The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds July 7, 2019

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land.  How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason.  Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land, but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county.  In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had impact beyond her.

 

The web of life

The web of life

The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life.  As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indingenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems, is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, its important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.

 

This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices.  Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.

 

In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity.  After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective.  Next week’s post will look at ecosystms and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness building perspective.

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems.  An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns.  Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.

 

For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types.  In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut.  Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem.  If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office.  Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countires often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival.  In many cases, that life has very specific needs.  A well known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs.  Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other.  Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around.  I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle:  as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking.  Where did this glass of water come from?  From the ground and land surrounding my home.  But where was it before that?  Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land.  In otherwords, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years.  Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places.  This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.

 

Another managable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedintary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while.  At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disasterous.  You don’t see the effects from one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch.  But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harms the body’s whole system.

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times.  We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.

 

As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing.  In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts.  In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in a ecosystems approach is really helfpul  Thus, its not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life.  One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:

 

  • Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
  • Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
    • Some examples: Most legumes and clovers.  More info on these can be found here.
  • Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
    • Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees.  Here is a more complete list.
  • Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.

When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, its useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life.  Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together.  This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and considering the role of interconnectivity.  In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more.  But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.

 

And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on?  I would respond: if you plant it, they will come.  The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that bring the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side).  The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales.  But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife.  So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:

  • Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
  • Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
  • A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
  • Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine

Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the major take aways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing.  We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: A Healing Grove of Renewal June 30, 2019

Reishi growing from a stump!

Reishi growing from a stump in my sacred forest

Many years ago, I shared the story of the “mystery of the stumps“, which was my path into druidry. I grew up spending all my days in a forest that was rich, full, and bountiful.  When I was 14, that forest was logged.  My heart broke, and afterward, I tried to enter the forest but it was horrible: downed trees everywhere, so much damage, so many friends that had been cut and taken away.  I thought the forest would never heal.  I withdrew not only from nature, but from my spirit and creative gifts, and spent a time in numbness and mourning–a period that lasted almost 10 years. I didn’t return to the forest till I was 24.  When I finally went back in, so much had changed–the land was regrowing.  Large thickets of birch, blackberry, and cherries were everywhere, springing up to regenerate the land. It was then that I discovered the Reishi mushrooms on the stumps of the hemlock trees, a testament to the true healing power of nature.  Not only had the forest regrown–but it had produced some of the most potent natural medicine on the planet for humanity.

 

I retell this story today because I think its important to realize how much time it takes nature to heal.  Nature works on “slow time“–seasons upon seasons, cycles upon cycles, each year passing where nature, given the opportunity, works towards ecological succession and more complex and interwoven ecosystems.  When I entered the forest just after the logging, the forest was so damaged.  If I had returned even a few weeks later, however, I would have likely started to see the first stirrings of rebirth and renewal.  Where the forest canopy broke, new plants and trees could spring forth.  The seeds and seedlings were already there, waiting for their opportunity to heal. Every year after, more healing and growth takes place.  Slow, but steady is natures healing pace.

 

Just as nature uses time to heal, so too, can we use ritual and sacred space over a long period of time to help enact nature’s healing. Today’s post explores this idea through the development of a “grove of renewal” that works with time and the seasons and focuses on both inner and outer magical practices and techniques for healing. Using this approach, we might see the druid and the living earth walking hand-in-hand to enact healing upon the land. As nature heals through the seasons, we, too might use this same principle for land healing.

 

(I will also note that this is a post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling over several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing: what it is, different approaches, and different ways we might work with it.)

 

Slow time, Slow Ritual, and Nature’s Healing

Part of the challenge we have in the ecological reality of the 21st century is time.  Our culture moves very quickly, with cycles of consumption and production intense and overwhelming.  Everything is too fast, as I shared in my earlier series on “slowing down the druid way.” Fast food, fast lives, fast jobs, fast relationships; everything moves so quickly. Sometimes, we unfortunately try to apply this same thing to our spirituality and expectations.  One-off rituals or false starts, rather than sustained practices. The speed of the 21st century doesn’t just influence us: it also means that nature is being consumed/destroyed/damaged much faster than she can heal.   Part of the challenge, too, is that the earth takes time for damage to show: melting ice caps and glaciers aren’t responding to today: they are responding to previous years, and we won’t see the full effects of today’s carbon emissions for some time.

 

But nature’s own powerful lesson resonates deeply here:  with healing, time moves differently. This is true of land healing as much as it is true of our own heart healing.  One way nature heals is through a process called ecological succession. Ecological succession, from a mowed lawn to a pinnacle oak-hickory forest (which is the final ecosystem where I live) takes about 250 years.  That is, if lived in my region, and you stopped mowing your lawn today and did nothing else, in about 250 years you’d have a mature oak-hickory forest. Or, maybe you could speed that up to 75 years if you planted all the oaks and hickories in your front lawn (and again, stopped mowing)!  This same lesson applies to us, as we are part of nature: time heals all wounds in ways nothing else will. Time is the ultimate healer.

 

Most of the time when we think of ritual, we think of a single event, a sacred moment in time. We do a ritual, it is good, the energy radiates outward.  This is also true of a lot of land healing: we do a ritual to heal the land, and hope it has some effect.  However, this isn’t the only approach. I’ve been developing a technique that I call the “Grove of Renewal” that uses permaculture design, more than traditional ritual, and works with nature’s ultimate healer: time.  So, rather than thinking about land healing as a ritual or series of actions, I’m thinking about it as a permaculture designer: cultivating a space for healing as an “extended” ritual over time. By focusing efforts on a small space, that healing energy can radiate outward to the broader landscape for the benefit of all.

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

 

The “Grove of Renewal” approach focuses on one small space.  By focusing our energies on this one space, we can help this space heal in a powerful way.  Each day and cycle that goes by, more healing happens both physically and energetically. At some point, your grove of renewal is a healed and healthy space, so much so that you can now direct that healing energy outward in a much broader way. Its important to note that this is slow magic, very slow magic. It unfolds over a period of years, and thus, requires patience, peace, and connection.  You are building a relationship with a piece of land as a healer, observing and interacting, and doing regular work. You are on nature’s time.

 

So let’s look at how you might create your own “Grove of Renewal”!  First I’ll explain the basic steps and then I’ll share my own example so you can see how one of these might work in action.

 

Step 1: Choosing Your “Grove of Renewal” Space.

 

For your grove of renewal, you’ll want to choose a small physical space to help heal. Perhaps it’s a segment of lawn you want to convert to a native plant garden and butterfly sanctuary, perhaps it’s a strip of land behind an alley nobody cares about. Perhaps its a new piece of land you just moved to, and you can now tend. Wherever it is, you can make this place a center of land healing, your own “grove of renewal.”

 

On the physical level, this should be a space where physical land healing can happen.  That is, it should be a space that is protected in some way (in the sense that someone else isn’t going to come and mow down all of your efforts). It should also be a space that you have direct and regular access to, the easier, the better.

 

On the metaphysical level, you also need the “go ahead” from spirit–that you are working in accordance to the spirits of the land and their wisdom.  Thus, you might be directed towards a particular place where spirit wants this grove of renewal to happen.  Use outer and inner listening techniques and make sure you are aligned with the land itself.

 

Selection is so critical, as you will be working this space extensively over a long period of time. Take as much time as you need for this step–remember, this is slow healing, slow time.  Make offerings, visit a number of times, and allow yourself to resonate with the space.  In permaculture design, a year and a day is not unreasonable, and is a generally accepted permaculture design techniques for observation and interaction. That’s the kind of slow time I’m talking about here.  When you are certain it is the right place, move on to step two.

 

Step 2: Create your plan.

Because your grove of renewal will function as a shrine for physical and energetic land healing, you want to consider what kinds of things would work best with that intention and any other specific intentions you may have.

 

On the physical level: Create a plan for the plant life and animal/insect/bird/reptile/amphibian life that you want to invite to the space.  If you are working from scratch, you might be able to carefully design it.  If there is already life there, you will want to work with it and tend it. Learn what kinds of plants are native to the area, what kinds of plants support diversity, and build diversity in. Learn what used to grow there, and think about how you can help restore it to a healthy ecosystem. You might combine this with other physical land healing techniques, like the refugia garden.

 

In order to do this work on the physical level, you will need to carefully observe and interact with the space over a period of time . Think about the space you have already (wind, light, soil, water, potential pollutants) and how you might intervene.  Consider what you want the final result to be in 10 or 50 years: a forest environment, a wetland, a meadow with wildflowers, etc.  Consider what plants may grow there that are rare and endangered. Consider what insect life and wildlife that may need a space to live.  Look at what may already be growing there–what will you do with what is there?  Will you remove it and plant natives? Will you work with what is growing?  These are important decisions!

 

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

On the spiritual level. Since this is also a ritual space, you may also want to mark it ritually in some way. Thus, sacred objects can be included in the plan, but should be naturally-based and locally sourced.  You might create a stone altar, stone cairn, use statuary, decorate the space with found natural objects (shells, bones, stones, etc), hang a flag, etc.  I like to decorate my shrines based on what I can find locally and in the immediate area.

 

Putting it all together. Once you have the pieces in place, create a plan: what do you need to do first? Second? Third? Realize also that the best laid plans can be changed, so also be ready to adapt as necessary.  Nature isn’t going anywhere!

 

 

Step 3: Create the Space, focusing on inner and outer work.

Creating the space itself should be a ritual activity, working on both the inner and outer planes.  I suggest timing your beginning of the work to one of the eight festivals in the druid’s wheel of the year.  When you are ready to begin, take your first step and start the work. You are working both on the physical and the level of spirit.

