the summer months and come back to clearing and hugelkultur work in the winter months.

 

Mayapple in a regenerating portion of the land

Seed scattering and re-establishing forest medicinal species.  We are working to model our regenerated forest after what an old-growth forest would have looked like, as our goals above suggest.  Thus, we have been replanting many lost forest medicinal and keystone woodland species that are native to our area.  This includes scattering about 1000 ramp seeds, planting over 50 American ginseng roots and planting more wild ginseng seeds, bringing in bloodroot, black cohosh, trout lily and other plants that are adapted particularly for our damp hillside.  We are still pretty early in this process (we have to get the downed wood brush cleared first) but are making good progress and have already scattered and planting the ginseng and ramps.

 

Overstory management.  As I mentioned above,  one of the saddest things happening now deal with the loss of the remaining trees still standing in the forest–we are observing these trees and seeing how many of them can make it. But we also recognize the value of standing dead timber, and since we have a nice woodpecker community (at least four different species, including the rarer Pileated Woodpecker), we are leaving all of the standing dead timber that is safe to leave–which thankfully, is nearly all of it.  For some trees, however, particularly those that may be in a place that if they dropped would cause damage to other trees or the house/structures, we are dropping them and using them for natural building, firewood, and other projects.

What about the inner/energetic work?

Reading all of this, you might notice that I’ve primarily talked about physical regeneration in today’s post.  Yes, I have.  As you might recall from my earlier work, I really see land healing as both inner and outer work.  Because I have the power to do something physical, I think its really important that those things are done.  On the spiritual side, I’m working on the grove of renewal here on the land as well as ongoing land blessing and land healing work.  While we do the physical work, the energetic work is always present.  The two work together, and each strengthens the other.

 

Conclusion

Whew!  That’s a lot going on at the Druid’s Garden homestead.  Its good work to do, especially now with the pandemic. We don’t want to leave the land much, so we are turning in earnest to our projects here that will help regenerate and heal this beautiful landscape.  I’ll work to provide periodic updates on these projects and how they are going.  In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a nice spring and thinking about their own healing projects.  I would love to hear what things you are working on or the plans you have!

Spirital Lessons of Ecological Succession for the Pandemic: Healing the Land, Healing the Soul

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

Ecological succession is nature’s approach to healing.  From bare rock, ecological succession allows forests to eventually grow.  Ecological succession has much to teach us as a powerful lesson from nature, and it is a particularly useful thing to meditate upon during the pandemic.  As we can look to how nature heals, it offers us guidance and stability during this challenging time.  Thus, today’s post introduces the idea of ecological succession and how these lessons can be helpful to us as spiritual lessons for thought and reflection. This post is part of my land healing series.  For earlier posts, you can see a framework for land healing, land healing as a spiritual practice, a ritual for putting the land to sleep, and a primer for physical land healing.

 

Ecological Succession

Because nature works on larger time scales, its not always obvious that nature is engaging in healing and transformative work in every moment, all across the land.  We are seeing this even with the shifts in human behavior during the pandemic: sea turtles coming up to lay eggs on abandoned beaches, air pollution levels going down, oceans and waterways clearing.  These processes are part of nature’s great power, much of which is driven by the process of ecological succession.

 

All of nature works towards “ecological succession”, a process by which an entire ecosystem changes and grows, eventually reaching something called a climax community. Climax communities are stable ecosystems that have a diversity of species, nutritional and energy balance, tolerant of environmental conditions, the kinds of species are stable and do not change.  This ecosystem thus is diverse, tolerant of diverse climate conditions, and abundant.  Climax communities obviously look very different in different ecosystems, bioregions, and parts of the world.  A tropical rainforest is one kind of climax ecosystem,  as are boreal forests, tundras, deserts, and more.  You can find these by visiting parks that have old-growth forests or other longstanding natural features.

 

Example of primary succession: lichen and moss-covered lava flows in Iceland.

Primary Succession. To start from the very beginning, in what is called primary succession, we might have bare rock with no soil, such as those situations left by the retreat of glaciers, lava formation, recently-formed sand dunes, or even boney dumps from old mining sites like we have around here.  So we start with bare rock–and rock itself, while it is part of soil, is not soil and does not contain organic matter that plants need to grow.  So ecological succession begins with the lichens who slowly break down the rocks and helps form soil.  This process can take a very, very, very long time (centuries or millennia). Once we have soil, we have small annual plants and lichens, giving way to perennial grasses and flowers.  At this point, our bare rock has turned into a field and the more that grows, the more organic matter is produced, allowing for a richer organic basis for larger plant life. Most of this kind of ecological succession was done in the time of our ancient ancestors, and so we usually start with the point where we have soil, perhaps a lawn of grass, or like our opening example suggested, an empty field that has been over-farmed.

