Category Archives: Leaves

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

The glorious sycamore tree!

The glorious sycamore tree!

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

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

Ecology

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

Sycamore Leaves

Sycamore Leaves

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

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

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

Sycamore on the edge of the river holding back erosion!

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

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

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

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

Human Uses

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

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

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

Sycamore by a gentle stream

Sycamore by a gentle stream

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

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

The Magic and Divination Of the Sycamore Tree

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

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

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

Hold fast to this wonderful tree!

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

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

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

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

A Spring Equinox Meditation: The Mysteries of the Dandelion and the Three Currents

Fields of dandelion

Fields of dandelion

One of the hallmarks of spring is the blooming of the vibrant and colorful dandelion. Emerging as soon as the coldest of the temperatures ease, the blooming of the dandelions affirm that the long, dark winter is indeed over and summer is just around the corner. In today’s post, and in honor of the Spring Equinox and the incredible dandelion, I offer a spring tonic and meditative journey to celebrate the Spring Equinox and learn more about the mysteries of the dandelion. This is one of my monthly AODA-themed posts, so I hope you enjoy it and have a blessed spring equinox!

About the Dandelion

The blooming of the dandelions is a special time of year. For us here in Western PA, dandelions bloom just as the final frosts are easing, and are a sign that we can start planting some of our more tending crops in the coming weeks.  Then it is dandelion blooming week, where every dandelion growing in an area will bloom.  You will see the most amazing fields of dandelion blooms–and then the next week, they will all turn to beautiful seed puffs and scatter to the wind. If you want to make dandelion wine or dandelion jelly, you have a short window in which to collect copious amounts of dandelion flowers before they all turn to seed and scatter.

Widdershins the Gander enjoys a dandelion!

Dandelion is one of the most widespread plants in the world; it was native to Europe and Asia and is now naturalized throughout the globe. Dandelion was spread far and wide by peoples migrating from Europe and Asia for the simple fact that it is an incredibly rich source of nutrients as a healing food and also it is fantastic medicine. Dandelion is very rich in antioxidants, dietary fiber, and low in calories, making it a very good green to integrate into your diet regularly. They are particularly high in Vitamin K and A, and also contain good amounts of Calcium, Iron, and Vitamin C. It also has a range of medicinal benefits–it is known as a bitter herb, diuretic, and supports the detoxification of the body.  In many parts of Appalachia, including here in Northern Appalachia in Western PA, people would brew up a spring tonic to help “thin the blood.” What these tonics actually did was help support the liver (Sassafras) and Kidneys (Dandelion, Nettle), flush these organs of toxins, and promote more healthy elimination.  Thus, this is another reason that Dandelion is a great springtime healing herb.

Dandelion Meditative Journey

 

Yard full of dandelions!

Yard full of dandelions!

The following meditation can be used as part of a solo or small group ritual for celebrating the Spring Equinox or any other time.  This meditation focuses on exploring the dandelion’s mysteries and connecting you to the great energies of the universe.

Optional Interaction: Plant meditations work best when you have interacted with the plant in the physical world in some way prior to starting your journey.  This puts you in touch with both the.  This could be greeting a plant outside, eating some dandelion greens, or drinking a dandelion root spring tonic tea prior to the start of the ceremony.  I’ve offered two dandelion tea recipes at the bottom of this post.

The Meditative Journey

Begin with opening up a sacred grove, doing smoke cleansing, or anything else that will help prepare and protect you for the journey to come.

Slow your breathing down and do the four-fold breath:  breath in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and hold for four counts.  As you breathe, feel yourself relaxing into this time and space.

As you continue to do the four-fold breath, imagine the deep green of the dandelion leaves in the air around you.  As you breathe, breathe in that green energy, allowing it to sink within you.

You are standing before a field.  As far as your eye can see, the field is covered in blooming dandelions.  The warm spring sun is high in the sky, warming the earth. A smiling man with dandelion gold hair walks toward you.  He greets you and says, “I and my tribe welcome the sun back to the earth after a long and cold winter. The sun’s rays, full of solar energy, bless the land and energize it for the season that is to come. It seems that you, too, have experienced the darkness and cold of winter.  Come now, and lay in the field, and allow the solar current to infuse you with the joy and light of the sun. The sun’s rays will prepare you for the journey ahead.”

As the field is so inviting, you lay for a time, and bask in the sun.  You feel the sun’s rays come down upon you, nourishing you, vitalizing you, and filling you with vitality and energy for the coming season. Take a moment to Listen for any other messages or feelings you might have as the solar energy imbues you with light.

When you are finished, you stand and your guide greets you once again.  He says, “The Dandelion is unique that it is one of the few plants that offer true balance–the flowers of the dandelion, which I represent, are solar in nature and welcome back the sun.  Dandelion flowers can aid you in times of darkness by bringing back the light.  However, the dandelion also basks in the light of the moon.  Let us now meet another spirit of the dandelion and continue our journey.”

As you walk closer, you see that one cluster of dandelions grows larger and larger, until it is taller than the tallest tree.  Next to the stem cluster, you see a young woman.  She is silver-haired with brown skin and has fine features. She smiles and greets you, “I and my tribe welcome you to journey deep within the mysteries of the dandelion.  The roots of the dandelion go deep into the fertile earth, drawing up the rays of earth energy that runs through the land.  The telluric current offers strength, grounding, and purpose and allows us to shed that which no longer serves you.  Will you enter and experience the blessing of the telluric current? ”

She steps back and lifts a small green leaf to reveal a door into the center of the dandelion stalk and down into the root. The two of you enter. As you journey into the root of the dandelion, you see a green-gold pool full of telluric energy welling up from the roots of the dandelion tree.  She smiles and says, “Now that you have been energized and blessed with the solar current, you are ready to shed your weary burdens. The long and dark months of the recent past have added to your burdens.  Shed that which you no longer want to carry. Take only what you want to take forward.  When you are ready,  we will be waiting for you.”

As you shed your burdens and stay within the dark roots of the dandelion for a time, feel the energy of the Telluric current welling around you.  When time has passed and you are free of your burdens, you return to the door to be greeted by both the solar and lunar avatars of the dandelion.

Use many resources already on the homestead!

Use many resources already on the homestead!

