The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part II: Nature Wisdom July 14, 2018

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

As any mushroom hunter knows, mushrooms are tricksy little buggers.  What one looks like in one setting may not necessarily be what one looks like in another, depending on soil conditions, moisture, sun, size of the mushroom, insect damage, and/or regional variation. Mushroom species can vary a lot, even from one small region to another, and that variation can spell trouble for someone who hasn’t yet gained the wisdom to understand such variation.  Mushroom books offer perhaps 1-2 photos of mushrooms, and a good book will also offer a mushroom hunter the “keys” (features that distinguish one mushroom from another, like attached gills, color, etc).  However, only lived and true experience can help you not make a dangerous mistake when it comes to the mycelium kingdom.  The difference here, I think, epitomizes two key things: the different aspects of nature wisdom, specifically, the difference between book knowledge and lived experience.  But also, it epitomizes the importance of being rooted firmly in one’s local ecosystem and learning that ecosystem and from sources as connected to that specific ecosystem as possible. In last week’s post, we explored the four ways in which we can connect deeply through nature: through nature wisdom, nature activity, nature reciprocity, and nature reverence.  This week, we’ll delve deeply into the idea of nature wisdom and its three aspects: knowing nature, understanding nature, and probing nature.  We might frame this as a triad:

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

Knowing nature includes the basic skills of identification and naming–all of which can be started to gained through reading and study or from learning from others. For humans, being able to recognize something, and know its name, is a powerful act. For building my own nature knowledge, what I’ve done over a long period of time is commit to learning 15-20 new plants, trees, animal tracks, rocks, or other aspects about nature each year.  After a few years, you will be able to learn more and more trees, plants, animal tracks, and so on–and this knowledge really empowers you. In 5 years with this method, you could know 100 or more plants and trees!  Slow and steady over a period of time is the best way to learn.  However, reading about plants and trees and so on in books is only half the battle of learning them–the other half is actually finding and experiencing them.

 

I’ll give a nice example of this process.  For years, Sam Thayer’s Foragers Harvest and Nature’s Garden have been my two favorite wild food foraging books.  I’ve read them cover to cover; in the wintertime, I’ve studied them extensively.  Some of the plants he lists in the book, like wild rice, I’ve never seen, but I’ve at least got a basic idea from his books about what they might look like in the event that I can come across some. In May, I visited a friend who just moved to some new property and she wanted me to help identify some things.  We walked through and there was a lot of great things growing–including what I believed to be some highbush cranberry.  I hadn’t ever met this plant, but I wanted to very badly, so I had studied it extensively and when we found it, I knew what it was. It was growing on a giant rock pile in the middle of a field and had some little leftover dried cranberries.  We took photos and a few sample leaves, and sure enough, it was highbush cranberry. This kind of nature study is so useful so that when you are out and about, you can do some identification.  Had I had my books with me (I did not), it would have been even more useful!

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Before the modern era and the general loss of this knowledge in westernized society due to industrialization and commodification, a lot of this knowledge was shared, it was cultural, it was part of the body of knowledge that was taught to people in order to survive and thrive in connection with the natural world.  Largely, that’s not the case anymore, although you will find people here and there who really know a lot about nature and are willing to share ( a lot of these folks I’ve found in the herbalism, woodcraft, and bushcraft movements). I absolutely delight when I find anyone who can teach me something new about the natural world and take every opportunity to learn from them!

 

To learn any aspect of nature, books and resources are critical, and classes/teachers are even better if you can find them.  Here are some of my favorite books and resources to get you started:

  • Botany in a Day is my favorite book (recommended to me some years ago by one of my blog readers).  This teaches you basic plant identification through pattern recognition.
  • I aslo love Newcomb’s Flower Guide for an easy method of plant identification for any flowering plants. For animal tracks, Animal Tracking Basics by Tiffany Moore and Jon Young is a great book to start with.
  • Other books by Jon Young, like What the Robin Knows  are also excellent for understanding how nature works and the signs in nature.
  • Otherwise, the many field guides out there offer much with full photos and information.
  • Other books I love that teach about relationships are three books by John Eastman –The Book of Swamp and BogThe Book of Forest and Thicket; and The Book of Field and Stream.
  • Finding Your Way Without a Map and a Compass is an absolutely fabulous book about nature awareness.
  • There are also a number of great plant and nature identification apps like Leafsnap that can be quite helpful. Finally, purchasing a Loupe (Jeweler’s Loupe) as a small magnifying glass can aid in learning and observing nature.
  • And for wild food foraging, Samuel Thayer’s books, which offer detailed information on how to find plants, when to find plants, and how to prepare plants (more on this in next week’s post!)

 

Bringing nature knowledge into your nature interactions allows you a much deeper sense of the natural world–it empowers you. Getting to know nature can literally last a lifetime.

 

Understanding Nature

As my opening discussion of the challenges of mushroom hunting illustrate, there are two kinds of nature knowledge–the knowledge that comes through reading and study, and the understanding that comes through experience in both the inner and outer worlds of nature. Both are critical to developing ovate knowledge about the natural world and “nature wisdom.”

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

The understanding that comes through direct experience cannot be replicated by reading books. All the books in the world cannot help you gain the deep understanding of nature as you observe the unfurling of a frond of a fern or watch ants busy at work removing soil from their nest. This is the kind of “knowing” that comes from regular engagement in the natural world.  Any engagement is good; in AODA, we recommend at least 15 minutes per week in nature, some of it spent in stillness and focus.  I’ve used this practice for over a decade and not only has it helped me know nature, it has certainly helped me be at peace and connect to it.  Earlier in this blog, I detailed the “druids anchor spot” technique; this is a great way to learn a single place and deeply connect to it.  This, combined with journaling and regular meditation in nature can be of great aid.

 

What I have found to be the most effective in aiding my building of understanding nature is to shift frequently between book knowledge and real-world experience.  Read some books the night before I go out on a journey, then take a book or two with me (like Newcomb’s) and then cross reference what I am seeing with what I’m learning.  Or finding a new plant, photographing it carefully, and working to identify it and learn what I can about it.  Remembering where it grows, checking it through the season and its life cycle.  Knowing and understanding, then, become like two sides of the coin of nature wisdom–it is necessary for us to have both to fully embrace this kind of connection with nature.