 

Secondary Succession.  Once the soil is established, this is where we get into the second kind of ecological succession:  secondary succession.  Secondary succession is what has happened in the example I shared above – a forest was removed for farmland, and now the farmland is ready to return to forest. Secondary succession is typically what you are dealing with as a land healer, as the scale for this can be within one’s lifetime and we can see nature’s regrowth even in a few short weeks or months.

 

To explore this process, we might consider what would happen if a person stopped mowing their lawn. If this person lived along most of the Northeast part of the US, ecological succession would eventually move that lawn to a Northern Hardwood Forest, the pinnacle ecosystem in this region. Immediately, the grasses would grow tall along with any other plant life currently inhabiting the lawn, like ground ivy, docks, plantain, dandelion—most of these “pioneer” species are well adapted for growing in disrupted ecosystems. Within the first few years, we’d see seedlings from shrubs and trees that are shade intolerant wold take root (red maple, black birch), spread by the wind, birds, and animals. We’d likely see autumn olive (which spreads quickly), birch, aspen, staghorn sumac, and lots of blackberry, raspberry, and other rhubus species moving in.  For a long time, this lawn would be a field populated by sun-loving annual and perennial plants, but with each year, the trees and shrubs would get taller.  As these plants started producing seeds, berries, and foliage, animals, including larger animals, would return as there would be food for them to eat.

 

If you were walking through this piece of land when it was a wild field in mid-succession, you might not realize the rich history of the land before you. You might also not realize the powerful, yet quiet process you are witnessing as the land returns to its most abundant state. Ecological succession and forest healing is a long process, well outside the human lifespan. Yet nature’s healing is there, we only need to know what to look for.  If you returned to this place again and again and perhaps scattered some seeds and popped some acorns and walnuts in the ground, you’d see this transformation over a period of years would learn a lot about how nature heals.  You’d also find spiritual healing for yourself in this place.

 

Eventually, those tree seedlings in the field would start to grow tall, discouraging full sun perennials and grasses and shifting to part shade as the trees filled out their crowns. Within 50 years, depending on local conditions, the tree canopy would cover the entire area, allowing the soil to retain water and cooling the temperature on the ground.  Woodland, shade adapted species would then dominate the forest floor.

Forest regeneration

 

Within about 150 years, the canopy would change from short growing trees (maples, birches, cherries) to longer-growing trees (oaks, hickories, walnuts, butternuts, maybe even chestnuts), as smaller trees wait underneath the forest canopy for a break in the canopy.  offering more long-lived hardwoods, and reach the end of ecological succession—the climax community of oak, hickory, and other hardwoods with a rich and diverse understory (pawpaw, hawthorn, serviceberry, sassafras, spicebush, etc). Thus, it is not a single species that cause ecological succession, but rather, an entire community of species working together in an interconnected web of life–one coming after another, until we the forest once again reaches the climax ecosystem.

 

Where I live, the only places that are at their climax are ones under some kind of permanent and long-term protection: state parks, conservation areas, or other protected lands.  If you enter these places, you’ll, of course, notice the energy first: they are calm, restful, very vitalizing places to return to again and again.  They are vibrant, alive, and functioning at their peak.  Everything in the ecosystem is cycled in perfect balance.

Spiritual Lessons of Ecological Succession

Ecological succession is nature’s primary driving force for healing the land and ecosystems. It’s a powerful process that has shaped this land again and again.  Thus, I think it is a critically useful thing to understand, interact with, and meditate upon.  It offers us numerous lessons, some of which I will share here (with many others ready to discover).  I also think these lessons are particularly relevant and valuable to us during the time of the pandemic when so much disruption is at play.

 

Disruption is a natural part of life. That nature is so good at adapting, healing, and ecological succession suggests that disruption is part of life here on earth.  It is part of the life of a forest as much as it is a part of the life of a human. If we apply this same issue to our own lives, we may have minor disruptions (selective logging) or major disruptions (lava, forest fires, etc). These disruptions cannot heal overnight, but we will heal.