As you exit the door, you see that night has fallen. The moon reflects in the starry night sky, and you look upon the great field full of dandelions.  All of the dandelions have gone to seed and the field appears as though thousands of full moons are there upon the earth.

Both guides come to stand together, holding hands.  “You have received the blessing of the solar current, from the sun and the turning wheel of the stars above you.  The solar current has revitalized you from the weariness of the dark half of the year. You have received the blessing of the telluric current of the spirit that resides below, of the nurturing heart of the earth, cast your burdens.  Now, we send you off on your journey to seed the future what is to come.”

You see a glowing child who is frolicking with a seed pod in their hands, far off in the field.  They laugh and begin running towards you, with dandelion seeds spiraling up into the warm sprint air.  The child says, “We children know that when you blow on a dandelion, you make wishes.  If the seeds fly far enough, wishes come true.”

After you answer, they hand you a seed pod. “Put your intentions into this pod.  Think about what you would most like to bring into being this coming season.”  As you meditate on this intention, you see the green-gold energy of the telluric current welling up below you, and the golden energy of the solar current coming down from above. The lunar energies swirl into your seed pod, adding energy to your intention for the coming season.  The child nods and blows their own seed head, and beckons for you to do the same.

As you blow, the child says, “Watch the seeds as they blow in the wind and see what messages they have.”  You do so, pausing for as long as necessary.

The child smiles and says, “The seeds are off on their journey, but they will need your help to bring your intention into reality. Think about what you might do as the next sun rises to help you on your new journey.”

The three aspects of the spirit of the dandelion come together to stand with you and the four of you watch as the full moon sets and as the sun rises with a brilliant splendor.  As the sun rises, the dandelion seeds continue to spiral around you, and you are filled with joy and purpose.

Your guides leave you with parting words, “By bringing together the energies of the earth with energies of the sun, we come into a place of balance and the lunar current is born.  And it is in this sacred connection that offers us the spark of Nywfre, the life energy that allows all things to come into being. Through the power of the sun and the moon, through the power of the heavens and earth, the dandelion will aid you on your journey to come.”

You can close your grove in the usual manner.  Finish the journey by having a cup of dandelion and other herbal tea.

About the Symbolism in the Meditative Journey

In my work with the dandelion over the years, I have always been fascinated by how this incredible plant can hold such potent solar and lunar energies.  Through these meditations and work, this journey was born. The symbolism in this journey uses the Druid Revival concepts of the solar current, the telluric current, and the lunar current, or the three aspects of spirit in a seven-element system.  In the Druid Revival, it is the synthesis of the solar current, the light coming down from the sun and heavens, with the telluric current, the light rising from the earth, that allows the spark of life, Nywfre, and the lunar current to be born.  For more on these concepts, consider checking out this post!  This system is used by the Aas our core energetic system.

Dandelion Spring Tonic Tea

If you’d like to supplement this guided journey, you can make either of these delightful teas:

Roasted Dandelion Root “Coffee”

Dandelion root tea is a very rich and warming tea that helps support the body’s natural cleansing with a specific alterative action (which supports the liver’s healthy functioning). Roots are best gathered in the fall and early spring before the dandelions have started into flowers.  Dig your dandelion roots and put them in a bucket of water.  Let them soak for a bit, and then swish them around, and repeat a few times.  This will get most of the dirt off of them–the rest can be scrubbed off.  Dandelion roots can be finely chopped and roasted for about 30 min in a 350-degree oven.  They are done when they brown nicely.  Then, you would make this like any other root tea–boil for 10 minutes with the lid on, add honey if you’d like, and enjoy.

Dandelion Flower and Leaf Tea.  Dandelion leaf also helps cleanse the body, with specific support for the kidneys, with diuretic action. Pick fresh dandelion flowers and leaves and simply pour over boiling water, let steep for 5 min, and then enjoy.  Dried leaves actually make a better tea (dried herbs have the plant cell walls ruptured, so they are easier to extract the medicine).  Be aware that dandelion leaf is a diuretic (makes you pee).

Enjoy a cup of either tea as a spring tonic and a way to begin or end your meditative journey with the dandelion.

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

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

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!

The Allegheny Mountain Ogham: An Ogham for the Northern Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA

By Dana O’Driscoll, The Druid’s Garden Blog (druidgarden.wordpress.com), Copyright 2020.

The Ogham is an ancient alphabet, used to write early Irish and later Old Irish. The inscriptions that survive of Ogham, some 400 or so primarily on stone, are found throughout Ireland, Wales, and England. The inscriptions are thought to date from the 4th century and onward, although how old the tradition is is subject to some disagreement. In the modern druid tradition, the Ogham has also been associated with divination, and many druids use Ogham as a means to connect with sacred trees in the landscape. However, for people living in places outside of the British Isles, making local Oghams allows them to connect both with some of the roots of our tradition in druidry but also wildcraft and localize their druidry. This Ogham is designed for the Northern Appalachian mountain region in the United States while being rooted specifically in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania.

The Northern Appalachian Mountains range from the Mason Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and into Eastern Canada. This Ogham is specifically based in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania (Laurel Highlands and Pittsburgh Plateau regions), so some adaptations may be needed for people who live at other parts along the Appalachians. This Ogham would be most appropriate for druids living in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Virginia, but could easily be expanded outward.

When creating this Ogham, the selections are based on the following criteria:

  • Prominence: I selected trees that are abundant and widespread. Abundance varies from region to region, however, so you might want to make your own adaptations. The reason to use abundant trees is twofold. First, abundant trees have a considerable impact on the ecology and landscape. Second, for people who want to make their own Ogham, it is helpful to be able to find all of the trees. (This is why trees like pawpaw and chestnut are not on this list, even though they are important to this region).
  • Equivalency: In over half the Ogham fews, we have equivalent trees in the Allegheny mountains to the traditional Ogham (like Oak, Elder, and Birch). But there are also other very abundant trees that should be included in any North American Ogham like Hickory, Cedar, and Maple which have no equivalents in the British Isles.
  • Ecology: How the tree functions in the ecosystem is another critical factor for developing a regional Ogham, especially when looking for equivalents to the original Ogham fews. Does the tree grow quickly and help regenerate damaged parts of the forest? Is it an understory tree? Nitrogen fixer? How does the tree interact with other life in nature? Additionally, a preference for native trees is present.
  • A final factor is the health of the trees and tree species. Ash tree populations, including all mature ash trees, have been decimated on the US East coast due to the Emerald Ash Borer—thus, I’ve replaced Ash as the Ash here in the US cannot hold the energy that it traditionally did in the British Isles. Eastern Hemlock is also under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but at the time when I wrote this, the Eastern hemlock populations are still strong in Western PA—but may not be where you are located. Considering the health of the trees can help make decisions on Ogham inclusion or exclusion.

