Category Archives: Growth

Healing from the Trees: Spruce Resin Salve Recipe

The completed salve!

The completed salve!

Since moving to our new homestead a few years ago, I’ve been working to build a local material medica–that is, learning about all of the medicinal plants, herbs, and trees here on our 5-acre property.  This also, of course, means growing a lot of my own herbs but also learning everything I can about the uses of the plants/trees already present on the land.  This post is a follow-up to my Spruce post from a little while ago to share some primary ways of working with spruce: A Spruce Resin Salve (also known as a Spruce Gum and Spruce Resin salve) with bonus fire-starters from the process!

Many conifers produce a tarry, sticky resin or sap that has a range of uses: as a binding agent or glue, as a medicine, as gum you can chew, as incense, as a fire-starting tool, as a waterproofing agent, and much more!  Gums from many trees, including Norway Spruce, White Pine, and Blue Spruce are highly medicinal and can be turned into a range of herbal preparations.  In today’s post, I’ll share a basic process for making a salve from spruce resin; this same process can be used for any other salve made from white pine resin or other medicinal conifer tree gum.

I think that learning how to make medicine from sacred trees is a really important part of developing a wildcrafted druidry or nature-based spiritual practice.  Trees are incredible friends, guides, and they have much to offer us–if we take the time to learn, to listen, and to work with them.

Medicinal Properties of Spruce Resin/Pitch/Sap

Norway Spruce is not native to North America…but it, along with Blue Spruce, is planted just about everywhere!  It is easy to find in urban and suburban areas, where these tress are also often trimmed, resulting in many opportunities to harvest the dried resin or sticky gum sap.

Norway Spruce Gum  (and other spruces such as Black Spruce, Blue Spruce, and White Spruce) have been used for millennia for medicine. The many uses of Norway Spruce include antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-microbial properties.  Spruce gum has been used to treat a host of skin conditions including burns, infections that won’t heal, scrapes, scratches, boils, abscesses, and even more serious issues like gunshot wounds.

The primary tree for this purpose in Europe is Norway Spruce, while in North America, black spruce often was used in this way (their medicinal properties are almost identical).  And, as is often the case, science is finally catching up with folk traditional uses as this recent study published in Advanced Wound Care in 2016 demonstrates the powerful antimicrobial and healing properties of Norway Spruce.

Resin – hardened and ready for salve or burning as incense

Many Pine resins are similar in nature and can also be treated in the same way.  White Pine, one of the dominant pines in North America, has similar antifungal, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties (although there is less scientific research on white pine compared to various spruces).  Either one will produce a wonderful healing salve.

This salve is more involved than a traditional backyard healing salve, but is well worth making.  I recently had a very deep and nasty cut (one that should have gotten stitches, in hindsight) and I was able to stop the bleeding with fresh yarrow and then treated the cut successfully with my spruce gum salve.  It drew debris from the wound, sealed it up, and kept it from getting infected.  Not to mention, it smells amazing, which gave me a bit of aromatherapy while healing the wound!

Thus, your Spruce Resin Salve can be used for any of the following: cuts, scrapes, burns, deep cuts, drawing out debris from wounds, chapped lips (it will work wonders on severely chapped lips) and any number of uses for animal care (such as mild frostbite on combs and wattles of chickens in winter).

Tools and Materials

Whatever you use will forever have spruce resin on it, so I suggest dedicating a few tools to this purpose.  I have found that a large tin can works great (I am using a #10 tin can), an old butter knife, and some cheesecloth / thin natural cloth (cotton, linen) and string.  For the salve itself, you will also need a good quality olive oil and beeswax.

The can is used for three steps in the process–gathering, filtering, and making the salve.  Thus, you will need it to be large enough to boil water and also contain all of your salve.  A #10 can is a great size, but I think a slightly smaller one will work as well.

Step 1: Harvesting Your Spruce Pitch and Resin

Various conifer species of trees produce their sticky, gooey sap when the tree is wounded.  Thus, you can often find large amounts of it in urban or suburban areas where these trees are frequently pruned.  You can also find it naturally occurring in the wild.

As with all wild medicines and foods, you want to practice ethical harvesting practices, which include asking permission from the tree, leaving an offering, and engaging in reciprocation–doing something for the tree or forest where you are harvesting.   I believe that if you treat nature respectfully and with agency, your medicine will be all the more potent for it.

Gooey resin dripping from a norway spruce!  This spruce has been regularly pecked by woodpeckers and is producing a ton of sap….I will wait for these crystals to fully harden and use them for incense

Tar, Pitch, and Resin: Tar, Pitch and resin are all the same substance but they have been outside of the tree for different amounts of time and thus, have different levels of viscosity or dryness. Spruce tar (also known as sap) is a fairly new flow from the tree and is usually clear, very sticky, and drippy–think liquid honey here.  Spruce pitch is usually milky and sticky, having partially dried on the tree (and often collected bugs, debris, etc.) which is part of why we have to do some processing to make it into medicine.  Spruce pitch is often similar in consistency to crystalized honey. Spruce resin is the hardest of all–you can handle this, it is firm and completely dried.  The resin usually represents a few years of drying out on the tree. The difference between them is the age of the substance and how much there is (which affects drying time).

If you are wanting to make a healing salve, it is best to make it with pitch or resin, which is hard enough to collect.  Spruce resins are also awesome for incense.  The incense from a Norway Spruce is called Burgandy Resin, and it smells and burns amazing–a light and delightful pine scent that will offer powerful energetic clearing.

In areas where I harvest, I will usually let sap sit on the tree till it hardens into either pitch (for salve making) or resin (for incense).  It takes 2-4 years for the sap to harden into resin which can be handled.

Harvested resin and pitch

When harvesting, take only what is excess from the tree and what will not expose any sensitive areas of the tree. If you see big globs of resin or pitch, remember that the tree uses this to seal over wounds. If you scrape it all from the tree, you are exposing that tree to pests and disease.  You can take a little from the outside of the wound, but make sure that the tree remains protected. Sometimes there is so much sap that it drips and hardens–all of this is safe to take as it is not at the site of the wound of the tree. This is a good time to work slowly and listen to the spirit of the tree–the tree can guide you about how much to take and where to take it from. Carless harvesting can lead the tree to harm, which is not a good way to start working with this tree.

Harvesting and preparing spruce or pine pitch is a very sticky business.  You will want a dedicated container (I have a dedicated #10 soup can for this purpose) and an old dull knife (a butter knife is fine) to harvest. Scrape the pitch in gobs into the container, using your knife.  Small bits of resin can be harvested by hand.  Once you have 1/2 cup or more, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: Filter out Debris and Bugs from your Spruce Tar

As the sap of the Spruce dries, it collects an assortment of debris: bugs, dirt, small bits of bark, etc.  In order to make a healing salve, you will need to filter these out before use.

There are several methods for doing this– I’m using a boiling water filtration method that I developed after reading about a number of methods.  This method requires the use of cheesecloth, boiling water, and a stone.  This method works because any conifer resin is not water-soluble.

Begin by adding all of your spruce resin and pitch to a square of cheesecloth or thinly woven fabric (I’m using a scrap piece of fabric here).  Place a small stone in with the resin.

Bundle with stone in middle

Bundle

Firmly tie this bundle with some string (don’t use a rubber band–it will sometimes fail in the boiling water).  I had two on this bundle and one broke in the boil,, but I was lucky to have a second.  I’ve since switched to using simple hemp or cotton cordage, which will not fail!

Bundle

Put your can on your burner on your stove and then add your bundle to the can.  Add enough water to fully cover your bundle by at least 2-3″. The rock will weigh your resin bundle down, making it sink below the water.

Water with bundle

Boil 45 minutes to an hour. As you boil it, the pitch will melt and come out of the cheesecloth, either on the surface or bottom of the can.  Turn off the heat, remove the remaining bundle (which should be mostly a stone and cheesecloth at this point), and allow the water and resin to fully cool.  After it is cool an hour or more later, you can then pour off the water and you will be left with pure resin.

Resin is ready!

The stone can be returned to the land.  The cheesecloth, when cut into smaller pieces, makes an outstanding natural firestarter–so hold onto it for your next camping trip!

Step 3: Make your Salve

The basic recipe is 1/4 cup resin, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/2 – 1 oz beeswax.  Since the resin will still be pretty sticky, you can estimate how much resin you have to work with, and adjust your recipe accordingly (e.g. 1/2 cup of resin = 1 cup of olive oil and 1-11/2 oz beeswax).  You can go a bit higher on the olive oil if you want to stretch it, but I would say you want a minimum of 1/4 c resin to 1 cup olive oil.

The salve is getting good use!

The salve is getting good use!

Return your can to the heat with the resin still in it, and add an appropriate amount of olive oil.  Heat this up and allow it to simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring it with a stick.  After 30 minutes, add your beeswax (if you shave it or chop it up small, it will melt faster).  Once the beeswax is melted and incorporated, pour it into small jars or tins.  Let cool completely and you will have an amazing healing salve for use for any deep cuts, surface cuts, and also safe for animals.

If you want, at this stage, use paper towels or cotton rags to clean up any drips and also to wipe out your can.  Save these as wonderful fuel for fire-starting–just add a bit of flame and they will burn brightly and help start a fire.

This salve will be good for 1-2 years if stored in a cool, dark place.  This has become my favorite healing salve for a wide range of uses, and I always take some with me when I travel!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Cultivating Receptivity at the Fall Equinox

Nature Mandala

The Fall Equinox is traditionally about harvest, harvesting the fruits of your labor and the fruits of the land in preparation for the coming of winter. This model of the wheel of the year focuses on earned outcomes: you’ve planted your crops, you’ve tended them all season, you’ve invested the time, and now, you are able to receive the rewards of your efforts. And a lot of our own understanding of the celebration of these seasons works on that narrative: planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and the cycle of the seasons. This same cycle is expected, perhaps, anticipated, in our everyday lives. For example, if you put the effort into getting degrees and starting a career, or if you put in a ton of hard effort at your workplace, you will eventually be rewarded with a harvest, a payoff, and a sense of stability. There’s this large sense that if you put your time in, then your harvest and rewards will come.

