The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

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

 

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

 

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

Choosing Your Material

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Distillation Process

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

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

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

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

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

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

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

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

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

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

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

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

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

The full system

The full system

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

 

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

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

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

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

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

 

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

 

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

 

Building Local Knowledge

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

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

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

 

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

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

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

 

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

 

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

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

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

 

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

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

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

 

Wild Food Profile: Eat Your Hostas! May 1, 2018

Often, when you are interested in unusual and wild foods, a season for a delectable treat may only last for a few short days or weeks. A fun early spring food that is usually popping up around or before Beltane in temperate parts of North America is the hosta. Yes, you heard me–that large leafy green plant that most only consider a deer resistant ornamental. This plant is a favorite of typical landscapers; it seems to show up in nearly every suburban and urban yard. Because I like finding ways to turn typical lawns into more healthy ecosystems that create habitat, food, and joy and that “stacks functions” in permaculture terms, learning to do something with these “typical” lawn plants is a great idea. And so, hostas are a wonderful food this time of year to harvest when they are still in “shoot” form. They are quite good–have a taste that is slightly bitter, and somewhat like lettuce. Hostas been enjoyed around the world, particlarly in Japan (they also understand and eat Burdock regularly; burdock is another great spring food!) The Japanese call hosta “Urui” and eat them raw or stir fried, often with soy sauce (which is a great way to eat them).

 

In this post, I’ll walk you through how to harvest and enjoy this springtime treat!

 

The Gargoyle says, "time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!"

The Gargoyle says, “time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!”

 

Like many vegetables, the younger the plant, the more tender the vegetable. This is true of hostas–I am harvesting them after they have been coming up about a week–you can continue to harvest patches that are larger than this (although at some point, you’d switch to boiling them rather than frying them). Even larger and older hosta leaves can be treated like spinach and boiled and used in a variety of ways. But I like these tender shoots the best. This size to a bit larger (3″ – 6″) is a really good size for tasty and tender eating.

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

I have about six hosta plants at the new property, so I harvested 3-4 shoots from each plant.  According to other hosta connseours online,  you can harvest up to half the leaves without compromising the health of the plant. But I’m happy with a meal or two and enjoying the beauty of the plant for the rest of the season.

Success--shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

Success–shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

The pinkish part of the hosta that is the outer layer of the shoot as they come up is more bitter than the rest of the plant (which has only slight bitterness), so you will want to remove the outer 1-2 layers on the bottom for the young shoots. In the case of my photo below, I’m removing the two bottom pinkish layers.

Preparing the hostas.

Preparing the hostas.

Once you have your layers removed, it is time to cook them!

Ready to cook!

Ready to cook!

There are lots of ways to prepare some hostas. The simpleist way to prepare them is what I do for a lot of wild foods and mushrooms–fry them in butter and add a bit of salt and garlic.  A cast iron skillet works beautifully for this.  A good alternative is to fry them in sesame oil and add a bit of soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a pinch of brown sugar.

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Pan fry them for 3-5 minutes until they turn a darker color. Again, the younger they are, the more tender they are and the less they need cooked.  Ones this young can easily be eaten raw, but I like them better this way.

Nearly done!

Nearly done!

They make an excellent side or main dish. Here’s to many springtime foragable foods!

Delicious!

Delicious!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

About the Elder Tree

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

 

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

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicine of the Elder

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

 

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

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

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

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

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

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

 

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

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

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

 

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

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Relationship and Magic

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

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Tree Alchemy

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

 

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

 

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

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

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

 

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

 

Energy Exchange

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

 

American Tree Magic

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

 

Diary of a Land Healer: February February 18, 2018

A tranquil February morning

A tranquil February morning

February is here, and it is is all about flow. With the accellerating pace of climate change, February becoming is the new March–the most dynamic, engaging, extreme of the months of the year. February is a month of transition. Its a month where the ebb and flow of water, snow, rain and ice are ever present and ever changing. It is a month where the weather apologizes to no one: it is simply raw, powerful, unchecked. Just this past week here in Western Pennsylvania, we had a 60 degree day where the maple sap was flowing, then we had two days of solid rain that caused major floods in the region, and then yesterday it was a very cold day with 3” of snow overnight with a low of 15 degrees. In fact, late winter often has this kind of dynamism rarely found in other times of year. Each day in late winter is a radically different: a different mood, a different temperature, different visuals, different water levels, a complete different experience. The message is simple: adaptability, change, growth, and flow are required of us now. And with this message comes the challenge of managing our own adaptability, emotions, and the change that swirls around us.

