The Druid's Garden

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

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

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

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

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

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

 

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

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Understanding Nature

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

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

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

 

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

 

Probing nature

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

 

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

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

Diary of a Land Healer: January January 28, 2018

It is late January. We had a very bout of cold weather these last few weeks, as I’m writing this, the weather broke and I’m out in the land for a longer stay since since the sub-zero temperatures hit. When I came to my new home and new land in the fall, there was so much to do, just moving in and getting ready for winter, stacking wood, unpacking, painting, fixing things, building a greenhouse, and settling in that I didn’t have the time I wanted to spend with the land. But winter is good for such quiet communion, and so, I’ve been seeing what there is to discover.

A snow spiral, one of many I walk while the snows fall!

A snow spiral/labyrinth, one of many I walk during the winter months.

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, in purchasing this land, I knew that part of my work here would be in documenting the regrowth of this land after the previous owners had about 3 acres of it it selectively/sustainable timbered. Regrowth and regeneration is an incredible thing to bear witness to, and I excited to experience and document it up close. And so, this year, I’m going to write one post a month in a series I’m calling “diary of a land healer.” The goal of this series  is to document observations, interactions, and spiritual lessons from watching this beautiful ecosystem heal and regenerate–and the possibilities we have, as humans, to intervene in that process. Because land healing is a process, and because the inner work that facilitates healing is also in process, the thoughts that I present in these posts will also likely be in process.

 

As person whose spiritual work centers on trees and land healing, I’m more often than not paying attention to what is wrong: the fallen trees, the timbering that was done, polluted streams, gas fracking wells, and so forth. As someone with a deep spiritual relationship and love of trees, seeing any of them cut down is horrible. And yet, why this land chose me was because I was to bear witness, and help to regenerate, this forest ecocystem. And today, the land wants to offer me a lesson on nature’s regenerative processes.

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond.

And so, as I walk, my eyes naturally first gravitate to the stumps or some of the downed brush that the loggers left behind. But this land is not asking me to pay attention to the damage. It is asking me to pay attention to what is happening in terms of regrowth. That same giant oak stump, beautiful, powerful, grows mushrooms that weren’t there in the fall, but are here in January are bursting forth, even for a few fleeting warm days. Mushrooms are opportunists; at even the smallest amount of moisture, temperature change, they take advantage.  These mushrooms have done just that and are magnificently emerging–in the cold of winter–from this huge stump.  That’s the magic of the microcosm: the work of the cycle of nutrients, of life and death, of decay and rebirth.  Not only in nature does this happen, but also in our own bodies: many mushrooms, including turkey tail, growing here on this land, are used quite effectively for fighting cancer and free radicals in the human body.

 

Mushrooms!

Mushrooms!

 

I reach down to touch a mushroom and feel my hand go moist and slimy–even the slugs are out on this fine January day. We think the world is so cold, so frozen, so devoid of life after weeks of fridigly cold temperatures, but a single warm day proves this to be an illusion. Beneath the frozen pond, beneath the ice and snow, life awaits. It is a good lesson that nature teaches me every year–the land is always awake. Even two warm days encourage the emergence of insect life, the sprouting of mushrooms and the movement of buzzing beetles in the pond. When the cold hits again, they simply slow down and wait it out.

 

This same lesson is a useful one in our own lives. I think sometimes we have periods of cold and dark where it seems like we are barely moving. Perhaps, we too, are waiting it out. But beneath that waiting, our roots are reaching deep, the germination of the seed is already begun. Life is ready, at any moment, to spring forth.  And in the most unexpected moments and ways, it does.

More mushrooms!

More mushrooms!

 

When all the snow melted away, the skeletons of the plants from last season are still there, their dried bodies moving against the breeze. I recognize the dried lobelia, goldenrod, and wild lettuce; three potent healing herbs. Lobelia serves as a powerful antispasmodic in small doses (dealing with cramps and spasms) and yet functions as an emetic (that is, makes you puke) in large doses. Goldenrod serenades the fall sun and waves goodbye as the sun sets upon the light half of the year. Goldenrod is a wonderful anti-inflammatory (internally and externally) and really useful for allergies as an anti-histamine. Wild lettuce has psychoactive properties and can be used for pain relief. As I look at the skeletons of these plants, I reach down to the dried lobelia.  As I touch her, hundreds of tiny seeds spring forth, black specks upon the melting snow.  Her children, soon, will arise in the spring.

Grasses by the flooded creek

Grasses by the flooded creek.

 

As I walk, I check on the trees that I planted in the fall on Black Friday (what I call “buy nothing, do something” day). So many of the stakes of the tree tubes have gotten heaved up from the ice and cold, and I push them back into the earth. I look forward to seeing how many of the little seedlings take root and flourish here, their presence forever changing the make up of this land. Their planting is my first move to help this forest return to a pre-colonial form, an abundant food forest: chestnuts, paw paws, hickories, and oaks that will one day produce a tremendous amount of abundance. It was the logging that cleared the way for me to replant. In permaculture design terms, the problem was the solution. In fact, everywhere I look, my permaculture design training kicks in. I have many things I want to do, so many ideas for this land.  But when my head starts racing, I am told simply to “wait”. I know that whatever I don’t get to do in my time here, nature will do herself, in her own time and in her own way.