 

Probing nature

A final way in which you can build nature wisdom is in the tradition of the many naturalists who have contributed scientific knowledge of the natural world: Leopold, Darwin, Audobon, Humbolt, etc.  This kind of nature wisdom, which I am calling “probing nature” is engaging in the study of nature in some way.  Most of the time, we think about study in the form of systematic observation with notetaking (think the field journals of the naturalists) or through experimentation (think gardening experiments to see which plants produce a higher yield.) Most of the time, people think that this kind of thing is left only to scientists working in the field, but everyday people can also engage in a number of different kinds of things.

 

On the most basic level, this is simply a matter of satisfying your curiosity, and seeking answers to questions like, “I wonder what….”  or “Why does this…”  I recently did this on my property after seeing trees that had a hazel-like leaf and I was excited to discover that I potentially had “beaked hazelnuts” (a tree I hadn’t encountered before).  Now I can systematically observe this tree each day as it goes through its life cycle and see if the hazelnuts actually appear in the fall!  In order to do this, I’m observing the trees carefully 1-2 times a week and looking at them throughout their life cycle.  A second example is through my “potato bucket” experiment.  I had a bunch of sprouting potatoes back in March and it had been still so cold and the ground was frozen.  But these potatoes wanted to grow!  So I put some of them in buckets and large planters with holes and put them in the greenhouse to see what happened.  Would I get any yield? Now, it is mid June and I’m able to harvest the potatoes from these buckets.  As I have grown this variety before, I am certain that the harvest is not as great, but it is still something and is a very fantastic early potato crop.  This was a simple gardening experiment, and I learned a bit more about how to grow potatoes.

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

A second avenue for “probing nature” and one I highly recommend is citizen science, where you help contribute to a larger dataset of observations that are then used to build an understanding about the natural world.  I wrote about this here. These are projects, like Project Budburst, that help track different things happening in the ecosystem: the flight of the monarchs; the sighting of birds; the arrival of buds in the spring; the movement of wildlife, the various potential effects of climate change.  These, to me, are very important ways for druids and others who are committed to nature spirituality to get involved and help build our knowledge about the living earth.  I think this work is even more critical today than ever before: funding for climate change research and basic science surrounding the natural world is continuing to be cut; people like you and I can help fill in these gaps as volunteers and contribute to larger studies that make a difference.

 

Conclusion

Knowing nature is one of four ways I’ve outlined that we can cultivate a connection to the living earth. In the years that I’ve been practicing druidry, I have come to believe that it is my knowledge of nature that has helped me develop a much deeper connection to the living earth in so many different ways. It’s one thing to go out in a natural setting and appreciate and respect what you are seeing; it is a completely different experience to go out and be able to identify plants, animal tracks, stones, be able to read the water movements of a river, or predict weather changes by observing the clouds and wind.  You have a deeper appreciation of it, you are closer to it, and it is this deeper knowing that connects you in all kinds of new ways. Suddenly, you know plants names, their uses, how rare or abundant they are, if they are endangered, and even from this information, you can begin to ascertain their magic and spiritual connection.  And so, to me, the foundation of all of this rests in respecting the earth and in knowing her.

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Wild Food Profile: Milkweed + Fried Milkweed Pod Recipe June 30, 2018

Monarch catepillar enjoying a milkweed feast--they know the good stuff when they see it!

Monarch caterpillar enjoying a milkweed feast–they know the good stuff when they see it!

I love the summer months for foraging wild foods.  One of my very favorite wild foods is Common Milkweed (asclepias syriaca).  Around here, the pods are just beginning to form–and its a great time to explore this delightful wild food.  They have a light vegetable taste, maybe something like a sugar snap pea–very tasty and delicious.  In fact, this is one of the best wild foods, allowing you to have four different harvests from the plant at four different times during the spring, summer, and early fall.

 

Ethical Harvesting and Nurturing Practice

With the excitement of harvesting from common milkweed, however, comes a serious responsibility.  New farming techniques over the last 20 years have eliminated many of the hedges that used to be full of milkweed.  Because of this issue, the monarchs have been in serious decline.  When I teach this plant during wild plant walks, I tell people who want to eat milkweed that if you want to do so, you have to do your part first. Given the decline of monarchs and milkweed, it is necessary to first propagate it.

 

This is my suggestions: find where the milkweed grows in year 1.  Observe it, see the monarch larvae enjoying the leaves.  In the fall, come to the patch and harvest some of the seed pods (not all).  Scatter some seeds just beyond the current patch. Then, scatter them in at least 4 new places that will be good for milkweed.  If you have land, save seeds and start them in the spring (put them in the fridge for a few weeks before planting; they need a few weeks of cold stratification).   If you don’t know where milkweed is at all, order some seed online and start a patch.  Plant them in your veggie garden or along your house or in a community garden plot–they are a vegetable!

 

In year two, once you’ve established a new milkweed patch and have scattered the seeds, it is now ethical to harvest some (but not all) of that patch.  Keep spreading the seeds anywhere you can.  We need a lot more milkweed out there.  So for every plant you harvest from, you should be planting three more!  This is what reciprocation is all about–we can eat delicious vegetables from nature, but while we do so, give back more than we are taking.

 

Every year, I suggest scattering more of the milkweed seeds and getting others to grow them.  We can all do our part to help these amazing butterflies and plants continue to thrive.   I think doing whatever you can to create more milkweed is necessary before harvesting it.  This creates a positive relationship with the plant, shows you are ready to give before you are ready to take, and honors the spirit of both the milkweed and the monarch.

 

Abundant milkweed along a field

Abundant milkweed along a field

Milkweed as a Vegetable

Ok, so assuming that you’ve done your due diligence to ethically harvest this plant, let’s talk about how great it is to eat!  Milkweed offers four opportunities to eat different parts of the plant as the season goes on.

 

Shoots.  The shoots in the spring are the first harvest you can enjoy from this plant.  If you harvest the shoot, obviously, the rest of the plant won’t be there for the monarchs–so again, being sustainable in your harvesting and cultivating new beds of milkweed in places you have access to is really important.  You can harvest these like bamboo shoots or asparagus–cut when young, usually around 6″ or so, and steam or saute in butter.  Delicious!