For weeks now, I tried to write a different post, a one celebrating the harvest and using the traditional themes of the Fall Equinox in the druid tradition. Yet, it turned out to be very difficult to write. There’s been so much change and challenge in the last two years.  While our garden is certainly bountiful and we are bringing in the harvest on our homestead, I found these narratives of “putting in your work and getting a harvest” really problematic to dwell on because for myself and so many others, that whole idea has crumbled in workplaces and cultures. In talking with friends in a variety of fields and contexts, I think that’s perhaps the thing that’s been most difficult for everyone during the last year and a half–the loss of that narrative, of that stability, of that dependable way forward. A lot of those expected cycles and seasons were disrupted, and it appears that most of us are never going back to “before.”  This led to my own thinking and meditations about the new skills that getting such a harvest in today’s age requires–resilience, like I shared a few weeks ago, but also other themes I’ve touched on, such as flow. In other words, just like our traditional wheel, this new set of skills and themes may help us find balance, grounding, and stability in an increasingly unstable world.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional wheel or the themes of harvest or balance at the Fall Equinox, because these themes are still very much present on our landscape and in many aspects of our lives. But, I do think we need to build into our traditional wheel and celebrations a broader set of thinking, visioning, and ideas that might help us live, adapt to, and thrive in this new and less predictable age. In other words, if the stability of the Holocene allowed agrarian societies to develop elaborate spiritual traditions surrounding planting and harvest, what does the instability of the Anthropocene require of our spiritual traditions? What themes or concepts can those practicing nature-based spirituality embrace now so that we can offer a better vision for the future?  It is this question that I will consider today for the Fall Equinox, and I will return to this question for the next seven holidays as we move froward through the next eight seasonal holidays–creating an wheel of the year that offers us tools for visioning and resiliency.

So with all of that written as a way of introduction to why I’m deviating from the traditional theme for the Fall Equinox (and subsequent holidays for the wheel of the year in the coming seasons), I’m going to present some themes that I think are powerful lessons for us to incorporate into spiritual practices and seasonal celebrations.  So let’s turn to one of these themes: receptivity!

Receptivity as a theme for the Fall Equinox

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

Receptivity has a lot of dimensions and definitions. In its most simple form, it is about openness: openness to new ideas, to change, and new experiences or patterns of life.  Its about accepting what comes rather than trying to force things in a specific direction. Receptivity is about us simply allowing things to flow in, rather than trying to force things in a specific way. When you dig into it, receptivity is a very good theme for the “harvest” narrative, because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way.

One of the reasons that Receptivity is such a good theme is that it is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level: it belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. It also belongs to the 20th century, when stable careers were common and people would retire from blue collar jobs with pensions. But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally, we’ve moved onto the Anthropocene (or, as Stephen Pyne recently called it, the Pyrocene, the age of fires). The Anthropocene is characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives. These changes are increasing in intensity and will continue throughout the course of our lives and into the lives of our descendants. Many now point to 1950 as the time when the Anthropocene officially began, with humanity’s “great acceleration” of consumption and capitalism. But like any age, it takes time to ramp up, and it is now in the 21st century, seventy years later, we are really starting to see the accelerating effects of the Anthropocene.  In thinking about these changes, both culturally in the last 18 months with the pandemic, and in the wake of the UN’s release of the IPPC 2021 climate change report, we need some new themes.

While we have traditionally based the wheel of the year on more recent agrarian human ancestors as part of the Holocene,  we no longer live in that age. Agrarian societies depend on very limited numbers crops for sustenance and survival. For a culture that depends on a small number of crops, getting a harvest from those crops becomes absolutely critical for life, and it makes sense that a huge amount of their spiritual tradition was focused on the harvest. If you think about many of the harvest traditions–they was (and still were) focused on staple crops like apples, wheat, and barley without which our agrarian ancestors would not have survived.  This is also of why situations like the failure of one crop were so devastating; for example, the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850’s killed over 1,000,000 Irish and sent many of them (including my own ancestors) in search of new places to put down roots.

However, if we go back further to the time of our more distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, we know that they lived and thrived through multiple destabilized climates and planetary ages.  If we examine their experiences with obtaining a harvest–the picture emerges quite differently. Most hunter-gatherer societies still had a few foods that were central to their diets (like acorn eating cultures, specific animals that were hunted and revered, etc) but most lived off of an incredible variety of different foods, in some cases 1000 or more (as you can learn from ethnobotanical guides like M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wilds or Charlotte Ericssen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants).  These foods vary considerably from season to season–hardwood nut crops, for example, have a “mast year” every 3-5 years.  That is, while there was always food to harvest, the kinds of food, amounts of food, and timing of it was pretty variable and required us to simply accept what was, capitalize on what was, and move forward.  (As an aside, hunter-gatherer societies did also not suffer from what some scientists would call “diseases of civilization” like heart disease or diabetes; see more about this at this article).

So let’s focus for on gathering and how it is tied to receptivity. I do a lot of wild food foraging and wild food education in addition to tending a 5-acre homestead and growing a lot of food.  The mindsets for gathering vs. farming are really different. Both are based on innate wisdom and knowledge of the land, but there are expectations in homesteading/gardening that are simply not present in wild food foraging. With foraging, you never really know what you might encounter or how abundant things might be. You can only use your knowledge to go to places where you’ve found food before and use your knowledge of the timing of the season to help you see what is out there. One year, the wild berry crop is massive while the next there’s practically no berries to speak of because of a late frost.  One year you could harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts and in the next, they are full of worms but there are incredible amounts of lamb’s quarters to make flour.  That’s how it is when you are foraging for wild foods–you just put yourself out there to look and see what you can find.  Hence, receptivity and gratitude for the harvest.

Receptivity: Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Practices

A ritual altar at the fall equinox

Receptivity is a pretty challenging concept for many of us who grew up in Western cultures, and I think its grown a lot more difficult in recent years.  Here in the US, for example, an extremely polarized cultural and political climate encourages us to shut down, to not even be willing to hear voices that are different than our own, and to spend time only with people who think and act like we do.  US culture also maintains the effort-reward faulty narrative that suggests that if you simply work hard you will be successful.  Obviously, that’s a lot different from cultivating receptivity.  Thus, I think it is useful to work to cultivate spiritual practices that cultivate receptivity.  And yes–I keep using the term “cultivate” very specifically–this is something we can bring into our lives, like a new skill we are learning. Here are a few methods to practice receptivity through the lens of bardic, ovate, and druid practice.

Receptivity and Wild Foods: An Ovate Practice

One way of cultivating receptivity and honor the harvest is to take up a wild food foraging practice and take a day to go out and seek out wild foods.  Wild foods can be found in all settings, from urban to wilderness, and its just a matter of time and building your knowledge.   See if you can find enough for to create at least part of a meal.  This time of year in Eastern North America, they are particularly abundant–you can find wild apples, hardwood nuts (hickories, chestnuts, butternut, walnuts, hazelnuts, acorns);fall greens (usually there is a second harvest of greens like dandelion); grain harvests (wild amaranth, lambs quarters, or yellow dock); and fall mushrooms (Hen of the Woods, late Chicken of the Woods, Honey Mushrooms, etc).  Building an ethical foraging practice and bringing some of this into your regular practice allows for not only a deep knowledge and reverence of nature, but also a way to align with ancient human ancestors and cultivate receptivity.

With any wild food foraging practice, I want to stress the importance of ethical harvest.  Offer gratitude and respect to what you are harvesting, seek permission, and monitor wild food populations. For an introduction to ethical foraging, please see this post.  I also have two general posts that can get you started on wild foraging with resource and book suggestions: here and here.

So as a fall equinox celebration, you might gather some wild foods leading up to the Fall Equinox and then prepare a celebratory meal in gratitude and reverence for what the land has provided.  Supplement this with food from your own garden or farmer’s market and enjoy the feast!

Receptivity: A Fall Equinox Journey of Spirit

On the druid side, we might think about how to create receptivity through spiritual connection and ritual.  Druid practices are about ritual, meditation, and celebration.  For this practice, rather than planning a formal Fall Equinox ceremony, you will simply allow yourself to experience the magic and enchantment of the living earth, be guided by spirit, and create an ongoing ceremonial experience for yourself.

To do this, plan on spending some deep time in nature, at least an hour or more. Ideally this will be a place with some wildness to it. You might take a few tools with you–an offering blend, a harvest knife, your crane bag, a spiritual journal. But don’t plan too much–the idea is to allow the ceremony to unfold on your journey.

When you get where you are going, start by opening up yourself to a ceremonial experience. Keep your mind and intentions open but do any protective work you see as necessary (e.g. I would do AODA’s Sphere of Protection ceremony to begin).  After that, begin to walk and explore, seeing what you are drawn to.  Leave offerings, talk with trees, and spend time simply communing with the living earth.  Look for messages in the forms of animals, clouds, wind, trees.  See what calls to you and the work you can do to celebrate this year.  This might be a tree meditation, a grounding ceremony in the woods, forest bathing, taking a nap, making offerings, building a nature mandala, etc.  The point here is that rather than prepare a pre-concieved plan for your Fall Equinox, you simply allow spirit to guide you.

As you are exiting the forest, give yourself some time to return.  Breathe deeply, “close” the ceremonial experience in whatever way you see fit, and take time to return to the mundane world.  Carry what you’ve learned about yourself and nature with you into the coming season.

Receptivity: Cultivating in Community

Bardic practices involve both creative expression as well as community, and in this case, this practice focuses more on cultivating open relationships with others.  The practice is simple:

Talk to someone who believes very differently than you do in a non-judgemental, open way*.  One activity to help you cultivate receptivity is to find someone who has very different life experience, different political or social views, and/or a different way of seeing the world from you. Spend time asking that person questions to understand what they believe and why they believe it.  As you are listening, work to withhold your own judgment (note your emotional reactions) and also work hard not to respond to them in a way that would put your own beliefs at the center of the discussion. Ask questions, listen, and absorb what they are saying. After you’ve done this, express gratitude to the person for sharing their time and thoughts. (And yes, I realize how incredibly hard this might be to do, at least for those in the US right now.  Try it anyways.  Strip aside the common political stigmas and simply listen to a person as a human being).

After you’ve done this, meditate on the experience. What did you gain from this experience? Did it reaffirm your beliefs or did it allow you to really experience a new perspective? Do you have more empathy and understanding for those who may believe differently than you?