 

As I continue my walk, I come to a maple tree.  The split in her trunk is quite large, yet she grows strong. An imperfection has made her perfect, in the sense that she is still alive and growing because she was not a good candidate for logging.

Imperfection saved this tree!

Imperfection saved this tree.

It is the same with the Guardian Oak in the Eastern part of the property overlooking the creek; a giant burl on the tree allowed this tree to survive.  The burl, an imperfection, allowed this massive and ancient oak the ability to thrive. There are deep lessons here. If we are too perfect, if we strive to be too straight and tall and narrow, the loggers may come for us. Better to be weird, different, quirky, and certainly not commercially valuable–that is how we survive, and thrive, in these difficult times.  It reminds me of the Wendell Berry poem “Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” where he writes “Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know. / So, friends, every day do something/ that won’t compute….Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction.”  Wiser words were never spoken, and perhaps, the oak and the maple have their own last laugh, for they are still growing strong, quirky as ever.

A mighty fine burl indeed!

A mighty fine burl indeed!

Another interpretation: the burl, which many would see as an imperfection, something wrong or diseased, is also the greatest strength for this oak.  It asks us: how might we transform our sorrow/pain/suffering into a strength? How might our inperfections be our greatest gifts? The lesson of transformation whispers through the oak’s dried and still present leaves as they crackle in the January air.

 

I continue to look around, seeing the powerful life and strength here. This land, despite having been logged four times 40 years, is not a victim. The mushrooms growing in sub-zero temperatures laugh at the idea that they are anyone’s victim. The overflowing stream, Penn Run, that flows at the edge of my land babbles in joy at the ability to wash away the old and bring in the new. There is no pain here, only life. There is nothing here that should’t be just as it is.  Being here is an honor and a gift.

Acorn in the brush!

Acorn in the brush!

 

PS: I have two annoucements for this week:

 

I want to thank everyone for their patience while I took a blogging hiatus for most of January.  I spent the month working on my article studying the bardic arts for the OBOD’s 2018 Mt. Haemus Award.  I’ll be sharing more about that piece in next week’s blog post!

 

Also, if you are looking for a good druid gathering, consider joining me at MAGUS (the OBOD’s MidAtlantic US Gathering).  It is open to members, guests, and friends of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) as well as those with an interest in druidry. I will be the keynote speaker for MAGUS this year and will be doing a workshop and leading the main ritual (another form of the Galdr we did last year). MAGUS takes place at the beautiful Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, an amazing place where we raise standing stones. Registration is now open for the event. Find out more information here.

 

 

Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth January 15, 2017

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snow fall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

 

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

 

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

 

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)

Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

 

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world, also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

 

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

 

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter, after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think its not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

 

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typically, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

 

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

 

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks its a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

 

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of his leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, this certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

 

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–who also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” which which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months, when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA) and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

 

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

 

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, that Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

 

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, who is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.

 

Moss at the winter solstice!

Moss at the winter solstice!

Conclusion

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teaches me much about trees in my biogreion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

 

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

 

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons are simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

 

Getting Your Mushroom Eyes and Learning to Fully Observe Nature October 24, 2015

Jack-o-Lantern Mushrooms growing under a log (not edible, but beautiful)

Jack-o-Lantern Mushrooms growing under a log (not edible, but beautiful)

Wild mushroom hunters have a term for how to see mushrooms in the forest–you need to get your “mushroom eyes.” This means that when I enter a forest with the intention of looking for wild mushrooms, I start paying attention carefully to the ground, to the fungal layer in the forest, and to particular patterns and colors. Mushrooms become all that I see. I look for different mushroom patterns depending on the time of year and what the weather has been–in the warm summer months, I might be scanning the trees higher for bits of white (oysters) or yellow (chicken of the woods); I will be looking carefully for bits of orange (chanterelles) or brown (porcini), or particular patterns. If I’m really perceptive, I might even see some elusive black trumpets, who look like decaying leaves and are nearly impossible to spot on the forest floor. I look for different mushrooms depending on a host of factors, including the ecosystem in the forest, the direction the hillside is facing, the weather, and the time of the year.  And “mushroom eyes” are just one of many ways of seeing the forest. This post explores the concept of seeing the landscape around us–for it is only with seeing that we can move onto other forms of sacred actionregenerating, healing, and doing sacred work.

