The Druid's Garden

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

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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect February 4, 2018

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!