(*I am grateful to  Dr. Abby Michelini for this practice.  Abby recently completed a dissertation and I was honored to be a dissertation reader on her project. Her project was to create poetic narratives from people on radically different sides of the spectrum and use those as a way of cultivating deep listening to bridge political and cultural divides. And you know what? It worked. After seeing her study, this practice gave me a lot of hope.  I started trying this practice in my own life and I was really grateful for this as a new tool to cultivate openness and receptivity towards others! So I’m sharing it here!)

Closing

Learning how to cultivate receptivity in such challenging times offers us a powerful tool.  It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable to things that we can’t change and encourages us to find delight in the unexpected.  May your feet tread ever lightly upon the soil and your lungs fill with clean air at this blessed Fall Equinox!

Also, If you are interested more in this topic, cultivating your intuition, connecting with our primal ancestral roots, and in connecting deeply with nature, I wanted to draw your attention to a fabulous 8 week online course by Jon Young, Nate Summers, and Sarah Fontaine starting soon! Here’s a link to the Intuitive Tracking course https://www.primalnate.com/intuitivetracking   I’ll be taking this course, and I hope you consider it as well!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) Medicine, Myths, and Meaning

PawPaw leaf - as big as your hand!

PawPaw leaf – as big as your hand!

The PawPaw is a tree that is so wild and unique and wonderful, and yet, is often quite unknown–it is the only native citrus tree we have in the upper east East Coast and midwest areas. Like some of the other trees I have recently shared in this series, Paw Paw is an underappreciated and under-recognized tree. Within the bushcraft and permaculture circles, it is quite well known as an amazing tree to find, plant, and tend. One of the reasons that PawPaw is probably not more well known has, unsurprisingly, everything to do with the commercial viability of the fruits. PawPaw fruit is absolutely delicious but it only stays good for a few days after picking–so it would never survive the rigors of modern industrial agriculture.  You can occasionally find it at a good farmer’s market, and it is well worth seeking out! You can also seek it out in the wilds. And yet, PawPaw is the only citrus tree that grows in a north-eastern climate.  Read that sentence twice–yes, we have a native citrus tree that grows utterly delicious fruits that taste like a cross between guava, strawberry, and a banana.

This leads to the names for the PawPaw, which includes everything from Appalacian banana, Michigan Banana, Ozark Banana, Kentucky Banana, West Virginia Banana, to American custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and poor man’s banana. As you can see from some of these names, a bit of a stigma was once attached to PawPaw, which may be another reason it is not as sought out or well known.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a lack of discussion of PawPaw in the magical community–so, like so many of the underlooked understory trees (of which PawPaw is one), we will build a magical understanding of this tree by exploring its uses, edible qualities, medicine, natural history and doctrine of signatures (for my full methods, see this post).

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Eastern Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology of the PawPaw

The slender stem of a five year old pawpaw

PawPaw has a native range that spans from the edges of Texas and Oklahoma all across the southeastern US into Georgia and Alabama and upward into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  As a USDA Zone 5-9 fruiting tree, people have planted it as far as New England and the upper Midwest. Pawpaw is one of the few fruit trees that can handle full shade, and when I’ve found it in the wild, that’s typically where you find it: along quiet stream beds and river valleys, in damp and fertile flood plains, and deep in the shade of the overstory. PawPaw often spread by roots to form a dense clonal colony–thus, when you find mature trees, you will often find a large patch of them growing closer together.

PawPaw is an understory tree, typically growing between 25-35 feet in height with trunks somewhere between 8-12″ in diameter at full growth. The leaves typically grow only hear the ends of the branches so PawPaw may look a bit sparse compared to other trees.

PawPaw flowers have three sepals (petal-like leaves) that surround six maroon flowers. PawPaws are predominately fly pollinated, which means that you do not want to sniff the flowers, as they often smell like rotting meat (I learned this the hard way, haha!).  Don’t stick your nose in that maroon flower! The PawPaw flower would be classified as a “carrion” flower due to this unique odor–it creates a stinking, fetid odor to attract flies and beetles that would pollinate it.

The flowers appear at the same time that the new leaves are coming forth in early spring. I will also note that the leaves and branches also may have a slightly fetid smell, so do keep this in mind as you work with this tree.  It is kind of amazing that this stinky flower and tree can produce such delicious fruit!

After spring pollination, the green fruits grow to the size of your hand or more, eventually dipping down the tender branches and dropping from the tree in September or October. Here in Western PA, it is often late September that the fruit is ready to drop from the tree, just around the Fall Equinox. The fruits typically will fall from the tree while still green and ripen on the ground.  This is when you can find them–pick them up on the ground green and then sit them on a counter or in a dark paper bag until ripe.  Keep a good eye on them, as they will ripen quickly.  Once they ripen, eat them fresh or process them into fruit leather, jam, pies, etc as they only stay ripe a few days before spoiling.

PawPaw as Anachronistic Fruit and Tree of the Ancestors

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

This PDF titled “Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them”  by Connie Barlow of the Harvard Arboretum gives a really interesting natural history of the PawPaw as an anachronistic fruit.  While pawpaw and other fruits (including Osage orange, Persimmon, Honey Locust, and Kentucky Coffee Tree) were originally eaten and spread by the “megafauna” at the end of the Pleistocene, these animals went extinct at about 12,700 BC, likely due to overhunting by humans. These megafauna animals included mastodons, giant sloths, giant beavers, and spread PawPaw fruits by ingesting and then pooping out the seeds.

Barlow notes that PawPaw and other anachronistic fruits developed clonal spreading techniques when there was an absence of large megafauna seed spreaders. She notes that at the Arnold Arboretum after an old PawPaw died, the underground root network had hundreds of baby pawpaw spring up almost immediately.  When humans came into North America at the end of the last Ice Age, they would have taken up the work of the Megafauna and spread the seeds of these useful and edible trees. Thus, if you find a large PawPaw tree cluster in the wild, perhaps it was deposited there by ancient human ancestors of the land.  And, anytime you are planting a new pawpaw tree by root cutting or seed, you are connecting with that ancient legacy.  So this is an ancestral tree with ancestral connections.

Human uses: Food and Wood

Obviously, the PawPaw is a great wild or cultivated food. As permaculture, restoration agriculture, and food forestry take off, PawPaw has become a shining superstar for developing native perennial-based food systems here in North America.  PawPaw are particularly good for areas where you have rich soil with shade and water. In fact, one of the first things I did when arriving on this land was to plant 30 PawPaws in the understory, much of which had been logged, as part of my forest regeneration efforts. They haven’t borne fruit yet, but I know they will in the next few years, and I’m quite excited!

As I mentioned above, the fruits typically fall from the trees in the fall.  PawPaw fruits are usually higher than you can reach in mature stands, so you have to wait for them to fall onto the ground to collect. The fruits fall green and will naturally ripen on your counter in a few days.  You can also pick them from the tree, but only if the tree is ready to give of its fruit–in other words, if the fruit is easy to pick from the tree, it is ready (just like harvesting a wild apple). If the fruit does not want to come off the tree, come back in a few days and try again–it is not ready.

The fruits are delicious when eaten raw. They have large seeds (which you can plant, but you need to keep them moist or else they lose viability–so plant just after eating!)  You can also create custards, pies, jams, and jellies from your pawpaws. There are two real keys to pawpaw.  The first is that you have to process it fast: it’s really only good for a few days on the counter (or maybe up to a week in the fridge) before it goes rotten, so you’ve got to use it while it lasts!  This post offers some great tips for where to buy PawPaw products like beer, popsicles, and more.  The second key is that it is best used fresh, dried, or baked–so with the exception of my goose egg custard, I don’t typically cook it much, as you do lose some of the flavors of the fruit. Canning a jam can work, but it’s not going to be nearly as good as a fresh or frozen puree.

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

The fruit itself really tastes like a custard already, but I’ve found it particularly good when a bit is added to a duck or goose egg custard (I use the linked recipe and replace 50% of the maple syrup with the pawpaw for either duck or goose eggs). I’ve also made a nice fruit leather using a similar technique to what I posted for Autumn olives in the above-linked post.

Beyond its delicious fruit, PawPaw has a number of other bushcraft uses. PawPaw wood is very soft and fibrous, making it excellent for use in a bow drill set, both spindle and motherboard as well as for a hand drill (needs to be quite dry to use as a hand drill).  In fact, my first bow drill set (which I made at the North American Bushcraft School’s MountainCraft Gathering in 2019, taught to me by Jeff Gotieb ) used a PawPaw spindle.  PawPaw is one of the softer woods, considered good for a beginner who is new to ancestral fire-making.

As with any uses of any tree, I always suggest you practice reciprocation: make offerings, ask permission, and do something nice for the tree in return (such as planting its seeds or offspring).  If you are going to enjoy the tree’s fruits, make sure you give something in return.

Historical and Present Uses in Medicine and Magic

In truth, there is almost nothing that I can find on the magical or mundane uses of PawPaw in any of my usual herbal books or references in the different western magical traditions (western occultism, hoodoo, herbalism, etc). Thus, it does not appear that PawPaw has traditionally been used for magical practices or herbalism. This is pretty typical of the other understory trees that I’ve studied, but I think that they are really worth getting to know!

However, what search does yield fruit is looking at some of the publications coming out of the scientific community.  Even if PawPaw wasn’t used traditionally, scientists are now discovering some of the amazing properties of this plant. For example, Nam et. al (2018) found that PawPaw fruit contained at least some anti-cancer components and may be a useful anti-cancer treatment with future study.  In another study by Nam et. al. (2019), they found that alcohol extraction of unripe fruits contained considerable anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties, suggesting possibilities for anti-aging and anti-microbial applications.  PawPaw is also being explored as a possible food additive for domestic fowl production.

PawPaw’s Magic and Divination

Given all of the above, PawPaw is a really interesting tree to think about from a divinatory and magical perspective.

Death and Underworld. Certainly, PawPaw has connections to the world of the dead and the underworld for several reasons.  The most important being that it has a carrion-smelling flower, that literally smells like fetid flesh, and that attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.  The second way that it connects is also through the doctrine of signatures–the tree itself has very sparse leaves and a very open frame, showing the skeleton of the tree (the branches and trunk) rather than being covered by leaves.  This connection might allow you to use the flowers to connect with the dead, to speak with them, or to help them on their journey.