 

Flower Heads: The unopened or slightly opened flower heads are the second harvest, occurring about a month after the shoots take off.  For my bioregion, this is usually early to mid June.  The flower heads can be treated just like broccoli–steamed, sauteed, or batter dipped and fried.  I like to dredge them in cornstarch and some salt and herbs and give them a flash fry. Delightful!

 

Pods: My favorite harvest from milkweed is the flower pod.  You want to look for the immature pods, 2″ or less across.  You can eat the whole pod, and treat it pretty much like you’d treat okra (but I think okra tastes nowhere near as good as Milkweed!) Remember when harvesting these, you are preventing the plant from going into seed, so harvest selectively and ethically.

 

Silk: Probably the most unique harvest is the silk; this comes from more mature pods before the seeds go brown.  You would remove the outer pod (which as it gets bigger, it gets tougher, which pretty much applies to any green vegetable!). Once the outer pod is removed, you can pull out the inner silk.  These can be baked into dishes or steamed–they literally get stretchy and taste kind of like a vegetable-flavored mozzarella.  I know that sound weird, but its super good.

 

Pan Fried Milkweed Pods Recipe

I’ll now walk you through one of my favorite ways of preparing this delicious vegetable.  First, find yourself some milkweed pods that are 2″ or less in length.  I wrapped mine up in a leaf when I was out and about and checking on a patch I had been cultivating for some years.

Milkweed harvest

Milkweed harvest

Usually they don’t need washed or anything, but you can check and wash them if its appropriate.

Next, you dredge them in flour or cornstarch.  A plastic bag or bowl works great for this.  I like to use a bag and just shake it up with them inside.

Bag with cornstarch

Bag with cornstarch

Next, you dredge them in egg.  (What? Aren’t you supposed to do the egg first? Actually, if you do the egg after, the batter is much lighter and fluffier!)

Dredge in egg

Dredge in egg

Then, you heat some frying oil in a pan (I am frying in olive oil, but you could do others) and when the oil is hot, pan fry them.  I prefer to use an iron skillet for this for even heat.

Oh yeah!

Oh yeah!

Next, you drain them on a paper towel.

Finished delicious treats.

Finished delicious treats.

My family enjoyed them with chicken, homemade refrigerator pickles, and a nettle-dill dip dip (which I posted a recipe to sometime before).

The meal

The meal

Take a bite and enjoy!

Yum!

Yum!

 

May your milkweed seeking and cultivation be fruitful and the land be abundant!

 

Walking Meditation Garden with Hugelkultur Beds June 24, 2018

As a practitioner of permaculture and as a druid, I am always looking for ways to work with the land to create sacred and ecologically healthy spaces.  That is, to create self-sustaining ecosystems that produce a varitey of yields: create habitat, offer nectar and pollen, systems that retain water and nutrients, offer medicine and food, create beauty and magic.  But conventional gardens, even sheet mulched gardens, can falter in water scarce conditions.  So building gardens long-term for resiliency and with a variety of climate challenges in mind is key.  At the same time, I am also looking to create sacred gardens, that is, not just places to grow food (which is simple enough) but to develop sacred relationships and deepen my connection with the living earth. Given all of this, I developed a design for a butterfly-shaped garden that would use hugelkultur raised beds and allow for a space for walking meditation and ritual.

 

Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden

When I came to the new homestead late last year, one thing was clear–any gardening was going to be rough going with the acidic, heavy clay soil full of rocks.  Digging down into the sunny part of the yard that was once excavated for a pool revealed virtually topsoil or humus content–basically, I was going to have to grow on clay subsoil.  A soil test revealed practically no phosphorous either.  Becuase I also have abundant wood on the property, digging down and creating some hugelkutur beds seemed like a great idea.

 

Hugelkutur beds were popularized by Sepp Holzer and discussed in his book Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture. They are used widely around the world as a way to create beds that are enormously productive due to their ability to create vibrant soil biology and hold copious amounts of water. The key to these beds is sinking a good amount of wood–large pieces–that slowly rots down over time. As the wood rots, it becomes a spongy mass ready to hold water.

 

The Hugelkultur beds certainly take some sweat equity, but they will pay out dividends in the long run. Each year that passes, more and more moisture will be held in the bed from the wood.  Microbial life will flourish in this wonderful, undisturbed system of nutrients and roots. Each year with the hugels is more abundant and productive than the last as the underlying soil structure grows more connected and diverse.

 

Choices for Hugels

One of the challenges with Hugelkultur is doing it without heavy equipment or fossil fuels. I’ve seen people make amazing hugels using a backhoe, tractor with an attachment, etc. They dig a big hole then use the machinery to pile up even more wood, making these enormous hugels. I don’t have knowledge of how to operate such machinery, so I was going to do mine on a smaller scale by hand. The question is–what can we do by hand, given these conditions?  Can we still make abundant and productive hugels on a smaller scale?

 

One of the key conditions for us was the heavy clay soil–when it rained, the water pooled in the space.  I thought that if we dug down, then the water would pool in there a bit, being able to be sucked up by the rotting wood.  After digging out the hugels (but before wood was added) this proved to be true–the water literally just laid in the heavy clay, forming pools that took days to dry out.  Yes!

 

Others, however, may find it more beneficial to go up rather than down–the key is to get the wood in it and get some layers of compost and such on top.  Your own conditions beyond that determine a lot of how you want to create your beds.  Here’s how I created mine!

 

Choices for Garden Design

In permaculture, one of the principles is “stacking functions.”  The idea behind this is that you should try to get as many different functions out of a single space as you can.  For example,  the greenhouse offers not only a great growing space for fall and spring crops, it offers shelter from frost for seedlings, and it offers a wonderful place to hang out when its 35 out and you want some sun.  Its multiple purposes, then, contribute to the overall goal of the greenhouse.  In the case of desginging a garden itself, this is also critical. The title of this blog is, after all, the “druid’s garden”–implying not only a garden but a sacred space.

 

The Lawn and Potential Space

The Lawn and Potential Space

And so, I think it is really important to consider the role of the sacredness and design in a garden space.  It’s not just a space to grow things in, to serve the pollenators and create ecosystems….but also a place of sacredness, where the act of gardening is sacred work and considered sacred practice. As is the act of being in the garden for non-gardening purposes, such as meditation and ritual.  To me, making garden spaces that can “stack functions” in this way is an important part not only of gardening, but of living a sacred life more generally and building connection and communion with nature.