For each of the entries, I have also included possible alternatives when they made sense. Alternatives can be used when you can’t find the trees or if you feel drawn toward other options. Finally, you are also most welcome to adapt this Ogham as you feel necessary to your own bioregion. Pronunciations are based on those described by John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook.

This page includes the quick guide, a visual overview of the Allegheny Ogham, an in-depth discussion of each tree, as well as various means to use the Ogham in druid practice, including through the Bardic, Ovate, and Druid arts.

Allegheny Mountain Ogham Quick Guide

Original Ogham Allegheny Ogham Appalachian Tree Keywords Pronunciation
Birch (Beith) Black Birch

 

Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) Beginnings, rebirth, purification, regrowth BEH
Rowan (Luis) Sassafras Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Protection, Judgment, Discernment LWEESH
Ash (Nuinn) Shagbark Hickory Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) Interconnection, Magic, Connections NOO-un
Alder (Fearn) American Sycamore American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana) Bridge between spirit and matter; spirit, transitions, individuality FAIR-n
Willow (Sallie) Black Willow Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) Change, cycles, fluidity, receptivity, flexibility SAHL-yuh
The Second Aicme
Hawthorn (Huath) Hawthorn Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) Patience, restriction, danger, protection OO-ah
Oak (Duir) White Oak White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) Power, strength, durability, grounding DOO-er
Holly (Tinne) American Holly American Holly (Ilex opaca) Courage, Challenge, Opposition CHIN-yuh
Hazel (Coll) American Hazelnut American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta); Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginaia) Creativity, Inspiration, Awen, Artistry, Fine Craft CULL
Apple (Quert) Apple Apples and Crabapples of all varieties (Malus spp.) Celebration, Love, Harvest, Contentment KWEIRT
The Third Aicme
Vine (Muinn) Wild Grape Vine Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia). Vitis spp.

 

Freedom, Honesty, Prophecy MUHN
Ivy (Gort) Blackberry Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) Entanglements, Slow Progress, Determination

 

GORT
Reed (Ngetal) Cattail Cattail (Typha spp.) Swiftness, Speed, Transformation, Healing NYEH-tal
Blackthorn (Straif) Black Locust Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) Upheaval, Fate, External Forces, Unavoidable Change STRAHF
Elder (Ruis) Black Elder Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) Resolution, Endings, Permanent Change, Otherworld RWEESH
The Fourth Aicme
Fir (Ailm) White Spruce White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana) Vision, Understanding, Perspective AHL-m
Gorse (Onn) Eastern Hemlock Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Hope, Potential, Learning, Possibility UHN
Heather (Ur) Mountain Laurel Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

 

Spiritual Power, Spirit connection, Energy, Creation OOR
Aspen (Eadha) Tulip Poplar Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes) Hard work, Endurance, Courage, Bending rather than breaking EH-yuh
Yew (Ioho) Eastern White Cedar Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis); Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) Legacy, Things that abide, Wisdom from Experience, Eldership EE-yoh
The Forfedha
Grove (Koad) Grove of Trees All trees in a forest Balance, Community, Conflict Resolution, Communication, Listening KO-ud
Spindle (Oir) Black Cherry Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) Obligations, Honoring Commitments, Persistence OR
Honeysuckle (Uilleand) Sugar Maple Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) Hidden meanings, secrets, subtle influences, mysteries ULL-enth
Beech (Phagos) American Beech American Beech (Fagus grandifolia);   Eastern Ironwood Wisdom, Learning, History, Ancient Knowledge, Memory FAH-gus
Ifin (Pine) White Pine White Pine (Pinus strobus); Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) Vision, Awareness, Making Amends, Self-work, Guilt EE-van

 

The First Aicme

Black Birch – Beith

Allegheny Trees: Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Original Ogham Tree: Birch

Pronunciation: “BEH”

Meanings: New beginnings, a fresh start, turning a new chapter in your life. Spring and the promise of things to come. Renewal, rebirth, and purification.

Ecology: In the Allegheny Mountains we have three dominant species of birch: White Birch, Yellow Birch, and the Sweet Birch / Black Birch. Any of these specific trees are excellent representations of Birch for Ogham. Birch is easily found in areas where trees were logged; many times the first trees that will come up in a large thicket are birch trees after logging. You can also find birch trees along rivers and in mixed deciduous forests. Black and Yellow Birches can be found mixed in Eastern Hemlock forests as well.

Alternatives: Birches of various kinds are quite widespread in the Northern Appalachian region. No alternatives given.

Sassafras – Luis

Allegheny Tree: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Original Ogham Tree: Rowan

Pronunciation: “LWEESH”

Meanings: Discernment about current events or people, using your best judgment, and protection from harm. Positive finances and financial futures.

Ecology: Sassafras tree was widely imported to Europe after early colonization of the US and was, at one time, believed to be a ‘cure-all’ for illness in Europe. Sassafras is a widespread and a quintessential “American” tree. It has fragrant roots and leaves that are used widely as a food and medicine. Sassafras trees grow in groves and propagate primary by sending new roots off of a mother tree to create a small grove of babies surrounding the tree. Due to the history and use of Sassafras, it has long been associated with protection.

Alternatives: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) or Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a good choice for individuals living north of the native range of Sassafras.

Shagbark Hickory – Nuinn

Allegheny Trees: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Original tree: Ash

Pronunciation: NOO-un

Meanings: Interconnectivity, interconnection, and connection of all things in existence. Magic, nature magic, and the magic of connection. The great web of life present in the earth, the soil, and the universe.

Ecology: The Hickory tree is a hardwood nut tree that is widespread throughout the eastern US. Hickory trees are slow-growing trees that can produce abundant nut harvests as they mature. Reaching up to 130 feet in height and featuring a variety of shaggy, gray bark, hickories form an important species throughout the region. They are easiest to spot in the fall, when their leaves turn a deep golden sun-yellow shade. The wood is very hard and straight-grained and most hickories have delicious, edible nuts, enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.