Strong Need to Move On from a Toxic Situation.  Tied to the carrion flower that is transformed into an extremely delicious–but short-lived fruit, this tree may also signal that something that has been going on for a long time needs to end.  Sometimes we end up in situations where we should have ended a situation (a bad job, a bad relationship, a bad living situation) a long time ago, and for some reasons (fear, stress, exhaustion) we continue to persevere long past our breaking point.  PawPaw can signal the need to move on–and the healing and rewards (fruit) that come when we let go of the toxic situation.

Transience.  Because PawPaw’s fruit is so short-lived and transient, it reminds us of the transience or ephemeral nature of things.  We can never get too comfortable or used to anything in life–the only certainty is the passage of time.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful and delicious PawPaw tree–and may you find many on your travels!  I would love to hear of your experiences with this incredible tree!

Starting a Successful Front Yard Garden and Avoiding Legal Trouble: Interview with Linda Jackson of Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Original design for Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm

Six years ago, I shared about Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm, a front-yard garden located in the Detroit metro area. When I shared this post, Linda was in her first year of gardening in this new location, and was regularly selling her produce at a local farmer’s market and engaging with her community.  Here are links to my first two posts about her incredible garden that discusses the original process, design: Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm and Return to Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm.

A few weeks ago, when I was visiting Linda, I shared some photos of her garden to my social media, and many people responded by saying “she must not have a homeowners association”, “ how did she not get in legal trouble?”, or “my township would make me tear that down!” The questions and comments of this nature just kept rolling in. In fact, Linda is now in her sixth year of her front yard garden with no issues or complaints from neighbors, etc. Thus, I thought it would be useful to interview Linda and learn from her about how she was able to have this incredible front-yard garden in a suburban area, explore some strategies that she used, and share those strategies with others.  If more of us can do the kind of thing Linda is doing—converting lawns that consume resources to gardens that provide food for people and wildlife, nectary sources for insects, and so much more, we can really begin to make positive change in this world and vision a brighter future.

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm - August 2021

Natures Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm – August 2021

Dana: Tell me about your vision for Nature’s Permauclture Urban Farm.

Linda: As I’m seeing it evolve, the word permaculture plays an integral role.  Because we need to build community, protect the environment, and people can also learn how to make a sustainable future, sustainable income, and way of sharing knowledge with others.  That’s why I wanted to convert my lawn.  I wasn’t only about food but about cultivating good habits and activities.

Dana:  You were originally an organic farmer farming 10 acres, right?

Linda:  Yes, so when I moved here, I moved from 10 acres to a 50×50 growing space. I brought a lot of what I knew but here, because it was so visible, I wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing.  I wanted to make it “landscapey” but not a traditional landscape.  But I knew it had to be very visually appealing to the eye.

Dana:  You are on the edge of a small town in suburbia, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood.  And you have this front yard garden that everybody can see.  So, tell me about your garden.

Linda:  When I came to the place, I was just thinking that I needed a place to put my hands in the soil. I stood out in the middle of the road and I said, what can I do with this? Its only 50×50.  So I said to myself, “Ok, I’m going to create a garden. But it can’t be a boring square garden.”  I’m not into lines, I’m into curves.  The earth isn’t straight, its curvy.  So, it was something where I said—I need food, my community needs food, I want wildlife comfortable here: insects, frogs, snakes, dragonflies, etc. So when I created the garden, I was thinking about both wildlife and people and their needs. And really, I wanted to be happy in nature when I walked out of my front door, rather than seeing the lawn.

Dana: So you essentially transformed this lawn, plain grass, into this amazing garden.  Do you have a sense of how much food you are producing?

Linda:  On average, enough to feed 20 or 30 people from the greens each week, thousands of pounds of produce per year. So for the first five years, every week, I was going to the farmer’s market.  And I had more than enough for that capability out of this garden. Now, I’m doing the market every other week.

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Linda harvests kale for the farmers market

Dana: So you are literally able to go to the farmer’s market each week and sell just from this 50×50 square foot space?  This really tells readers just how much you are able to produce here.

 

Linda:  I do French intensive agriculture methods, which includes succession planting and companion planting.  While I can’t be certified organic here, I use all natural methods for pest control.  These include using yellow and blue sticky plates for bug control, neem oil, cayenne pepper for slugs, dog hair to keep out rabbits, and much more.

We do have 4000 acres of wild lands behind this neighborhood, but the protocols that I use here keep the deer away.  I use onions lining every bed and herbs (sage, thyme, and lavender) lining the garden.  I don’t have any fencing, because that would detract from the beauty of it. I can sell and give the herbs away too, and they keep away the deer, and they also provide food for pollinators.

Dana: Obviously there’s a lot of people out there in similar circumstances to what you are in: they live in suburbia. They have a very small space, maybe 50×50 or even smaller.  And they are looking at this lawn and saying “this isn’t sustainable” and they are looking to grow some food and cultivate some habitat. But at the same time, in this region, we have several examples of families that have put in a front yard garden only to have their township make them bulldoze it.  Can you talk us through the steps that you did to come to this place where you had a very successful front yard garden that is welcomed by your community?  Specifically, how did you navigate the laws, ordinances, and neighborhood requirements?

Linda:  This garden is now six years old and I’ve never had a problem with neighbors complaining or the township.  Basically, when I stood out and looked at my new home, I had about a month to get everything in the ground before winter came.  I realized that I was the new person on the block, so I had to introduce myself to the neighbors.  And some way or another, I had to tell them what I was planning on doing. I had the vision in my mind, and I knew what it was, but I needed them on board. So I took them cookies. I took them lavender lemon shortbread cookies and I opened up a conversation with them.  I told them I was planning on making a garden in my front yard.

Bean arch in front pathway

Bean arch in front pathway

I also drove around the town to see if there was anyone who was doing something similar in my town.  I saw 2 or 3 places where someone was doing something like this in their front yard, but more landscaped. But I noticed that these didn’t have a focal point, or a flow. It wasn’t beautiful enough. It was choppy. I had to think about the long term: the shade, the rain, the sun, the water, the wind, but also the people and how they perceive it in all of the different seasons.

I next went to the township and I asked them, I’m thinking of putting an edible garden landscape in my front yard.  I didn’t call it a garden, I called it an “edible landscape” which may have helped. I spoke to the head guy in zoning, he says,  you can do that as long as there are no weeds growing. He gave me a piece of paper with the ordinances and I took it home and read it. It said anytime you put more than 5 yards of soil down, you have to have approval.  But soil is not compost. Soil has rock that’s broken down, minerals, etc. Compost is leaves, plants, and brush that is all organic matter.  So, if I put compost down and not soil, I can get away with it.

Dana:  So it was kind of a technicality but it worked.

Linda:  It was a technicality but I could win on it if anyone wanted to challenge me. So once I got the OK from the neighbors (because they could turn me in anytime they wanted) and I got the OK from the township, I went for it.

When I moved in, the front yard had one large and two small ornamental trees. I had these taken down and mulched so I could use the mulch in the gardens and in the paths. In other words, all of that organic matter was put right back on the property.

But back to the landscape. I knew that if this was going to be successful, I had to make something extremely visually pleasing so that the neighbors won’t complain. I decided against raised beds like I did in the past because that’s too constrictive and it’s something they are used to seeing and it may look too much like a garden. I saw how my elevation mattered. The two houses on either side of me were higher, so I was in a low area. And so I had to make it contour.  I did a combination of curves and wood chips, that way if I had heavy rains, I wouldn’t have any issues and the water would be able to soak right in.

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

Front yard curves of lettuce, brassicas, herbs, onions, and more!

But when things started happening, people were walking by. They would stand and stare.  Little kids would come, and they wanted to play. The paths were like an energy run for them.  They just wanted to run thorough those curvy paths.

 

What I have found out is that people think its work.  But little children see it a form of play, they want to play and help.  So that makes it fun for them.

 

Dana:  I want to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects because these seem to be one of the key aspects that can really help you do this.  It’s not just about growing vegetables and replacing the lawn.  It’s about inhabiting a space in a way that makes it truly beautiful. When people stop, rather than say “look at this garden that looks like an eyesore” they say “wow!”  Can you say more about that?  How do you create that?

Linda:  It’s a good question, because in my previous farm, I had 10 acres that was far from neighbors.  And my farm there was very constricted.  They were square with lines. And I realized that that’s easy because its farming. A lot of arms are really functional, but not necessary aesthetically pleasing.

And so I drew upon some of the things that people would do to a typical lawn and typical front yard.  But to not have it visually dead with lines.  I needed something that would come alive, that the eye would move through the space, just like a nice piece of artwork.   There’s something about the eye enjoying flow, the curve.

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

Three sisters: corn, beans, and cukes along the driveway

For example, my feeling was, to have flowers in the front, so when I looked out my window I could see insects and bugs and they would be beautiful next to the house. Flowers with long bloom times so that something was always blooming during the summer.

Dana:  Yeah, you really can see that when you walk up to your garden—your Yarden.  It does take you in.  The waves and the curves really take you in.

Linda:  Yeah! I kept playing around with these designs and the garden evolved.  I tried different angles, to figure out how it would look good from the side, from behind, from within it. The goal was to make it good from all of these different angles and offer a visual experience.

Dana:  That’s really important to people. Because for your neighbors, they don’t want to feel like their home values are being degraded because of someone’s front yard garden or an unruly yard. So, from what you are saying, if you are going to do this work, you have to do it in a way that is very visually appealing to people.

Linda: Yes.  You are right because one of my siblings, when I was planning this, she said to me ‘Linda you are going to have to tear this apart because nobody is going to like it.” So she was a naysayer before I started it. Once it was done, and the curves were there, dark black compost flowing around, and the contrast of the paths, then she said “Well, we’ll see what happens in the spring.”  And then, my neighbors were asking, what’s going to happen in the spring?  And the lady across the street said, “Just watch.”

So the overall design is this: the flowers next to the house are the accent point. The greens are flowing with the paths. You get a lot of eye entertainment.  And I don’t have your typical landscape flowers: there are no lilies, Hostas, etc. That seems to be the go-around for everyone’s yard around here.  I said, Hollyhock! The old-fashioned stuff, pollinator friendly, things that they haven’t seen before.