 

So for this garden, I had a limited 2/3 circle space after putting in the greenhouse.  I toyed around with a large number of designs before settling on a tree of life theme.  As the garden developed, I realized I didn’t just want a set of “branches” but rather a space to do walking meditation like a labrynth, so the tree transformed more into a moth/butterfly design.

 

Building a Hugelkultur Walking Meditation Garden

Now that we’ve talked through both the mundane and sacred aspects of this particular garden design, let’s take a look at how to build one of these gardens!

 

Step 1: Observe, Interact, and Create a Design

I already had a good sense of the sunniest part of the land that was near the house and easy to access; this, was where the old owners had once had a pool.  It was here that I decided to place both the greenhouse and the walking meditation herb garden.  I observed this space in rain and sun, and also measured it out, thought about how I wanted to move among the garden, how big the beds should be, and so on.  To do this most effectively, you can get some garden stakes or sticks and then string–actually map out the location of your beds, see how it will be as you walk it, etc.  If you don’t have this, some old flour also works, just pour the flour down where you want the beds to be in lines, so that you are essentially “drawing” with flour.

Once I had a plan and was ready to proceed, I called out some friends to help get me started.

 

Step 2: Dig Down

I was blessed with some serious help from friends one weekend just after I moved in to help dig out the hugels.  First we had to remove a burn pit the previous owners left.  Then, we dug them down about a foot and a half–as far as we could go. The clay will be used for a cob wall project(more on that later in the year) that will go in the back of the greenhouse. This doesn’t look like much, but it was literally about 5 hours of work by six people!  Clay is heavy and doesn’t play nice.

Clay garden beds dug down

Clay garden beds dug down

 

 

Step 3: Add Wood

The next step is to add wood to your hugel bed. A lot of it.  As much as you can fit in it.  Here you can see me completing one half of one of the hugels. I used a lot of medium sized logs, some sticks, and also large huge logs along the bottom (not all of which you can see in the photo). The bigger logs will take much longer to break down, but that’s ok!

 

Most wood is fine to use with hugels, but you want to avoid a few kinds.  First, don’t use any woods that have chemicals that prevent the growing of other plants (black locust, walnut and alanthus come to mind). You also want to avoid rot resistant woods (cedar, black locust) as the point is to get it rotting down quickly. My beds primarily consisted of maple, cherry, and oak, as that was what was available.

Adding wood

Adding wood

Step 4: Add Additional Soil-Building Materials

The next stage is to cover the wood with anything else you can–any non-weedy garden waste, leaves, fresh or finished compost, manure, and so on. I threw some old pumpkins that were rotting in there, coffee grounds, a good pile of leaves, mulched grass, horse manure, and more.

 

In traditional hugel building, you would replace the topsoil upside down on top of the logs and keep adding more materials.  The issue I have with that is that I have 100% clay, and I don’t want to have any additional clay in my beds.  So I instead removed it for another project.

Adding leaves and materials

Adding leaves and materials

Step 5: Add Borders (optional)

A lot of people make hugel mounds and don’t add borders, but I find that the borders are really helpful to get them higher, especially with the design I was using (which consisted of fairly small beds.  Also, the borders give a clear demarkation line bewteen what your path is and what a bed is–and for good garden design, this is critical.  Paths determine garden space, after all.

 

After seeing my two friends who made a cool hugel garden with uprightlogs as borders, I thought I could do something similar.  In fact, this does not work:

I put the logs upright and then sunk them in the clay.  But…frost heaving in the winter knocked them all down.  I couldn’t dig down far enough to get them firmly in the soil without some kind of auger…. So I scrapped this idea and went to shorter beds with a rock linked edge.

This looks cool, but won't survive the winter!

This looks cool, but won’t survive the winter!

Since there is copious amounts of stone on the property (I just have to go digging and searching for it) and so I instead spent a lot of time hunting for stone on the property and moving stone for these beds.  It is empowering work!

Stone is quite heavy and moving it is a very good workout!

Moving stone is a very good workout!

 

Leaves and Stone

Leaves and Stone – I lined the beds with stone before adding the final layer. I packed the stone in with clay.

 

Step 6: Top with Finished Compost

The final step for the bed creation to top the bed with finished compost–I added about 5-6″ of compost over everything and then let it rain and settle, then added more.  This gives the plants you plant some room for growing. The beds, being so young, are otherwise difficult for the plants to take root.  Even so, the first year of the hugels as things are just starting to rot down can be not as abundant for plants.  You also want to suppliment with nitrogen–as carbon starts to break down (which is what most of your woody material is) it does suck the nitrogen out of the soil.  The most readily available form of nitrogen is, of course, liquid gold!

Adding finished compost to the bed

Adding finished compost to the bed

Step 7: Establish Paths

Becuase I wanted this to be a walking meditation garden, I needed to also think about the paths between the beds and creating them with something that would last.  I have done a lot of paths in the past at my old homestead with cardboard and wood chips; they are excellent choices, especially for a vegetable garden. Eventually, the wood chips and cardboard breaks down, and you end up with great soil you can move into your beds, then add another layer in.  However, these kinds of paths require regular yearly or at least every-other year maintenance and the paths quickly get lost.

 

But for this garden, which was more permanent and meant to also be a sacred space, I chose to use landscape fabric (which has a 20-25 year life and is breathable) and pea gravel from a local supplier. You could do a lot of things here for paths: brick work, stone work, other kinds of gravel, cardboard and wood chips, etc.  The key is to create something that you like and that fits the vibe of the garden.

 

So I laid the landscape fabric down and used steel pins to pin it in place. This fabric allows water to permeate but will not allow grass or other plants to grow.

 

Laying out the landscape fabric

Laying out the landscape fabric

Finally, I topped this with a 2-3″ layer of pea gravel (locally sourced) for walking paths.

Pea gravel going in

Pea gravel going in

 

Step 7: Plant!

The hugels can have both annual and perennial plants, trees, shrubs, etc.  I opted for this garden as a walking meditation garden filled with healing plants and some food plants.  There are three inlets and you can walk a figure eight or a loop in the garden and commune with the perennial plants.  The garden is planted with a variety of perennials and a few annuals: calendula, yarrow, horseradish, basil, thyme, new england aster, wood betony, garlic, chives, tomatoes, chamomile, rue, echninacea, St. John’s wort, and much more!