For the last decade, nearly all of the Ash trees in the US Midwest and East coast have been dying from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle—this destruction has radically shifted the energy of the Ash tree here in the US. Due to the millions of deaths of Ash trees, it cannot hold the energy of Nuinn in North America. Because of the plight of the ash tree here, I have offered an alternative in the strong and mighty Hickory tree, which like ash, offers strong and tough wood and a commanding presence. Hickory trees are strong, dominant, have deep root systems, and in the fall, offer a wonderful alternative to the Ash.

American Sycamore – Fearn

Allegheny Tree: American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

Original tree: Alder

Pronunciation: FAIR-n

Meaning: Bridging between spirit and matter; spirit transitions. Individuality. Oracular guidance, messages from spirit. Transitions between realm to realm. Using one’s instincts or intuitioin.

Ecology: In North America, the Sycamore tree, which is often found along the edges of rivers and thrives in damp river bottoms, swamps, and bogs is an excellent choice to replace the water-loving Alder tree. Sycamore trees with their gray, greenish, brown, and white mottled bark which flakes off as the tree ages. As you drive through the river bottoms in the Alleghenies, you will see the sycamores reaching up from the bottoms, their whitish branches stretching out. Sycamores produce small seed balls that stay on the tree throughout the winter, looking almost like ornaments, dropping and spreading seeds in the spring.

Alternatives: The original Alder tree in the UK is a water tree that grows in swamps and bogs; it is often used to construct underwater and the wood grows harder in wet settings. Any other trees that grow in wet settings would be appropriate here. One such tree is the American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana).

Black Willow – Sallie

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Original tree: Willow

Pronunciation: SAHL-yuh

Meaning: Change, growth, cycles, moon cycles. Women’s mysteries. Fluidity, receptivity, and flexibility.

<Ecology: Black Willows have a wide range within the Eastern US and Canada. Black willow is widespread, and grows thick and tall as it ages. As a water loving tree, it is often found along the edges of water. Willows are excellent for land and waterway restoration, as they have a high tolerance of pollution and can break down certain toxic substances in the ecosystem. The Willow, with its deep roots, can regularly handle flooding and changes in water levels.

The Second Aicme

Hawthorn – Huath

Allegheny Tree(s): Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), including Pennsylvania Hawthorn (Crataegus tatnalliana)

Original Tree: Hawthorn / Huath

Pronunciation: OO-ah

Meaning: Restriction, danger, warnings. Patience. Heart and emotional protection. Hawthorn’s thorns are not aggressive, as in the snag and tear (like blackberry) but rather they are protective, surrounding the tree closely. This offers insight on the kinds of protection that hawthorn provides: thorns that protect but do not attack, thorns that create space for healing.

Ecology: The Eastern US has over 70 native species of Hawthorn. While leaf patterns vary widely, all has the ubiquitous thorns, 5 petaled flowers in the spring signaling the return of spring (Beltane), with ripening haws (fruit) in the time between the fall equinox and Samhain.

White Oak – Duir

Allegheny Tree(s): White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)

Original tree: Oak / Duir

Pronunciation: DOO-er

Meaning: Wisdom. Durability. Be strong and steady like the oak. Find your grounding. Power within and without. Growth. Protection.

Ecology: The Oak is one of the keystone species in the Eastern part of the US and into Canada. The White Oak can reach 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity, with a massive canopy and deep root system. White oaks live up to 300 years or more. Oaks produce acorns, but often do not produce large crops of acorns until after their 50th year of life. Every 3 years is a mast year, where Oaks produce a very large crop of nuts. Acorns were the staple food of many indigenous cultures and can be used in a wide variety of cuisine.

American Holly – Tinne

Allegheny Tree(s): American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Original Tree: Holly / Tinne

Pronunciation: CHIN-yuh

Meaning: Facing challenges, being a warrior, being dynamic and responsive. This is a plant of warriors and protectors. It also ties to the changing of the seasons, courage, and moving forward, and bringing light into dark times.

Ecology: The American Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly. It is shade tolerant and can live in the understory of most forest canopies. It is spread across the southern and northern Eastern US, find in wild areas as well as cultivated areas. The holly berries are dominant at the winter solstice.

Alternatives: Any other evergreen species is appropriate here. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), which is north of the native range of American Holly, is an excellent alternative for more northern areas.

American Hazelnut – Coll

Allegheny Tree(s): American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Original tree: Hazel / Coll

Pronunciation: CULL

Meaning: Poetry, wisdom, divination. Bringing ideas to the surface, awen; artistry or creativity; inspiration; divine inspiration, finding the muse. Honing one’s craft or skill in a subject. Letting the flow of inspiration (awen) come and opening to that experience.

Ecology: The American hazelnut is a shade-tolerant small tree or large shrub, usually not reaching more than 3-10 feet tall. It grows in large thickets and even when cut back or coppiced, can powerfully regrow. It is shade tolerant, often growing in the understory. Hazels produce delicious nuts that have a high protein content and can be enjoyed both by humans and wildlife.

Alternatives: Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgniana) is a different species, but may be appropriate as a substitution.

Apple – Quert

Allegheny Tree(s): Apple (Malus spp.)

Original Tree: Apple / Quert

Pronunciation: KWEIRT

Meaning: Celebration, love of all kinds, harvests and success, contentment. Paths of learning that are open. Making a good decision. Learning and growth.

Ecology: Although many species of apples were introduced to North American in the 17th centuru, the “crab apple” is native to the US. Crab apples are edible like their more cultivated counterparts, but are usually smaller and tarter due to lack of thousands of years of cultivation. Today, it is common to find crabapples and abandoned apple orchards all through the Allegheny mountain region.

Alternatives: Another domesticated fruit tree.

The Third Aicme

Wild Grape Vine – Muinn

Allegheny Tree(s): Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia), New England grape ( V. novae-angliae), Vitis spp.

Original tree: Muinn / Vine

Pronunciation: MUHN

Meaning: Freedom, truth, honesty, trustworthiness. Release of prophetic powers, prophecy and divination.