 

This post is part of my “Diary of a land healer” series; once-a-month documentation of the healing process of the land here, where I live, for 2018. I offer photos, thoughts, and lessons from this landscape as it heals and regenerates as well as insights I have  as I watch this process unfold. You can read my first entry in this series from January here, and a large number of earlier posts on land healing here.

 

Flowing of the Land

These freezing and thawing cycles have encouraged many different kinds of flows upon the land. One such pattern of flow is from the trees themselves.  Everyone knows of the famous sugar maple with her flowing sap that can be transformed into delicious syrup. However, Maple trees aren’t the only trees to have sap running in their inner cambium this time of year–most trees have flowing of sap, but only certain trees have a high enough sugar content to make tapping them for producing syrup worthwhile. We think this time of year, everything is still under the snow, but a single warm day enocurages the rise of sap up from the roots and into the branches.  These trees well up with pure telluric energy–the sap comes up from the roots, deep within the earth, and into the branches and trunk. The water that flows from many trees–Sycamore, Maple, Birch, Hickory, Walnut, Butternut–is delicious to drink and offers a vitalizing quality that I have only found in fresh spring water right from the mountainside.

 

Flowing of the sap...

Flowing of the sap…

At Imbolc, I made offerings, spoke with the trees, and tapped six of them who gave me permission.  Since that time, each day the weather is warm enough and the sap is running, I have visited the maples and have drank right from the tree, bringing in the vitalizing nywfre (a druid’s term for life force/vitalizing energy) into my body as a  rejuvenating practice. It is incredible–fresh, cold, pure, and putting a spring in my step that is hard to otherwise describe.

 

This same powerful life force, this Nwyfre, will eventually will spark the new beginnings of all of the life upon this landscape.  Nywfre is the spark of life, the magic present in the land that allows healing to take place–the trees just start that process when the rest of the plants and roots are still waiting for the sun to return.

 

Of course, the excess sap will be put to good use as my friends and I boil it down to make syrup, a fine activity on a warm February day!

 

Flowing of the Stream

Penn Run in stillness

Penn Run in stillness

Flow is happening in so many other ways on this beautiful landscape. Given the dynamic nature of the flows of Feburary, I have been paying attention to the stream, Penn Run, which flows behind my house at the bottom of my property. The ebb and flow of the waters come anew with each new day. Its amazing how a single day of rain, ice, or snow transforms the whole landscape and the whole edge of the creek. Just two days before, as is my regular custom, I put on my muck boots and waded across the tranquil stream, enjoying the peace that it offered. But as the flood waters raged and the stream was several feet above its normal height, I stood respectfully from the shore and honored the power of flowing water on this brisk February day.

 

The floods this week were potent and powerful. If we had this precipitation even 10 or 20 years ago, we would have had 2 or more feet of snow, but because it has been so much warmer in February in the last few years, the snow has become rain, sleet, and ice. This is a change I am sad to have to adapt to, for it warns me of further changes to come.

 

Earlier this week,  the nearby town of Indiana, PA, where a number of my local friends live, so many have been sharing photos and stories of flooded basements and posting messages alterting people to the height and flood status of Mill Run, the stream frequently floods and that runs through heart of the town. I am thankful right now that my house is at the top of a hill and the Penn Run creek is at the bottom. This is an important lesson: planting ourselves carefully in relationship to nature. If we haven’t done that—these floods bring terror and sleeplessness.

 

In our quest as humans to do whatever we want, to dominate nature, to tame her, we forget that in the end, when nature wants something, she takes it. As I stood earlier this week looking at the swollen and flooded stream,  and heard stories of flooded and frozen basements, I’m glad to know that I’ve chosen to live somewhere where the path of an angry stream does not impact whether or not I have a home the next day.

 

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Its amazing how much of our lives and lands depend on cycles of things that are somewhat unpredictable. Like this weather.  We know that floods will come, but we don’t know when.  In less than 12 hours, the stream went from a children’s wading pool to the point where a whitewater kayaker would have a very good time. We think about the time between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox as a time of renewal and healing. Yet healing is characterized by this stream, the turbulence and raw force of it.

 

The Flowing of Emotion

The powerful transition of the stream from tranquil to flooded resonates deeply with me on an emotional level, and asks me to recognize the power of currents of deep emotion. We often go through our lives like that tranquil stream, peaceful, quite, serene, going to work and coming home, being in the regular rhythm of our lives. And suddenly, out of nowhere, something intense happens: a terrible loss, a tragedy, or an unexpected event that rattles us to the core. And that one thing sets us off on on this raging journey of turbulent emotion.

