The Druid's Garden

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

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

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Druid Tree Workings: Establishing Deep Connections with Trees July 2, 2017

Imagine walking into a forest where you are greeted by many old tree friends, each members of different families that form a community.  You know their common names, their less common names, and the secret names that have taught you.  You know their medicine, how they can be used, even some of their stories and songs. They rustle their leaves in joy as you continue to walk.  The movement of their branches is music in your ears, the sound of the leaves a song, playing in your mind.  Their medicine and magic is open before you.  And yet, you realize how much more you have to learn, to know, and realize that this process –the process of reconnecting to the medicine and magic of the trees–will take more than one lifetime to complete.  This is the power of establishing deep connections with the trees.

 

Oak at Samhuinn

Oak at Samhuinn

Over the last two years, I’ve offered a series of posts on what I call “druid tree workings.”  A lot of people who get interested in nature spirituality want to work with trees, and there isn’t always a lot of detailed information out there about it.  Since the trees have sung to me since I was a small child, I have been trying to compile this information on some of the strategies that I used in order to learn their teachings and work with them.  Today, I’m going to explore another strategy that takes some of my earlier posts a bit further.  If you haven’t read my earlier work in the druid tree workings, I suggest you start there becuase this post (and one I have planned in the next week or so), draws upon those initial principles. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, and a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth. Today, I’m delving into a few other strategies for establishing deeper relationships with trees through finding a focal tree and working with it in various ways.

 

Relationship Building

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, and I’ll mention it again here.  Reconnecting with nature, and doing any kind of nature-based spiritual practice, is just like building any other kind of relationship.  It takes time.  It takes both giving and taking.  It takes good listening skills and communication.  To establish relationships with plants, trees, nature spirits or anything else, this is the very beginning of where we start.  Nature isn’t there just to give, and give, and give (and when she is forced to do so, ecosystems eventually break down and we are left with the predicament we are currently facing).  Instead, we are meant to be in recriprocation.  Think about it this way: all of the “waste” products from your body (carbon from your lungs, nitrogen from your urine, and the nutrients in feces that breaks down into rich soil) are required by trees and plants for survival. And in turn, we need them for oxygen, food, shelter, shade,  and much more.  If we work with relationship as our basic premise, we can develop deep relationships.

 

Finding Your Tree

A simple way to begin to connect deeply with trees and prepare for deeper initiatic work (which I will discuss in my next post in this series) is to begin by finding a species, and an individual tree, that call to you. Different tree species work with different human energy patterns, and what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, one of my strongest tree allies is hawthorn, which is certainly not a species that is friendly to all! But over a period of time, hawthorn and I have developed a very deep bond and love each other well.  And so, it might be that as you are reading this, you already have a specific tree in mind. Or it might be that as you are reading this, you need a way to find one that will work with you. So let’s first explore how to find your tree.  Picking a single tree to begin this work is really important. You might think about this like the “central” or “keystone” tree in your larger sacred grove.  Your sacred grove, that is, the many tree species that will work with you, are added after you begin your work with this one tree.  Once you have developed a deep relationship with one tree, it is easier to communicate with others of that same species, and easier to connect to many other trees of different species.  The work spirals out from there.

 

There are two ways to go about finding your tree.

 

The Deductive Method: Having a tree (or tree species) in mind.  Do you have a specific tree speces or have a relationship that began with a tree species at an earlier point in your life?  This might be a tree species you’d like to seek out to establish a relationship with.  For example, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time climbing several trees–an old apple, an old maple, and an old cherry.  As I grew older and found druidry, these were the trees that first called me back and allowed me to reconnect.

 

The Inductive Method: Picking your spot and find your tree. The other way of going about this (and the one I’d suggest for a lot of folks) is to simply pick your spot and then pick your tree.  Before finding your specific tree, you need to scope out your general location. This is a very important consideration; you should be able to visit the tree regularly and do so with minimal disruption (e.g. a tree next to a busy highway might not be the best choice). So you’ll want to find a tree that you have very easy access to but also one where you can be undisturbed by passerby and other human behaviors. A lot of good trees can be found in local parks, forests, even your yard. Make sure your tree is somewhere that you can visit, at minimum, once or twice a week and that it is fairly easy for you to do so. If your tree is difficult to get to, you will be less likely to visit (especially if you are tired or busy).  Now, spread out in the area that you have selected. Use your intuition as well as your physical senses. Is there one particular tree that is calling to you? It doesn’t matter at first if you can identify it or not; the important thing is to feel a strong connection. Once you’ve found the tree, ask permission to sit with it for a time. Listen for inner and outer messages and simply be present with it.