Ecology: A variety of wild grape species grow in the Allegheny region; all are characterized by flexible steps that send out tendrils to cling, grow, and climb. Wild grapes often have gray bark that peels easily off the vines. Some wild grapes can grow massive and create a canopy of grapes that, if too heavy, can pull down trees around them.

Alternatives: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Blackberry – Gort

Allegheny Tree(s): Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

Original Tree: Ivy

Pronunciation: GORT

Meaning: Making slow progress, being entangled or prevented from moving forward. Having delays, setbacks, and unforeseen challenges. With these setbacks, however, comes the determination to keep going. This is a time of persistence and determination.

Ecology: Blackberry is a native perennial shrub that can grow up to 7’ tall with many canes. Canes live for two years—the first year, the cane is green with many thorns. In the second year, the cane goes a dark red/brown with thorns. After the second year, new canes can sprout up from the same root system. The fruits are abundant and purple-black when mature, excellent for pies and jams—if you are willing to brave the thorns and canes to get them. If you’ve ever been caught in a big blackberry patch, you understand how the blackberry canes can catch, snack, and stall you.

Cattail – Ngetal

Allegheny Tree(s): Cattail (Typha spp.)

Original Tree: Reed

Pronunciation: NYEH-tal

Meaning: Swiftness and speed, the idea that things are moving forward, perhaps rapidly. Transformation. Healing and the healing that only changing circumstances can bring.

Ecology: Cattails are upright perennial plants that live on the edges of ponds, lakes, and other slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water. They are characterized by their long tall leaves and the stalk that produces a brown, elongated head, which, over the winter months, eventually turns to small seed fluff and flies off. Cattails are a keystone species in much of the Appalachian region and are also a useful wild food source.

Alternatives: Rushes, Phragmites, and other water-loving woody species.

Black Locust – Straif

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Original Tree: Blackthorn

Pronunciation: STRAHF

Meaning: Unexpected or unavoidable change, upheaval, or chaos. Fate, external influences, and external forces working for change, such that change happens regardless of your own actions. Having courage through such having courage through these circumstances.

Ecology: Black locust is a native tree that blooms late, drops leaves early, and has a general skeletal appearance with thick gray-brown bark, and large thorns on young branches. The black locust produces a very dense, strong wood that is rot resistant, and thus, useful for a variety of building applications. Large clusters of pea-shaped white flowers with a yellow center bloom on the black locusts usually in early June; these fragrant clusters are edible and delicious.

Alternatives: For those that are within the range, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) is a fantastic alternative for Straif.

Black Elder – Ruis

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Original Tree: Elder

Pronunciation: RWEESH

Meaning: Endings, with the understanding that something new will come. Life in death, death in life; changes from old to new. Having resolution and closure. Connection to the otherworld, gateways to the otherworld, and fae connections.

Ecology: The Black Elder is a widespread, native tree to the Eastern US. Black elder can be found in full sun, part shade, and full shade, although it is often found along the margins of forests and fields. By the summer solstice, it produces beautiful clusters of tiny flowers, reaching up to the sun. By Lughnasadh, these clusters have turned into ripe, purple berries, bending down to the earth. The Black Elder has a hollow core and pith like other species of Elder in Europe. In Europe, the “sambucca” was an ancient woodwind instrument made of elder; and that’s where the Latin name to the plant comes from.

The Fourth Aicme

White Spruce – Ailm

Allegheny Tree(s): White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Original Tree: Fir

Pronunciation: AHL-m

Meaning: Having clear vision, being able to see what is to come, having insight into a situation. Perspective and the ability to look at a situation in a new way. Having an understanding or coming to an understanding about an issue or situation.

Ecology: Spruces are an important tree in the Appalachian mountain region, along with several other conifer species. Spruce trees can live up to 300 years and grow to a height of 150 feet tall. All spruces have a whorled branch structure (a spiral pattern) and a conical form (like many other conifers). The world’s oldest living tree is thought to be Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce located in Sweden, which is though to be 9,550 years old.

Alternatives: Any other conifer species would be appropriate.

Eastern Hemlock – Omn

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern Hemlock

Original Tree: Gorse/Furze

Pronunciation: UHN

Meaning: Hope, potential and possibility. Hope in a brighter future. Learning and growth. Possibility.

Ecology: The Eastern Hemlock is a keystone species in the Eastern US. It is a shade-loving tree, often found in deep forests or along the banks of forest streams and rivers. The world’s oldest known hemlock is in Tionesta, PA, being 554 years old. The tree can reach up to 170 feet tall and 5 feet across. The hemlock needle underside has two light green lines and the hemlock, for its large size, produces tiny cones less than 1” in length. Hemlocks are currently under threat from the hemlock wooly adelgid, which was introduced to the US in 1924 and has been in the range of hemlock trees since the 1960’s.

Alternatives: Any other dominant conifer species.

Mountain Laurel – Ur

Allegheny Tree(s): Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia);

Original tree: Heather

Pronunciation: OOR

Meaning: Spiritual power, spiritual connections, energy, and creation. Passion and generosity. Close contact with spirit world and healing.

Ecology: Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with broad leaves in the heather (heath) family. When it flowers in early June, the flowers range from pink to white and look like beautiful little parasols. In the more southern end of its range, mountain laurel can grow to the size of trees; in the northern end of its range it stays shrub size.

Alternatives: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) is an excellent alternative, and functions in much the same way in the ecosystem (showy flowers in June, evergreen leaves, shrub or small tree size, similar growth habit).

 

Tulip Tree – Edhadh

Allegheny Tree(s): Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Original Tree: Aspen

Pronunciation: EH-yuh

Meaning: Hard work leads to success. Endurance, courage, and will. Bending rather than breaking, the ability to endure and triumph.

Ecology: The Tulip tree (also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or whitewood) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It can grow up to 160 feet tall, and often grows very straight in large stands in the region. Flowers, looking like beautiful yellow tulips, grow on the tree in May or early June, eventually turning to seedpods. Even in the winter, you can still see the remnants of the dried pod, reaching up from the tree.

Alternatives: The range of Tulip poplar stops in mid-new York and the bottom of Massachusetts. Other good options for those further north would be Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)

Eastern White Cedar – Ida

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis)

Original Tree: Yew

Pronunciation: EE-yoh

Meaning: Death and rebirth. Legacy. Things that abide (like ancestral knowledge, traditions, or lore). Wisdom from experience. Eldership and honoring the elders. Endings.