Spiritual work.  I usually start with the spiritual work.  One of the things I’ve done to help further this work is to create a permanent sacred space.  I do this similar to creating an open grove (or open circle, like the kind you’d use for magical work or celebratory work), but creating it as a sacred space with a particular intention: healing.  Additionally, I strongly recommend putting up energetic/magical protections around the space and renewing these regularly.

Other spiritual work may also unfold, such as creating a shrine or other permanent spiritual focus for the space.

Physical work.  Physical regeneration of land usually involves building soil fertility, planting trees or other plants, and doing any other clean up that is needed.  This work takes muscle, time, and regular tending.  See this work not as a moment in time, but as a process that unfolds (much like growing a vegetable garden–it takes a plan, seed starting, planting out, tending/weeding, and harvesting, all before you begin the cycle again!)

 

Step 4: Visit your space regularly and let it flourish.

After your initial work and once you have things in place (which may take you some time), it is time to let nature do its own healing.  Visit your space often as it grows and heals, pay attention to the ways that the energies of that space may change.  Pay attention to these changes on both an inner and outer way:

  • What is growing there that you haven’t seen before?  Can you identify it?
  • If you planted anything, how are the plants growing?
  • Observe life: insects, birds, animals, etc.  Do you see anything new?
  • How does the space change in different seasons?
  • Energetically, do you sense any shifts? If so, what are they?
  • How do you feel when you are in the space?
  • What messages from spirit might you be experiencing?

This step requires us to be very intuitive.  You come and visit as you feel led to do so. I suggest, at minimum, visit at least once each quarter of the year (for example, at the spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice).  You don’t have to be visiting every day (although you certainly can).  In my own experience, its almost better to let nature work on her own for a time and then return.

 

Another thing sometimes happens: nature tells you to leave the space alone for a while.  The space needs its own energy and time, and you may be asked to let a year or more pass before you are asked to return.  Honor any requests made to you on the part of spirit.

 

Step 5: When the space is healed, radiate that healing outward.

At some point, your space will have a very positive energy, a sense of peace and quietude that only healed spaces can have.  This may take place across a single season or series of seasons.  Or it may be a very long process, depending on the healing that you are working to enact.  You’ll know when the time is right; this space will be bursting with energy and you will feel it start to flow outward.  At this point, you can do a “radiance” ritual, envisioning the sun and earth’s energy and radiating it outward.  This ritual can be as simple as meditating on the energy in the space and encouraging the excess to flow outward into the landscape and to places where it is needed.  Again, working intuitively here, with spirit, can be helpful.

 

Spirals of energy

Spirals of energy

Example: A Woodland Grove of Renewal

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working to convert a burn pile on the edge of a forest on my own property into a Grove of Renewal.  This wasn’t the first space I’ve tended in such a way, but it certainly is my most intentional of spaces.  My first step was identifying the space: I was starting a fire one day and looking for some extra kindling.  I wandered into a section of the property I hadn’t really explored before. Suddenly, I saw this beautiful circle of stones surrounding a stump–it was calling to me, almost radiating light in my direction. As I got closer, I realized, sadly, that these stones had been used as a burn pile, and had half-burned plastics, lightbulbs, wires, hairspray bottles, and much more all over them (there were many such burn piles on my land when I arrived here).  My first task was to sit with the space for several sessions quietly, meditating on the energy of the space.  In one such session, I brought my drum and drummed a bit, but otherwise, simply listened and held space.  This lasted some months, through the fall, winter, and into the spring.

 

Once I felt the impetus to proceed, I setup a small altar nearby and then cleaned up the space, which had many years of garbage and debris from burn piles.  I chose to start this work at Beltane and conclude it by the Summer Solstice. I recycled what I could and removed what I could not. At the summer solstice, I also stood a large stone upright to bring light and healing energy into the space. I brought in additional materials to help the soil heal from the toxic ashes; leaves I had been composting from another part of the property and some aged manure to increase the soil fertility.  I was planning on adding plants, and I wanted them to have good and fertile soil.  Since this was a woodland environment with already mature tree cover (oak and hickory, yay!), the following season, I decided to populate the shrine with some of the rare woodland species that have been disappearing from the landscape.  Here in the Appalachian mountains, we have many such species under dures due to overharvesting including three I selected for the shrine: black cohosh, ginseng, and goldenseal.  I planted these around the shrine and tended them until they were well established (and I’m still in the process of tending them and adding additional plants).

 

Now, I am in the process of creating a small pathway into the shrine and going through that section of the woods–with the idea that the rest of the woods is sacred, and this path is the only path that should ever be walked by human visitors.  That will further protect my rare woodland species.  I have already created a small pathway into the shrine, planting solomon’s seal (another native woodland medicinal) at the entrance. While this was ongoing, I am continuing to do regular ritual with the space, helping clear it energetically of the “burn pile” energy and bringing it into a more positive place.  I’m also just visiting the space from time to time, saying “hello” and seeing what is going on. Regularly, at the new moon, I work with the space, usually doing some flute or drumming. Since establishing this space, I have a pileated woodpecker pair who have moved into this patch of forest and is now nesting nearby.  I also regularly see Jays, Sparrows, and many others!

 

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

It still has a lot of time before the energy builds enough to radiate outward and send the flow of healing energy back to the land, but I know it will.  At that time, I will work to create a flow of healing energy from that space outward into the surrounding environment (which in the vicinity, includes strip mining, coal mining, and factory farms).

 

Concluding thoughts

The “Grove of Renewal” is a simple yet profound technique to help you establish a space for healing energy: both for an immediate ecosystem in need of healing, but also, as a way to engage in land healing energetically in the broader landscape.  I think this is exactly the kind of work that druids can do who want to “give back” in some way.  Your “Grove of Renewal” is likely to look very different than my own, but any space can be brought back physically and energetically to a place of healing, light, and life. And certainly, this is work worth doing.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Cherry (Prunus Serotina)’s Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Meaning June 23, 2019

Butterfly on choke cherry

When most people think of cherry trees, they think about plump, juicy, red or purple cherries from cultivated cherry trees.  However, here in the USA, we have a variety of wild cherries that are an interwoven and rich part of our landscape. An enigmatic tree found throughout the eastern part of North America and South America is prunus serotina, the wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry tree. Most people interact with this tree not in its living form, but through the beautiful reddish-brown heartwood that this tree produces, and that can be frequently found in their furniture and flooring.  And yet, this tree has so much more to offer than just beautiful wood! While I’m targeting my comments today about the black cherry, many of the material found here can be about *any* cherry tree local to you, including domesticated cherries.  Many other kinds of wild cherries may also be found along the US East Coast region: prunus avium (the wild sweet cherry) and prunus virginiana (choke cherry). Black cherry and other wild cherries of the prunus species are truly American trees and hence, should be considered as part of our magical landscape here in the USA.

 

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more. I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees. Thus, this series provides research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  And now, let’s learn more about the Black Cherry!

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

Black cherry is a medium sized tree, often found on the edges of forests. When it is young, it can be shade tolerant, but older cherries prefer to have more sunlight, and thus, you can often find them along the edges of forests, pushing the forest into new areas. Cherries are prone to being blown over by strong winds because they primarily have lateral/fibrous (spreading) root systems rather than a deep tap root. Cherries can live between 150 and 200 years.  They are commonly found in the ‘dry’ or ‘mesic’ forest habitats more broadly. Here in Western PA, they are a very common tree, often growing in mixed oak/beech hardwood forests or hickory/oak forests, but also found on the edges of hemlock forests.

 

Identification of the tree depends on its age. Leaves are typically about 2-5 inches in length with fine tooth and an ovate-lacerate shape (elongated oval with points). Young cherry trees have a dark, smooth bark which is banded with lighter brown lines that are horizontal.  Older cherry trees have very dark gray/dark brown or almost black bark that is highly textured, but you can still see the bands (see photos).  A strong almond scent (very unique to cherries) can be smelled when leaves are crushed or branches are broken–more on this later in the post).

 

Younger and older black cherry trees

Birds, butterflies, and moths feed and grow on black cherry, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, who lays eggs individually on the black cherry leaves.  Other caterpillars who depend on the trees include the red-spotted purple caterpillar and the coral haristreak caterpillar. Unfortunately, it is also a favorite of the destructive eastern tent caterpillar, which can make large nests in the tree and strip trees of leaves. Usually, the cherries can bounce back the following year after a serious Eastern Tent Caterpillar issue. When the cherry is in bloom, it is a nectar source for many insects including bees, wasps, and butterflies. When the cherry is in fruit, it is a food source for many animals and birds including raccoon, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, and more.

 

Wood and Other Uses

The wood of the cherry is well known, as it is a common wood used for interiors, furniture, tools, flooring, and more. Cherry is a beautiful, reddish brown wood with a straight grain. It is a favorite of woodworkers as it is delightful to work with and beautiful when polished.  It is not as hard as oak, near as soft of maple, making it a wood that is firm yet beautiful to work with.

 

The berries, when using methods I’ve described before on the blog, can be made into a great ink or dye; it offers a purple/blue color. It doesn’t have a good light fastness (like most other natural berry dyes) but in my experience, if you use alum as a mordant, it can improve the light fastness. The berries are almost always in abundance, but they can be difficult to reach on high up trees.

 

The cherry pits (seeds) are also often harvested and eaten by wild critters. If you visit the base of an older wild cherry tree, you will often see the little half-cups of the seeds, dried and brown. If you are interested in natural crafts, these can make nice beads (with a tiny hole bored or drilled into them).