Dana:  How do you continue to engage in a dialogue with your neighbors about this garden?  We were out there just a little while ago and one of your neighbors stopped by, and talked to you when we were out there!

View from driveway

View from driveway

Linda:  I’ll tell you what.  That was the part I didn’t mentally think about when I started doing this. I started doing this for my own gratification, to keep my energy flowing, and to get my hands in the soil, for my exercise and health. But then the neighbors started asking, “hey, can I have some of your produce?”  For example, one of my neighbors stopped by last night for kale and salad greens. My other neighbor is pregnant and loves cucumbers; I make sure she gets them.  The neighbor girls on the other side here love eating raw cucumbers. So, it was a just a matter of putting it out there. Recently I had some organic farming students from Oakland University come to learn here. East River Organics wanted a design done, which I worked on, and they brought the person who was going to implement the design out to take a look at my garden, because this is what they wanted to do for a new project to do garden outreach to differently abled people.

So I’m at that step now, where, after five years, I know it’s happening and its ok.  And it’s starting to really bring people in! Someone asked me, why am I not in the newspaper? I don’t know! I’m not quite ready for that.

Dana: Well at this point, if you were going to get in trouble for the garden, it would have already happened. And, I think what’s key here, is that you engaged in a dialogue with the right people early on, and you continued to have a positive relationship with your neighbors.  But it sounds like if you want to be successful at doing this, it’s about doing that ongoing engagement work first and foremost, rather than just doing it on your own. You live in a community and you have to engage in that community as you are planning and implementing your garden.

Linda:  Yes exactly.  One the big comments I get is about how much work it is. A lot of my neighbors work and say “I don’t have the time to do this.”  It’s hard, the word “work”.  I don’t really see this as work.

Dana:  Can you talk a bit about the backyard? I know you have a food forest going back there.

Linda:  I have a space about 25×50 back there and its evolving.  I have a sugar maple overstory.  I have three paw paw trees, raspberries, black cohosh, strawberry, sweetgrass, other understory plants.  I have ramps, from you, thank you.  I share how to harvest them with the kids—just take a piece of the leaf.  These are things you don’t see at the store.  When the pawpaw come into fruit, which should be next year, it will be a wonderful chance to educate the kids.

Dana:  It sounds like you have more annual sun agriculture in the front and shaded perennial agriculture in the backyard.  And you’ve gotten rid of almost all of the lawn.

Linda:  Yes, just enough to have some paths or for someone to park their car if necessary.  But there’s no reason for more lawn—I am converting every bit of it into something that benefits nature and the community.

Dana: I know you are transitioning away from the farmer’s market and working to make this more of an educational space in the future. Can you share more about that?

Dana and Linda

Dana and Linda

Linda:  Yes, that’s where I will be needing to do more promotion.  I’ve already connected with many people in my area who are interested in organic practices. The garden is also a big draw to children; children see vegetables in the grocery store, but I’m growing some different things that are really exciting to them. Like the Asian long bean, it’s over a foot long. The kids come up, I give them a bean, and they walk away happy. It’s like candy to them!

So for me, the next step is working less on the market gardening and more on educating, promoting, teaching others how to do this.  If someone wants to break up their landscape, there are so many things that they can do that will still look visually appealing and move them away from the lawn.  For example, blueberries.

Dana:  Let’s return to this idea of work and a garden being “too much work.” So tell me about the work of this?

Linda:  Well, you don’t have to mow your lawn if there is no lawn to mow! And I get plenty of exercise and have no need for a gym membership. This garden is my workout.  It is physical, but rather than lifting weights, I’m lifting soil or compost! Mulch! Especially as I get older, it’s also a way for me to stay healthy and strong.  I also see it as meditation.  I am out in the sun and getting my Vitamin D.  I am keeping myself moving, I’m not rickety or creaky. I can move 10 yards of compost, even in my late 60s!

Dana:  It does seem like there are so many benefits: food you are producing,  an income, the exercise, educating people, not having a consumptive lawn, meditation, health benefits,  providing a vision for the future.  Showing all of this in a way that demonstrates that it can be sustaining, and joyful!  There just seems like there are no reasons not to do this!

Linda:  Yeah! I love the way you presented that thought. That’s what it is all about for me.  I am so happy that this garden is such a place for joy. I have a tendency to be modest, but I do think that the front yard garden speaks for itself. I am speaking through the language of my garden.

Dana:  Well, thank you so much for your time and expertise, Linda!

To conclude, Linda’s garden is really a source of joy for all who visit it.  And somehow, she has found a “magical formula” to living in a suburban area with hosing restrictions, codes, and township laws—through cookies, through making it visually appealing, and through always thinking about the needs of her community.

Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Black Willow (Salix nigra) – Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Uses

Me under a giant fallen, but yet living, willow tree!

Me under a giant fallen, but yet living, willow tree!

One of my earliest memories was of three ancient black willow trees that were down by a little creek where I lived.  Although we lived on a busy crossroads in town, the stream and willows in the backyard were a quiet place, guarded by those three old willows. They looked like gnarled old women, sitting by the edge of the stream, their long branches swaying gently in the wind.  When the stream waters would rise, sometimes they would look like they were wading there, branches swaying in the current.  The Black Willow is an incredible tree, the largest Willow native to North America, and a great tree to get to know.

The Black Willow is also known as the Swamp Willow, Sauz, Dudley Willow, or the Gulf Black Willow.  It is native to all of Eastern North America, from the lower edge of Maine the entire way to the top of Florida, and across into Texas and into the upper midwest.  A second area where Black Willow is native is scattered throughout California and New Mexico.  A true North American tree, the Black Willow is a delightful tree to get to know and work with!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tamarak, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Black Willow is North American’s largest native willow species, with over 100 native willow species growing here (and nearly 300 willow species globally). An ancient Black Willow is quite a sight to behold! The Black Willow is often found as a solitary tree, growing as a single tree or in small groups of Black Willow Trees.  Black Willow is shade intolerant and prefers wet areas along streams, rivers, lakes, and swamps.  Black willow reaches heights of 100 feet or more and can get 3-5 feet thick when old. Black willow prefers to grow at or just above the water level, where it is happily subjected to seasonal floods.

Learning basket weaving from downed black willow

Learning basket weaving from downed black willow

The tree has a rather gnarled and chaotic appearance due to its growth habit–many young suckers and branches grow out of the tree and then, as the floods come, the branches break off and can take root anywhere along the waterway.  As a tree that lives on the edge of waterways, its branches are purposefully brittle and as they break off, then they can be moved by the water and can sprout and take root at later points on the waterway.   The other way the tree reproduces is with a seed crop, which female trees can produce each year.  Black willow is dioecious, which means that it has separate male and female trees.  To germinate, the seeds must be in full sun with soil that is very wet or flooded.  If they have these conditions, they can grow three or more feet in one growing season.

Because Black Willow can easily handle floods and wet conditions, black willows are able to develop water roots in extremely wet conditions.  In drought conditions, black willows stop branch and root growth until the waters come again.

In the spring, the Black Willow flowers early, usually with the emergence of the first new leaves.  All Salix species have at least two kinds of leaves–the first leaves that come out from the bud (called “preformed”) and as the branch exhibits vigorous growth (common in a season), the new leaves are called “neoformed” leaves.

According to John Eastman in The Book of Swamp and Bog, Willow serves as a core species for an incredible number of species, including many kinds of pollen eating bees (honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary ground-nesting bees), many kinds of beetles, and butterfly caterpillars including tortoiseshell butterflies, moth caterpillars, and fly larvae.  If you see a tree with large galls, this is likely a result of Crown Gall or Canker (which lives in the soil).  These cankers are particularly problematic in dry/drought conditions and severely affected willows can be even more gnarled in appearance.

A primary ecological function of Willow is erosion control, as Willows live right along the water’s edge and can handle flooding, the Willow stands strong and holds the soil back with her extensive root system.

Human Uses: Food and Wood

Beautiful Black Willows in the Distance while on the water

The Black Willow is the only native willow in the United States to be commercially used as a timber tree.  Its uses include furniture, shipping containers, fishing nets, and even artificial limbs (wooden legs, wooden hands, etc).  The wood of the Black Willow is extremely lightweight, has good shock resistance, and does not splinter easily, making it ideal for certain applications.  In an emergency situation, the inner bark of the willow can be used as a food source, but it is very bitter and unpalatable.

Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes a very extensive set of uses for Black Willow among Native American tribes and early white settlers in North America. Due to its extremely flexible nature, the branches of willow were used to make a variety of tools: snowshoes, baskets, fishing nets (the inner bark of the willow makes a very nice thin twine), bows, and more.  Even today uses of Black Willow and our other native willow species can be seen in the bushcraft community for making baskets, mats, snowshoes, sleds, and more.

When tobacco was scarce, the Ojibwe smoked black willow bark, which is very astringent and thus, would produce very good smoke.  The Micmac-Montagnais used Black Willow root as a source for black dye.

Today, Black Willow is used for a wide variety of land healing, remediation, and restoration techniques. The first use is in erosion control. Riparian zones (zones next to rivers/streams that are prone to flooding) are a major source of focus for conservation today, especially due to the ongoing and significant loss of topsoil due to industrial farming practices. Because of its flood resistance, Black willow is an excellent choice to be planted along riparian zones (along with other water-loving plants and trees like Sycamore and Black Elder).

The second use is in a wide range of remediation and phytorestoration techniques, particularly for the uptake of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals in soil and water such as lead, cadmium, or copper. Black Willow has been planted to help contain poisonous and contaminated water from landfills (according to one study).  Willow has also been used to address Cadmium poisoning as a remedial plant. This is particularly true if the poisonous matter is well below the surface (Black willow is not as good as taking up surface-level toxicity, such as lead, as described in this study). Many different kinds of Willows are effective at this work, as this study shows.  Black willow has also been used to remediate soils with copper toxicity.  Finally, Black Willow also has shown promise as a chemical remediation tree–chemicals, like Bentazon, can be drawn up with Black Willow where they are exposed to the sun and broken down.

I find all of this recent research really important for the future of our planet. I am so thankful that the Black Willow is willing to work with us to do the “dirty work” of healing, literally taking the poison into herself, poisons that humans created and dumped so that the land can be clean for others.  What a gift.