 

To show how important having ways of seeing our lands can be, I want to share a story. Last year, I went with a fellow druid friend to Costa Rica.  One of the things we were really excited to do was to go into the rain forest–and up into the cloud forests we drove until we finally found one of the more secluded rain forests.  Entering that rainforest was one of the most incredible experiences of my life–it was raining and misty, and the forest was full of these incredible layers of color, light, and sound.  The rain forest was teeming with life; every tree was a mother tree hosting countless other plants, insects, birds. The elevation changes were quite substantial, rivets of water flowing down, flowering trees and moss and orchids growing up everywhere. On our journey deeper into the forest, we came across a couple hiking in the opposite direction. From the sound of their accent, it sounded like they were from somewhere in eastern Europe. The man, soaked to the bone because of the intense rains that day, said, “Nothing to see here. Anything up ahead?” I looked at him incredulously and said, “Everything to see here!” He shook his head and continued on. My friend and I talked about him afterwards: What did he expect? Fireworks?  Monkeys throwing excrement? Natives swinging from the treetops? What a sad state we are in, thinking that the forest must entertain us.

 

Everything to see here!

Everything to see here!

The thing about my own seeing of the the forest in Costa Rica was that even to me it was full of mystery and unknowns. I didn’t know what plants were medicine or poison, the relationships between the plants, heck, I didn’t even know the name of anything in that forest!  I was able to see to appreciate the forest (unlike the man we met on the trail) but I wasn’t able to see with understanding.

 

In order to interact, to regenerate, to heal our lands, we must first know what we are looking at.  Before we can act, we must see and in order to see we must understand.  How we see the world is how we inhabit it and how we interact with it. So let’s take a look at some of the ways we can see, both positive and negative.  You might think of these ways of seeing like different lenses–when you put the lenses on, everything is colored by that experience.

 

Negative Ways of Seeing the Land

Negative ways of seeing the land do not lead to healing and regeneration, but rather, apathy or active destruction.

 

Unseeing eyes: Not seeing what is in front of you for a variety of reasons.  This can be characterized by people who are not even looking:  they have their heads in their cell phones (literally not seeing), their eyes closed, are sleeping, are looking down rather than at nature, are not willing to see or engage. This is the act of not looking.

 

Disconnected eyes. This kind of seeing is best characterized by the man in my story above,  who enters a forest and says “nothing to see here” or “nothing to do here.”  In this case, the person sees and is looking around, but can’t seem to see the forest through the thick of their own expectations.

 

Exploitative eyes. Another kind of “negative” seeing is a person who is looking at the forest with the goal of exploiting it or harvesting all of its resources: logging, mining, selling it for profit rather than necessity, and so on.  We have a lot of this happening today, all over the world–nature is not valued for anything but its monetary value.

 

Antagonistic Eyes. The third kind of negative seeing is seeing nature in opposition to humanity: seeing the dandelions in the lawn as an enemy, or seeing a wild meadow as messy and in need of mowing, seeing thriving medicinal plants as weeds, and so on. This is the place where “weed” ordinances and other oppressive laws come from, and why neighbors get upset when you put a garden in your front yard!

 

Chanterelles (tasty mushrooms)

Chanterelles (tasty mushrooms)

Positive Ways of Seeing the Land

Positive ways of seeing the land can help us open up our spirits and our hearts to the wonder and mystery of the living earth.

 

Appreciation Eyes.  The next level up the seeing chain is appreciation eyes–this is seeing the forest through an appreciative (but not necessarily knowledgeable) eyes, like how I saw the forest in Costa Rica.  I appreciated its beauty and was happy to be there, but I didn’t see it with the knowledge of someone who understands it.

 

Awareness Eyes.  Awareness happens when seeing is combined with knowledge.  This is when you begin to learn about the land, your awareness is being raised.  You can gain this kind of knowledge from participating in a “sit spot” activity where you do meditation and observation in the same spot over a period of months or years.

 

Mushroom Eyes. Your focus is set very consciously and mindfully on one particular part of nature; this focus requires some knowledge of the specified thing; hunting the mushrooms in the forest, paying attention to all the maple trees of any variety; birdwatching; looking for wild bees nests.  This is what we do when we go foraging–we are looking at the forest in a particular way.  This is what hunters do when they go out hunting, or birdwatchers do, or any other specialized group.

 

Interconnected Eyes. This way of seeing encourage us to see the inter-relationships and interconnectedness of all things.  This also takes knowledge and keen observation.  So you might observe the birds eating the fruits, the mycelium running on the forst floor, the cycle of water and light, and so on.

 

Sacred Eyes.  Yet another way of seeing the forest is through sacred eyes, where we combine knowledge of the outer planes with knowledge of the inner planes, and we see in order to commune, communication, or be in solidarity with the land around us.  When I go into the land to heal and work magic, I see it with my sacred eyes.

 

I think there are many other ways we can see the forest–through the eyes of a scientist, through the eyes of a child filled with wonder, through the eyes of someone who is seeing something for the first thing, and so on.  The important part here is that all of these ways of seeing are cultivated and it is through that cultivation that we can raise our own awareness of the living earth.