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Butterfly-Shaped Meditation Garden Complete

Another view of the garden

Another view of the garden

It is amazing to see how far this beautiful garden has come from the green, consumptive lawn.  It will now produce food, medicine, habitat, nectar, beauty, and a wonderful space for ritual and meditation work. This is just one variation–of countless others–to combine solid permaculture design techniques with sacred gardening.

 

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

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

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

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

 

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

 

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

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

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

 

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

 

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

Choosing Your Material

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Distillation Process

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

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

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

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

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

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

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

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

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

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

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

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

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

The full system

The full system

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

 

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

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

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

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

 

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

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

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

 

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

 

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

 

Building Local Knowledge

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

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

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

 

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

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

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

 

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

 

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

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

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

 

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

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

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

 

Diary of a Land Healer: March/April April 15, 2018

Mid-March - Crocus in the Snow

Mid-March – Crocus in the Snow

The landscape waits, with bated breath, for the warmth to finally arrive. The last two months have been unseasonably cold, and the longer that time passes, more anticipation is present in the air. The plants and buds swell, but are unwilling to come out while the temperatures still go into the teens at night. At Imbolc, Punxsutawney Phil, our local divination oracle, predicted six weeks of winter, but in truth, winter has turned from 6 weeks more, to 12 weeks more, and now almost to 18. Just two days ago, the weather broke, and it seems that spring is finally in the air. Here at the homestead, we are all growing weary. Each morning, my cat Acorn runs to the door, ready to go outside and explore.  When I open the door for her, a breath of cold air hits her face and she recoils back into the warm house. She looks up at me with a look: “fix this, human.” I laugh and tell her that we are all waiting for the warmth come and to stay–the trees, the river, the cats, and certainly, the humans. The humans in the area are running out of wood and fuel, and this situation is certainly causing financial strain for many winter drags on. Even someone such as myself, who revels and glories in the winter and the snow, has a limit–and I think I passed it as we moved into April and the cold and snow showed no signs of breaking.  Itching to be in the garden and in my kayak, itching for the spring to finally arrive. Still, the dark and cold of late winter and early spring offers a number of healing lessons, which we’ll explore today.

 

This is my “diary of a land healer series”, where, once a month I write about and document the changes on the landscape here at my home as I collaborate with the land for healing and regeneration.  These are in-progress thoughts as the seasons go on. You can read the first two entries here: January and February.

 

The Lesson of “Should Be’s”

This unseasonably cold spring offers a number of powerful lessons. The first is in studying people’s reactions to the cold vs. the land’s reactions to the cold. Humans have grown to expect predictable certainty; the certainty of the seasons coming on a schedule that we could depend on, the certainty of USDA zones and last frost dates. But that’s not what this planet can offer us anymore. Predictable certainty says that by mid April, we “should be” firmly in the spring months. There “should be” buds and flowers. There “should be” warmth. But climate change prediction models say otherwise–the East Coast of the USA, where I live, is likely to see shorter springs and longer winters, particularly as the jet stream continues to shift. The truth is that spring will come, but it may take longer than any of us would like. Spring will come and frost will come, and summer and fall will also come–but no longer on predictable schedules. The daffodils understand this–they simply wait.  The animals and insects understand this–they wait. The flowers and seeds understand this–they, too, wait.

 

It seems that the bulk of nature here on this land has less of a problem waiting and adapting to the changing and unpredictable climate–but humans certainly do.  I have found that there are a few things we can do to acclimate.  First, I have found it helpful to stop thinking in terms of “should be’s” and start thinking in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is the capacity to endure, to adapt, and to be ready for anything. I’ve worked hard to this in this extended winter season to do so, knowing that each year will be less and less predictable than the last. From a gardening perspective, this means planning for these climate extremes. One of my favorite gardening books, Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener tackles this exact issue–she suggests we plant and plan gardens with the understanding that climate unpredictability and uncertainty will happen.  A resilent garden is not surprised when it takes till June to get warmth, or when it warms up in February–plans are in place for both situations. Also, using equipment to mitigate tempreature extremes can also help us be resilent gardeners, things like greenhouses, hoop houses. Planting polycultures of many species rather than monocultures of a single species, too, helps the ecosystem adapt and thrive and all of us become a bit more resilient.

 

In our broader culture, however, this same unpredictability and need for resiliency is unfortunately very present. I think that a lot of us are having a hard time with this extended winter season because of the state of the world and the political turmoil we face, particularly those of us living in the current political climate in the USA. We are so tired of the cold, and yet the cold keeps coming. We are so tired of all of the ridiculous drama, the media fiascos, the lack of integrity in leadership. There is not a single person I know that isn’t weary, and the dark in the cold winter months, especially as spring just doesn’t seem to come, are a reflection of what we experience culturally. But this same lesson that nature provides us concerning resiliency is also meaningful: learn to live with the unpredictability and find ways of adapting to that which we cannot control, just like the ecosystem does. I wrote about a few druid-influenced strategies to do this here.

 

April Snowfall

April Snowfall

And yet, the promise of spring is still in the air.  Despite the snowfall last week that blanketed the ground with eight inches and then melted by midday–adaptation and resiliency is the lesson here. The only constant is that change happens, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always change. Living here on this land teaches me that, despite the cold, spring will return again.

 

The Lesson of Carrying Capacity

During our extended winter season, I’ve also been taking a lot of time to reflect on the journey that brought me to this land, to be here and present. Late winter/early spring is a useful time for reflection. I begin my druid your journey 12 years ago on the spring equinox, and every year on the equinox, I take some time to reflect back on that journey by reading my old journals. What strikes me about the last year of this journey is that I finally faced a lot of my fears. I face the fear of being alone, and the fear of feeling I wasn’t good enough if I wasn’t doing it all. I faced the fact that just like the land, I have limits and they are important to recognize.

 

The land speaks to this lesson: this land here, and all land, and our entire planet, has a certain carrying capacity. This carrying capacity is what the land can support: how many humans, how many plants, how many trees, and so forth. There are limits to how much abundance it can produce, how many mouths it can feed, and so forth. The land here is a powerful lesson in this: my current land is at a severely diminished carrying capacity for several reasons: a large swath of lawn which produces no food or habitat (soon to be transformed into gardens), a damged forest due to sustainable logging (which I spoke about more in January’s post in this series). As I wrote about in this series in January, I can see this diminished carrying capacity in people who have been the victims of trauma and pain–we can no longer offer as much light to the world. Like the land here, we need time to heal and grow.