Human Uses: Medicine

Both Black Willow and White Willow (European) are one of the primary sources of salicin, the primary ingredient in Asprin.  Salicin also can be found in black birch bark as well as wintergreen leaves.  Salicins produce pain-relieving properties and continue to be used extensively in herbal medicine for this purpose.  According to John Eastman, Salicin was first isolated from willow bark in 1829 and used to eventually, Asprin.  Now, Asprin is chemically synthesized.

Beyond pain-relieving qualities, however, the Black Willow is distinct in its herbal medicine.  In The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood indicates that Black Willow is bitter, dry, and astringent.  It was often used as a sexual tonic including for the treatment of impotence, for nervous disorders, for ovarian pain during or before the menses, and for other estrogen imbalance. Black willow was also sued for a variety of other conditions including sores, ulcers, pain, rheumatism/arthritis, and more.

The bark is best gathered when the willows are in flower and the sap is flowing, but it can be gathered any other time there is need.  If you gather it then, you can dry and store the bark in a cool, dark place till future need.  Or you can produce a tincture, which can store indefinitely.

According to Charlotte Erichsen-Brown,  as early as 1633, green willow boughs were brought into the home and placed around a person who was suffering from a fever to “cool the air” and help heal them.  Traditional uses also included using the bark of black willow to create a poultice for ulcers and open sores, including those with gangrene.  A decoction (strong tea) of willow was widely used to treat infections and for pain healing, as well as to wash wounds and external skin issues.  Another use of Black Willow was a substitute for quinine (along with Flowering Dogwood).

Black Willow in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Willow as a tree species has a strong place in the global traditions, although Black Willow, in particular, is less known.

Two references specifically about Black Willow come from the American Folk Magic traditions. In Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode notes that Willow can be used in controlling magic.  A person goes and cuts a root from a willow tree at dawn, naming the person who they are working to control.  The root is wrapped in red flannel with herbs and sewn up, then dressed with Hoyt’s cologne and carried. In New World Witchery: A Trove of North American Folk Magic, Cory Thomas Hutcheson notes the inclusion of willow in some spring tonic blends in parts of Appalachia, which obviously have a magical component. (Here in Northern Appalachia, the spring tonic blend is often dandelion root and sassafras root, so I had not heard of this!)

Black Willow on the edge of the lake

More generally, we have a great deal on the mythology and mystery of willow trees from Europe.  For example, Willow is also one of the ogham trees. In The Wisdom of Trees: Mysteries, Magic, and Medicine, Jane Gifford notes that Willow trees are tied to moon magic, enchantment, and are also known as a tree of immortality for the willow’s ability to regrow a tree from a single lost branch. In Celtic Tree Mysteries: Practical Druid Magic and Divination by Steve Blamires, willow represents new life and freedom, and the fact that it sits on the borders of water may indicate an otherworld connection.  He also notes that willow gives us the strength to be able to accept our own place in the broader world and do good with that position.  The Celts saw the willow as a tree that was ruled by the moon, had feminine energy, and that could help people tap into their subconscious and experience visions.

The Magical and Divination Meanings of Black Willow

Pain Relief: Due to Black Willow’s use as a pain-relieving herb and tied to the broader human uses of the willow tree, Black Willow’s first theme is pain relief.  When we are in pain, we can reach out to black willow, sit beneath her wonderful branches, and have some relief.  If you

Aiding in the removal of Toxicity:  Willow’s use as a plant to uptake and aid in the removal of toxicity is critical to the health of our world and ourselves.  I see Black Willow as aiding is in removing toxicity both within and without.  Just as Black Willow is able to work with us to draw forth positions in the soil, healing the earth, so can Black Willow help us work deeply to root out poisons in our own psyche and spirits.  She is a powerful ally in this work.

Navigating the Subconscious: Tied to Willow’s watery placement and also tied to broader global mythology about the willow, the Black Willow may also help us better access and navigate our subconscious.  According to Carl Jung, the subconscious can be accessed through dreaming, mandala work, active imagination (or what we druids might call journeying or astral travel), and also through creative practices.  Willow can be a gateway to our accessing, expressing, and understanding the subconscious self.

Dear readers, I would love to hear more about how you’ve used Black Willow, your experiences with Black Willow, and anything else you’d love to share about willow trees!

Embracing the Wilds at Lughnasadh

 

Wildlife

Wildlife

When you think of the term “wild”, what comes to mind? Perhaps wild can be defined by that which is its opposite: civilized, tame, domesticated, and controlled.  Wild, on the other hand, is free, unrestricted, unbounded, and sovereign.  And while I resist binaries, there does seem to be some truth in the difference between that which is wild and that which is tame–a manicured city street vs. an old-growth forest has a world of difference: in the smell, in the biodiversity present, and in the energy of the space.  A wild place is hugely biodiverse and serves the needs of a wide variety of species. A wild space is in a place of ecological balance, where all resources are cycled and used. The human-tamed spaces are most frequently designed for human needs exclusively, and in the modern age, are also prime producers of pollution and waste. There’s, of course, also a lot of spaces in between.  What happens when we embrace some of this wildness and wilderness in our own lives? What can happen when we bring it back into our lives–both internally and externally–and allow nature to offer her wisdom?

Lughnasadh is a great time for this kind of work, here in the Northern Hemisphere, because this is a time when many of the plants and life are at their “peak” for the year.  This is when the seed heads ripen, the fruits of the forest grow extremely abundant, and this is a time when the land is at its fullest and greenest of the year.  In other words, if you want to embrace the wilds, starting at the peak time is a great time to do so.

Why embrace the wilds?

Embracing the wilds both within and without is important work in a few directions: the first is from a standpoint of global sustainability. Here in the US, over 80% of our population lives in urban areas–areas that are, essentially, the most catered to human needs, and when nature takes place in them, nature is tamed, shaped, and molded mostly to human needs.  When nature is encountered, it is typically tamed and shaped, with only certain kinds of nature able to thrive (or adapt) in these settings. Take the lovely trees planted in lines on the edge of your street, or the carefully manicured lawns of suburbia. A lot of the most destructive practices currently that everyday people do are in the name of taming nature–spraying the weeds, mowing the grass, or otherwise preventing nature from “taking over.”While climate change is certainly one of the most dominant forces shaping the 6th mass extinction globally, it is also the loss of habitat–the conversion of wild spaces to human-centered domestic ones–that is also a leading factor. So thinking about allowing for more wild spaces, even in human-centered ones, is one way to help reverse the present course.

Wild spaces to run free

Wild spaces to run free

But there is a massive mindset component to not having the experience of wild spaces and wild nature close by or by being surrounded constantly by human-driven spaces. If 80% of the population of the US, and 50% of the population globally live in cities–more and more people in the world are experiencing almost no wild spaces on a daily basis. What happens, I believe, is that when we live in these spaces, we start to think that they are somehow “natural” because that’s always what we see.  Think about lawns or carefully manicured streets–if you grew up seeing these every day, then that is “normalized” in your mind and that’s what you start to expect.  In English, we can see that bias in our language away from undomesticated spaces in phrases like, “that yard is overgrown” or “too many weeds” or a wild space looks “unkempt” and even “yard waste”!  This really does a number on our minds: it turns us away from nature and her healing wisdom and makes us privilege and believe (even subconsciously) that human-dominated spaces are what is normal or right.  I think it could be time for a powerful shift in thinking!

So…enter rewilding and embracing the wilds.  Creating space for wild spaces, untended spaces, and an untended and undomesticated way of thinking can greatly support any nature-based spiritual practice.  So rather than sharing rituals for Lughnasadh, I’m sharing a set of practices you might do to bring some rewilding into your life!

Rewilding Nature and Rewilding Ourselves

This section offers some background on the ideas presented and also offers some basic definitions for the principle of rewilding.  If you want to get right to the practices, go to the section below!

Wild edge on the lake

While definitions vary, the basic practices and assumptions of rewilding in nature is a particular approach to ecological conservation that recognizes that nature can take care of itself and works to reduce human control over land. That is, if an ecosystem is whole and functional, it is self-sustaining and does not require extensive human management (particularly “modern” management techniques which are often thinly veiled attempts at resource extraction, such as the “forest management” techniques we have here in the Allegheny mountains).  Thus, rewilding techniques often include things like re-introducing apex predators (see this video on re-introducing Wolves to Yellowstone for a nice example of how this works), migration corridors, removing damns, and limiting human “management” techniques (especially as many of these are rooted not in care but profit).  The whole premise re-frames nature as the one that has the ultimate wisdom about how to best thrive, and that natural spaces can be at their utmost health if they are allowed to be wild. Here in the US, the idea of rewilding is only starting to take off, but it’s much more prevalent in Europe and other places where much more of the landmass is taken up by people (for example, in the UK, only 13% of the landmass is forest, where here in the US about 33% is forested.  Rewilding has a few principles worth sharing. Here in the US, there are still lots of wild places you can get lost in–forests, deserts, national reserved, BLM lands, and the like.

One of the questions you might ask is, but what about other techniques like permaculture, organic gardening, etc? There is ample is room for both. Rewilding land management practices suggest that while much of our lands can be left to simply be wild, we are still in need of regenerative practices for how we live in our everyday spaces–our homes, our cities, our agricultural practices, etc.  And it is in these human-dominated spaces that is where things like permauclture apply–they apply to the 1/2 acre garden, they apply to the city park, and they certainly apply to the suburban lawn.  Permaculture also uses rewilding concepts–a perennial food forest is a wilder space that is planted and then managed primarily through harvest.  I see both rewilding and permaculture as equally important in helping shape a balanced approach to life in the present and future.

Many folks who are into rewilding also recognize that this same practice can be applied to people.  Modern civilization breeds a host of diseases of the body and mind that are products of the tight control of domestication: apathy, depression, feeling that life has no meaning, anxiety, fear, violence towards self and others, and obesity, to name a few.  Civilization may have many benefits, but ultimately, we are just another animal on this planet, and much more of our evolution was spent living like another animal working with nature to provide our needs than living as the modern-day demands–disconnected from the living earth. In fact, culture sends this message strongly: that you are not whole, that you are not right as you are, but rather, you can only be fixed by this pharmaceutical, or product, or specialist service. The principle of rewilding suggests that everything you need for wholeness can be found in nature, and by experiencing nature closer and becoming more aligned with the wild parts of nature, you can heal yourself.  It is beautifully aligned with nature spirituality and can take practices like druidry in some really fantastic directions. While there are varying degrees of personal rewilding practices, I’ll share a few here.

