The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings November 10, 2019

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

 

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?

 

 

 

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply October 21, 2019

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.

 

 

 

 

Ancient Order of Druids in America September 29, 2019

Dear readers, I’m taking a pause from my regular article-style blog posts this week to share some big news and do a bit of reflection. Last week, as of the Fall Equinox, I became the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). I’ve been in leadership and service with the AODA since 2013, serving first as Trilithon journal editor for four years, then as Grand Pendragon, then as the Archdruid of Water for the last four years. And now, I’ve stepped up to lead the AODA, following Gordon Cooper, and before him, my friend and mentor, John Michael Greer. Because of this, I wanted to take a week to share my story of AODA and reflect on this path. I do this for a few reasons–first, I wanted to share the news. But also, I realize that a lot of people may find this reflection useful in deepening their own practices–learning about others’ paths helps us see possibilities for our own. Additionally, a lot of what I talk about on this blog is rooted in some way to frameworks from the AODA. A lot of my thinking about nature spirituality, druidry, and permaculture have an underlying foundation of AODA work. Thus, in this post, I am going to do two things.  First, I’m going to share my story about AODA and how I got to where I am today.  Second, I’m going to share what I consider to be the strengths of AODA practice, the highlights, the things that make AODA an amazing druid order.

 

The Road to a Spiritual Home: My Path into AODA

Druidry and the trilithon

Druidry and the trilithon

I’ll start by sharing some reflections about my own journey into AODA. After leaving home at 18 to go to college, I released the last hold of my parents’ religion. I called myself a secular humanist and an agnostic and went blissfully along my way. And while that path was useful to me for a time, after watching my closest friend battle with, and die of brain cancer in my early 20’s, I realized I needed something more. I had experienced his spirit after death, I had a deep knowing of his passing long before the formal news came my way, and with that experience, I knew I could be agnostic no longer. So in April of 2006, I began working through my grief and also finding a spiritual path that I could call home. The only spiritual experiences I had were with nature, so I started with that–I needed a path rooted in nature. I found druidry sometime in the fall of 2006, and after researching numerous druid orders, I found two I really liked (consequently, the two I belong to and work with today- AODA and OBOD). I decided to join AODA and did so in early 2007.

 

My first few years were spent learning and growing and asking so many questions. As a teaching order, AODA is dedicated to giving people a set of tools and practices to help them develop and deepen their own nature spirituality, rather than offer dogmatic belief or sets of rules. This self-directed path was useful, both because fundamentalism of any kind was not welcome in my life, but also because self-direction allows for ownership and mastery in the deepest way possible.  You learn by doing, by practicing, and sometimes, by making mistakes. I also think that part of why I took to AODA’s practices so quickly is that it didn’t require me to believe anything, particularly surrounding deity, a concept with which I was wrestling after coming out of my birth religion. Instead, I was given a set of working tools, rituals, and experiences that helped me shape my own druidry, deepen my connection to myself and my creative gifts, connect deeply with the living earth on multiple levels, and learn to be fully present and alive in this world.  I learned about the power of meditation, spending time in nature, making lifestyle changes to reduce my ecological footprint, and more.  I opened up myself to the bardic arts, the living earth, and the world of spirit (you can see AODA’s full curriculum here for more info). My developing nature spirituality, on both inner and outer levels, unfolded over a period of years.  Several years into my path, as I was finishing up my AODA 2nd degree, I also joined OBOD and found those practices to be wonderfully complimentary, particularly as OBOD’s course offers a lot of deep psychological work.

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

As time went on, I continued to grow with my AODA practices, eventually moving into the AODA’s self-designed 3rd degree.  This is a three-year project that you undertake to enhance your spiritual practices in some way–it is entirely self-designed and self-directed. For my project,  I took up the practice of permaculture and applied it to druidry (and as some of you may know, I have my first book coming out sometime next year–and that book is on the synthesis of permaculture and sustainable living practices and earth-centered spirituality!). This blog was also born from that project–I started this blog in 2013 as a way to document my experiences in the third degree in learning about the synthesis of permaculture, sustainable living, and druid practice. Obviously, I decided to keep it going long after as writing this blog became one of my primary expressions of my bardic arts!