 

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

Cherry is an interesting tree because while the fruit is edible and medicinal, and the inner bark is also medicinal, most of the rest of the tree is extremely toxic. Cherry foliage and pits contain hydrocyanic acid. You can smell this when you crush a leaf or cut a part of a cherry tree–it has that distinct bitter almond smell. The leaves have the highest concentration of hydrocyanic acid, and as the leaves wilt, they produce cyanide. This makes the leaves extremely toxic to humans and many livestock animals, such as goats or sheep.  In fact, we had planned on getting goats for our homestead here for fiber, milk, and for clearing brush, but after we learned about the toxicity of the cherry leaves (which we have everywhere on the property) we decided not to do so and went a different route with our animals.  This is because one handful of wilted cherry leaves is enough to kill a full size goat!  Needless to say, Cherry’s toxicity is not to be trifled with.

 

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

At the same time that cherry’s leaves have such poison, black cherries are delightful and abundant to eat, high in antioxidants and nutrients, and an excellent wild food. Sam Thayer notes in the Forager’s Harvest that you should harvest the berries only when they are overripe, that is, a deep purple color.  I will also note that in my experience, different trees may produce slightly different tasting berries, some more or less bitter than the others.  If you are going to forage for them and you have some choice, I suggest tasting various trees! The variety in different trees can be quite distinct, with some tasting almost like a commercial cherry and others being nearly inedible and very bitter. So, once you find a tree that you can eat raw, you have found a good tree to turn the fruit into jelly or other tasty treats.  Even if a cherry tree has a little bit of bitterness, you can usually use sweetness to counteract it and allow for an enjoyable tasty tree.

 

Like many other fruits in the rose family (including apples and peaches), cherry pits also do contain hydrocyanic acid, and those, should be removed during or before preparation.  You can cook them slightly, mash them down, and strain out the pits, which is probably the easiest method of removing them.

 

This bitterness of any wild cherry can be reduced with the use of sugar, but any jams or jellies that you produce from it will still have some bitterness if your fruit started off bitter.  I have found that the bitterness is pretty tasty combined with meats or fish and add dimension and complexity (and bitter foods are healthy for our digestion). A simple recipe, offered by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus book is a cherry jelly.  He suggests adding apple juice to the jelly to improve the flavor.  Take any number of quarts of black cherry and add 1 cup of water.  Take unripe apples and slice them and add them (or add some pectin as per package instructions).  Simmer this for 30 min then strain.  Take 2 cups of cherry juice and 2 cups of apple juice, and add 4 cups sugar (you could also add less sugar by using Pamona’s pectin; I prefer to can with honey using this approach).  Boil till it jells and then hot water bath can using standard fruit approaches (10 min for half pints, 15 min for pints, etc).

 

In Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon notes the difference between serotina (wild cherry) and virginiana (choke cherry) are as follows: chokecherry has more pointed leaves, bitter/acidic fruit, and shorter fruit clusters  He notes that while both can be made into tasty jellies, the choke cherry produce more bitter fruit.  I have also found this to be the case, and often, the serotina and virginana are growing right next to each other!  Sam Thayer recommends another approach to working with black cherry. After harvesting them, he puts them in the fridge for two days.  This reduces the astringency and bitterness, and then you can make jellies or fruit leather.

 

Cherry as Medicine

In Matthew Wood’s Earth Wise Herbal: New World Herbs, Wood notes that in the 19th century, wild cherry was considered an “indispensable” medicine by both pioneers and Native Americans; he suggests that it was likely one of the most commonly used herbs native to the US during that time period.  Wood notes that wild cherry works as a sedative, particularly for the circulatory system.  It is particularly useful for coughs due to irritation, coughs that linger on after an infection has passed, and those that have fluid or mucus in the lungs, such as through bronchitis, pleurisy, etc. He recommends collecting root bark if at all possible, and preferably in the spring when the cyanogens are lowest. He notes that while the bark does contain trace amounts amounts of cyanide, it is not enough to cause any health issues, particularly when it is used medicinally and for short term issues.

 

Prussic acid in found in wild cherry trees are particularly useful for coughs and many herbalists use it as a their go-to cough syrup remedy.  For this, you want the inner bark from any wild cherry. This is to be used for acute conditions short term only, but it is very effective. A simple cough syrup is to boil down 1/2 cup of the chopped inner bark of wild cherry for 30 min in 1 pint water.  Then, strain it and let it cool. Add raw honey at this point to taste.  Usually, I will freeze this in ice cub trays, then you can keep using it as needed and keep it till you need it.  Alternatively, you can simply make a strong tea of the wild cherry bark that you dry.  If you have a wild cherry nearby though, no need to dry it in advance–just harvest it fresh and prepare it as needed!  I have used this recipe many times myself, and it is just as effective as over-the-counter medicines.

 

Euell Gibbons gives another recipe for wild cherry cough syrup in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus book that I really like: 1 cup red clover blossoms, 1 cup white pine needles (preferably new growth), 1 cup mullein leaves, and 1/2 cup inner bark from the wild cherry.  Boil all of this in a quart of water covered for 20 min.  Strain and add 1 pint honey, then can it.  (I like this recipe, but I’d omit the honey and can it without, then add the honey later.  Raw honey is amazing, but heat removes much of the medicinal virtues).

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

Cherry does not seem to have much of a place in the traditional western magical traditions, particularly those deriving from Europe–which makes sense, as cherry is a North American Tree.

Leaves of cherry tree

In the European traditions, when it shows up, it does not often show up as a tree of power.  For example, in Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire, the book describe the Battle of Godeu (or the Battle of the Trees) and in this battle with Hades, while many trees fought valiantly (oak, hawthorn, heather, holly) many others, including the poor cherry tree did not fare so well and was broken during the battle. This battle is told in the Book of Taliesin as well.

 

What information there is about the cherry’s power suggests that cherry is tied to love, emotions, and romance, something that is consistent both from Europe as well as from folk magic here in the US.  Culpepper notes in his Herbal that cherry is a tree governed by Venus. In the American hoodoo traditions, according to Cat Yronwood’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, cherry is used primarily in love-drawing spells for drawing love, romance, or enticing someone. Thus, in American Hoodoo, it is frequently used in love-drawing mojo bags, oils, dressed candles. We see this same association in an old book, Grimories, who talks about using the “essences of the cherry tree” when when desires another. Interestingly enough, Native American talking sticks can also be made of cherry, and when they are, they are also tied to expression, emotion, and love. Yet, Cherry trees do not feature prominently in the stories that I have been searching (and that I usually share as part of these posts). Occasionally, someone eats a cherry in a story, or, someone notes that cherry is not good for making bows. But the tree has no distinct magical connection in the mythology of the Americas that I can ascertain.

 

In another American classic grimore, The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman (1820), which is one of the premier books in PA Dutch Braucherei, the cherry tree is used to help cure the “poll-evil” in horses. The Poll Evil is an inflamed back of the head which can burst (today, this is treated with antibiotics). The full charm involves breaking off three twigs from a cherry tree, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight.  You wrap these in pieces of your shirt, then clean the poll-evil with it.  Then you have to poop on the twigs while the twigs are facing north. Then you stir the wound again with the dirtied twigs a day or two later.  Yep, good stuff :P.

 

One of the places that cherry tree is very dominant is in Japan, and Cherry has different meanings in eastern societies.  Japanese cherries, or “sakura” symbolize the concept of “mono no aware,” or the understanding that life and things are transient, impermanent, and that a small amount of sadness or wistfulness can be had at their passing.  Cherry blossoms, which bloom en masse in Japan are thus symbolic of “mono no aware” and encourage people to reflect on the transience of all things.  We also see the tie to love from myths like “the Holy Cherry Tree of Musubi-no-Kami Temple” where a magnificent old cherry tree encouraged people to build a shrine dedicated to the “God of Love”.

 

Meanings and Magic for North America

So to summarize all of the above, we can see three distinct meanings for the Cherry tree, based on its ecology, medicine, uses, and mythology:

 

Cherry tree as a drawing love and romance.  The American traditions are strongly consistent in this, showing that cherry here in the US has the power for love: to bring it, to help it last, and to foster romance.

 

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

Cherry tree emphasizes the fragility, impermanence, and ephemeral nature of life.  The Japanese tradition is strong here, but so is, frankly, the fact that cherry can produce such a noxious poison.  The leaves of the cherry tree wilt and cause livestock (or people) to die who consume them.  That ecology sends, to me, a very strong emphasis on the idea that life is fragile!

 

Cherry, likewise, sends the message that the same aspects of nature can be both healing and destructive. Cherry is a tree of extremes: both one of the best natural medicines we have native to the Americas while also being one of the most destructive poisons we have.  Much of nature is like this, and this is a powerful natural lesson. The ocean is a very good example of this: the ocean can provide food and medicine, but also tidal waves and tsunamis.  I think every part of nature is truly like this: and cherry so beautifully emphasizes this lesson.  Nature is.  It is not good, it is not evil, it simply is.  I can be harnessed as a powerful tool, or it can harm or kill you.  Part of that depends on your own knowledge, and part, on the conditions at hand.