Ecology: The Eastern White Cedar, also called the Arborvite or the Tree of Life, is a small-sized conifer averaging about 40 feet high. Scale-like leaves form massive branches that go out in many directions. Eastern White Cedar trees are some of the most long-lived trees in North America; some trees on the cliffs of Lake Superior are known to be at least 1600 years old. Even in death, cedar lives on through rot resistance in the wood.

Alternatives: Eastern Redcedar / Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is an excellent alternative. Although it is also called a cedar, Juniper is actually in a different family.

The Forfedha

The Druid Grove – Koad

Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.

Original Tree: Grove

Pronunciation: KO-ud

Meaning: Resolution of conflict with others, peacemaking, and deep listening. Being a peacemaker and promoting a path of peace, justice, and understanding. Communication with others, particularly to promote understanding and harmony. Community and tribe.

Ecology: Forests are made up of thousands of species: trees, plants, insects, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, macrobiotics life—and within a forest, within a grove of sacred trees, there is harmony. This Ogham represents the grove, in whatever ecosystem you live in—this is harmony, community, and the circle of trees around you.

Black Cherry – Oir

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)

Original Tree: Spindle

Pronunciation: OR

Meaning: Fulfilling one’s obligations, honoring one’s commitments, and staying true to one’s word. The determination, dedication, and persistence sometimes needed to complete obligations.

Ecology: Cherry trees are widespread in North America, the black cherry spans from Florida the whole way to Newfoundland. Cherry trees are pioneer species, often rapidly growing after a forest has been disrupted. All cherries produce small “cherry” fruits, although the flavor of the cherry fruits vary widely, and thus, are usually eaten by birds. The cherry seed reminds us of the meaning here: cherry seeds have incredibly tough shells and require scarification to germinate (the surface scratched, perhaps by going through an animal’s digestive system). Determination is necessary for these seeds to sprout.

Sugar Maple – Uileand

Allegheny Tree(s): Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)

Original Tree: Honeysuckle

Pronunciation: ULL-enth

Meaning: Hidden desires, pleasures, and possibly distractions. Finding our true selves, and discovering insights along the path of our own growth. Subtle mysteries, secrets, and hidden things.

Ecology: Maples are widespread in North America, and since they are also planted for show, they are easy to find even in urban areas. The fall color of maples is fantastic, ranging from deep purples to bright reds, oranges, or yellows, which is why some maples are called ‘fire maples.’ Maples all produce a delicious sap that can be boiled down into syrup or sugar, although tapping trees and boiling it can take some effort. The maple encourages us to look within and find our true selves.

American Beech – Phagos

Allegheny Tree(s): American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Original Tree: Beech

Pronunciation: FAH-gus

Meaning: Wisdom, learning, history. Ancient knowledge, memory. Beech trees have long been associated with human learning, particularly through words, books, and stories written down.

Ecology: Smooth and light-barked beech trees are often found growing with Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar maple on rich and wet slopes here in the Alleghenies and represents a final stage in ecological succession. Beeches are shade tolerant but can also reach up to 115 tall. Throughout history, the smooth bark has invited humans to carve “arborglyphs” into the bark of the beech—some of these in North America date back to pre-colonial times.

Alternatives: Eastern Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is an excellent alternative.

White Pine – Ifin

Allegheny Tree(s): White Pine (Pinus strobus);

Original Tree: Pine

Pronunciation: EE-van

Meaning: Vision, awareness, perception. Self-work and shadow work. Guilt. Making amends, possibly after a long and bitter time.

Ecology: White Pine is a dominant species on the US east coast, spanning throughout the Appalachian regions and beyond. As the tallest tree in eastern North America, White Pines have been recorded up to 230 feet tall and they can live up to 500 years. Needles that are long, green and flexible, typically come grouped in bundles of 5. White pines were heavily logged in the US in the 18th-20th century for shipbuilding and industry, but still some old-growth forests that contain White Pine (and often also Hemlock and beech) remain. These are a spectacular sight, walking within them is truly like walking in a cathedral. White pine can live up to 500 years.

Alternatives: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

 

Using the Allegheny Ogham as a Bard, Ovate, and Druid

            Working with any Ogham system can be a long-term learning process. The Ogham is a flexible system that you can use for magic, divination, meditation, art, studies in ecology, and more. This section offers some ideas for how to best work with the Allegheny Ogham.

Preliminaries: Creating Your Ogham Set

Foraging for your Ogham Set. For long-term Ogham study and developing a deeper understanding of the ovate arts, you might want to seek out and forage for each of the Ogham fews that you are going to work with. While the symbols are useful, having the wood itself and meeting each of the trees can be a very effective way to work with the Ogham and understand it from the perspective of the ovate arts: that is, the perspective of ecology, identification, and experience.

Foraging for your own Ogham can take considerable time, sometimes a period of months or years, depending on how often you go out. Once you find a tree, you will want to spend some time with the tree. Ask permission to harvest a few from the tree (living or dead, your choice) and make sure you leave some kind of offering (I like to use a home-grown herbal blend. I also will pee on the base of the tree to offer nitrogen if I do not have any of my regular offering blend).

As you collect your Ogham, you can work with and meditate on each of the fews, doing some of the other work as outlined in this guide.

Ogham for dyslexics!

Ogham for dyslexics- with all of the words burned in.

Creating Your Own Ogham set: There are two ways to go about creating your Ogham set. The first is to use a single wood (maple, apple, etc) and create all of your fews from that wood. I recommend that if you want to get into the Ogham and start working with it immediately as a divination tool, you consider this option. You can also use this initial set as you are foraging for your own Ogham, as described above.

To make your set, you want to start by making sure that each of your fews are about the same length. A pair of hand pruners is an easy way to cut them to size. I would then recommend at least some light sanding to take the hard edges off of your Ogham staves. From there, you will want to burn in the images of each of the Ogham. The most common way is to take a sharp blade (knife, box cutter, or the like) and shave off an inch or so of the bark, cambium, and some of the wood so that you get a smooth surface. From there, you would draw, paint, or woodburn the specific Ogham symbol into the wood. If you have difficulty remembering the symbols (or you have dyslexia), you could also burn the name into the wood or add some other detail to help you, like an image of the leaf.