 

What are AODA’s strengths?  What does AODA do well?

Now that you know a bit about my own experiences with AODA, I wanted to share some of what I think makes AODA unique and special. I draw this list from several places.  First, obviously, my own experience having gone through the curriculum. But also, for the last four years, I have read most of the degree reflections from AODA; these are what people write at the end of competing for one or more of their degrees. You can get a deep sense from these as to what people are really taking away from these practices.

 

Nature Reverence

One of the most central and abiding aspects of AODA practice is the way in which nature is central to everything we do. This isn’t just a respect for or use of nature as part of a spiritual practice, but rather, seeing the natural world immediately surrounding you at the core of your spiritual practice. AODA druidry has several key features that help members root themselves deeply within their own bioregions and practices.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Deep roots

Nature Connection: Wildcrafting your druidry.

The first is a concept of wildcrafting your own druidry, first described by Gordon Cooper years before he became Grand Archdruid. This manifests as a deep commitment to developing locally-based druids that focus on a deep understanding of your local ecology, local seasonal wheel of the year, and so on.  I wrote a number of articles on this blog about ecoregional druids in this same theme: you can see them here, here, and here. What you see with AODA druids is rather than “boilerplate” seasonal wheels of the year based on far off locations, you see all kinds of different druids based on location

 

Nature connection : Reciprocation and regeneration.

The second is understanding and set of practices that forefront reciprocation ass critical part of a spiritual path. For the last few centuries, humans have felt that they can simply take from nature with reckless abandon. In fact, we cannot, and the true cost of our actions are coming due. In AODA practice, we recognize that saying you revere nature is not enough–but rather, it must be accompanied by practices that engage, in permaculture terms, care for the living earth and fair share, taking only what we need. These practices also focus on regenerating nature. When they take up AODA druidry, all of our members engage in lifestyle changes and tree planting to help “give back.”  Many AODA members go well beyond the required work and truely embrace nature reciprocation as a core part of life, practicing permaculture or other regenerative practices. AODA druidry, then, is the deep green kind of druidry–the druidry that helps protect and heal our landscapes.

 

Nature connection: Nature knowledge.

The third aspect of nature connection central to AODA is a commitment to growing ecological knowledge about the world around you. Most people in the modern world know virtually nothing about nature, and we make it a point in AODA to change that–to have people know about nature in their local area.  Thus, all AODA members focus on learning more about their local ecosystems, through several different practices.  Regular time spent in nature, including in focus and observation, helps us gain direct experiences that allow us deeper connection.  We also read books, take classes, and learn about different parts of the ecology, geology, hydrology, and so forth with our ecosystems.  This is a powerful practice–by learning about nature, we grow more connected with nature.

 

Adaptable and Effective Rituals and Frameworks.

AODA works with a seven elemental system, including the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three aspects of spirit (above, below, and within).  The three aspects of spirit are tied to the telluric current (earth energy, spirit below), the solar current (solar energy, spirit above) and the lunar current (nywfre, the spark of life, the spirit within).  We offer members a core daily practice, the Sphere of Protection (SOP), as a protective/balancing ritual that offers lasting benefit.  I have been working with the SOP and this elemental system for a long time, and it has been extraordinarily adaptable and useful in a wide variety of circumstances.  One ritual, the SOP, literally can do anything from setting me up for my day to help me send healing energy to a friend to doing massive land healing and blessing.  John Michael Greer once explained it to me as a “swiss army knife” and this is an apt metaphor.