 

Wine Cap Mushroom Cultivation: Wood Chips, Garden Beds, Recipes, and More June 9, 2019

How many times have you seen your neighbors getting tree work done or had tree work done yourself? The landscape company often comes with the big wood chipper and truck and then, after cutting up the wood, hauls that beautiful pile of chips off to some unknown location. Last year, our electric company came through and was doing tree work along our driveway and road to prune and cut trees too close to the power lines. We asked them to dump the wood chips on our property, and they were happy to do so. A lot of times, companies have to pay or go far out of their way to dump wood chips, and they see them as a “waste”; they will almost always dump them for free if you ask!  But a pile of wood chips are harldy a waste–they can offer you multiple yields over a period of years.  In today’s post, we’ll look at mushrooms from a permaculture and druidic perspective and see one way we can use them to both understand nature’s alchemy as well as cultivate home-grown food, focusing on using fresh wood chip piles.

 

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

About Mushrooms

Mushrooms are amazing: they are in a kingdom by themselves (fungi) and are in a kingdom all to themselves.  They do not contain chlorophyll, so they are unlike plants. They are saprophytes, breaking down organic matter (usually wood) and feeding on the nutrients contained within. In this way, they work as part of nature’s system of decomposition, breaking down the old so that the new can begin again. Their “bodies” consist of fungal hyphae (which are white or tan lines or threads that run through soil, wood, etc). The threads are also called mycelium. They also consist of the fruit, which is what we call a mushroom. The fruit of the mushroom is actually its reproductive system, which is what the mushroom itself sends up to reproduce (via spores, in most species).

 

I think we can learn a lot from the mushroom  kingdom, both from a permaculture perspective as well as a spiritual/druidic perspective.  On the permaculture side, the mushrooms remind us that nothing is waste: they can break down not only wood but also many of our own human wastes: cardboard, newspaper, office paper, and coffee grounds.  Amazingly, they can also be used to pull toxins and do “mycoremediation” to help damaged sites heal.  this includes pulling toxins and pollution from soil as well as pulling toxins and oils in water contaimination.  Mushrooms are truely amazing!  On the spiritual side, the mushroom is one of the great alchemists of nature: taking waste (dross) and turning it into soil which can then can nourish plants–soil is what the entire ecosystem is based upon!

 

The mushroom we are talking about today is the Wine Cap mushroom, also known as King Stropharia (stropharia rugoso-annulata), sometimes also called “Composter mushrooms” or “Garden giants.” You can purchase these online from a variety of mushroom companies; my spawn came from Tradd Cotter’s Mushroom Mountain. I’ve had the pleasure of taking multiple workshops from Tradd at our local Mother Earth News Fair, and I like his company and ethics a lot!  The nice thing about these mushrooms in particuar is that they are versitile and easy to keep cultivating. Once you have some mycelium, its possible to keep spreading these mushrooms as long as they have something to eat.  So if you have your own chipper, a ready supply of leaves or other compost waste, these mushrooms will keep on going!  So let’s talk about a few ways you can work with Wine caps.

 

Wine cap mushroom

Wine cap mushroom

Wood Chips

The techniques that I am sharing today only work on a fresh woodchip pile (less than a few weeks old). If you try this with an older wood chip pile, or in a pile that has been dead wood recently chipped, it is likely that other species of mushrooms have already colonized your pile.  What this means, then, is that when you try to colonize your pile with your own mushroom spawn, there may be considerable competititon and you may not get the mushrooms you hope to get (You also need to be *very* careful about ID in this case).

 

As I mentioned in the introduction, wood chips are fairly easy to obtain in many parts of the US, at least.  You might be able to get them from local muncipalities, and certainly, from local private tree services.  Most of them are all too happy to drop off piles of mulch to you so they don’t have to drive far to dump them and/or pay to have them dumped.  You may also be doing some of your own brush clearing; again, any fresh woodchips will do for this process.

 

Seeding Your Pile

 

To seed your pile, simply break up your mushroom spawn into smaller pieces, dig holes in your pile (a foot or less down) and add the spawn.  After the pile was dumped, in early August, a few of my druid friends and I seeded our pile in about 15 minutes.

Layers of mycelium with mushrooms growing out the top. I was removing mulch for other areas and got this amazing photo!

In addition to moisture and food, mushrooms need oxygen.  If your pile is too tightly compacted, you may only get mycelium growing on the top of the pile.  Never fear–once you remove some of the mulch for other purposes (see below), the mycelium can colonize further into the pile.

 

Fruiting

At some point, typically for Wine Caps, when the temperatures hit above 60 degrees, your pile will start to fruit.  Our pile started fruiting in April, and is still fruiting at the beginning of June.  Thus far, we’ve harvested at least 20 lbs of mushrooms from the pile.  As exciting as the huge wine cap mushrooms are, they often get buggy and full of worms.  Thus, it is best to harvest the smaller mushrooms to eat and leave the larger ones in the pile to spore and to produce food for others.

 

Spreading the Mushroom Love: Mushrooms in the Garden and More

Once you have an innoculated pile, you can use your wood chips all through your garden and as mulch.  Anywhere you do this, you are likely to get mushrooms popping up, which is an amazing food production source!  Here are some of many possibilities:

  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Paths: Add several layers of cardboard to your garden paths and then mulch with a thick layer of innoculated wood chips.  Your paths will last at least 2 years, and probably at some point, they will fruit with mushrooms.
  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Beds: All garden beds benefit from mulching. If you look at a forest, you will never see bare soil on the forest floor: it is always mulched with a rich pile of leaves, etc. This helps the forest prevent erosion and retain  nutrients. Many gardeners leave their soil bare, which allows the sunlight to quickly strip it of moisture. By adding a thick layer of mulch (straw, leaf rot, or wood mulch) you can prevent the loss of mosture, and likely, never have to water your garden again.  That’s my method: layers of mulch equals never needing to water, unless we have some kind of severe drought!  Adding your mushroom-innoculated mulch to your beds benefits the whole garden.  This page offers a lot more details on this practice, debunks myths about wood chips in the garden, and offers information on why it works.  Keep your wood chip mulch to 2-3″ deep at the most and you will have no probmes–and you will get more mushrooms. In fact, every place that we have spread this mulch has fruited at least once this spring!
  • Mulched Tree Areas: Your trees, likely, can also benefit from some innoculated mulch. I put this around my fruit trees, being careful not to mulch the trunks too closely.  This does the same thing for the trees that it does for the garden!
  • Mulched Paths: You can mulch any other paths with this approach, including forest trails and so on.  I am working on some forest trails through our wooded areas, and these mushroom mulched paths are a wonderful addition. Again, I use thick layers of newspaper or cardboard (when necessary) or simply mulch (if the forest floor is largely bare, as mature forests sometimes are).  You can further get fancy and line your mulched paths with stones. Part of why I do this is that our tick issues in Western PA have grown extremely intense; it is better for us to mulch and keep nice wide paths than to be covered in ticks (we also have guinea fowl and chickens for tick patrol, and they do a great job!)
  • Mulched Planters: You can also mulch container garden pots and planters with a light layer of this mushroom mulch.  You may not get any fruiting mushrooms (I haven’t seen any on ours yet) but you certainly will get the benefit of the water retention!

 

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine Cap Cuisine

Wine caps are a mild and delicious mushroom, with a growth habit similar to a portabella.  They do not have a strong flavor, and when they cook, they produce a lot of liquid, which needs to be accounted for in any recipe.  For the best way to taste the mushroom flavor itself, you can simply fry these in some olive oil or put them on the grill brushed with olive oil.  You can also stuff them (I like to stuff them with rice, veggies and cheese) or make a simple cream of mushroom soup.  Essentially, any recipe that calls for a portabella mushroom can be instead used with a wine cap.  Here’s one such recipe I made this week

Wine Cap Mushroom Soup

  • 1 lb of wine cap mushrooms, washed and sliced
  • 1/2 cup marsala wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • fresh thyme, chives, and parsley
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup sliced kale
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the mushrooms in olive oil until they start to soften (about 5 min).  Add the wine, onions, and garlic, and simmer for an additional five minutes.  Add the broth, herbs, and salt/pepper and put a lid on your soup, allowing it to cook for 15 more minutes, until the mushrooms and onions are tender.  Remove from heat.  Add kale and heavy cream, and let the flavors meld on the stove for 10-15 min before serving.  Serve with some fresh chives on the top.

 

Examples of older wine caps, not as good for cuisine due to the worms. Cut the small ones instead.

Radical Mushrooms: Kitty Litter and Other Decomposition Projects

I didn’t stop with the wood chip pile with regards to how to keep working with the Wine Cap mushrooms.  I wanted to use mushrooms t help break down other “waste” products at the house.  have three cats, and they have long been using natural plant-based cat litters, usually a pine base or a wheat based litter.  I saw instructions like these, knowing that people use kitty litter (fresh) for mushroom cultivation for eating.  While I had no intention of eating mushrooms grown in used kitty litter, In this case, I was wondering if the mushrooms would work in this litter to help break it down (and thus not put it in a landfill, but return those nutrients to nature).  I first started with a regular compost pile, putting a few palattes together, which in about 1.5 years, was full of cat litter.  I put some mushroom spawn in the pile in the fall, at the same time I seeded the much larger mulch pile, but nothing happened.  I think it had too much ammonia and not enough oxygen.  I took the palatte composter apart, and instead, spread the kitty litter in a thinner area, only about 6″ deep.  I again seeded it with mushroom spawn: and this time, it worked.  I now have a kitty litter composting area.  I add litter only to one side, and allow the mushrooms to slowly break down the litter that has sat longer.  This simply stays on the edge of the woods, effectively eliminating the landfill and returning those nutrients to the earth.  I call this a mushroom win!   I will also note that I do *not* pick or eat the mushrooms in this pile, but other wildlife seems to enjoy them.

 

I hope this brief look into how to tranfsorm “waste” into resources for the druid’s garden is helpful and inspirational to you!