In this specific Ogham, Cattail and Blackberry are not trees, so they do not have a woody stem. For those, I would not cut away any of the branch structure but would rather mark the symbol right on the wood.

Storing your Ogham. You should have something to keep your Ogham in when you aren’t using them. Traditional materials include linen or silk, both of which are known in esoteric circles to be fairly neutral energetically. You can also store them in anything else you like—a small leather bag or small wooden box also works great. If you want to use a casting cloth, you can also store your cloth with them (or use the cloth as a wrap itself).

Ogham and the Druid Path: Divination, Meditation, and Magic

Ogham for Divination. Learning how to use the Ogham for divination is an art form—while its easy to get started, you can also deepen your understanding over a period of time. You can keep it simple or get very advanced with casting cloths and stave directions. Here are three such ways to start to use the Ogham. I would also recommend a book-length work for more info on using Ogham for divination such as Ogham: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie and the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

The Daily Draw. To start to use Ogham, and to continue to build your skills, I suggest a daily Ogham draw. This can be an Ogham few that offer you a message for today—something to reflect upon, meditate upon, and carry with you as you go forward in your day (or if you do it at night, as you rest and start your new day). Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, arriving at this moment and allowing other thoughts, feelings, and issues to retreat. Set your intention for your divination. Reach into your Ogham bag and feel for an Ogham few that speak to you. Pull that Ogham, and look at the meaning. Reflect on it for a few moments.

Three Rays Draw. The three rays draw has a number of different possibilities and interpretations. For this, you will be drawing three staves. The three staves can represent any of the following (choose in advance what you’d like them to represent)

  • Light aspect (right), Dark aspect (left), how to bring them into balance (center)
  • Current situation (left), suggested action (center), possible outcome if action is taken (right)
  • Mind (left), Body (center), Spirit (right)
  • To bring stability (left), to bring flow (right), to bring balance (center)

To engage in any of these draws, you will use the techniques described in the daily draw and draw three Ogham fews. Lay them out, look at their meanings, and meditate on the message.

Additional draws and options. Once you’ve done the above draws, you might want to get more elaborate in your divination. Many different methods exist for this. You can start by selecting a number of Ogham (three or seven) and then dropping them on a surface to see how they land. Pay attention to the interaction between them (e.g. are any of them touching? Which direction are they facing? How do they interact?) This gives you additional insights and experiences with the Ogham. Once you’ve practiced this a while, consider adding a casting cloth to your experience. A casting cloth allows you to “cast” any number of Ogham (I usually use 7) and where they land on the cloth, and in what direction, can help you interpret the meanings. You can create your own casting cloth or purchase one (there are a number of options out there, including some typically used for runes that will work great for Ogham).

Ogham for Meditation. A second way to use Ogham is to use it as a meditation tool. Meditation on the Ogham, their meanings, relationships, and associations can help you have a deeper understanding of what the Ogham means and their divination meanings. Meditation on the Ogham can also put you in a deeper connection with these trees and your local ecology. Here are three meditation strategies:

  • Energy meditation. The first meditation is one where you simply feel the energy of the Ogham few. Relax and get into a receptive space (with breathing, candles, quietude). From there, breathe deeply and allow the air to flow in and out of your lungs. Once you have found quiet within, turn your attention to one of the Ogham fews. See how it feels in your hand. Run your fingers over the bark. Engage it with your senses. Now, close your eyes and feel the energy of this Ogham few—is it welcoming? Cold? Strong?   Try picking up a second few and comparing the two. What is the difference?
  • Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation is a type of mediation based on focused thought. Prepare yourself for meditation by getting comfortable, engaging in deep breathing, and grounding yourself. When you are ready, focus on one of the Ogham fews (one you draw or select in advance). Consider the meaning of this few. Work your way through this meaning, allowing your thoughts to go where they would like as long as they continue to focus on the meaning. If you find yourself straying too far from the Ogham few itself, retrace your thoughts and focus back on the main theme—the Ogham few, meaning, and the tree itself. You can repeat this meditation for each few and work your way through them. I have found it useful to meditate on each one as I was learning, and then, about once a year, return to these meditations as my own experiences with the trees themselves and working with the Ogham deepened.
  • Journey Meditation. A final way you can use these Ogham for meditation is through spirit journeying. Journeying can allow you to meet the spirit of the trees and Ogham directly. Journeying, in this sense, involves meditating on the specific Ogham you wish to connect with, envisioning an inner grove where you can meet that tree, meeting that tree, and engaging in conversation, travel, or receiving teachings on the inner place from that tree. While it is out of the scope of this article to describe this in detail, I’ve written extensively on spirit journeying with plants in The Plant Spirit Oracle: Recipes, Meanings, and Journeys as well as on my blog (see: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/plant-spirit-communication-part-iii-spirit-journeying/ ).

Ogham for Chant Magic

A final way you can incorporate the Ogham into your druid practice is to use it for chanting.  This can be simple, simply chanting the Ogham itself so that you can bring that energy into your life.  Or, you can do something much more elaborate, like this Hemlock Galdr ritual!

Ogham and the Ovate Arts

As I described above under “preliminaries”, foraging for your own Ogham set and finding all of the 25 sacred trees is certainly a fantastic way to connect more deeply with nature and learn about these Ogham trees. That search, in itself, is a very powerful journey that allows one learn a variety of ovate skills: plant and tree identification, observation and interaction, getting out in nature, and communing with nature.

Beyond that work, I would also recommend seeking out places where these trees are dominant and doing some ritual work in these places. For example, some of the trees on this list, including Oak, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine, can be found in old-growth groves throughout the East Coast. Visiting some of these groves and doing a kind of Ovate pilgrimage to these places is an excellent way to commune deeply with them. Bring your Ogham set with you (if you have one) and intone the Ogham as you sit among these trees.

Planting and tending some of the 25 sacred trees is another way to practice the ovate arts. You can get most of these from the Arbor Day Foundation (if you are in the US). Consider also learning how to forage for these trees for medicine or food—ethically and sustainably, of course.

Finally, you might learn about these trees in more depth: what other plant species are associated with these trees? What insect, animal, or bird life depends on them? What is their life cycle? How do they look at different points of the year? The more you can learn about the trees on the physical plane, the more that your spiritual connection with them will deepen in time.