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

One of the other great things about the SOP, which is partially covered by my next two bullet points, is that the SOP is also infinitely adaptable to one’s local ecology, local beliefs, and individual practices. There are versions of the SOP floating out there using swords, oracle cards (my last week’s post), various different ecologies, and much more.  Each person has the opportunity to create their own take on this ritual, thus, making it even more meaningful and personal.

 

Creating Room for Individual Paths and Honoring Diversity.

As my story above explored, one of the other strengths of the AODA path is the way in which it appeals to people of many different walks of life and belief systems.  AODA is a path of nature spirituality, compatible with many other belief systems. It is non-dogmatic, and instead, offers you a set of tools to help you discover and develop your own spiritual practice. Within AODA, we have people who practice an incredibly diverse range of druids: polytheistic pagans, animists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and more. I love the fact that you can have a practice rooted in nature spirituality and keep your existing beliefs–or explore them in a new context. This allows AODA to appeal to a wide range of people from different walks of life. I think this is really important today, given some of the social and political challenges we face at present and the rise of extremists and hate groups.  Let’s let peace prevail in the quarters, and certainly, within our order.

 

Flexibility and Self Direction

AODA’s core curriculum focuses on individual choice, individual path, and following the flow of Awen.  In addition to offering individuals a set of core tools (meditation, nature observation, celebrating the seasons, the SOP), it also offers a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s path.  Members can choose to pursue any number of bardic, ovate, or druid practices while working through the curriculum.  Members also develop plans of study that are focused on their lifestyles and local ecosystems.  No two druids end up doing the exact same thing as part of their path into AODA.

 

Sacred rays of the sun

Sacred rays of the sun

Traditions and History

AODA is the oldest druid order in the US.  Established in the US in 1912, the AODA is currently 106 years old.  During that long history, it had several twists and turns, the most recent being that John Michael Greer resurrected the AODA in 2003 when it was down to less than a dozen elderly members.  Now, the AODA is thriving with 1200 members, mostly located in the USA. The SOP, the oldest of our practices, dates to sometime in the 1960s, also likely adapted from older practices.  This is a tradition with staying power, and that matters.

 

Conclusion

When looking back on my own life, I have no idea what it might have been without the AODA.  Most of the core parts of my spiritual practice, and my life today, is directly resulting from the core practices that I’ve been doing for over a decade.  AODA practices allowed me to return to my bardic arts (now an indispensable part of my life), those practices led me to study and practice permaculture, herbalism, homesteading, radically change my life, and taught me so much about nature (so much, that now I can teach others and do so through regular plant walks and herbal education).  I’m grateful to be taking this next step with AODA, and I hope some of you will join me on that journey!

 

The Ways of our Ancestors: Review of the Mountaincraft and Music Gathering September 11, 2019

Here, in the center of our camp, the sacred fire burns. This fire is tended for the four days we are together, never being allowed to go out. This is an ancestral fire, and all of us at the Mountaincraft gathering have the responsibility of feeding it. This is where we remember that learning primitive and earth skills is the work of our ancestors. This is where we gather for a quiet moment to commune with those ancestors, and will our bodies and hearts to remember. This is where, each morning, we gather as a group to hear about the day’s classes, call to the directions, hear a word of intention, and recieve a water blessing from Nancy Basket, a tribe elder. This is where, at each meal, some of us may find ourselves, talking with each other or engaging in quiet communion with the flame. This is where, each night, we gather to drum, dance, and connect with all in this community. This is where many classes are taught, using fire as a tool for cooking, dye, carving, and more. The ancestor fire at the heart of the Mountaincraft gathering is the heart of the gathering itself–and it represents much of what we’ve come here to do.

Dye pots in the sacred fire

 

As I’ve already begun to do, in this post, I’m reviewing my recent experience at the Mountaincraft gathering. I’ll offer a full review, and also share at the end of the review how you might find a similar earth / primitive skills gathering, and why, if you are interested in nature spiritualiy and druidry, you might really want to do so!  And so, let’s get back to honoring the ancestors.