 

Working Deeply with Water: A River Healing Ritual April 14, 2019

A healthy stream

A healthy stream

One of the incredible things about the hydrologic (water) cycle on our great planet is how connected these cycles are and how a single drop of water may continually travel the globe over a period of time. The waters that rain down upon me here in Western PA likely came after being evaporated from the Pacific Ocean and making their way in gas form across the North American continent.  From the clouds, they solidfy and rain down, slowly moving down our mountain property to the stream that sits at the bottom of our property: Penn Run.  Penn Run leads into Two Lick Creek, which runs into Blacklick creek, which runs into the Conemaugh River.  The Conemaugh becomes the Kiskiminetas, which runs into the Allegheny, which meets the Monongahela in Pittsburgh and becomes the Ohio. After passing cities such as Cincinnati and Louisville, it merges with the Mississippi on the border of Kentucky and Missouri.  From there, the Mississippi makes its way south to New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the water joins the Atlantic, likely evaporating again and raining somewhere on Europe or Asia and eventually making its way back to the Pacific Ocean.  And thus, the cycle continues–from the single drop of rain that lands on my land here, the waters of the world are endlessly such cycled.  Thus, any water you interact with has no specific “home” but rather, continues to travel the globe, maybe being locked up in ice for a few millenia or being in an aquifer for a while, but eventually beginning the travels once more.

It’s a useful exercise to map out what I just did above, so that you understand where water that you interact with locally is part of this great cycle.  The rivers are like veins, the earth the body, and these veins provide life to our great earth mother, literally, bringing her life.  aters throughout the world are challenged: pollution, plastics and microplastics, draining of aquifers, damming of rivers, and other major issues can be found thrhought the world: rather than being pure and offering life, sometimes our waters are so sick and damaged that marine life cannot live in our waterways and it is unhealthful to those who live near them. Where I live here in Western PA, a local legacy of mining has made many waters very polluted through Acid Mine Drainage and other historical problems (tanning, logging) and current agricultural runoff. While some rivers, like the Clarion River, have been radically brought back to health thanks to local conservation efforts so many of our small streams and rivers are still very polluted.

 

Given the status of the waters worldwide, I found it important to do rituals and healing water work to let these rivers know that I stood in witness and honor them.  This is good work that any druid or nature-based spiritual practitoner can do.  Regular water work in this way can help us “give back” to this incredible, magical cycle of water that sustains us and offers us life.  In last week’s post, I offered suggestions for how to work deeply with water, to with and build a water shrine full of sacred waters and water gathering experiences. This post offers the perspective of “giving back” and doing deep water healing work. For these experiences, you can use the “coming together” waters as I described last week, or, if you prefer, you can use any water you feel is sacred (rainwater, water from a special sacred spring, and so on).  While you can do this ritual at any time of the year, I find that Spring, when the waters are flowing, is a particularly good time to bring this kind of healing energy back to the land.

 

 

A Water Healing Ritual for Rivers, Lakes, Streams, Springs Oceans, Bays and any other Natural Water Source

This ritual can be done with any water source and is designed to provide energetic healing for the waters.  This ritual draws upon two concepts: the first is that the rivers and bodies of water are just like the blood that flows in our bodies, and hence, it uses a heartbeat metaphor to connect with that life power.  Second, it uses the energetic principle of homeoapthy, the idea that a tiny amount of a healing agent can bring life and vitality to a whole body (in this case, a whole body of water).  This ritual plants the “seed” of that healing through sacred waters.

A healed and restored river (the Clarion!)

A healed and restored river (the Clarion!)

Materials: Sacred Water.  This ritual uses a specially prepared “sacred water” blend;  you have two options for this.  Regardless of what water you use, make sure you boil your water prior to use (you are introducing this sacred water into a new environment, and you don’t want to introduce any pathogens, etc).

  • Option 1: This ritual can use the “coming together waters” from my last post. Otherwise, you will want to get any clean, pure and natural source of water (a local spring, rainwater or snowmelt, etc).  Usually, what I will do is get a bowl of rainwater, add three drops of my “coming together” waters and then boil the whole thing. Then when it cools, I can add this to a vial and to my crane bag for travel to the location.
  • Option 2: Again, take a fresh water source, boil it, and add in healing and blessing herbs.  Any medicinal herbs that fit your purpose can work here, but I especially like home-grown herbs like mint, oregano, thyme, monarda–things that help fight human illness, and thus, metaphorically, offer healing.  A small amount of this is all you need, again, I add this to a vial and to my crane bag.

You can also combine both approaches, or use another of your choosing.  Regardless, you should have this water prepared prior to your ceremony.

 

Other supplies: A drum or shaker is very useful , but if you don’t have one, you can simply use your hands or rocks. You can choose to setup an altar for this ritual on the side of the body of water; if so, you will want representations of the elements and anything else you deem approrpiate.

 

Research: If necessary, write down the flow of the water that you are healing (similar to what I did in the opening of this blog post).  You will be speaking these words as you do your ritual (and if you are blessing the ocean, you might choose to instead explore the currents of the ocean and the places that the water may visit).

 

Choosing Your Location: If you are working with a body of water that flows, I suggest physically journeying to the headwaters of that water source as much as you can.  Rivers flow, and the closer to the source of the river you go, the more of the waterway you can affect.  I also realize that in many cases this is not possible.  If you are going to a source that doesn’t flow (like the ocean) then any sacred spot is appropriate.

 

The Ritual

Altar for water healing

Altar for water healing

Setup. Find a quiet spot along the body of water where you will do your ritual. Setup an atlar from things you brought as well as from things you find; I like to leave a small stone cairn there after the ritual, so I will usually setup an altar in a way where most of it can be left after the ritual concludes.  Place your vial of healing water on the altar.

 

Open a Sacred Space: Open up a sacred space in any manner that you use (I use OBOD or AODA’s grove opening, for example, but you can use anything else.  A typical opening calls in the quarters, declares peace in the quarters, and casts some kind of protective sphere or circle around you for the purpose of the ritual).

 

The Heartbeat. Begin by doing drumming, using a shaker, or, if you don’t have these materials, using two rocks and knocking one against the other.  The idea here is that you want to create a heartbeat.  This is the heartbeat that beats within you, and the one that beats metaphorically within the land itself.  Spend some time connecting with this heartbeat.  It is helping to attune you, as a healing agent, to the water.

 

Adding Healing Waters: Now, take your vial and pour the vial into the waterway.  As you pour, speak words of healing if you feel so led.  Speak also of the journey that this water will take, and all of the different bodes of water that it will reach.

 

Connecting with the Waters: Place your hand in the water after you are done pouring and simply feel the water flowing away from you.  In your mind’s eye, follow that water as it begins healing and bringing vitality into each waterway. Imagine the journey your waters will take and as they reach each new water source, imagine the healing energy infusing in each waterway and the vitality that coems with healing.  Imagine healthy ecosystems, fish, plant life, insect life, and all the things that healthy waterways bring.  Take all the time you need to do this.

 

The Heartbeat.  Again, return to your drum or stones and once again, connect with the heartbeat of the land. Note any changes you feel in the heartbeat of the land and the waters that connect it.

 

Close your space. Close out your sacred space and thank the spirits for their blessings.

 

Group Variant 1: A Ritual in Two Parts

This ritual can be done in two parts, perhaps at two different grove events, or at a weekend ceremony.  First, ask everyone to bring water from a sacred place to the ceremony.  Do a “combining waters” ceremony with the group, similar to what I described in my last post.  For this ceremony, setup a central bowl. Each participant in the group will step forward and speak the name of their sacred water, and offer their sacred water to the bowl.  They can share anything they like about that water.  Once all of the waters have been added, the group can place their hands over the water and bless it, chanting “Awens”, drumming, or doing any kind of energizing blessing.  After the ceremony, the waters can then be put in small glass vials and each participant can take their own “coming together” vial. One of these vials can be saved for water healing work.  See Variant 2 for instructions about how to do this ritual with a group.

Sacred Waters being infused with life

Sacred Waters being infused with life

Group Variant 2: Healing Water Ritual

In this variant, one person prepares the sacred waters, but the group does the blessing.  You can have multiple people doing the “heartbeat” and keep that heartbeat going throughout the ceremony, while others add the water and speak the journey that the waters will take.  You can also add a water blessing for each person who is part of the ritual as a final step.

 

I hope that these rituals will serve you well in your water healing/land healing needs.  I’ve been doing some form of this ritual for many years, and while I can’t stop all of the Acid Mine Drainage (although I certainly lend my efforts and funds in that regard), I do feel that this is something I can do, and the spirits of the waters certainly appriciate it.

 

Cultural Appropriation, Plant Relationships, and Nature Connection March 31, 2019

As a druid, someone who connects to the local landscape spiritually, I’ve gotten my fair share questions about cultural appropriation and druidry’s relationship to indigenous practices, particularly traditions indigenous to the USA. The conversation may go something like this, “So druidry, is that like Native American?” My response is, “Druids and Native Americans both honor and respect the land, and see spiritual significance in nature.  However, Druidry comes from a different cultural tradition (the British Isles, particularly Wales) and our relationship with the land, spiritual practices, and celebrations are completely different than indigenous peoples in North America”  Another thing that happens with some frequency is that I describe something on this blog, like land healing, building sacred spaces, or other such spiritual work. And someone who has never commented before leaves a comment that says something like “You don’t have a right to do that, this land belongs to Native Americans” or “You need to ask permission from those who used to live here to work spiritually with the land.” I usually delete these comments because they seem more concerned with virtue signaling than about honoring and healing the land and building bridges or building understanding.  But in my time in druid leadership in various places, I see a lot of white druids seriously grappling with these same kinds of questions and issues–and so I want to share my thoughts.