Enter the Wilds

The most basic rewilding practice you can do is simply to go into wild places and spend time there.  In most places, there are different kinds of wild spaces, and learning about your local region can help you select spaces that are wilder to spend time in. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, we have different kinds of public lands that are managed in different ways.  State parks are usually highly managed, state forests less so, and wilderness areas being the least of all managed. Pennsylvania currently has eighteen areas designated “Wilderness” areas that have no land management (detailed here). I’ve done overnight trips in three of these areas and they are so different in character than more managed spaces.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time in more wild spaces before, you might work yourself up to that.  Start with camping in a campground, and then shift to more primitive camping where you bring your backpack and more minimal supplies.  Find friends who have gear or are experienced in doing this. You can even work yourself up to more primitive camping once you’ve built up the skillset where you forage for food, build basic shelters, etc.  The point here is to experience more of nature and less of the domestic spaces that dominate our lives.

So what do you do when you enter these wild spaces?  The nice thing about them is that you’ll rarely encounter any other people if you’ve chosen carefully. My suggestion is to just be wild. Let loose.  Be undomesticated. Have a joyful and fun time.  Commune with nature.  Recognize that you are part of nature–and experience that joy. And see the next section for more “wild” practices you can embrace.

Allowing Yourself to Be Wild

Spending some time in a wild and undomesticated state means throwing off the trappings of civilization and simply living in the moment. This kind of thing is best done in a wild space, but you can do it in a private setting of any kind (even a private backyard!).  Let your inhibitions go–you can literally ritualize this where you envision yourself removing your inhibitions and behavioral norms and becoming free.

Swim naked in the stream. Paint yourself with berries and clay. Run naked in the rain and laugh as it hits your cheeks. Take off your shoes and climb on the rocks. Listen to the sound of the birds and call them in response. Pay attention to the movement of the animals and see if you can move like they do.  Explore. Talk with the stones. Eat wild foods (those that you know, of course).  Lay under the sun. Get dirty and muddy. Create a completely free and unstructured experience for yourself where you are deeply engaging with your senses and simply engaging in play. Spent time just moving–feel your body, be in your body.  Run with the wind, jump, dance, sing as loud as you can, and just feel yourself being free.

Get to know some wild spaces, like this forest bog!

A major change that can facilitate this wild state is removing footwear: try going barefoot or go with a pair of homemade moccasins. This past year, I’ve been wearing moccasins with increasing frequency to really feel the earth beneath my feet or going barefoot. If you want to go the moccasin route highly recommend the patterns from Earthing Moccasins –they are affordable and will protect your feet but still allow you to experience nature.

Also, turn your phone off or leave it at home. Don’t document your experience–simply live it.  Live in the moment.  This is a liberating ritual for yourself and doesn’t need to be documented and shared on social media. Put away the trappings of technology and simply be a primate living in nature!

If you notice, all of my suggestions above are embodied ones.  Modern culture tries to disconnect us from our bodies through technology, long sedentary office jobs, and a whole set of expectations that keep us acting and thinking like everyone else. Remove those trappings as much as you are able to.  Finding a way back into your senses, your body, and your status as part of nature can be so incredibly rich and healthful.

Rewilding the Mind

Rewilding is as much about inner change as it is about outer change. We can find ways of being more wild and free in part by changing our mindsets towards our daily life. It can be a good time to reflect on your own life–how can you bring a bit more nature, freedom, creativity, and wildness in? There is so much inner work that you can do on these topics, here are just a few ideas to get you started

  • Recognizing the personhood and sovereignty of all living beings
  • Learning to trust your intuition and your own inner knowing rather than paying attention to what external voices/society tells you
  • Exploring and extending your relationship with nature in many different ways
  • Exploring your subconscious through creative practices, dreams, and meditation
  • Exploring and changing how language shapes our thoughts (and interrogating words like progress, growth, wild, unkempt, etc)
  • Exploring and changing how we view wild and domestic spaces

For more in this line of thinking, you might want to see the online course “Surviving Civilization” by Rewild University, which helps you find ways of rewilding your life and thriving in a challenging time.

Perhaps this isn’t my typical “ritual” post for a holiday, but I think that we can expand and broaden our notions of nature spirituality by simply experiencing different ways of integrating ourselves back with the living earth.  I would love to hear more from you–how have you rewilded your life? Have you participated in any rewilding projects?  What benefits have you had from doing so?

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Eastern Sycamore (Plantaus Occidentalis) – Magic, Medicine, Ecology and Uses

The glorious sycamore tree!

The glorious sycamore tree!

Here in Western Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful set of scenic rivers that lend themselves to kayaking, whitewater rafting, and overnight kayak camping trips. This is one of my favorite pastimes, especially as climate change has had the tick population skyrocket in the last 10 or so years and pushed us into more heatwaves. One of the quintessential features of our waterways here are the Sycamore trees. Sycamores are easy to spot even at a distance: the mottled bark, dark on the bottom and giving way in patches to light white tips; the craggy and interesting growth formation, making the trees appear whimsical and distinct. As you kayak through many parts of Western PA on our larger rivers, you will encounter these little islands that are held there by many old, weathered and small sycamores.  As you drive through the countryside, you will find many river valleys just full of sycamores of various sizes and heights. Sycamores are synonymous with moving water here, and they are truly a delight to experience.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the North American East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Sycamore is often called buttonwood, buttonball, American sycamore, American Planetree, western Plane, Occidental Plane, or water beech, has a native range stretching from Vermont to the bottom of Georgia and across the midwest into Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa.  Thus, it spans most of the eastern seaboard and midwest and is quite common throughout its range.  It has also adapted to life outside of its range and thus can be found in other parts of the US, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina.

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves

The Sycamore tree is the largest deciduous tree located in Eastern North America -they can typically grow up to 130 or more feet high and get to more than 6 feet in diameter. The “Buttonball Tree” is the largest Sycamore in the world at present. Buttonball tree is located in Sunderland, Massacutsess, and is 174 feet high and 4 feet in diameter.  Pennsylvania’s largest sycamore is 148 feet tall and is actually located in one of my favorite kayaking spots–a wilderness Island on the Allegheny River in North-western Pennsylvania.  The Allegheny Sycamore along with her millions of siblings line the Allegheny river and help control erosion.

The Eastern Sycamore is a beautiful tree that is very easy to identify because of its distinctive bark pattern–the darker bark flakes off in puzzle piece shapes to reveal lighter bark underneath, giving the tree a look almost like a jersey cow!  I love the way the sycamores grow–at odd angles, with strange knobs on the branches and exposed roots.  They really have a quite magical and whimsical appearance.  Sycamore often grows with divided trunks or secondary trunks as they age, and has a very open spread of limbs branching out.

In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman notes that the sycamore can grow up to 70 feet in only 17 years, making it both very fast-growing and yet long-lived. It is shade intolerant, which is part of why it grows so well on our sunny waterways. He also notes that it is common for mature trees to develop hollow portions within their trunks where the inner wood decays.  This creates a great home for opossum, raccoon, wood duck, owls, birds, bats, and more. Sycamore is often found with other lowland species, including Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Silver Maple, American Elm, Ironwood, and Elder.

Sycamore on the edge of the river holding back erosion!

The sycamore has small flowers in round (globose) heads that bloom April – June depending on the region, and the flowers give way to a hanging seed pod that is a tight round ball that dangles from the tree.  The seed ball persists throughout fall and winter and is about 1″ or so across.  In the winter, you can see the sycamores with thousands of seed balls dangling, looking mightily festive!  The leaves resemble maple leaves but with less pronounced lobes; the leaves are usually 5-10″ long with 3-5 lobed areas.

One of the threats to Sycamore is the anthracnose canker, which was introduced by importing Plantaus Orientalis (the Oriental Plane).  Plantaus Orientalis is very resistant to anthracnose, but American Sycamore is not.  While the canker will not kill the tree outright, it will often defoliate the tree in spring.  If you see a “witches broom” on a sycamore (a huge mass of tangled branches) this is one sign that the tree is battling the anthracnose canker.

One of the major functions of the Sycamore ecologically is to control erosion–the extensive root structures, even among small patches of tiny sycamore, will hold hillsides, banks, and islands in place from the fiercest floods.  The small seedlings will grow all over small islands in rivers and all along banks, and can handle being completely submerged during seasonal flooding and will bounce right back once the floods are over.  This is a tree that understands how to endure the rise and fall of the rivers and is evolved to do so.  While we do have willows in the region, they are more found along with areas of standing water like lakes or marshes and are not as dominant in this function as the mighty Sycamore.

The American sycamore once had a much wider range–it once grew abundantly in the forests of Greenland and the Arctic in the Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago) and Phanerozoic eras (66 million to 2.6 million).

Human Uses

American Sycamore was once extensively planted as a shade tree in cities and can handle a city environment.  However, due to the effects of the anthracnose canker and the defoliation that the canker causes, London Plane (resistant) is often planted instead.

The wood of the sycamore is heavy and quite hard, but also difficult to work.  It is coarse-grained and twisted, but brittle. Traditionally, this is the wood used for butcher blocks as well as barrels, boxes, crates, drums, pails, and various kinds of storage devices.  Occasionally, it is also used to make furniture, siding, and musical instruments.  I couldn’t find this in any of my sources, but it strikes me that people also made buttons from this tree, hence the buttonwood name. Sometimes these folk names are a really good indication of what the tree was once used for.

According to Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood, the Sycamore was used extensively by eastern indigenous peoples to create huge dugout canoes that could hold 10-30 or more people.  They used massive sycamore trunks for this task and would chip and burn away the wood.

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Another human use of the Sycamore is also tied to water–the Sycamore is one tree that can be tapped in the spring as an emergency clean water source and also for boiling down the sap.  While I have not boiled the sap, Euell Gibbons has.  According to stalking the wild asparagus, Gibbons collected copious amounts of sap from the tree and boiled it down, getting a scant amount of sap that tasted like bad molasses. So after his report, I’m not too keen to try!