 

While I had been at the North American School of Bushcraft a few times before, this was my first time at their annual  Mountaincraft and Music Gathering–and in fact, my first earth skills gathering ever. This gathering focuses on the wide variety of earth skills and primitive skills that our ancestors once knew, and that many of us are now trying to re-learn and preserve. Held yearly in early September in Hedgesville, WV at the North American Bushcraft School, this gathering is a wonderful time for people to gather together to learn, teach, share, and grow. I have been looking forward to this gathering for quite some time, and I invited two druid friends to go with me.  And what a time we had.

 

A typical day at Mountaincraft looks like this: breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 8:30. At 9:30, we have morning circle around the fire. Morning circle is as I described above: part annoucements, part community building, and part ceremony.  We hear about the day’s classes from each of the many instructors–they introduce themselves, what they will be teaching and where. We get a word of intention for the day, which helps us focus our energy in a useful direction.  We gain a water blessing (and sometimes a song) from Nancy Basket, who uses cedar to flick each of us with pure water. Then, we go off to one of many classes offered.  Usually about 7-10 classes are being held at any one time. Morning class runs from 10am till 12:30. Lunch is till 1:30 and classes begin again at 2 and run till 5:30. The gathering provides breakfast and lunch, so then everyone goes off to cook or pays for a delicious purchased meal. Signups for classes start at dinner the day before, so around dinner, so everyone visits the board and sees what the next day’s offerings are and sign up. Many find it diffiuclt to choose as so many good options are available. As it gets dark, everyone gathers for drumming and connection. There might be trading activities (trade blanket, or trading/sales of items) or some other activity. The final evening of the gathering, Saturday evening, they had two fantastic Bluegrass bands (I’m not even a fan of Bluegrass but these were quite fun and enjoyable!) Then you go to your tent and enjoy your rest. While it sounds like you stay quite busy, the schedule is quite relaxed and things happen at their own pace. Earth skills are not “fast” skills, rather, they work on slow time. The gathering’s pace reflects this powerful lesson.

Afternoon Classes – so many!

 

Each day at the gathering offered new classes and exciting opportunities to learn. It was often quite hard to pick between the many classes. Here are just some of the many classes that were offered this year: Wilderness survival 101, map and compass, navigation without maps, bow drill firemaking (make your own kit and learn to use it), friction fires of the world, 40 minute forks, spoon carving, blacksmithing 101, make your own atlatl, primitive pottery, zen and the art of woodchopping, tool maintenance, make handles for tools from trees, make a milking stool from a log, flintknapping, tomahawk throwing and course, bow course, cordage, basketry (many, many different types–pine needles, kudzu, vine, etc) combined with storytelling, fingerweaving, natural dyes, bark baskets, parkour, campfire cooking, indigo and shibori dye, leatherwork: moccasins, make your own leather pants or skirt, process a deer and use all parts, cattail reed mat making, herbalism 101, salve making, naturalist classes, nature awareness, weed walks and plant walks, eating bugs and mushrooms, tree identification, drumming, learning guitar and banjo (and other music), nature identification, and so many more I can’t remember and didn’t write down! There was also a full 3.5 day kids program, where kids did many different earth skills along with plenty of play time, swimming, and nature hikes. This allowed the kids autonomy and also allowed parents to go to their own classes knowing that their kids were in good hands. There were also daily sweat lodges that you could sign up for–I did not do a lodge but one of my druid friends did and had an amazing experience.

 

40 Minute Forks

On my first day, I spent the morning learning “40 minute forks” from Fuz, a long-time earth skills instructor from North Carolina. This was a great class to help me build confidence with my knife skills, whittling skills and create some simple forks. Fuz was a strong presence throughout the gathering, not only teaching a wide range of primitive skills (carving, wood chopping, drumming) but he was also very active in the drum circles at night, helping us feel welcome and leading some great beats.