 

 

Part of that time of healing and renewal is not denying what is inside, but embracing it and saying “I’m going to deal with this right now. I am going to let these emotions flow. I am going to let all of this wash away.”  Water breaks away all that is false, all that is damaged, all that says to us “I can’t…”  A good friend of mine, on the same day this creek was flooding, talked to me about a relationship that she cared deeply about and that was sadly ending. She spoke to me of all of these emotions that were inside of her and shew as afraid to experience. I told her she needed to be like this river, to let it flood, and let it flow.  She did so, and the healing, the release, was powerful.

 

Flowing spring upon the land...

Flowing spring upon the land…

Yet, in the same way that physical floods can bring terror to those who have planted themselves on flood plains, so too, can these deep emotions bring terror. It is scary to watch the rage of incredible emotions flowing through you–or another–like this frothing creek. It’ss particularly terrifying to experience these kinds of emotions if you don’t know how to navigate such a strong current. The current threatens to take you down, pull you under.  And sometimes it can. But, if you have learned how to kayak and you have a worthy vessel or some other way of navigating it, it can be a tremendously beneficial experience for your life.

 

Because when the stream returns to normal, the banks are different. Everything is clear. Debris and detrius is gone, washed away, or buried under sand and silt to become fertile ground.  These floods are exactly nature’s process for renewing the landscape and bringing in fertility. Just as the physical stream has to flood, we too have to be in that flooded, turbulent space for a time if we are going to be renewed. And if we can do this, can gain the benefits of the rich soil, the healing, and the joy that comes in those later summer months as the flood waters recede and land is born anew.

 

But what I worry about, both for the land and humans, is when we dam them up. We know what dams do to ecosystem. And similarly, we know what daming up emotions do to our souls.

 

 

Renewal, in nature’s way, is not a clean process. It is not an easy process. It’s a process of thawing and releasing, of ice and slosh, its rain and ice and snow.  It is a process of unexpected floods rebuilding nutrients along the shore. It’ss hard work. And the land here, in this beautiful February time, reminds us of this powerful lesson.

 

Flowing Anticipation

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

All across this land, I can see the buds on the trees singing, saying “we are almost ready.”

I can see the maples flowing and drink the sap water every day to rejuvenate myself.  The maples wave their branches, getting redy to bud, and say “it is nearly time.”

I can see the land starting to green again, even the ferns left on the forest floor start to wake up and say “it is almost here.”

 

Before we can look to the promise of spring, we have to deal with late winter’s flows of intensity upon the land. These floods are the floods of renewal. We can’t stop them. We just simply have to learn to adapt and do the hard work of renewal.

 

A Druid’s Meditation Primer February 11, 2018

In this time as the light is coming back into the world, the time surrounding Imbolc, I find myself often going deeply inward for healing and strength and turning towards meditation as a guide for spiritual balance.  This deep winter period is, of course, coming on the heels of the frenzied holiday season where many of us get burned out by the amount of hustle and bustle.  Further, many of the demands of modern living, particularly for those working wage-earning jobs, require us to move faster, be always “connected” and present with new technology, and have an increasingly fast stream of information pouring in and out of our heads. This can lead to long-term drain on the spirit. In this quiet time of the year, amidst the snows and frozen earth, various meditation techniques allow for rest, centering, and rejuvenation.

 

The quiet that nature provides...

The quiet that nature provides…

Meditation offers us a quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of normal life—a sacred moment, a moment that gives us peace and allows us to be only within our own minds. And yet,  I think that “meditation” for a lot of people raises up images of sitting cross legged ohm-ing or doing deep breathwork (the kind of meditation you might see on TV or find in a Yoga class). These forms of meditation are certainly effective, but represent only a small number of possibilities, and may not be as useful or practical to those who are on a druid path and seeking to connect deeply with nature. Particularly for those walking a nature-based spiritual path, other meditative forms might be more effective and connecting.  I would like to explore some of those today.