Beyond these uses, the American Sycamore does not appear in the magical sources I frequently consult, including those in the western occult tradition, herbal material medicas, American hoodoo, PA dutch traditions, and more.  There are historical references to other Plantaus species that are common to Europe or to the Biblical Sycamore (which is a fig tree), but there does not appear to be any magical tradition based in North America for the sycamore.  I don’t want to present this information on other sycamores as it does not apply to American Sycamore, so I will instead base the rest of this based on the ecological and traditional folk functions of the tree.

The Magic and Divination Of the Sycamore Tree

Because of the lack of a magical or even herbal tradition of this tree, I am going to draw upon this tree’s ecological function to consider how we might use it for magic and divination practices.

Helping us navigate “watery” issues. In druidry, the realm of water (tied to the west) is tied to our emotions and mental selves.  Sycamore, being traditionally both located on the waterways and also used for large boats and navigation, is a perfect tree to help us work with our emotions productively, understand our emotions, and navigate emotional issues with others.

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Dealing with trauma and intense emotions. A second feature of the sycamore ecologically is its ability to control for erosion and handle major floods.  We can translate that into a magical ability to help us in really difficult emotional situations: in a situation where there’s an emotional flood (a breakdown, a trauma, an explosive event, etc), Sycamore is a tree that can be used to hold fast to, to hold onto something beyond the flood.  And once the emotional flood recedes, Sycamore is a first-rate healing tree to help you recover.

Shadow work. The peeling and intricate bark of the sycamore, the fact that sycamore often goes hollow in older age, and the fact that it has been used to create numerous water-faring and water-holding vessels also speak to this tree’s ability to help us work with our deeper emotions and shadow selves.

Now that I’ve written so much about sycamore, I’m itching to get out on my kayak so I can admire the sycamores that line all of our waterways and spend time with them!  I would love to hear your own stories and information on the American Sycamore tree! 🙂

PS: I will be taking some time off of blogging for the next 4 weeks while I finish writing TreeLore Oracle / North American Sacred Trees book project as well as working on AODA’s Apprentice Guide and New Candidate Guides in preparation for releasing our curriculum update.  I look forward to returning in mid-August!  Have a great Lughnasadh!

Wildcrafting Your Druidry: A Local Materia Medica and Herbalism Practice

As we continue to explore the concept of wildcrafting druidry and sacred action that is, developing a spiritual practice and daily life that is fully localized and aligned with nature right outside your door, it is a useful time to consider the role of herbalism and developing a local materia medica.  In herbalism terms, a materia medica is a body of herbal and plant knowledge for the curing of diseases and the promotion of good health.  For example, any book on herbalism that includes entries on herbs and their healing properties is a materia medica.  By starting to develop a local materia medica for your area, you can learn more about the incredible healing properties of plants in your area and develop a sacred connection with them.  You can start entering into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with the land and support your own health–this is because not only are plants able to treat illnesses, but they also support our long-term health!  So let’s talk through the steps that you might do this:

Step 1: Identify your site and needs and spiral outward.

Grandpa's field

Learning about the medicines outside your door!

I think it’s helpful to consider what you might include in your materia medica. It should be locations that you have easy and regular access to and with the ability to do at least some harvesting.  What I suggest you do is use a spiraling outward approach.  Start with right where you live–e.g. the plants in the lawn right outside your door, the trees on your street, the plants in the park at the end of the block.  Learn the plants that are closest to your home first.  Then, as you grow your knowledge, start spiraling outward: the local state park, the homes of friends and neighbors, etc.  You can do this work regardless of whether you live in the city, suburbs or country.

The other option for you to start is to consider finding or growing a local herbal equivalent of one or more medicines you currently take or needs you currently have.  Perhaps you want a first aid salve–there’s a whole backyard of healing plants for that! Perhaps you want to increase your overall vitality and health–there’s a dandelion and burdock root for that!  Perhaps you want to strengthen your heart–there’s a hawthorn tree for that! For my own path into herbalism, you can hear about my own journey in managing asthma with New England Aster!  The point here is that you can identify some basic needs and then use that as a basis.

I actually prefer the first approach I’ve listed, as it puts you in touch with plants right outside your door.  If you start working with these plants, you will find uses for them in your life!

Step 2: Build a Reciprocal Practice on this Landscape

Before you even begin to think about harvesting and using the plants where you are, you will want to think about how you can build a practice of reciprocation, honoring, and respect to the living earth.  I recommend you think not only in terms of an offering for any individual plant that is harvested but also the larger landscape that you are working on.  For individual plants, this might include things like:

  • Asking permission to harvest
  • Offering gratitude with an offering and saying thanks
  • Working with the plant to help ensure its genetic legacy (saving and spreading seeds, translating roots and seedlings)
  • Visiting the plant at other times, not only when you want something or want to harvest (e.g. showing friendship and respect)
  • Building the cycles of the plant into your own seasonal celebrations

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

In terms of a larger reciprocation practice, it is useful to consider what the land there might need and how you can be in service to the land.  This is often very different in different ecosystems, but might include any of the following:

  • Metaphysical support through rituals and energy work
  • Land healing practices, such as converting lawns to gardens, cleanups, replantings, and more
  • Social action, community organizing, or political action to protect and preserve nature
  • Other activities as is appropriate for the local ecosystem

The reason this step is so important is that for much of the Western world, longstanding colonialism has put many people in a mindset where nature is theirs to take from, to use, and to harvest at will.  This exact mindset is one of the roots as to why we are facing a planetary crisis: because we must learn to balance what we take from nature from what we give and the reciprocation practices are key to that.  I’ve been teaching wild food foraging for a long time, and there are extreme problems with the overharvest/take what I want mentality with many people in those communities.  By building reciprocation first and foremost into your practice, you can sidestep these extremely problematic relationships with nature and build one on mutuality and respect.

Step 3: Observe, Interact and Identify Plants, Mushrooms, and Trees

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn at Samhain!

Now that you have a sense of where to look, you will want to start identifying the plants, mushrooms, and trees that grow most immediately to you.  It is extremely helpful if you can keep track of not only the common name (Pennsylvania Hawthorn) but also the Latin name (Crataegus tatnalliana / Crataegus pennsylvanica.)   Many common or folk names may actually refer to multiple plants (Boneset is a good example here–in my region it refers to at least three different plants, two of which are medicinal and one of which is poisonous) so having the Latin name ensures that you have the right plant.  Even if you can’t identify the specific species, work to at least identify the plant family as a start. I have found it helpful in my own work in this regard to create a digital file of plant names and features as a first step.  Here’s one of my early files that I can share that I started creating when I first moved to this new land (I’ve since moved this into a more comprehensive digital file, but this is where I started).

Identification skill is excellent to learn.  While there are apps and groups that can help you with plant identification, I also recommend that you check out Botany in a Day by Thomas Epel and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to start learning how to identify different parts of plants.  If you build your knowledge using these books, eventually, you will be able to identify plants by plant family without looking them up.

One of the things that is really helpful to do during this stage is to pay attention to how abundant the various plants, trees, and mushrooms are.  Pay attention to how much is growing and where it is growing.  Just because something appears abundant doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t be harmed from harvesting–the key is to cultivate a relationship on this land so that you can monitor not only the plants but also how much of everything there is.  This will allow you to decide what you might use and in what ways!

Step 4: Build Your Materia Medica and Start Making Plant Medicine

Flower essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Now you are finally there–the opportunity to build your own materia medica over time and learn how to make plant medicine. Herbalism can be a lifelong study, and one of the things I want to stress here is that doing this work takes a lot of time.  I have found for my own learning that I like to learn a few plants at a time: how to make medicine from them, how to do different preparations, and then actually use those plants in my life.  Even if you learn only a few plants across the course of a year, as you progress, soon you will know many plants.  This is a better approach than harvesting a ton of stuff, preparing it, and then not using it.  An intensive study of a few plants will lead to rich rewards!   For example, right now I am learning the various uses of the Spruce tree–this includes various recipes for spruce tips, preparing and use of a spruce tip salve, working with the wood, and much more!

For medicine making, I would highly suggest Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook as he covers a ton of useful information on the different kinds of plant preparations (his herbal information is good also, but insufficient for many local plants).  Richo Czech’s Making Plant Medicine offers key information on ratios for tinctures and other plants and is a very useful supplement to Green’s work (I use the two in conjunction and don’t need anything else!). These two books can help you know all of the basics for how to do different plant preparations. I also have some medicine-making posts you can check out: A Druid’s Guide to Preparing Plant Medicine; Flower essence preparation;  and harvesting guidelines.

Part of the materia medica is taking notes–take notes on everything that you do (e.g. the salve recipe, when you harvest) and also test the effects of your herbal preparations on yourself–note how it feels, if it works for your purposes, and so on.  You can certainly supplement your own knowledge with published research on herbs: for a comprehensive guide to many herbal plants in North America, you can see Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbal books.  But remember–your own body and experiences should be very central to developing your materia medica.

Once you’ve had some success and good recipes, preserve them in some way that is appealing to you.  This could be a handwritten journal, a digital file, or anything else.  The important thing is that you create this knowledge for yourself and presented in a way that you will resonate with.   My current materia medica sits in two places: I have a very extensive digital file that I update regularly.  I also have a handwritten materia medica that explores more of the spiritual aspects of each of the plants I work with regularly.

Conclusion

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

Developing an herbalism practice–even with a few key plants in your ecosystem is an excellent way to build a core Ovate practice, learn how to live in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and align yourself with the living earth.  This is a practice that centers nature in your life.  It is completely different than going and buying some bulk herbs and mixing them up into medicine–while there is nothing wrong with doing this, it doesn’t really give you the deep spiritual practice that identifying plants, engaging in reciprocation, and turning them into medicine does.

Another thing you can do with this practice is to tie it to your yearly seasonal celebrations: for example, for me, Beltane, the Summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain are all medicine making holidays–meaning that in addition to my rituals, I also make certain medicines, spiritual tools like smoke clearing sticks, and align my work with the current harvest.  This gives me a richness and layered approach to my spirituality and makes the medicines I make even more meaningful.

I hope that many of you will try this–if you haven’t already started or traveled some way on this path.  I would love to hear your stories and experiences with local materia medicas and herbalism!