 

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Initial Tree Work

Now that you’ve got a tree, great!  The next thing is start to work with it on the inner and outer planes.  Here are some, of many, options (see other options in my earlier post):

 

Find the Face of the tree. I have a whole post detailing how to find the face of a tree as a way to begin to connect with it. I would strongly suggest that you do this work the first time you meet the tree. How many faces does the tree have? What do they look like? What do they tell you?

 

Communicate with the tree. See what the tree has to say, using strategies on the inner and outer planes. Spend time learning how this tree communicates and developing your own intuitive skills.

 

Tree Research. After you’ve picked the tree, learn a bit about it (which requires you to identify it). Tree identification books are common (and now, there are a whole series of apps, like Leafsnap, which help you identify trees based on their leaves). If you aren’t sure, either take a small bit of leaf/branch with you and/or take good photographs so that you can refer to them. Make sure to get photos or examples of the leaves (both sides), the bark, and how the leaves attach to the stem. Also get photos or examples of any buds/fruit/nuts on the tree. If it is winter, you will need to get a winter tree identification guide (there are good guides on winter botany and on tree bark for example).

 

After you’ve identified your tree, learn as much as you can about about the tree. What role does this tree play in your local ecosystem? (My favorite books for answering these questions in the Midwest/Northeast are the Book of Forest and Thicket, Book of Swamp and Bog, etc, by John Eastman). How was this tree used by humans in the past? Is it still used by humans in the present? What are the features of its wood? Is it under threat? How widespread is this species? Is it native, naturalized, or considered invasive? Does this tree have any medicinal properties? Knowing the answers to these questions can really help you understand how past humans have worked with these trees (or taken from them).

 

Another important question to ask is: What is the mythology and magic of this tree? (You might find that it was a tree that I covered in one of my sacred trees posts; if not, look for both mundane and magical information).   You might need to look to different cultural sources and references to understand the tree. Some trees (like apple) are present in both the old and new world and so you can study the mythology of both. Some trees, like sycamore, are actually different trees and different species in the old and new world, so be careful that you are learning about the right mythology. In the mythology, look at the role of the tree—is it magical? Helpful to humans? Active in the story? Passive? All of these will give you clues into the nature of the tree.

 

Identification: Work to identify the tree in its various seasons. Look at its buds/flowers, its leaves, the bark, the overall profile.  Look how its branches grow and what their growth habit is. Learn this tree, well, as much as you are able. When you have the chance, work to identify and visit other individuals of that spaces. Get so that you can identify the tree in multiple seasons and both close up and at a distance.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Visits over time.  Beyond the tree research, begin this deep tree work simply with one individual tree, whom you visit frequently. We have to rebuild relationships with these trees, and those relationships take time to establish (just like human relationships do).  Visiting the tree regularly over a period of a year is the best way to *really* know a tree, but that’s likely not possible unless the tree is very close to where you live.  But the more you can visit the better!

 

Tree Offerings

Regardless of the kinds of work you are doing with the tree, you should make an offering to the tree you are working with regularly—consider it like a gift you would give friends. As in any other relationship, we give and we take, and tree workings are no difference.  I would suggest that you make offerings before you take anything.  Nature is being used and abused by so many humans (direct and indireclty) at present.  You want to establish a different pattern, a relationship, not just a taking one.  So start here before doing anything else in terms of the rest of the post.

 

Here are some offerings that work well (and I use all of these, often in combination or at different times of the year):

 

  • One kind of very effective exchange is one where the tree gives of its body and so do you.  Humans and plants form a symbiotic relationship; we depend upon each other for survival. Trees take in our waste (carbon that we breathe and nitrogen that we pee) as some of their primary sources of nourishment and strength. Peeing at the base of a tree is a wonderful offering of available nitrogen to the tree (don’t pee directly on leaves, as they can’t handle such a strong dose of nitrogen). I am very serious here—this works and trees are thankful. Just ask them!
  • Music. If you can sing or play an instrument at all (even if its not very well), I would suggest singing or playing for the tree. It is often very well received (and the tree may have a song to give you in return!)
  • Spreading Seeds/Nuts: Trees need to propagate, and another meaningful offering is one where you are able to harvest the seeds/nuts from the tree and plant them elsewhere. This is especially important for hardwood nut trees, who often are slower to propagate (but don’t spread trees that are already spreading themselves too much, like those listed on noxious invasive species lists—do another kind of offering). Helping the tree establish its young is one of the absolute best things you can do.
  • Growing or making offerings. The one other thing I will mention is that I personally grow sacred tobacco for offerings, especially for wildharvesting. My tobacco is grown in my own garden from saved seeds. I harvest and dry it myself. I blend it with lavender flowers and rose petals. I was told by my own spirit guides to do so, and if you feel led, this might be another part of what you can offer.
  • A special offering.  Certain trees might like other kinds of offerings, and once you learn to communicate, you might get a sense of what these offerings are. They might sound strange or outlandish, but I’d suggest you try them.