 

Humans in Westernized society don’t like the word “limit”; we see it as something  negative, something to overcome and break through. But that’s not the way nature works–we live on a finite planet with resources that are growing more scarce. Our land has her limits.  This land, here, also has her limits–five acres can only produce so much. But the more that we learn to work with her, rather than against her, the more that we can think about that carrying capacity as a good thing–and work to increase the damage that has been done to so much of our land. Here, in a few short years, through the collaboration of humans and nature to regenerate and heal this ecosystem, the land will become an abundant place with regenerated ecosystems and a much higher carrying capacity.  She will still have limits, although she will be used to her full capacity and bursting with life.

 

Of Daffodils and Dogsbane

Not yet - Daffodils in March

Not yet – Daffodils in March

We’ve been talking on this blog before about growing where you’re planted, and I really like that metaphor for this time of year becuase of the early spring flowers. While the temperatures remained cold, the daffodil buds swollen but closed, waiting to emerge. I kept visiting them, and they kept saying to me, “not yet.” As soon as the temperature hit 70 this past Friday, the daffodils knew the time had come and they all burst forth. As I walk among the blooming daffodils, they offer us a lesson of hope. On this land, the patches of daffodils are all through the forest floor in the woods, even along the floodplane and right next to the stream (which I wrote about in February’s entry). This afternoon, they are calling for almost 2″ of rain, and these big patches of blooming daffodils may end up underwater as the floods come again. Given the size of the patches of daffodios, I know that if the waters come up, these daffodils will endure–they will just go under until the waters receed again.  The daffodils are opportunists and offer lessons in adaptation.

 

Even the dead husks of the plants from the previous season, however, offer promise. Another exciting find on a recent walk was the dead stalks of dogbane, it is a kind of milkweed that is used for cordage and is well loved by bees and butterflies. I harvested a number of the dead stalks from last season, spreading the seeds all along the field. As I harvest the stalks, I spread the seeds encouraging this patch to grow even more abundant than it already has been. Finding the dogbane offers a wonderful reminder that nature keeps on giving, even when it appears like the land is barren. In fact, this time of year is a perfect time to harvest dogbane–a wonderful natural crafting material (I’ll share more about this in an upcoming post). What appeared to be a barren and snowy field has much to offer, for those with eyes to see.

 

And there they are!

And there they are!

Closing

I know that things will start to move quickly now that the warmth is coming back into the world. In the last few days, it feels like spring is finally in the air. The land will grow and heal, and each day new blessings await. I am thankful for the lessons of resiliency, carrying capacity, daffodils and dogbane, and am once again grateful to be in the light half of the year.

 

 

Sacred Landscapes, Part II: Ley Lines and Old Straight Tracks March 25, 2018

As a child, the my family’s property had what we called “the old roads”. These were  flat roads, of packed earth overgrown with brambles and grass, that were running perpendicular to the slope of the mountain.  They ran directly  north to south. Someone had made these perfectly level, with a bank on the lower side, and they went quite far.  There were two of them, an upper “road” and a “lower road” about 100 or so feet down the mountain. My father told me that they were “old roads” and he had no idea how long they had been there or where they had gone–just that they were there. We played on these old roads, walked them, built cabins on them, and thought nothing of them.  Who knows the history of these “old roads”, their straightness and alignment seeming out of place in a more modern time.

 

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–rebuilding sacred landscape features

So many  remnants of ancient roads, of  ley lines and trackways, infused with sacred purpose and intent, can still be found in the out-of-the-way places on our landscape around the world–on every continent where humans have lived.  These roads represent a different era of human conciousness, an era when landscapes were infused with magical power, and where humans literally lived and moved at the intersection of the physical and the metaphysical. While the term “leys” currently has a number of conflicting meanings, I’d like to delve into the earth-based discipline of ley lines and what they were, historically, as a precursor to discussing work that we might do to re-enchant the land using some of these ancient principles.

 

In last week’s post, I introduced the concept of the “re-enchantment of the world” after exploring the “disenchantment” that has taken place in the hearts and minds of modern humans, and through the destruction of the physical landscape due to industrialization. The basic argument was that the world is already an enchanted place, even if many humans fail to see it, but as earth-honoring people, we can work to make it even more so. But in order to think about how we might re-enchant the world, it is useful to know what ancient humans did, how they created sacred landscapes in collaboration with nature for many different purposes. In order to continue to explore this, then, today’s post delves into the history of the World’s ley lines through a review and discussion of the work of Alfred Watkins Old Straight Track book and the work of Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux in Lines Upon the Landscape. And so, let’s go ahead and dive into ley line history in order that we may build something anew.

 

Defining Ley Lines

Before I can talk about the ancient systems of human alignment that were originally known as “leys”, I want to start with some definitions.  When one says “ley lines” today, chances are, they are talking about “energetic” lines, lines that run across the landscape and carry energy in various ways.  These energetic lines, and the idea of lines of energy in a grid, tied to the earth’s magnetism, is the most common definition.  These ideas rose over the 20th century with the works of W. Y. Evans Wentz, Dion Fortune, and John Mitchell.  I will be talking about energetic understandigs of leys in next week’s post–but this week, we are going to delve into physical alignments along the landscape. But to be clear–even if a ley traditionally means a physical alignment, as this post will show, the physical alignments reflected metaphysical and spiritual understandings of the world.

 

Sacred Alignment and Straight Lines

A key feature of the ley lines throughout the world, including in the UK, is that they are straight–very straight. They do not deviate from their straightness, even if it means going over a moutnain, over a river, and so forth. To the ancient peoples all over the world, there was something very sacred in a straight line path. Pennick and Devereux note that straight line features were regarded as sacred, and they write, “The fact remains that the further back in time we go we can see that the engineering of straight linear landscape features, even if for ostensibly utilitarian purpsoes, was accompanied by a sense of veneration.  Even the Romans, we ahve seen, had wayside dieties and gods of the survey….in recent times, straight landscape lines have been simply a form of fashion, or utilitarian, for geodesy or a means of getting wheelend transport from one port to another in the shortest distance.” (246).  They note that as Western history moved on, the sacrendess of ancient alignments moved to the profane (246).  Today, it is hard to fathom that a landscape could have once been infused with such sacredness.