 

Another observation: here in the US, white people who are trying to reconnect to their land spiritually carry around a lot of baggage. Guilt about the atrocities that were committed so that we could live on this land, guilt about what was done before we were born, guilt about always being an “imposter” here on the land, guilt about living here now. Even if you don’t know your family history, if you are white, the cultural history and legacy of the broader US are more than sufficient. There’s also a lot of fear–fear of connecting deeply with nature, fear of appropriation (even inadvertent appropriation), fear of doing something wrong, of somehow doing more damage than has been already done. I never realized the extent of this fear and guilt–even within me–till I met druid who had recently came from Europe and moved to the US. I connected with her at a druid event where I was leading a workshop and ritual. After the workshop, she said to me that she felt that Americans were so afraid of their land. After her comment, we had more discussions and I started to pay attention, and I realized how acute her observation was. Culturally, there’s also this idea that if you are a white person, you really don’t have the right or privilege to connect with the land here. So the guilt sets in, the fear sets in, and people do nothing.  How, then, can white American druids build a relationship with nature, given these cultural complexities?  How can we build a relationship rooted in honoring the ancestors of the land and recognizing culturally, what work we have to do? And, do we have a right to do so? And why should we? Those questions are the subject of today’s blog post.

 

Building connections with nature

Building connections with nature

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual path is ultimately about connection and relationship building. People who find druidry and take up the druid path are concerned with building deeper connections to nature, physically and in spirit, and in living a life that is nurturing of the earth rather than destructive of her. People from all walks of life, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc, can join the druid tradition; it is open to anyone who seeks this path. I want to frame this entire discussion about cultural appropriation in terms of relationship, as I think it is a useful and productive lens. So let’s start by thinking about the definition of relationship. Here are a few dictionary definitions, useful to get us started. Definition A: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected” and B: “the way in which two or more people or groups regard and behave toward each other.” In the case of druid practice, we are exploring ways that we, as 21st century human beings living in specific ecosystems, and coming out of specific cultural and historical traditions, connect spiritually with our living ecosystems around us. My definition here, then, accounts not only for a specific person, but that person living in a specific context, and bringing specific history with them.  And it is this “cultural and historical context” that has everything to do with appropriation–but also, nature relationship.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, prior to white colonization, old growth forests covered the land, producing massive amounts of mast crops (acorns and chestnuts) with about 1/3 of the total forest cover in hardwood nut trees; streams were clear and full of fish; animals and hunting lands were abundant. Native Americans, as M. Kat Anderson describes in Tending the Wilds, tended these lands and had them in a very healthy state of abundance. As non-industrial societies, they depended on the land, build spiritual practices surrounding their relationship to the land, and many tribes had rich animistic traditions surrounding the land and her spirits. Traditions that, in some cases, spanned hundreds or thousands of years.  Framing this in terms of relationship–generations upon generations of Native Americans were tending the wilds and cultivating a sacred relationship with their landscape. Every person in that tribe gained strength from those ancestral connections to land, established over generations upon generations. Even for a native person today, those connections are still present, and I think they are beautifully described in the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer, among other native authors.

 

But a white person’s cultural relationship to our local landscape here in the USA is completely different. Let’s take a look at my own cultural relationship as an example.  As a white person living in Western PA in the 21st century, I can trace my ancestors back to the late 1600’s and 1700’s arriving on American soil.  My ancestors were some of the first people to arrive to Pennsylvania; and some of the first to push westward into Western PA and settle the Laurel Highlands region. My family heritage is Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English (about 75%) and German (25%). The strongest cultural heritage I grew up with was Pennsylvania German (Dutch) traditions, passed on to me in some small ways by my grandmother. This makes me very, very white, and the descendant of coal miners, farmers, steel mill workers, loggers, and other people who worked hard to colonize and extract the rich resources of Pennsylvania to fuel growing industrialization. In our family records, and in my own ancestry research, I know that when my ancestors first arrived, these lands were a cornucopia of abundance and were pristine. Within less than 150 years due to their efforts, these lands were desolate wastelands, extracted of their wood, coal, iron, tannins, animals, fish–anything that could feed the industry.  I know from a copy of the Department of Forestry’s Annual Report from 1898 from PA, that less than 4% of forest cover remained by the turn of the 20th century in counties where my ancestors settled. Further, in less than two centuries, Native peoples who made these lands their home were slaughtered or forcefully relocated to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma. When I look upon the lands where I was born, lands that are still the subject of many extraction activities, I have to recognize the colonialist legacy that produced me. That’s the cultural and historical reality of the blood that moves through my veins.  Regardless of how much I have personally worked to reconnect with the land, I cannot deny or change this history.  My ancestry offers me little positive spiritual “connection”, historical or otherwise, to this land.  So I return to my original question, “How, then, can I, as a white druid, build a relationship with nature?”

Acid Mine Drainage--a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

Acid Mine Drainage–a local stream demonstrating the cultural legacy of white people in this region

 

Probably the worst way to answer these questions is to engage in cultural appropriation. When we look at the above–it makes sense that no white person wanting to connect spiritually with nature wants the cultural and historical baggage that being white on this soil brings. (For the record, it doesn’t matter if we want it, it is ours and we need to acknowledge it and work to right these wrongs). And so, a white person might be drawn away from their own cultural traditions, which offer no spiritual connection to the land, and instead, attempt to shift themselves into a different relationship with nature. Some people choose to do this, most unfortunately, by trying to appropriate various Native American traditions. Some have tried to spiritually practice like a Native American, of appropriate Native American traditions or beliefs as their own, or, in the most extreme cases, even claiming to be offering ceremony in a Native American way or in the way of a specific tribe. Native Americans call such people who appropriate their traditions “plastic shamans”; and I think the term is apt. In other words, these white people are attempting to claim the relationship to the land that only Native Americans have a right to. Understanding this issue as tied to relationship, the appropriation is not just about appropriating specific ceremonies or traditions, but really, it is an attempt to claim that indigenous relationship to the land and her spirits. (There are exceptions: in some limited cases, a white person has been welcomed into a tribe or by an elder and taught with intention.)

 

The relationship metaphor is a really useful one here for breaking down why cultural appropriation is so problematic and why cultural appropriation should have no place in the druidry–or any nature-based spiritual practice–of white people. You might think about your current relationships you have with other people: each one is unique, each one is different. Your immediate and extended family and friend network are all relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Each person in you know has a different relationship with you than any other person. Maybe one friend is fun to hang out with and chill out, but another one is a good travel partner, and still another you can share your deepest secrets with. If you have a partner or spouse, certainly, that relationship is very sacred and very unique.  You wouldn’t want another person to try to barge in and claim your spouse as their own–you would rightfully be defensive, angry, and demand that person stop. That’s essentially what I think appropriation is–taking someone else’s relationship with the land and claiming it as yours. It is no wonder that people whose traditions are subject to such appropriation are rightfully upset about it.

 

Further, relationships are complex and nested. I’m individual, yes, with my own ethics, spiritual path, and decisions to make. I’ve worked hard to build my relationship with my local land over time.  But I bring with me–in the very blood that flows through me–the DNA of my ancestors. I bring with me, for good or for ill, that cultural legacy and that history, the choices that they made, and I am living the benefits and consequences of those choices. As a white person, I simply cannot hope to have the same kind of relationship that a Native person has on this land today–because relationships aren’t just about individuals, they are about cultures and generations of people. Under no circumstances could I *ever* replicate someone else’s cultural relationship to the land, even if I tried.  Not only is trying to do so problematic from a cultural, ethical, and historical standpoint, it is deeply problematic from a spiritual one (and I don’t think the land spirits are having any of it).

 

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Now, let’s take a look at a very specific plant example here, to further illustrate my point. A few posts ago I wrote about the issues surrounding white sage and other at-risk plants. Let’s dig into white sage specifically, as it is an American plant used by a number of native traditions. There are a lot of different perspectives surrounding white sage and whether or not white people should use it.  These perspectives range from “don’t even look at this plant if you aren’t native” to “buy white sage from natives and support them” to “anyone can use this plant for any purpose.” I think the first line of reasoning suggests that only one culture can have a relationship with a plant that grows broadly, thus, cutting off that plant medicine and spirit to anyone else. As a druid, I see all of nature as sacred, particularly, the nature growing in my own ecosystem, and I think each person and culture can build new relationships with plants. At the same time, I also think the last perspective is problematic, as that is the source of white privilege and cultural appropriation.  What I see as the thing here is acknowledging that other cultures and people may have a specific relationship with a plant, and it is not ok to try to mimic that relationship with a plant. Instead, druids and others can build their own relationships with plants–relationships that are their own. White sage certainly has chemical properties that may help clear and heal. However, native tribes, such as the Luiseno and Cahuilla people in California, built up a very sacred relationship with white sage over millenia. Someone who is not part of that cultural legacy has no right to try to claim that specific relationship with white sage. This goes back to why indigenous peoples get upset when white people try to appropriate their plants and ceremonies–its trying to lay claim to a spiritual relationship that belongs to a culture.  If the plant’s use comes from a cultural tradition that you can rightfully access, then great, access it.  But if it doesn’t, those doors are closed to you, and you will never have a key. But it will be yours.  But what you DO have the ability to do is to create your own relationship.  It will be a different door.  It will be a different relationship. It will be a different key.