Ogham and the Bardic Arts

Beyond making your own Ogham set (which is certainly a very Bardic skill), you can learn about the Ogham and work with them in a number of ways, both the trees themselves and with the symbols and sounds themselves.

The Ogham can be an inspiration for you for the Bardic arts. You might consider how the Ogham might be developed into chants, music, dance, or song. Poetry, short stories, or other literary works would also lend themselves well to considering the Ogham. If you are a visual artist, you might work the symbolism of the Ogham into various artistic creations.

Another option here for the Bardic arts is to work with the woods and materials from these sacred trees. Tulip poplar, for example, allows you to make amazing bark baskets—if you find a Tulip tree that has recently fallen, you can harvest the bark and learn basketry. The cambium of this same tree is excellent for using as kindling for fire starting. The woods of many of these trees, including Cherry, Sassafras, Oak, and Beech, are excellent for woodworking (including woodburning, turning, carving, and more). Learning each of the trees by working their wood in a Bardic tradition allows you deeper insight into the trees themselves.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has inspired you to work with the Ogham or deepen your practice. Questions and comments about the guide can be posted to this page.  I welcome your comments, feedback, and thoughts!

Wild Food Profile – Eastern Hemlock Buds: Fresh Eating, Tea, and Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing

Eastern Hemlock is one of my very favorite trees.  The tall, regal personal, the needles and branches that offer a bluish light beneath them as the sun shines, the cathedral-like quality of the ancient ones. This time of year, you can see the bright green buds on the Eastern Hemlock that represent the growth of the tree for this season.  As the buds grow older, they darken to the beautiful viridian green that is characteristic of the Eastern Hemlock tree. But, for the short window of time when the trees are budding–right now–Eastern Hemlock buds are a delicious treat.

Harvesting Eastern Hemlock buds

We happen to have many of these trees on our property, and some of the branches are starting to grow into our paths and have to be trimmed back. There are thousands of beautiful tiny green buds on each of the branches to be trimmed, which offered a good opportunity to create some new delicacies and experiment with a larger-than-usual volume of Eastern Hemlock buds.  In this post, I’ll share three ways to enjoy the buds as well as some harvest instructions.  If you want to learn more about the Eastern Hemlock’s magical and medicinal qualities, you can check out my earlier post.

Harvest

If you are going to eat these delicious treats, you need to first know how to harvest buds.  You will want to get the buds as they are emerging–you have usually a 1-2 week window each year, and the exact timing will depend on the warmth or coolness of your spring (for us here in USDA Zone 6 in Western PA, that’s usually sometime in May).

The buds will first emerge in little casings; wait until they have fully emerged, like in my photo below. I recommend the buds when they are fully spread out but still bright green.  They are prime when they have emerged and spread out a bit but haven’t gotten to the darker green color yet or too large.

Buds at perfect harvest time

You will want to be very careful about how much you harvest, as each bud is potential new growth for the tree.  If you are trimming a tree branch I am, then obviously you would harvest all of the buds on the branch that will be cut.  But if you are harvesting from a tree without any trimming, you want to make sure you aren’t compromising the growth of that tree.  I would suggest never harvesting the buds on the ends of the branch (this will prohibit future growth) but rather, harvest a bud or two per branch from further down the branch.  I would also recommend harvesting from mature trees, not small trees (who need all of their growth). Finally, please be aware that the hemlocks are under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, which may or may not be present in your area (do not harvest from any tree that is fighting this terrible pestilence–these hemlocks need all the help they can get! Instead, how about some ritual for them? )

Of course, like any other harvest from the land, harvest with gratitude.  Offer something in return.

Flavor

Buds ready for eating!

In my opinion, the Eastern Hemlock has the best tasting “tips” in my bioregion. The tips have a strong lemony taste with a hint of pine and a slightly bitter aftertaste.  They are really delicious for fresh eating or in recipes.

They can delicious and quite strongly flavored in bulk, so they are really useful as a marinade or dressing, where the flavor can really have an impact.

Eastern Hemlock buds, like most other conifers, are high in Vitamin C.

Recipe 1: Fresh Eats, Salad, and Garnish

The first recipe is not really a recipe at all–you can simply nibble on the hemlock buds as a trailside treat.  You can add them to fresh salads or as a garnish. They are amazing when sprinkled on top of meats or roasted veggies.  Harvest them fresh and add whole buds to the salad.  Harvest them fresh and chop them up as a spice. I really like them as a garnish for a baked or pan-fried fish!

Recipe 2:  Tea (Hot or Cold)

Hemlock buds make an amazing, light, and refreshing tea.  You can dry them or use them fresh (you can also use the mature needles, which have a stronger flavor that is also amazingly delicious).  Pour 1 cup boiling water over 1 TBSP fresh buds or 1/2 TBSP dried buds/needles.  Cover and let seep for 5 minutes.  Add fresh honey to taste and enjoy!

Recipe 3: Eastern Hemlock Bud Dressing / Spread / Marinade

This is a recipe that my sister and I created this season and experimented with to find just the right combination.

The base is:

  • 1/2 cup of Eastern Hemlock buds
  • 1/2 cup of good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fire cider vinegar (or regular apple cider vinegar)

I would strongly suggest adding:

  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 3 TBSP maple syrup or honey (to taste)

Start by adding your olive oil and Eastern hemlock buds to a food processor (if you don’t have a food processor, you can chop finely and stir everything by hand).  Process them until they are fairly chopped up.  Add your apple cider vinegar and maple syrup and pulse a few times. If you are going with the base dressing, then you are done and it is delicious!

After some processing, this is your base dressing

If you want to make a spread or thicker dressing, add your tahini. If you pulse this a lot, you will end up with a thick spread, almost the consistency of mayo (good for spreading on a sandwich). If you stir it by hand or pulse it only a little, you will end up with a lovely dressing for salads, marinades, and more.

If you process it for a minute or more with tahini, you get this great spread

We had a nice salad and then a lunch of sauteed veggies (asparagus, celery, summer squash, broccoli, and kale) with the delicious dressing as a marinade and drizzle over some rice. I hope you enjoy this delightful wild-foraged treat and spend time communing with the beautiful and majestic Eastern Hemlock, my favorite of the trees.

Delicious as a marinade and sauce for veggies

Have it on a fresh salad!

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply

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: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.

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

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

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.