 

You’ll notice above that none of my suggestions include buying something and offering it to the tree or burying coins at the roots, etc. Everything that we buy requires resources from nature (often at high cost); and nearly all of it today requires fossil fuel inputs which are severely threatening all life. Buying anything is not appropriate here, or is it with most nature magic—instead, offer something of value that doesn’t cost fossil fuels.

 

 

Carrying the Tree With You and Leaving a Part of You with It

The promise of connection

The promise of connection

In addition to taking the tree within, you can carry a small part of the tree with you and leave part of yourself with the tree. Usually, trees are happy to offer a dead branch or small piece of bark. In exchange, I like to offer them with one of my own hairs. That way, the tree has a piece of me, and I have a piece of it, and each day as I carry that with me, even if I can’t visit, that tree’s energy is present in my life. I usually will use simple carving and sanding tools to shape the piece of tree into a necklace pendant and then I can wear it on a string around my neck near my heart.   That’s just a personal preference—I’m a bit absent minded and have sent one to many nut or small piece of stick that I had in my pocket through the washing machine!

 

These strategies can help you continue to develop deeper relationships with trees. We’ll continue exploring deep tree workings in my next post, where we’ll look at tree initiations.

 

(PS: Please note that I am *still* camping and hiking in the wilds, and while this post is set to auto-post on July 2, I won’t be back till later this week to respond to comments.  I look forward to reading them!)

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Sacred Tree Profile of Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Magical, Medicinal, and Edible Qualities November 6, 2016

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

Beautiful walnuts reaching up to the sun in a mature forest setting!

I remember when I first met black walnut. My Great Aunt and Uncle lived on a farm, and on that farm was a colonial-era farmhouse. Near their farmhouse sat a massive black walnut tree. I remember going there when I was a young child and picking up the black walnuts for the first time when they were still green, smelling their amazing scent, and sticking a few in my coat pockets. Of course, the weather grew cold and I forgot about those walnuts in the coat pocket, and when I went to use the jacket again in the spring, I was in for quite a surprise when the brown dye of the walnut husk breaking down permeated through my jacket. Ever since that day, I felt like the walnut had provided me with an important lesson, and I am honored to be friends with such a magnificent tree species.

 

This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, and Beech. Today, we will be looking at another powerful tree ally, the Walnut. I’m going to be focusing my comments on the Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) as that is the native walnut in my area. However, most of what I’ll write applies to walnut trees throughout the world.

 

 

About the Black Walnut

The Eastern Black Walnut (or what we just call “Walnut” or “Black Walnut”) is a tree native to the Eastern US with a large range spanning most of the Mississippi watershed. Here in Western PA, I’m actually at the very edge of its natural range (although I know people plant them north of where I am!) Black walnuts are an overstory tree, meaning they need light and grow tall, forming part of the canopy of the forest. They often are found in riparian zones which are the edge spaces between streams/rivers and the land (which typically flood in early spring and offer rich soil due to the flood plains). Black walnuts are pioneer species, similar to cherry, black birch, and black locust: these are some of the first trees to regrow damaged ecosystems.

 

The black walnut typically grows tall and straight, especially in the forest, out-competing other trees for the best lithg. It grows up to 130 feet tall; the tallest one we have on record in the USA is actually well outside of its native range, on the Colombia River downstream of Portland. Walnut leaves are feather-compound, with seven to seventeen narrow, toothed leaflets. They have a spicy smell when they are crushed or rubbed.

Walnut trees produce a very strong wood that is dark in color and is easily worked. It has a straight grain, it holds shape well, and is a solid with few pores. In fact, walnut wood is so valued that sometimes people poach walnut trees (which is, in my opinion, a terrible tragedy!) Because of this, there are less and less walnuts, so we all could do some good by planting more. In fact, in the history of Pennsylvania, black walnut trees growing in groups were often a sign to the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) of good soil fertility, likely due to their connection and growth on flood plains of rich soil.