 

Three Outcomes of Meditation

Its always interesting to talk with a spiritual practitioner of another path. I have several good friends who have deep Yoga, Zen, and mindfulness practices, and when we talk about daily spiritual life, we find a lot of similarity–but also a lot of difference. In conversations with these friends, I have realized how important it is not to assume the word “meditation’ carries the same meaning, and to talk instead about the specific practices that we do. I have come to understand that  meditation is not a single technique but a wide range of techniques that work on the relationship between mind, body, and spirit and that offer spiritual benefit. These goals of meditation can manifest in at least three ways:

 

Clearing Meditation: Some forms of meditation encourage us to disconnect from the troubles and everyday grit of living–to facilitate peace, calm, tranquility. In eastern meditation, we might have “empty mind” kinds of meditation, where the goal is simply to clear one’s mind for a period of time or practice 30 or 45 minutes of quietude a few times a day. In druid and western meditation techniques, this might be when we practice a “fourfold breath” technique at the beginning of a meditation session to simply clear out what was there. Other forms may connect us to universal energies or our higher self. These goals are very “up and out” kinds of goals, and can certainly be useful and spiritually enriching. I also think these kinds of goals are really useful for distressing and finding ourselves again after busy life circumstances–the kinds of meditation that offer us real health benefits and stability.

 

Connection Meditation. Other kinds of meditation practices ask us to work to be fully present with the moment. I see mindfulness practices from Eastern tradition as a great example of this as well as the practices of nature observation, walking meditation, and other goals that connect us deeply with nature. In this broader goal then, the point of the meditation seems opposite of the first–it isn’t to help us clear and get us out of a present reality, but rather, put is in touch with one.

 

Focus Meditation. A final goal for some types of meditation is the goal of focus. I see this goal really clearly in the use of discursive meditation, where the goal of discursive meditation is to help direct thoughts and lead to deep insight. A second meditation where this happens is shamanic trance and journey work, where inner journeys are facilitated by a particular receptive–and yet focused–state of mind.

 

Reconnecting with the land

Reconnecting with the land

Breaking meditation into these three categories has helped me with my own meditation practice, and it has certainly also helped me teach these techniques to others and explain the benefits.  If you simply want to “meditate every day” as many druid and esoteric traditions suggest, you have to figure out what you’d like to get out of the meditation so that you can use appropriate techniques. If you use only one form of meditation always, you are getting a particular benefit but may not be getting the full range of benefits that different styles of meditation provides. You can also combine meditation styles (starting with a clearing meditation and moving into a focus meditation, for example) for maximum benefit.  So now that we have some sense of the goals of meditation, I’m going to share some meditative techniques that can be helpful for us to achieve them, specifically from a druid-based framework.

 

Preliminaries: Posture and Breathwork

Before you begin any kind of meditation, priming the body and mind for the meditation is necessary. This priming includes posture and breathwork.

Posture: Many meditation techniques suggest a particular posture (sitting in a straight-backed chair with the spine upright, sitting cross legged on the ground on a small pillow to elevate the spine, standing comfortably, laying flat on a hardwood floor with a yoga mat underneath, and so on). I have two thoughts on this subject.  First, because different meditation techniques have different outcomes, the position of the body may need to be different for these.  For deep journey work, for example, my preferred posture is laying on the ground on a yoga mat.  For a simple 10 minute clearing meditation, I’d prefer to sit cross legged outside on a stump or on the ground in front of a candle. So as you think about the roles and goals of your meditation, different postures may be helpful.

 

Another consideration is that some bodies do not do well with certain postures.  For example, some people are very comfortable sitting in straight-backed chairs or standing for long periods of time, while other bodies may hurt after only a few minutes of this practice.  While there is a body element to meditation, in that you can train your body, just as you train your mind, you can also be aware of what your body’s limits are.  Early on, for me, trying to maintain a rigid pose when my body doesn’t want to do that led me to frustration and shorter meditations.  When is tarted laying down and using a yoga mat, I was able to gain tremendous benefits without body sensitivity.

 

Breathwork is used in nearly all meditation styles, and styles of meditation connected with druidry is no exception.

  • Three Deep Breaths: Three deep breaths is a technique taught by OBOD and used at the start of many OBOD ceremonies.  It is a very simple clearing meditation technique where you take three deep breaths, typically tied to the elements of earth, sea, and sky.  So you can simply stand and take a deep breath with the sky above you, with the sea around you, and with the earth beneath you.  And those three deep breaths can be a very simple meditation technique in their own right or as a gateway to deeper work.
  • Four-fold breath. The four-fold breath is a breathing technique that helps you settle into a meditation and is used in many esoteric practices and traditions. I see it as being used for both focus and clearing purposes.  I was taught it through the work of John Michael Greer (Druidry Handbook and other works).  In this technique, you focus on counting to regulate your breath in four equal ways.  The way I do it is this: breathing in for the count of three, hold your breath (lightly) for a count of three, breath out for a count of three, and pause (again lightly) for a count of three.  JMG warns that if you close off your throat at either the inbreath or outbreath to severely, it can lead to long term health complications.   I like to see the fourfold breath almost like a pendulum or swing (breathing in to the moment of apex, where there is that pause and then outbreath, with another pause on the other end, except the time intervals are all equal).
  • Quiet Breath. JMG also describes “quiet breath” as another meditation technique–after doing a four-fold breath, for example, you might transition into quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation (this is the technique with discursive meditation, taught in the AODA’s tradition).  Quiet breath is a normal breathing pattern, where you are lightly breathing in and out in your normal rhythm.  The idea is transitioning away from breath being a central focus of your meditation and into other work.