 

This is a particularly valuable lesson for us right now. Most of us are experiencing a major disruption in our lives–on a cultural scale, probably the largest we have ever seen.  Nobody knows what the new normal will be or how long the disruption will last.  But this lesson from nature is clear–disruption is a powerful opportunity for new growth.

 

Healing Begins immediately. As soon as the disruption ends, healing begins immediately.  If you’ve ever been to a fire-dependent ecosystem, within 1-2 weeks of the end of the fire (or after the first good rain), you’ll see tiny little seeds sprouting and plants coming to life.  This, too, is part of nature’s healing process.  It will take time for the ecosystem to return to the state before disruption, but it will. Having faith in that process is the start of the healing process.  Perhaps our own healing has already started, and we don’t even know it!

 

Healing takes time Nature reminds us that healing takes the time it is going to take, and there is no rushing the process.  From lava to mature forest could take 1000 years or more.  When I visited Iceland last summer, we saw the lichen-encrusted lava fields, looking like piles of green.  Some of them had names tied to historical events in the middle ages or before–some of them were thousands of years old, and due to Iceland’s extreme climate, it would take a few thousand more years for anything else to grow. This was nature’s healing on an epic timescale.  Even in more temperate climates, of we start with bare soil such as a construction site or farmed field, nature’s full healing may not take place for 250 years. While human time is obviously different in scale, we can use this lesson of nature to realize–and accept–the healing process.

 

Perhaps we are all feeling like there is a lot of bare soil, scorched earth, here in our own inner and cultural landscapes now.  But just like that lichen, nature will heal–and as we are part of nature, we will also heal in time.  And that healing is ongoing, subconsciously, whether or not we can see it.

 

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Look to the lichen for Slow and Steady Healing. Nature reminds us through the lesson of ecological succession that healing can happen in quiet, small ways.  Lichens are one step in complexity above algae, quite simple in their structure, and yet, they have a tremendously important role in our ecosystem in offering the first building blocks of life.  This is a reminder to us that it’s not just the “big” things we do, but the small, invisible, and quiet practices that can make a difference.

During this time, perhaps that means attending to our spiritual practices and things like daily interaction with nature, daily meditation, spending time just being with ourselves, spending time with our creative practices.  Its the small, gradual things that have the biggest difference in time.

 

Communities matter. Ecological succession is a wide variety of species working together for the same goal.  We heal better when supported and surrounded by others who are also healing, and also working towards our healing.  Nature teaches us that we aren’t meant to do this work alone.  This is, perhaps, a hard lesson during the pandemic when communities are the very things that are no longer as present in our lives.  But although we are isolated physically, we are still all together in this. And being supportive of each other, hearing each other, and growing together will get us through.

 

Healing is dynamic.  Just as different plants fill ecological roles and are replaced by others as the ecosystem heals, we might apply this same concept to our own healing.  At first, we need the pioneer species–those plants to come in quickly, cover up bare soil, and help get healing going.  But as time passes, what we need changes as we process, understand, and move through our challenges.  This suggests that healing is a dynamic and mutable process for us–and being aware of that will help us from getting in a rut.

 

In the pandemic, many of us are finding that our typical practices for healing aren’t always working–requiring us to shift directions.  I’ve been speaking with many others who have firmly established bardic arts/creative practices, and they are having a hard time engaging in them–but they are finding other things that work. I know that is true of me. In honoring the dynamic nature of healing, some of the things I usually do to ground and heal have to be set temporarily aside as I explore things that help me in this moment. Healing is dynamic, and what we might need changes.

 

All heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle – time for some healing!

Conclusion

 Nature is our ultimate teacher, and I think she has a lot to teach about the ways in which ecological succession can heal us as participants in this larger web of life.  By meditating on, understanding, and engaging with nature’s primary healing process, we can help make a difference in the lands around us and in our own lives during this challenging time.  Once I’m back to blogging, I’ll share a very practical application and example, showing how we at the Druid’s Garden Homestead are working with nature to support and speed up ecological succession after logging.

 

Finally, like many, I’m struggling with focus during this time. This is affecting my writing practice and I’m having a lot of difficulties getting my regular blog posts out. I always take a blog break in mid-May each year, but I’m going to take my blog break now for a few weeks. My plan is to be back in 3-4 weeks with regular content.  Thank you for understanding and supporting the Druid’s Garden blog! 🙂

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.