 

As a druid, I always seek a tertiary, a balance between two extremes (like negative or positive).  But I question whether there is a “neutral” way of seeing; everything we see is wrapped up in our values and judgements.  Its a useful exercise to try though, just to see without assigning value, knowledge, emotion, or judgement for a time.   One of the ways I achieve this tertiary is, believe it or not, to take off my glasses.  Then I see things quite differently!  Another way of doing this is consciously separating what you see from what you think (when I teach observational research methods, we use a simple double-entry notebook that encourages us to place direct observations on one side, and thoughts/assumptions/conclusions on another).  Its not that this makes us neutral, but it does make us more conscious of how we are observing.

Up-Close observation reveals worlds within worlds!

Up-Close observation reveals worlds within worlds!

Cultivating Mushroom Eyes

As you may have noticed, many of the positive ways of seeing I’ve listed above are through careful cultivation: through experience, knowledge, and interaction.  Spiritual traditions and teachings have often focused on cultivating our most basic skills, such as seeing, because deep awareness can come through simple, daily or weekly practices.

 

Observing nature. One of the most powerful things you can do to cultivate a deeper awareness is simply observe nature regularly. One of the core AODA practices is spending 15 minutes minimum, each week, observing nature. This practice involved stillness where you would sit, keeping an empty mind, and sit in quietude with nature. The other part of the practice involved focus where you close attention to one particular thing–petals on a flower, the ripples on a pond, the rustle of the leaves, the veins on a plant, a squirrel hoarding nuts, and so on.  This simple practice, over a period of years, revealed so much to me, and I continue it to this day. The most amazing thing about this practice is that there is always more to see and learn through observation. This summer, I spent a period of time each day observing the flowers on plant known as all heal (prunella vulgaris); after a set of days, I realized that their flowers bloomed in a particular pattern aligning with sacred geometry.  Now, when I use that plant as medicine, I have a much deeper awareness and understanding–all through the simple yet profound practice of observing nature.

 

The Sit-Spot. Another take on the observation of nature is using a “sit spot.”  This is a spot that you return to, frequently, and observe often.  The nice thing about the sit spot technique is that it allows you to develop an understanding of how the patterns of nature change with the weather, with the seasons, with night and day.  My sit spot for many years was on a smooth, large stone by my pond in Michigan.  For five years, I went to that spot regardless of the weather–I especially enjoyed it at night, and in warm summer rains.  Going to the spot when it was raining or snowing gave me a completely different perspective from when it was sunny.

 

Reading books and seeking knowledge. Part of developing your eyes is filling your mind with knowledge that you can then apply to the natural world, through observation and interaction.  So get some good books on your topic and read away.  A few books I really like are a set of books by John Eastman, called The Book of Swamp and Bog, The Book of Forest and Thicket, and The Book of Field and Roadside.  These books are wonderful for teaching you not just about identification (which any field guide will do) but about the interrelationships of plants, animals, and insects.  For foraging , I have some of my favorite books listed here.

 

I hope that this post has you reseeing the world around you!

PS for my Readers: On the Fall Equinox, I became the Archdruid of Air in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (prior to this, I served as the Grand Pendragon). So given my new position as someone who is involved in teaching the order’s practices, I’ll be weaving in some posts directly focused on some of the AODA practices, like observation, and how they relate to other themes on this blog, like land healing, sacred trees, and sustainable practices.

Beautiful Jack o Lantern Mushroom!

Beautiful Jack o Lantern Mushroom!

 

Making a Reishi/Ganoderma Mushroom Double-Extract Tincture August 8, 2015

Stump with reishi growing!

Stump with reishi growing!

Most plants are fairly easy to prepare in terms of medicine–you can either tincture them, use them fresh, or create a tea or something similar. Reishi, the most incredible healing mushroom, requires a bit more preparation than a standard tincture to extract all of the medicinal benefits.

 

This post will describe the method for getting the most out of the reishi mushroom commonly found on Eastern Hemlocks in forests in the midwest and eastern US.  This extraction method would work with any reishi mushroom, including those you would purchase or wildcraft.  To understand what we need to extract the mushroom’s healing properties, we have to understand where it derives its healing.

 

This link has a wonderful overview to the Reishi’s medicinal properties and the research that has been done (this link is on Ganoderma Lucidium, but research done on Ganoderma Tsugae suggets the same compounds are present). In a nutshell, Reishi is a mushroom that can aid in a long and healthy life for a number of reasons: it has anti-cancer/anti-tumor properties that essentially prevent the creation of cancerous cells and tag the existing cancerous cells to allow the body to combat them; it has anti-aging properties, is anti-inflammatory, lowers blood pressure, protects the liver, protects DNA, and so much more. Reishi basically heals through three kinds of known compounds:

Amazing reishi!  This is what I made the double-extraction from.

Amazing reishi! This is what I made the double-extraction from.