 

Walnut as an Expeller

One of the few things people often know about black walnut is that it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces a chemical called juglone that oxidizes in soil and prevents certain kinds of other plants from growing under or near it. It also can increase the soil alkalinity around the roots. Some plants, like black raspberry or serviceberry, have no difficulty growing under black walnut. Others, like tomatoes, pines, apples, or birches, cannot grow and will be poisoned by the juglone. This has been well known and documented for centuries, the whole way back to Pliny the Elder (the same Pliny that has preserved the famous druids harvesting mistletoe ritual and druid egg lore) who wrote, “The shadow of the walnut trees is poison to all plants within its compass.” Juglone is concentrated in nut hulls, roots, and buds; to a lesser extent, it also occurs in leaves and stems.

 

I want to note, and I’ll come back to, the importance of the doctrine of signatures here.  A traditional definition of this concept is  that the plant heals and works with what it looks like or how it acts.  In earlier posts on this series, I’ve proposed an equivalent doctorine of signatures for the magical properties of trees and plants–and so, we will return to this expelling quality towards the end of the post.

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Ecoprint of Walnut Leaves

Walnut as a Food Source

Walnut is considered a nut of the gods; in fact, the word juglans goes back to “jovis glans” or “nut of Juipter.” I think this speaks volumes about Black Walnut and its power and gifts.

Rather obviously, Black Walnut produces a really delicious edible nut—the black walnut nut is not easy to crack, but is well worth the effort! Like many other hardwood nut trees, most walnuts produce a really good harvest every few years, and need sunlight in order to do so. In years where there is a good crop, you can harvest them in abundance.  I typically will let the outer husks rot down and the little worms crawl out, and then once they have lost their husks, I remove the remainder and let them in their hulls till I’m ready to crack them.  Cracking them requires patience and some determination but is well worth the effort.  I typically crack them with a hammer or small mallet on a stone–one good swing and they will be ready to eat.  Put your cracked nuts in a bowl (shell and all) and then sit down with some friends to pick through them, removing the nutmeats (you might also need one of those small nut pick metal things).  Its nice to do this by a warm fire!

 

In addition to the people who enjoy the nuts, squirrels use them as a primary food source. When you are walking through the forest, you can always find out where the black walnut trees are by seeing how the squirrels have left their beautiful chewed black walnut hulls behind!  These are lovely for crafts and altars and take quite a while to break down and return to the land.

 

You can tap black walnuts similar to how you tap sugar maples (I haven’t tried this because I didn’t have large enough black walnuts). I think this would be just delightful, however, based on the deliciousness of the nut!

 

Finally, pressed walnuts make a lovely walnut oil (which you can find in specialty shops or online). Walnut oil is a wonderful oil for cooking (I like to use it for salads and dressings) with a very rich nutty flavor. Walnut oil also is very useful for sealing wood, like wooden spoons, especially when you’ll be eating from them.  I use walnut oil on my wooden bowls and spoons every few months to keep them in nice shape.  I haven’t tried to press my nuts, and my guess is that most of the walnuts that are pressed are English Walnuts, which are easier to crack and eat.  But you could certainly press the black walnuts if you were able to gather and crack enough of them!

 

 

Making Walnut Ink

One of the things I love to do with black walnuts is to make ink from them. I have a whole post dedicated to the subject of natural ink making, and I’ll direct your attention there for more details and will supplement those instructions here. In a nutshell (hah!), black walnut ink is best made once the hulls have gone brown (and usually wormy!). Put the whole nut – hulls, nuts and all, into an old pot and cover them with white vinegar. Boil them for an hour or so and let cool.  Yes, this will make your house smell very weird. Strain the ink to begin to get out the bits of hull.  I have found that it requires straining over and over again with finer and finer strainers to get all the husk pieces out–but it is well worth the effort. Once your ink is strained, return the ink to the pot and boil it down until you are happy with the consistency (usually about another hour).  You might strain it again at this point with a very fine strainer.  If you want to improve the viscosity of the ink (that is, improve how well it flows, especially through a dip pen) you can add a bit of Gum Arabic to it. I recommend using the commercially prepared Gum Arabic liquid you can get at art stores, not the resin that you need to powder up–the resin produces some lumps regardless of how fine you grind it! Let your ink cool, put it in a jar, label it, and you have a very lovely ink that will stay good for many years and can be used for many purposes!