 

 

The land, her spirits, here in the US, even after all that is happened culturally, welcome relationships with white people.  But for white people living here, these must be *new relationships* and they need to be built upon acknowledging and honoring the past, building trust, and about repairations, accountability, and building trust. It is up to each of us to forge those connections, and for larger druid groups to start to do that on a broader, generational level. In other words, white people have build those relationships ourselves, and they are going to be inherently different looking because of our own identities, cultures, and histories. This is why talking about cultural appropriation matters–because we have our work cut out for us, and there are no easy short cuts. If we want to build deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with the land here, we’ve got to do the work from the ground up. If we are appropriating someone else’s culture and spiritual practice, we aren’t doing the hard and necessary work of relationship building for our own tradition–hence, we are perpetuating more colonizing behavior.

 

So, as white druids living in 21st century American soil, we have a lot of work ahead of us.  I see at a number of things that we can do to build our own traditions and relationships with this land, and offer this list as a starting point.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Become a nurturer and healer of the land. Reject the cultural values of exploitation and colonization that have shaped white people’s legacy here on American soil. Instead, work to reduce your own ecological footprint, learn to heal the land (through permaculture, sustainable living, conservation, other means), and develop a very different relationship with the physical landscape than other white people, past or present. Relationships with spirits are mirrored on the physical world. To get the land and spirits to trust you, to recognize you are different than other white faces that have come before, you have to behave differently–outside of the typical behaviors of exploitation. This is part of breaking down the past cultural legacy and establishing new patterns.

 

Honor the ancestors of the land and recognize those who came before you on this soil.  I think there are lots of ways to honor the ancestors of the land, and here are a few of those that I use.  First, learn about who the ancestors of the land where you live. Learn about who they were, what they did, how they lived, their stories, and what happened to them. For example, the peoples who lived where my home is located now were Osage, Shawnee, and Susquehannock. Today, the Osage and Shawnee are in Oklahoma, which is where they were forcefully moved by the US government. The Susquehannok are said to be extinct. (To find out who used to live in your region,  you might start with this site.) Once you know about them, find some way of honoring them regularly: perhaps say their names at the start of your rituals, create a shrine, or do an honoring ceremony as part of your practice.

 

Support and recognize the rights of indigenous peoples today. If there are still native peoples in your area or region, find ways of supporting them–if they need someone to come to a fight or take a stand, be that ally.  If there are not native tribes in your area, consider finding a cause that you can assist in that supports the rights of indigenous people regionally or globally. For example, I donate regularly to an organization called Cultural Survival, which fights globally for indigenous peoples’ rights. I also subscribe to their mailing list, which often has items you can take action on and keep you informed about global developments. I also think, as a white person, it is really important to do the “ground work”  to speak up for indigenous rights. Have compassionate conversations with other people about cultural appropriation, indigenous rights, and history.  Talk about these issues.  Recognize your own flaws and misjudgments.  Apologize. Learn and grow.

 

Recognize that we are building relationships, over time, in a new way. Because we are white people on US soil, we have very little to build upon. We are here, inventing and growing this tradition organically, a tradition imported from white ancestors, yes, but from a far off place. While this is a major challenge before us, it is also a really exciting opportunity.  In permaculture terms, we talk about the problem being the solution–in this case, our problem allows us to build something anew.  Something that responds to this time, this place, and honors our own path as white druids in the 21st century while not dishonoring those who were here before us. This requires us to deeply invest our time in learning about the land through building nature wisdom, nature connection, and our own rituals.

 

I hope this piece is helpful for those white druids who are struggling with these issues.  For this post, I am indebted to members of Sun Spiral grove, who spoke with me at multiple settings about these issues, and including members of the grove who read and offered me feedback on this post.  I also realize and recognzie that there may be things I haven’t thought about.  This is a tough topic, and I appriciate your respectful feedback. Blessings!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Plant-Based Spiritual Supplies and Global Demand March 24, 2019

Can you even imagine druidry without plants or trees?  Plants and trees are some of our strongest allies for the work that we do, and are often connected to almost everything that we do spiritually. Plant spirits are teachers, guides, and allies.  From before we had recorded history in any culture, the plant spirits were there, growing with us, guiding us, healing us, and supporting us on our journey. Today’s modern druid practice continues that tradition: we burn plants for smoke cleansing, clearing, and helping to energize spaces. We use trees as part of divination and sacred rites. We use plants as healers, for magical healing and physical healing, and to connect with on deep levels.  Plants have long been friends of humans–and have long walked beside us, hand in hand, as we do our sacred work.  And today, we’ll explore ways we can offer that same kind of honor, respect, and nurturing in return–on both a local and global scale, given that we are in the age of the Anthropocene.  For other posts in this series, please see Druidry for the 21st Century, Druidry in the Anthropocene, and Psychopoming the Anthropocene.

 

In the age of the Anthropocene, given the strain on many ecosystems and species, it is necessary to be an “ethical” consumer–both reducing overall consumption, and when it is necessary to buy, knowing where our goods come from, who makes them and in what conditions, and what we are really supporting. This behavior, in turn, helps certain ethical products and companies succeed and creates less demand for unethical and damaging products. In the progressive circles, the idea of “voting with your dollars” comes to mind.  We see this movement in food (local eating), clothing, electronics, and many more kinds of goods. There are good, bad, and ugly choices out there, and making ethical choices helps promote better livelihoods and protects ecosystems.

 

Ginseng my family grew

Ginseng my family grew

With over half of the world’s species in serious decline, threatened, or endangered, I don’t think we can simply enjoy using whatever we find in the local pagan shop (even if we want to support that shop!). When you walk into one of these shops, or start browsing online, you can find literally thousands of places that are selling palo santo, white sage, sandalwood, and many other critically endangered plants.  These plants are critically endangered because of their overuse, particularly by people who are far disconnected from their growth, harvest, and ecosystems. I’d like to suggest that we take the wisdom of the “ethical consumer” movement and apply it to the purchasing spiritual materials.  This is particularly important for druidry and neopaganism, where it isn’t just about the physical, but also, the spirit. Ethical plant use, where we know where the plant comes from, how much of it remains, and how our own choice of using this plant is a necessary part. While I’m focusing on plants today, I want to add that this really applies to any goods we may use as part of our spiritual practice from two angles: the physical and spirit.

 

The Physical: Land, livelihood, Indigenous Practice, and Ecosystems

I already grow and use a lot of my own herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes, but occasionally, still enjoy the choice rare ingredient that I purchase or that is given to me as a gift. For example, the other night, I was burning a piece of Palo Santo that a friend had given me as a birthday gift and got the distinct question, “do you even know me?”  The answer was, shamefully, no, I did not.  So I started to research it, I found a host of material that suggests that the ethics of Palo Santo are all about the sourcing:  it can be harvested ethically and be used to support native peoples and ecosystems, or it can be stripped bare.  In holding my own piece of Palo Santo wood, I realized I couldn’t answer the important questions: where did this come from? How was it harvested? Who harvested it?  Who profited from it? A few days later, after doing some research, I saw a post shared by a friend on social media.  This post came from a woman native to Colombia who said that Palo Santo was being stripped from her forests, and begging people to stop using it.

 

Palo Santo is hardly unique in this respect–there are so many plants that are now in global demand due to their uses for medicine or spiritual purposes. The work of Kelly Ablard is useful here.  Her website details information on essential oil plants and their conservation status. As she describes, as global demand for certain plants rise, the plants become so lucrative that are over-harvested and can be poached, reducing biodiversity and threatening local people’s traditions and livelihoods.  As the link I shared in the last paragraph about Palo Santo harvesting suggests, in purchasing plants for spiritual supplies, you can make choices that encourage biodiversity, enhance people’s livelihoods, and support life.  Or you can make unknown choices, which are almost *always* the bad ones.  Knowledge of sourcing is critically important.

 

I have witnessed the vicious cycle of over harvesting driven by global demand firsthand here in the Appalachians, such as the case of wild ginseng. When I was a child, my grandfather used to come back with beautiful wild ginseng roots, and we would brew up ginseng tea and enjoy it as a special treat.  I remember those roots–the look of them, the feel of them, the energy of them.  He would only every bring back a small amount, as he was tending his wild patch long-term so that, as he told me once, “my grandkids will be able to harvest this as I did.”  However, the patch was stripped bare by ginseng wildharvesters (I call them poachers) ages ago–every last root was taken.  A good quality dried American Ginseng root, wildharvested, currently goes for between $500-$800 a dried pound, and there are many ginseng dealers that will pay top dollar for anyone who can deliver.  They don’t care where it comes from, only what they can make from it (and the demand for ginseng is growing). So what happens is that people–usually poor people, out of work due to our poor economy–literally scour our mountains for Ginseng, Black Cohosh, Reishi, and other in-demand medicinal plants–and when they find them, they harvest all they can. Over the years, I have covered thousands of miles of forests, nearly all of them here in the Appalachians.  And I’ve never seen a single wild ginseng plant.   The demand for ginseng is primarily from China–a far off place wanting to pay top dollar for high quality ginseng.  Chinese people buying American ginseng have no idea what it is doing to the  wild ginseng populations here.  And so locals here don’t even get to see the plant, much less, build a relationship with it–it is no longer part of our forest ecology. That same story can be told about many, many of these in demand sacred plants–and I think its useful to see that this overharvest problem can happen anywhere, even in “developed” nations like the US. (In the case of ginseng, I will also note that a new forest-grown initiative is helping change the way ginseng is harvested, which is great–but not enough to restore wild populations).