  • Polysaccharies, which are extracted by water.
  • Triterpenoids, which are extracted by glycerine or alcohol.
  • Unique antioxidant properties to the peptide protein, also extracted by alcohol (not sure about glycerine?).

So, looking at this list, we understand the nature of the problem: Reishi needs both a water and an alcohol extraction, and we also want to preserve it long term.  How do we manage that?  Using a double-extraction:

 

1.  If you are starting with fresh, wildharvested reishi, begin by cut your reishi into small pieces and drying it. Because the water content of the end double-extraction matters, starting with dried rather than fresh reishi allows you to easily know how much water is in the final product.  If you use fresh reishi, you won’t know the water content in the alcohol.

 

Obviously, if you have purchased reishi, you can skip this step, as its already dried and ready for you.  Make sure you cut it up though, if its whole.

Dried reishi in a jar

Dried reishi in a jar

 

2.  Tincture your reishi in high proof spirits (I use 190 proof, 95% alcohol, when I can).  The proof of the alcohol does matter (see my comments below)–get the highest you can.  Tincture your reishi for at least a month.  I usually don’t worry about ratios for this–I just fill the jar with reishi and then top it off with alcohol.  The reishi will expand, taking on the little bit of water content in the alchohol, so keep this in mind.

 

3.  After a month has passed, press your tincture out (there’s a LOT of alcohol held up in those mushroom bits!).  And yes, I just found this AMAZING small fruit press at a flea market that I’m using for my new tincture press!  I also have instructions on how to make a Under $30 tincture press on the blog.

Pressing the Reishi Tincture

Pressing the Reishi Tincture

Mushrooms ready to decoct!

Mushrooms pressed and ready to decoct!

4.  Now, you need to decoct (that is, make a very strong tea over a period of days) the reishi mushrooms that you just tinctured. To do this, after I press them, I add them to my crock pot with fresh spring water or distilled water and keep them on low for three days, checking the water level often.

Decoction happening!

Decoction happening!

5. I let them mixture cool, pour off most of the liquid, and then press the decoction so that I get every last drop.  This is also really important because you’ll lose a lot of the good medicine if you don’t press.  You will likely have more liquid than you need for the tincture–you can freeze this, add it to tea, etc.  Its going to be super concentrated!

 

6.  Finally, you need to combine your water and alcohol into one jar and complete the double-extraction.  This requires some math, but its not too hard once you wrap your head around it.  This home distillation calculator will be invaluable to you during this last step.

Mixing tincture and decoction- and using an online calculator to check my math!

Mixing tincture and decoction- and using an online calculator to check my math!

This is where the proof of the alcohol critically matters–you have to add the right amount of the reishi decoction to the reishi tincture to get 40% alcohol or above (it will be preserved at that ratio indefinitely).

 

The proof of the alcohol in the USA is twice the percentage of alcohol by volume.  This means that an 80 proof drink is 40% alcohol; a 100 proof spirit is 50% alcohol; a 150 is 75% alcohol, and a 190 is 95% alcohol.  Its critically important to know what the alcohol content is when you are doing the double extraction, because your goal is to end up with a 40%-50% alcohol tincture after you add your reishi decoction in water.

 

I recommend using a 190 proof alcohol to decoct your reishi, because this makes the math VERY easy.  When you add a mixture of half tincture and half decoction, you end up with 40% alcohol, exactly what you want for a long-lasting tincture.

 

Now, not everyone has access to such a strong proof alcohol depending on the state where you live.  Most people can get 150 proof, at least, however.  If that’s the case, you just need to get to 40%, which means less water and more alcohol.  For example, an alcoholic tincture at the 150 proof (75%) means you can add 40% water to the alcohol and still end up above proof.

 

So once you’ve done that–congratulations!  You now have one of the most healing substances!  It tastes just like reishi mushroom!  I take mine every day :).

 

Reishi harvest!

Reishi harvest!

 

Resources to Learn the Inner and Outer Worlds of Herbalism: Plants, Books, Courses, Lore, and More April 4, 2015

drying herbs

drying herbs

I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.

 

There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.

 

Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable.  There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms who cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.

 

As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself.  Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.

 

Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior.  If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them.  I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.

 

Dana's herb class - 2014

Dana’s herb class – 2014

In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.

 

Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you  will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos.  You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).

 

Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.

 

Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs.  I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.

 

So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work.  For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).

 

Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures–in this case, from queen anne’s lace–from wildcrafted ingredients

Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.

 

Making Plant medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complimentary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies.  If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.

 

Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start.  Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).

 

Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plantsWhen I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college!  Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Intergrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.

 

Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma.  In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)

Dried herbs and old kettles!

Dried herbs and old kettles!

 

Getting the right tools and equipment.  Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.

  • Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
  • Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
  • A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
  • Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
  • A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).

 

Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.

 

Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.

 

On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.

  • On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
  • Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
  • Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
  • On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
  • On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course.  But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.

 

I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful!  I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!