 

The Old Straight Track: Features of Ley Lines in the UK

Creating sacred landscape features

Creating sacred landscape features

Alfred Watkins, in the Old Straight Track, wrote about his findings concerning what he called “Ley lines” in Britain.  The most traditional use of the term “Ley” is as Watkins coined it–it is a feature of “alignment”, or as he writes, “alignment across miles of country of a great number of objects, or sites of objects, of prehistoric antiquity…straight trackways in prehistorical times in Britian…the old straight track decided the site of almost every branch of human communal activity” (xx).  Watkins discovered these leys after extensive fieldwork all over the British Isles and studying maps. Watkins chose the name “ley” (which has many different spellings/forms: leigh, lay, lee, lea, leye (153) due to his understanding of more prehistoric etymology based on place names (159).  Another term he uses is “old straight track” for the leys.

 

Leys in the UK often include multiple objects over many miles, with physical markers (mounds, mark stones, standing stones, sacred sites, churches) at various points along the ley.  I want to share some of the features of the British ley systems, because I think knowing this information can help s as we are envisioning our own sacred landscape features.

  • Straight lines: As noted above, ley lines are straight–over many miles.
  • Mounds:  Mounds, according to Watkins, are a “a separate heap of earth, or earth in stones, usually circular in form, but sometimes of a longer shape. The word is also used to infer an artifical structure, not a natural knowl, although suchanatural high point was often empahsized by slight artifical addition, and then becoems included in the designation.” (1)  Some of the mounds are long, others are round or oval (2).  Further, some mounds have a concave top, almost like a mound with a bowl at the top.  They are often placed across ridges or high points; and were arranged so that as travelers walked them, they could be hidden from people who might be below (3).  Mounds are part of the ley system.
  • Mark Stones: Mark stones are distinguished somehow from other stones naturally occuring in the area, either by shape, size, or appearance; Watkins notes that the smallest mark stones are a foot or less high and are typically distinctive but unworked, but often of altar shape. Watkins surmises that the purpose of these stones was to let the traveler know that he or she was on the right track.  Many of them are planted near sighting mounds, to signal the direction of the ley and others are placed at the crossing of two leys.  Some in Great Britian also have clear grooves; Watkins believes they may have been set with lights (23-25).  Many of the stones that Watkins describes are also named and the names persist to this day.  Watkins notes that many mark stones are places of assembly for people or even for sacred work or ritual (143).
  • Trackways: Watkins was able to see, in many places, the physical pathways still marked (with mark stones) along the landscape. People had clearly used them for travel, by foot, or with a pack animal (but not a wheeled vehicle) (40).  Wheeled vehicles would have been to large for the ancient Leys that Watkins mapped, indicating they were created before wheeled vehicles were used. Watkins notes that tree lines were often planted along the old trackways.  Even if a more modern road or track swerves away from the ley (the alignment between two points), the trackway will come back in alighment with the ley at the point where two leys cross (37).
  • Water: Ley lines were often constructed with water features; Watkins describes moated mounds (45) as well as other small ponds (possibly human-created) with small islands which leys run right through.  Watkins surmises that it is possible that water features helped people follow the leys in the darkness, specifically using the “beacon hills” described next.
  • Beacon Hills: Likewise, Beacon hills were part of the ley network that Watkins outlines; these were likely used for pagan celebrations of Beltane (he notes the terms “May hill” or “Beltany Hill” for beacon hill names (110)).  Watkins notes that “beacon” and “beckon”, which are both Anglo Saxon words, come from identical roots and mean “come to me.” (110).  Watkins believes that by day, these beacon hill points could offer a signal of smoke during the day and a fire at night to light the way directly down the ley (112).  He also notes that the use of water features would allow for the beacon fire to reflect from the water below, allowing someone who was on the high point near the beacon fire to see exactly the direction where to go in the night from the reflection on the water.  This means that the leys were clearly used for day travel, night travel, as well as ceremonial purpsoes.
  • Sighting Notches: These are large features, like a notch, road or deeply cut grove, through a mountain ridge.  Watkins surmised that they were used as sight guidelines so that people who were on the valley floors know which way the trackway went (50).
  • Initial points were where leys began: Often, a ley started with either a “natural rock structures used for early ritual or ceremonies” or some other kind of sacred feature, like a sacred well (58-59). This suggests that people may have used the ley line to travel to a particular sacred place: a well, a ritual space, by day or by night.
  • Mark Trees: Trees were also likely used to mark ley lines, and he builds a good case that Scotch Fir (Pinnus Silvestris) as a primary ley line tree.  Other trees he mention are oak, elm, yew, ash, and hawthorn (64).
  • Camps: Watkins refers to ‘camps’ to mean areas that are enclosed areas, on high ground, with an eathen embankment (65); leys would touch the boundry wall of the camp.
  • Sacred Sites: Watkins also describes other kinds of sacred sites, such as old churches (often built on older pagan sites), stone circles like Stonehenge, and the like that are also tied into the Ley network. (106). These ancient sites were aligned with the sun, and Watkins concludes that the sun alignment is also critical to the leys.
  • Orientation/Direction: Watkins notes that orientation (direction the ley faced) was another key feature of ley lines.  For example, Stonehenge’s road, on a ley line according to Watson, is oriented with the Midsummer sunrise (129).  He also notes, however that many leys were not necessarily laid out with the sun, but for more “utilitarian” purposes of travel. This topic of orientation, particularly of churches and temples, was further taken up though John Michael Greer’s recent book The Secret of the Temple.

 

What Watkins was describing was a set of intentially-created prehistoric alignments all over Great Britain.  Certainty about what these lines were for, and how they were used, is lost to pre-history.  It is clear that these leys, these alignments, had sacred intent and were used both for sacred and mundante purposes.   However, as we’ll explore more next week,  Pennick and Devereux take Watkins’ material, along with material from many other sources, and describe some likely uses of these ley lines in terms of a sacred landscape.  I also will note that there are also deities associated with the pathways and trackways, like the antlered goddess, Elen of the Ways / Elen of the Old Straight Track.

 

This information above would be fascinating enough of it were relegated only to the UK.  But As Devereux and Pennick demonstrate in Lines on the Landscape, these same features are replicated over and over again in the world.