 

Three Nature Meditations for Druids

Now that we have some of the preliminaries covered, I thought I’d share three meditation techniques that can work well for those practicing a druid path, framed within the three paths or perspectives of druidry: druid arts, ovate arts, and bardic arts.  I also want to indicate that I’m sharing new forms of meditation here–ones that are very connected to druid-based and nature spiritual purposes.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

A Druid-Focused Meditation: The druid path asks us to connect deeply with spirit, thus, a simple “clearing” meditation is helpful for the druid path. To do this meditation, you should find a source of running water or falling water (so a rainstorm, stream, flowing spring, or seashore would be highly appropriate). Find a comfortable position near the body of water. Begin with three deep breaths followed by the fourfold breath where you work to simply be present and let go of anything you might be mentally carrying with you. You can switch at this point to quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation. As you enter quiet breath, close your eyes and allow the sound of the water to flow through you, within you, and over you. Simply be with the water, taking the sound into you, feeling the flow of it through you. Do this for a time until you find peace, tranquility, and presence.

 

Water is a very good element to start with for this meditation, but you can actually do it with any of the four elements for different effects. A windy day makes a nice air meditation, as does sitting by the fire, or digging one’s feet in sand or earth. This is a very sense-oriented meditation, but the overall goal is to work with that element to help clear and ground you.

 

I will also note that while I developed this meditation for the purposes of clearing, it also offers benefits for connecting and focus–in other words, it helps us meet all three goals of meditation.

 

An Ovate Mediation: The ovate path asks us to connect deeply with nature, so a walking meditation with a primary goal of “connecting” is a useful for this regard.  For this meditation, go to any natural area and be ready to walk.  Ideally, this should be a place where you are not going to run into a lot of other people, certainly, a place where you don’t have to interact or converse if possible. For this, I like to find a quiet and out of the way path at a state park (but you could go into any natural area that fits your . I begin by standing on the path and doing a simple earth-sea-sky breath and a quiet prayer to ask the spirits of nature to inspire me on this journey.

 

The idea of this meditation is a walking-based meditation, where you get into a state of focus on the world around you, and allow the spirits of nature to simply flow through you and be with you.  For this, the goal is to be in the present moment, experiencing whatever there is to experience, on whatever level there is to experience it.  Observing, interacting, and simply taking it all in and being part of the journey.  This practice leads to deep spiritual awakenings and insights–and each walk, even in the same natural area, can be completely different.

 

A Bardic Meditation: A bardic meditation is often a focus meditation, with the goal of the meditation to bring forth something into the world as part of a nature-enriched creative practice.  For this, it is best to find a place that you find inspiring–a place that sings to your soul.

 

For this meditation, you will want to go to that inspiring place and bring with you the tools of a bardic art you’d like to practice or already do practice. So you might bring an instrument, pen and paper, paints, and so on (I think it is ALWAYS a good idea to bring some kind of recording device as well).

 

Begin by opening up a sacred grove and using the fourfold breath and quiet breath to bring you to a receptive state. Transition into a series of Awen chants, and then simply take the place within you. Be like a sponge, pulling in the energy of that place, hearing that sacred place’s song, story, poem, painting–connecting deeply with spirit. The goal here is to be in a meditative and receptive state so if this place has something it would like you to bring forth, you are able to be ready to have a quiet and receptive mind to do so (the meditation part). The first few times you do this, you might not end up creating anything at all.  But with enough visits and practice, these techniques will put you into a receptive state where awen will flow when it is ready to do so.  

 

This technique, for me, has produced amazing paintings, songs, and words…many of which have ended up here on the Druid’s Garden blog!

 

Concluding Thoughts

There are so many other kinds of meditations that you can do that connect you with nature, your own spirit, and the bardic arts.  I think the important thing, with any of these, is making enough time for these connections to take place.  Not all spiritual work has to be planned–sometimes, the best experiences come from the unplanned things, the things that simply happen, or things for which we make space.