 

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part II: Places to Gather, Ethical Harvesting, Avoiding Pollution, and Foraging as Spiritual Practice January 25, 2015

This is my second in a two-part series on how to wildcraft and forage successfully. The first post dealt with supplies for foraging, resources and how to learn the skills, and understanding timing. This post will talk about places to gather, avoiding contaminants in the landscape, the ethics of harvesting, and the spiritual side to foraging and wildcrafting.

 

Where You Gather: Kinds of Property

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wildcrafting obviously requires you to go out into the land and find what you need. There are different kinds of places you can go—your own backyard/land, parks, abandoned lots, friends’ land, and so on. Each location has some benefits and as you start wildcrafting and foraging, you will find your own spots that you will return to again and again and again. Here are some of the kinds of places that I go:

 

My own land. Since I know it best and am out there every day, I can observe the changing landscape as the seasons pass. I know the history of the land, I know how much of a particular plant is usually in season, and I can know how much to ethically take since I’m the only one taking. So obviously, if you have your own land, this is a wonderful place to harvest. A lot of people don’t have access to some acreage, however, and this leads us to….

 

Friends/Neighbors/Family Private land. If you can’t harvest on your own land, or don’t have your own land, finding other private land (such as that of friends, family, or neighbors) you can harvest from is really a great thing. You can ask them about the land’s history; you can harvest without anyone else around, you can know just how much to take, and you can share the joy and abundance of the harvest with others. I have found that if I approach a friend or neighbor about wildcrafting from their land, they are often not only willing to let me onto their property but also interested in learning more (and yes, this often even works with complete strangers!) This creates a space to teach them about the sacred medicine of their own landscape, which only deepens their appreciation for the land. I have also found that for those who already value their land, they love it when you appreciate and value it also. For example, there is a spot I harvest cattails from along a road for making paper each spring, and a couple walking there had the land across the street. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them, and they invited me into their property. I was not only able to gather more cattails there, but also found a bunch of recently dropped willow branches to make a basket and some cattail shoots for making a nice stir fry. They were excited to learn about their property and invited me to come back anytime. I’m reminded here of my 85 year old neighbor who has an 80-acre farm; we tap trees, harvest apples, forage for herbs and berries, and so much more there—and he’s so happy that someone else values it.Of course, one does need to be careful of who one asks—some people just don’t want others on their property. There also might be a gender bias in this—my good friend, who I harvest with often, says that people are much more likely to say yes to me than to him alone (he has long hair and a beard and maybe he looks a little unscrupulous).

 

Public lands. Not that long ago, the idea of a “common” land (or “the commons”) was quite a strong one. However, in the 20th century that idea largely shifted and now the emphasis is on pristine preservation (Wendell Berry discusses this concept much further in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture). The idea is that the land will be soiled if someone takes something from it—and this is true, in a manner of speaking, because few people today know how to harvest and take ethically. Yet these intensive obsessions with pristine preservation sit side by side with the push to sell of public lands, to allow logging, mineral rights, fracking, and more. These are all products of industrialization–the disconnection of people with the land, the commodification of goods and wealth into the hands of the few. So when one enters public land, one needs to be aware of the laws surrounding that land. If you are to take nothing, take nothing. A lot of state and local parks have this kind of arrangement–do not take anything. However, most state game lands function more like the old commons—you can limited amounts of game, you can cut limited amounts of fire wood, you can pick mushrooms, and so on—and they are great places to wildcraft. Many local parks, likewise, have no laws against harvesting. However, to be an ethical harvester you do need to be aware of overharvesting, of chemicals, the lands history, and so on.

 

Secret harvest spot

Secret harvest spot

Where You Gather: Kinds of Ecosystems

In addition to the kinds of property that you are gathering from, you also want to think carefully about what ecosystems you will be gathering from. For example, a swamp or marsh is simply going to have a different ecosystem and plants than a deep secluded forest or an abandoned farm field. This is why I mentioned I have several “spots” that I like to go to–many of them with multiple ecosystems. Another thing to think about, stemming from permaculture design, is the understanding the value of the edges and margins. That is, the edge where the forest meets a field is often a very rich and diverse ecosystem.

 

Here is just a short list of where I find what plants that I gather to give you a sense of this:

  • Edge of Pond/Lake/Near Water: blueberries (in a bog); highbush cranberries (edge of a bog); horsetail (medicinal, edge of lake where there is a sandy soil), beach plums (beach on great lakes), cattail (edge of pond, swampy areas), boneset (edge of water, medicinal), marshmallow (edge of water, medicinal), joe-pye weed (in shade or swamp, medicinal)
  • Edge of Forest: black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries (all edibles), mulberry trees (edible), stinging nettles (edible and medicinal), staghorn sumac (medicinal; also good for smoking blends), autumn olive (edible), violets (edible, medicinal), poke (medicinal, great dye plant), dryad’s saddle mushrooms (edible),
  • Deep in the Forest: black birch (medicinal); chicken of the woods mushroom (edible), reishi mushroom (medicinal), blueberries (bush style, edible), maple sap (edible), acorns (edible), hen of the woods mushroom (medicinal/edible), stoneroot (medicinal), mayapple (edge of forest, edible), ramps (edible, over-harvested so only gather if they are abundant)
  • Fields/Wastelands: St. John’s Wort (medicinal), goldenrod (medicinal), milkweed (edible), yarrow (medicinal), scrub red pine trees (resin for incense making), blackberries (edible), elderberries (medicinal/edible), new england aster (medicinal), dandelion (medicinal/edible), burdock (medicinal/edible)
  • In the Suburbs/Landscapes: walnut (edible, medicinal), serviceberry (edible), various crabapples (edible), various other crab fruit trees planted as decorative (edible), eastern white cedar (often planted as an ornamental; medicinal and for smudges); plantain (medicinal, be careful the lawn wasn’t sprayed)
Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Now I think the above categories are fairly self explanatory, all except the last one. The suburbs, the exerbs, the little strips of plant life along the strip mall, in the cities, etc., are typically NOT prime foraging grounds. Primarily this is because of pollution (see next section). However, people sometimes plant really nice trees there—various crab apples and serviceberries (and serviceberries are WELL worth finding and making into jam and baked goods). One of my favorite serviceberry spots is literally at the start of this posh subdivision, about 30′ back from the road. Another favorite serviceberry spot is in the parking lot of the library…you get the idea :). So while there are limited foraging to be done in the city and suburbs, fruit is one of your best bets. Tree fruits are also one of your best bets because trees are rarely sprayed where things on the ground, like plantain or dandelion, are usually heavily sprayed.

Toxins, Chemicals, and Pollution

If you are harvesting anything for internal use (medicine, edibles), you want to be aware of any chemical toxins in the landscape or area you are harvesting from. Toxins are not always easily to spot and can reside invisibly in the soil, so it takes some creative thinking and sleuthing to understand what may or may not be safe to eat.

 

Around houses and buildings. Soil near foundations of older houses and buildings often has lead because lead paint was used at one point and flaked off. You don’t generally want to harvest anything next to an older house that will be eaten (or plant anything, for that matter, that you are going to eat). Obviously any factory sites are really off limits for foraging.

 

In Swamps/Wetlands. Roots can often concentrate toxins and chemicals, and roots in swampy areas or lakes are particularly suspect.  Remember that plants like Cattail function as the cleansing plant for a water system–this means if there are toxins, they are going to be heavily concentrated in the cattail plant roots.  So, if you are harvesting roots or edibles, especially in swampy areas, look for the nearest body of water and see what is sitting upstream (like a polluting factory).  Even in what appears to be a pristine swamp or wetland, you might not realize that a factory 10 miles up the river is dumping into the waterways. Using maps (and especially online maps) is really helpful for this.  This is why I like to harvest catttails and other such roots and tubers from private lands that I have vetted well and from very small wetlands.

 

Pesticides, Herbicides, and other Sprays. There is also the issue of home and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While most tree medicine is off the ground, I would not harvest anything on the ground a subdivision where everyone poisons their lawns with chemicals weekly. Likewise, I would not harvest too close to any industrialized, conventional agriculture (e.g. huge fields of corn or soybeans or other chemically-sprayed and GMO crops). These fields are covered in chemicals and those chemicals can easily drift to the surrounding landscape.  And this sometimes sucks, because the best stand of staghorn sumac I know is right in front of an industrialized agriculture soy/corn field.  Alas, that’s how it goes sometimes.

 

History of the Land. Its also really useful to know the history of the landscape. If there used to be a factory that is now abandoned and torn down, you may not want to harvest there.  This is actually one of the biggest impediments to urban farming in places like Detroit–so much of the land was poisoned with factories that people aren’t sure if its safe to grow in their soil.  Regardless, use your common sense and intuition to figure out where is safe to harvest.

 

The Ethics of Wildcrafting/Foraging: Taking and Giving Back

Ethics are another area of concern to the forager and wildcrafter.  Why?  Because in the last 150 years, humans have done a very good job at taking and taking and not a very good job of giving back.  And as I mentioned in part I of this series of posts, humans have largely lost our understanding of the ecosystem, knowing how to live in balance from the land.  Most of us live completely disconnected from it, and we haven’t developed an innate understanding of the land’s rhythms or ways.

 

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Understanding Abundance and Scarcity. One of the first things that important to understand from an ethical standpoint is the concepts of abundance and scarcity. There are, at times, great amounts of abundance in the landscape. There are also times of great scarcity (e.g. winter, less abundant seasons, droughts).  When things are abundant, we must remember that we are not the only ones who depend on that abundance and that whatever we take is being taken from others that may need it for sustenance. This is why I so strongly suggested in my first post that you begin learning how to forage or wildcraft by understand ecology.  Even if things are very abundant, you want to limit what you take.