 

Sacred cedar

Sacred cedar

The “Wildharvest” label is fraught with problems. I have spoken to a lot of people in teaching herbalism classes who think it’s better if its wildharvested. I say, “better for who?”  Certainly not better for the plant population!  Wild harvesters who are harvesting for profit have a wide range of practices and ethics. You have no idea what the total population of the plant is, you have no idea how many different wildharvesters came through an area, or how many they take.  A farm, on the other hand, is growing and harvesting there for the long-term, harvesting each year and conserving populations.  Here, most of our wild harvesters looking for ginseng are folks that are out of work and pretty desperate for cash, particularly because of the long decline of the rust belt economy.

 

Knowing which plants are of particularly concern and how they are harvested is also an important part of this process. One good source of information on some plants in North America is the United Plant Savers; just this year, White Sage was added to their list due to wildharvesting and overharvesting.  Ablard’s notes critically endangered plants by region. These include Palo Santo (Peru), Juniper Berry (from Morocco), Sandalwood (Timor Leste), Spikenard, and Agarwood. Her lists also include sweet almond, olive, cedar, elm, and sassafras (in certain locations), and Eastern Hemlock here in the USA.  A lot of plants that are endangered are “whole plant” harvests; ginseng being a good example–if harvesting wood or roots, or all of the aerial parts of a plant, what is left of that plant afterwards?

 

The other piece of this is cultural appropriation. While smoke cleansing (what are commonly called smudging or smudging ceremonies) of all kind are used widely in global traditions (such as this delightful German practice that Christian Brunner describes on his blog) the use of particular plants for smoke cleansing is tied to certain indigenous practices.  White sage has been in the spotlight recently as one such plant. Increased demand for white sage use are driving up the prices of white sage, and reducing native access to wild white sage (due to commercial wildharvesting), and putting white sage plants themselves at risk. Even the term “smudging” is coming under question as a term that appropriates a native practice; see this perspective shared here. I think the key takeaway here is that some of these plants are tied to indigenous traditions, and should be respected as such, particularly when it comes to specific ceremonies and/or wild populations under use by indigenous peoples.

 

In the end, the questions I keep coming back to are: Is it right or ethical that we use these plants to the point of their extinction? Is it right to create such demand for plants that native peoples who depend on them for spiritual practices and cannot find them to use?  Can we find a better way?  These are important questions, but just as important are the spiritual implication of sourcing of plant material.

 

Spiritual: Energy, Honoring, and Connections

Even if we put every physical consideration aside, there is still the matter of spirit–honoring the spirit of the plant, working with the spirit of the plant, and connecting to the spirit of the plant.  Attending to our connection and relationship with the spirit of a specific plant we are using spiritually matters if we want our spiritual practices to have effect.  Sure, I could wave some rosemary and sage around to “clear” my room before doing a ritual, but if my relationship with sage is one rooted in blind consumption, and not connection, is that sage really going to want to support my efforts? What energy tied to the plant’s harvest and sale, is being brought in at the same time?  The way in which the plant was obtained has a direct relationship with the connection–and depth of connection–I am able to have with the plant.  If I purchase a plant from an unknown source, I am bringing all of the energy of that source into my spiritual practice.  Who harvested it, how it was harvested, how it was handled, how it was sold, how it was transported–and in the case of poaching and overharvesting, that may be energy I very much do not want to have in my life.  What was that plant’s life–and harvest–like?  Was it done respectfully? Was it done in a sacred manner?  If not, do I even have any hope of connecting with it spiritually? These questions are critical in developing spiritual practices surrounding plant use.

 

Anytime we use a plant as part of our sacred practices, we are building relationships with that plant.  Plants work physically and spiritually, but for many of the deeper spiritual uses, they really do require a deep connection.  For example, many herbalists, understand and quietly share about entheogenic properties of Calamus (Sweet flag). You can’t get there with a single huge dose of Calamus. You have to connect with the spirit of the Calamus, build a relationship with it over a long period of time.  As part of this, you have to work with the plant, tend it, plant it, spend time with it, meditate with it, and ethically and respectfully harvest it. At some point, sometimes years or decades later, Calamus open you up for visions and experiences. This isn’t something you can buy or purchase or force to happen–it is something you cultivate over time.  Calamus offers you a process of initiation–and it must be done with the utmost respect and patience.

 

The need to cultivate deep relationships to really “know” a plant and use it for good spiritual effect is necessary for  every plant we might work with spiritually.  Each plant offers us an initiation into its own mysteries, teachings, and magic; and having those initiations will allow you to use the plant to its full magical or spiritual effect.  However, we have to build that relationship.  It’s hard to build a relationship with a plant that has had suffering, death, and pain as part of its sourcing. In the case of some plants, sure, you can use them spiritually, but you aren’t ever going to breach that barrier into deeper work if these other concerns are present.  I can burn my piece of Palo Santo, and it smells nice and produces a calming energy.  But that experience is very surface.  But under no circumstances, could I ever build a deep relationship with that particular wood, given the conditions under which it was harvested and the energy that it now carries with it.

 

Ethical Plant Use in the Anthropocene: Purchasing, Growing,  and Wildharvesting

 

Given the above, I’d like to advocate for the key practice of ethical plant use in druidry and other neo-pagan paths.  By the term “ethics,” I draw upon permaculture‘s three ethics of people care, earth care, and fair share.  People Care encourages us to think about the sourcing of the plant (if you are not growing it yourself) and how the harvest of this plant is tied to local communities and local labor.  Earth Care asks us to consider how the harvest of this plant may have affected the plant and plant species itself as well as the broader ecosystem where the plant grows. Fair Share  asks us to take only what we need of the plant, and certainly, to make sure this plant is available to indigenous peoples who might depend upon it–fair share can take place both on and individual level or a cultural level. Now let’s consider a range of alternative practices to simply “consuming” plants.

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

 

Substitutions: Yes, palo santo, frankincense, sandalwood, and so on smell amazing–but do I really  need these specific plants? Can I instead use local plants that are growing in your own ecosystem, or even backyard? For example, I brought back a small amount of Frankincense when I visited Oman a few years ago and have been slowly using it, but learning what I have about Frankincense and the disappearing frankincense trees, I will not purchase any more.  Frankincense cannot be cultivated commercially, and overharvesing is killing trees–and will severely impact cultures that depend on it as part of their cultural and religious traditions.  I have already replaced Frankincense  with locally harvested white pine resin, which has a similar smell and similar energetic qualities–and which I can harvest myself, thus, cultivating a deeper relationship with white pine and my local bioregion.

 

Ethical Purchasing: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. Purchasing is still on the table, but it should be done with ethics in mind.  Some purchases are very good, and can support initiatives that help honor the plant and build livelihoods and ecosystems for local peoples. If you are buying locally or online, before you buy, ask some good questions to ensure an ethical and sustainable harvest.

The questions I like to ask before purchasing are:

  • Where does this plant come from?  (Look for places engaged in sustainable harvesting, like this example from Fair Trade Frankincense)
  • How is this plant harvested? (Learn about your plant. Root or wood harvests are most damaging, and can often kill the plant, but other harvests, like leaf or resin, may also be extremely damaging, particularly if they harm the plant or prevent it from going to seed.)
  • Who harvested this plant? Under what conditions? (How are individuals, cultures, and communities impacted by this harvest?  Be skeptical of a “wildharvest” label, recognizing the lack of oversight for many wildharvesting operations.)
  • Who is profiting from this plant?

If purchasing locally, if the shop owner can’t tell you the answers (especially to the first three questions below), perhaps encourage that person to consider a different source.  If buying online, you can ask the same information if it is not available.  For Palo Santo, for example, Mountain Rose Herbs describes exactly where they get their Palo Santo and their conservation efforts. If I wanted more Palo Santo and it was very important to my practice, I’d want to get it from this kind of source–where I am not only supporting a local farm in Equador, but also supporting the replanting of Palo Santo trees.  To me, this is critical–a good purchase can do a lot of good and support people care, earth care, and fair share.

 

Ethical Growing: The easiest way to manage a population and cultivate deep relationships is to grow it yourself, if you can. For example, I never buy white sage, but I love the smell and I do like to use it as part of certain incense blends that I make and use regularly.  Thus, I grow it myself, and try to let some of my plants to go seed so that I can sustainably grow it in the future.  Even if you don’t have land to grow large amounts of plants on, you can still grow a number of your own magical herbs.  In fact, many garden herbs are potentate magical allies and readily available for purchase in the spring.  A pot of rosemary, sage, white sage, bay laurel, thyme, or lavender would all be a very useful culinary, magical, and medicinal ally–and you build your relationship considerably with each time you tend the plant.  You can also grow many things outdoors, if you have the space.

 

Ethical Wildharvesting: Some plants, and trees, are harder to grow in pots in your windowsill or garden but certainly can be wildharvested ethically, taking only what you need, helping populations grow by spreading seeds, and tending the land that supports the plants.  I like to wildharvest plants on private lands (asking landowners, developing relationships with them) so that I know exactly how many people are harvesting there and how much is being taken.  Harvesting on public lands presents a much larger problem because even if you take only a little, you are never sure how much is being taken by others (hence, my ginseng example above).  For more on tree incenses and resins you can harvest from North America based on my own research, see this post.  For more on how to create wildharveted and home-grown smudge sticks for smoke cleansing, see here and here.  For more on how to learn foraging and wildharvesting, see my series here and here.

 

I hope this has been a helpful way of thinking about how to respond to the Anthropocene–it might seem like a small piece of the larger puzzle, but it is a piece we have a lot of direct control over. For these populations of plants, communities, and ecosystems, making ethical choices, reducing our demand, and practicing people care, earth care, and fair share may make all the difference.