 

The Etruscan Discipline: Sacred City Planning in the Graeco Roman Tradition

In other parts of Europe, for example, in the Graceo-Roman tradition, we again get the sense of the physical choices for placement being based on sacred intent.  A very good example of this is the Etruscan Discipline. Discussed in Varro’s Antiquities (47 B.C.E), the Etruscian Discipline describes a sacred practice of straight-line planning that was used to survey, plan, and design all Roman cities. As Pennick and Devereux describe, the Etruscan Discipline was a system of divination, ritual, and processes that used augury and sacred geometry to lay out cities. Part of this work included dividing the landscape into quarters (north east, north west, south east, south west); this quarter division was the basic plan used for all Roman city planning (ironic how we still use sacred quarters!) Later in the process, the city plans were divided further into 8ths and 16ths. Each of these sections then, were dedicated to various dieities: Gods/Goddesses of earth and nature being located in the south, the “chief deities” who helped humans in the north; the west held deities of fate and also the “infernal powers” (p. 97).  Further, an auger engaging in the Etruscan discipline would look for various signs on heaven and earth: the flight of birds (particularly songbrids or flock birds), weather features (wind, clouds, lighting, storms, etc), and the heavens (astronomical features).

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

Of this process, Pennick and Devereux write, “With all of thse factors assessed and assimiluated, the newly founded city, or laid out road, would have the best possible inauguration, because the Etruscan Discipline was the relfection of objective spiritual processes and cosmic laws through the medium of a technique which accessed information directly from nature. By founding the undertaking at both the right place and the right time, according to prescribed rules, the venture would be in harmony with both the material and non-material worlds. The Etruscan discipline thus expresed a world view in which the material reflects the spiritual, and the spiritual is revealed in the material.” (p. 98).

The Etruscan discipline is one of many, many sacred pieces that ancient Europeans used to create sacred landscapes.

 

Lines in North America

On the other side of the world, Ancient Native North Americans also used straignt line features, or what Pennick and Devereux call “Linear Earthworks.” We have far less information about the Native Peoples and what they did with these earthworks due to the genocide of the Native North Americans, but the physical features are still present in some places on the landscape.

 

The Adena peoples, who lived more than 3000 years in what is modern day Ohio and Pennsylvania,  created elaborate earthworks. These earthworks included burial mounds and sacred circles (of up to 200 feet in diameter), sometimes with other geometric features. One such mound is the Serpent Mound in Peeble, Ohio.The Hopewell, were a tribe of trade-oriented native people that lived around 150 BCE to 500 CE, also in the Ohio valley. They, likewise, produced elaborate mounds with complex and precise geometrical earthworks.  These earthworks included giant circles, squares, and straight parallel lines running outward from the circles. Other such earthwork features have been documented in Georgia, Mississippi, and California.

 

Although there is much less documentation than on the leys in Europe, the North American Indians also had a “straight track” system of trails. These are poorly documented in many regions, but the 19570 Laetitia Sample described them as follows, “The trails on the sierra regions followed natural passes….They seem to have gone on straight lines…without detouring for mountains along the way…trails were marked in various ways…somtimes piles of twigs or carins of stone along a trail have been called markers. ” (Quoted in Pennick and Deverux, p. 171).  The Anasazi people, likewise, created “arrow straight” roads demonstrating that they had some advanced surveying systems to lay out their roads in straight lines (p. 175).  The Anasazi roads are a great mystery–they have parallel features to the roads, they are much too wide for a culture that did not have wheeled vehicles, and there is evidence that they connect potentially sacred sites/locales (known as the Great Houses).  Pennick and Devereux suggest that the evidence points to the roads themselves as holy; other archeologists have labeled them “ceremonial highways” (p.179).

 

These are several of many such documented “straight line” trails– others exist in  Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and more.  Pennick and Devereux note that many more Native American earthworks and straight tracks all over the east and central USA that have been destroyed with modern farming, road construction, and so on.  Many such straight tracks and trails in the East are now non-existent due to this kind of activity.

 

Other Straight Line Feature Globally

Pennick and Devereux detail many other “straight line” features around the world: those created by the ancient Mayans, the ancient Inca, and the Aztecs. The ancient Aztecs had a very elaborate system of straight lines on the deserts that are still visible (p. 182) and likely were representations of astronomical features. The lines can only really be appriciated from the air, however, calling into question what exactly the Aztecs were buildilng the lines for!  Likewise, lines can be found in the Islamic world, in China, Japan, and Indonesia.  As this post is getting long, I’ll refrain from going into more details on these lines-if you are interested, you can read Lines on the Landscape for more details.

Labyrinth in Bangor, PA

Labyrinth in Bangor, PA

Re-Enchanting our Landscape

In this post, I’ve done my best to share and summarize some of the ways in which ancient humans created sacred features upon the landscape: through old straight lines (leys), through sacred roads, connecting and marking pathways between temples, and more. In compiling this information, it is clear that creating physical sacred landscape features was something shared by all ancient and even not-so-ancient humans: the idea that the physical world and features we create should be in alignment with the non-material world.  It seems hard to understand to the modern mind, immersed in a disenchanted world, that ancient cultures, all over the world, saw the land as such an enchanted place.  But if we are able to take on this ancient mindset, and recognzie that our ancestors have paved the way for such sacred work, we, too, can re-enchant our land.

 

I want to close with a quote from Pennick and Devereux which sums up some of the challenges we face in even entering the mindset, “For us, the sense of travelling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions. The road, the way, is taken for granted, and runs as a map in our minds, our mental perspective thus being that of the aricraft or sattelite.  It is such a perspective that makes our understanding of the earlier atrributes of straight lines so difficul for us.  But if we make the effort to look carefully, we can in the use of the landscape line–until the present, literally godless, culture–the unviersal expression of an archetype, a deep-seated sense, in the human mind” (p. 246).   When does this landscape, and its alignments we put there, take on magic of its own?

 

I do think it is not a concincidence that every major earth-centered religious group that I know of that has land is building some kind of stone structure–labyrinths, sacred stone circles, mounds, and more.  The ancestoral knowledge is  are swelling within those who choose to see the land differently, teaching us, encouraging us to build sacred landscapes anew. Even though, here on the East coast, these sacred landscape features have been largely erased from modern conciousness and the physical land–somewhere deep in the soil, the magic still sleeps, waiting for a new group to come and re-enchant the land.