 

How much to harvest: the 30% guideline. I use the 30% rule for most harvesting of non-endangered, very abundant, native plants. I generally will never take more than 30% of something that is in an area for one harvest (e.g. if there is an apple harvest, I will take no more than 30% of the apples). However, this rule is not a hard and fast one to be applied in all circumstances but rather a guideline. If a plant is not very abundant in the area, I might only harvest 5% or even less. Sometimes even a 10% harvest can do substantial harm to a plant that isn’t very abundant. For example, if I’m harvesting roots, depending on the plant, it might kill the plant, so harvesting roots is very different than harvesting berries (which are designed to be harvested). If I’m harvesting leaves, like nettle, I can harvest a few from each plant safely and leave the plants themselves intact (in fact, nettles can be bent down to the ground and then they will regrow new shoots you can harvest!) So I’m constantly thinking about the individual plant, what I’m harvesting, how resilient it is, and what I can do so to cause the least amount of disruption to an ecosystem. At the same time, some plants, like garlic mustard or autumn olive, can be harvested in greater abundance due to their current dominance in the landscape (I talked about my take on invasive species here). For these plants, I harvest all that I can. You can also think about seasonal harvesting–if its the end of the season and a big frost is on the horizon, you can safely harvest more than the usual 30% (especially if you are only harvesting leafy material, and not seeds or roots).

 

Leave spaces how you found them. Another ethical issue involves how you harvest–and here, the guideline is to leave areas as you found them. If you are digging roots, dig your roots, and then when you are done, put the soil back and scatter leaves on the forest floor. The idea is that you want to be as least as a disruption as possible on the landscape. This is true in general every time we enter an outdoor space, but its particularly useful when foraging or wildcrafting. The idea here is that we need to be mindful stewards of the land.

 

Help the Plants Along. Another method I use to engage in ethical harvesting is to help the plants I’m working with propagate themselves further. For example, if I want some young milkweed pods for eating (they are awesome, and you can treat them just like okra) then I will return later in the year to that spot and as the milkweed seeds are turning brown, I will scatter them carefully. This means that while I have taken limited pods to enjoy in my curry, I have returned to the spot to help the plant propagate. If I’m gathering berries, I may throw a handful of ripe ones into a new space to help them establish there (especially when nothing else is growing there). This not only pleases the plants but ensures future abundant harvests for all.

 

I think with each of these categories, the key is approaching the landscape with knowledge, with reverence, with respect, and with an understanding that you are not the only one who is taking or depending upon that land for sustenance.

 

Foraging and Wildcrafting as a Spiritual Practice

My foraging partner and dear friend wrote an article last year for the AODA’s new annual publication, Trilithon, that examined the spiritual implications of foraging from a druidic perspective. He argued that foraging allowed him to practice two key spiritual aspects important to nature-based spirituality: cultivating stillness and cultivating focus. I’d like to explore those implications for a bit here and consider some additional areas.

Choice dryad's saddle

Choice dryad’s saddle mushroom–easy to spot with mushroom eyes!

As meditation. I find no greater joy than picking berries from a bush in the summer or fall. I remember last year, I spent many hours sitting with autumn olive bushes and harvesting their delightful berries. This was a meditation, where the repetition of picking the berries and putting them into my blicky (see last post) allowed me to still my mind and simply be in the moment. In my spiritual tradition, we recognize both sitting meditation and walking/movement meditation–I think this can classify as some of the latter.

 

As Communing with the Plants. A second thing that harvesting gets you, whether you are harvesting violets for tea or medicine, or harvesting thousands of autumn olives, is time to simply be with the plants.  To touch them, to give an exchange, to commune with them. This is really valuable–and the plants love giving of themselves to those who revere them. And we take that bounty within and it sustains us; it allows us to further build our connection to them.  The power and importance of this act of communion cannot be understated.

 

Understanding Nature as a cycle. When you get into foraging, you begin paying much more attention to the rain and temperatures (especially for mushrooms), when the weather warms up and the ground unfreezes, or when the frosts come.  Foraging asks us to really pay attention to the weather and seasons in ways that we do not normally do; this can give us deeper insights into the landscape around us, into the cycles that govern our lives.

 

As a way of seeing. One of my mushroom teachers taught us about “mushroom eyes” that is, we had to focus our gaze to see the mushrooms in the forest rather than seeing other things. You can walk through a forest without seeing any of the mushrooms in it (especially those that are small, on the ground, and non-colorful). This practice of putting on one’s mushroom eyes has profound spiritual implications, in that it asks us to shift our vision, to see differently, to see with intent.

 

As self-education. Knowledge is an important part of any nature-based spiritual practice. Foraging and wildcrafting allows one to learn about the landscape and become attuned with it. Its also an amazing way to learn in a way that others can benefit from.

 

I hope the information I’ve provided in the last two posts is helpful for you on your wildcrafting and foraging journey!