 

The afternoon class was primitive pottery with Keith. We made our way down to the creek bed, dug clay from the bank, and learned how to hand wedge it. Covered in mud, we came back to the primitive pottery area, where we shaped the clay into bowls and other objects. On saturday late afternoon, after drying the pottery by the fire, the kiln was built on top of hot ashes and all of our pots went inside. Then, we built a bonfire on top of it and watched it burn  I remember standing there with our pots, at about 11pm on Saturday night. Bluegrass band playing in the background, heat of the fire before me, and just thinking what an amazing experience this was–to use fire as such a powerful tool. Evening came and my friends and I shared a meal and some downtime at our campsite. We then went down to the ancestral fire, where we participated in the best drum circle jam I have ever been enjoyed!

 

Prefiring pots

The second day cordage in the morning with Jeff Gottleib.  I loved everything about Jeff’s teaching style: practical, knowledgable, friendly, and encouraging. Jeff was a professional earth skills instructors and naturalist and it really showed. He walked us through the intracies of creating cordage from various plants and trees, and had tons of examples to look at.  We made dogbane cordage and then some hemp cordage. He even had a book on the topic for more info, which I was lucky enough to purchase for reference.  (He has a site and Youtube channel you can check out here).

 

After a great lunch, I went to my afternoon class, which was dyeing with indigo and traditional shibori techniques with Stephanie Davis. I have been longing to learn these techniques for years!  Stephanie’s workshop was amazing. Stephanie brought out examples, pictures, and had her own indigo dyed clothing and tapestries everywhere for examples.  She offered us a box of clothing and we took what would fit.  I ended up with a great cotton sleeveless shirt and an long runner I will use as an altar cloth. Stephanie’s instruction in indigo was magical. Each of us finished our prepartion (with various stitches, string, rubber bands, and more) and then made our way to the dye vat. Stephanie worked with each of us, slowly and purposefully, to dye our work and remove it quickly so that we did not add oxygen to the vat. Her gentle guidance added *so much* to the learning process–I felt like she taught us how to commune with the dye, how to work with the Indigo plant behind it. My two pieces came out beautifully. Many of us stayed to watch the last of the items get unwrapped like precious gifts. I left that class with my heart so full.

 

Amazing dyed fabrics!

Friday night offered a traditional trade blanket. Each of us who participated brought multiple kinds of trades.  We took turns, going around the blanket and offering trades. Or doing side trades, which are ok. I ended up trading for a bag of spicebush seeds (yay for replanting my land), a small leather bag, beads, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, a self-published coloring book, and a wonderful wool shawl with arm holes. I gave iron oxide pigment, guinea and goose feathers, a handmade leather journal, small gourds, and a small gourd drum. This was a  very fun time and a good way to get to know people at the event. For an overview of what this is, you can see this page.

 

Saturday is the “big day” of the gathering. Lots of new folks rolled in and there were at least 10-15 classes running at all times–and again so many choices! I decided to do a natural dyes and ecoprinting class in the morning. My natural dye class was great–we foraged for materials, learned about dyes and prepartion, and prepared and used three different dyes: a pokeberry dye, a walnut dye, and a goldenrod dye. The best thing about this class is that we did these dyes over our ancetral fire, just like our ancestors would have.  We gathered the plants and stained our fingers and faces with pokeberries.

 

My kit, with a fire I started at home a few days after the gathering.

My saturday afternoon class was my last class of the gathering, since I had to return early on Sunday. But I consider this class my greatest success–it was certainly the most physically demanding and challenging but also rewarding. I had class with Jeff again. This time, he was teaching us how to make bow drill kits for friction fire building. We started with a good chunk of dried basswood he harvested. He showed us how to quarter the log and get boards from them, each student making their own board. He then took the rest and offered us smaller shards to carve down into our round drill. After a good deal of carving, we were ready to make the bow. We harvested our drill wood itself and then added lines or did a 3-ply cordage technique with leather.  By this time, we had been making our kits for several hours. Many of the other classes had finished for the day, but we were determined to start fires with our kits!  It took me about 15 minutes of practice to get the hang of it, but then, I HAD AN EMBER!  And then, a minute or so later, I had made fire.  I felt so alive, so proud, so accomplished. From my own hands, I took pieces of split wood and turned them into a friction fire kit that really worked.  I spent most of the evening riding my bow drill fire high, thankful to have learned this skill and feeling damn accomplished. Since returning home, I’ve made three embers and one successful fire with my bow drill–and it tremendously deepened my relationship to fire!

 

That evening was awesome.  We had the trader setup, where you could sell or trade for items from a wide variety of folks who had stuff at the gathering. There were soaps, jams and jellies, herbal medicine, knives, feathers and bones, old school lanterns, various tools, and so many more interesting things. As that winded down, the party began, and we enjoyed homebrew and two amazing bluegrass bands.  I ended that evening at the primitive fire pit watching my pots turn to molten orange.Sunday at the gathering is a half day, but unfortunately, I had to leave early due to having to go to work later on Sunday. I said goodbye and drove away with my heart so full and my mind active, the awen strongly flowing through me!

 

I want to conclude with a few general thoughts and encourage you to go to Mountaincraft or another Earth Skills gathering:

 

Firing the pots!

First, this community is really, really welcoming. I can’t stress that enough. I live in a rural and very conserative area, and that often translates that there are things women do and things men do, and men don’t always want to teach women “men’s” skills. Woodworking and treework, in particular, have been really hard for me to get any decent lessons in. Here at Mountaincraft, Jason and Sera, who run the North American Bushcraft School, are diligent about their land being an accessible and welcoming place. I felt completely respected and believed in, at all times, during the gathering. I had strong women and respectful men leading awesome classes. But its not just gender diversity that is respected: all people are. The elders are respected in this community and given places of honor. The children are likewise respected, and many of them are teachers themselves. I have never been in such an open and welcoming community that honors the diversity of age, race, gender, and path so much.

 

Second, this community has a lot to offer people who put in the time. Besides the incredible list of skills I mentioned, there is a lot of personal work you get to do in building skills. Its a meaningful and powerful method of personal empowerment, where each new skill you learn allows you to gain confidence, gain power, and gain wisdom.  One of my druid friends, also a woman, spent the weekend learning blacksmithing, making weapons, and throwing them.  Her body was sore but her heart was full. She took the warrior’s path, much different than my own bardic journey, and yet, both were fulfilling and enriching for us.  Starting my fire with the bow drill changed something within me; it connected me deeply with my ancestors but also seemed to unlock some as of yet unknown potential within me. All I can say is that I left that gathering a different person than I came, and what that means will likely take some time to sort out through more fire building and bow drill practice.

 

Third, this gathering teaches deep nature knowledge and nature awareness. Nature has so many facets to learn: identification, edible/medicinal virtues, and many other uses–each of these offers a different “face” of a plant. There is such a difference between being able to ID a tree and learning how to make something from its fallen trunk, knowing just the right wood and part of the wood to choose. Before this gathering, basswood was simply a nice tree that I could identify and whose flowers made a demulcent tea. By learning how to make a bow drill of basswood, I learned much more about the qualities of this tree–how the wood behaves, how soft it is, how it smells when it burns, how it carves. Thus, I learned a bit of the tree’s magic: what wisdom and resources that it can offer. Nature knowledge comes in many forms, and the path of earth skills is abundant in such knowledge.

 

Finally, I think earth skills gatherings offeres a wonderful “earth path” suppliment to my many readers who are practicing some kind of earth-based spirituality (such as AODA druidry, which we literally call “earth path” skills).  These are the practical skills, folks.  These are the skills that help you stay rooted and present and build nature knowledge.  It is an incredible opportunity.

 

If you want to find a gathering near you, visit the Earth Skills Gatherings website.

 

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.