 

Medicinal Actions of Walnuts

Black Walnut has had a large range of uses within traditional western herbalism: I’ll summarize some of the most common here.

According to M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, the bark and leaves of the walnut are alterative, laxative, and astringent, and are specifically used for skin issues like eczema, herpes, and other skin conditions.   Grieve also suggests that the juice of the green husks, boiled with honey, is really good for a sore throat/gargle. Matthew Wood, in the EarthWise Herbal, suggests a similar condition: the use of the leaves for external eczema, ring worm, itch, shingles, tumors, abscesses, boils, and acne.   The leaves, used internally, can also be used for tonsillitis, sore throat, hoarseness, internal ulcers and inflammation.  In large quantities, Grieve notes that the dried and powdered bark, as a strong infusion, is a purgative (makes you vomit!).

 

Matthew Wood suggests the hulls are useful for a wide range of things, but I have used them most frequently to deal with internal parasites, worms, and so on. A tincture of green nuts is particularly useful for dealing with internal parasites and worms (I have used this for worming animals, like chickens, as well in very small does). Other uses include low functioning thyroid and low functioning metabolism.

 

Mentally, Wood also has a suggestion that is directly in line with the expelling properties suggested by the doctrine of signatures.  He suggests it is useful when you are “too much under the influence of another person, thought, and scheme.”  I fully support this use and have used it this way myself.  Further, when I was at the American Herbalist Guild Annual Symposium, Matthew Wood also suggested that Black Walnut was particularly good for children or young adults who had experienced bad divorces; it allowed them to get beyond the experience. Wood suggests for any use of black walnut, small doses are appropriate (1-3 drops, 1-3x a day).

 

Here’s an old time recipe from Grive’s Modern Herbal:

 

To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup
‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose; lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night; then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain; then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d: then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (scimming them) till they be tender; then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close. When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’ – (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

 

Walnut in the Western Magical Traditions

Black walnut is considered a “masculine” tree associated with the element of fire and the sun. Culpepper, in his Complete Herbal, writes, “This is a plant of the sun. Let the fruit of it be gathered accordingly, which as the most virtual whilst green, before it shells.”

 

The forest canopy of walnuts!

The forest canopy of walnuts!

In the American Hoodoo tradition, walnut leaves and nuts are used to put jinxes on people. Walnuts are also used to “fall out of love”; Yronwode in her Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic describes a ritual where you make a tea of nine black walnuts (husk and all) boiled in three quarts of water; boiling it till the water evaporates down to 1 quart. You bathe in this water, renouncing ties to the former love, and then throw the water out at a crossroads or against the tree. This kind of bath is not one for the bathtub, but usually done in a smaller tub.  Again, we see this expelling or removing quality associated with the walnut present.

 

Cunningham, who I’m not always apt to trust, writes of walnut being tied to mental powers, infertility, health and wishes. He suggests that witches danced beneath walnut trees in Italy during secret rites (although why, he does not say). He suggests that carrying a walnut can strengthen the heart and ward of rheumatism. If you are given a bag of walnuts, you will have your wishes fulfilled. People can place walnut leaves around the head (or in a hat) to prevent headache or sunstroke. Cunningham also suggests that a woman who wanted to remain childless after marriage could place walnuts in her bodice on her wedding day—each walnut represented one year of being childless.

 

Unfortunately, that about sums up what most sources say about the magical uses of walnut, however, we can gain much more insight from exploring some of the lore around this tree, to which we will now turn.

 

Black Walnut in Lore around the World

Walnut Cracker (Native American): Walnut was an important food source for Native Americans; it was also used for talking sticks and flutes. In one story, a man is known as “walnut cracker” who was always cracking walnuts (which makes sense, giving how difficult they are to crack!). Even after Walnut Cracker died, his spirit continued to crack walnuts and would scare people so much that their sickness or illness would disappear. This shows up in several stories in the South East Native American tribes. Again, here is that same expelling quality–this time, the spirit of Walnut Cracker removes sickeness or illness through his very presence.

 

As a talking stick, walnut (along with pecan) represent the gathering of energy or beginning of new projects.

 

Other than that, I couldn’t find much in the Native American lore. Many of the other stories involving walnut primarily focus on it as a food item, including The Ignorant Housekeeper (Cherokee) who doesn’t know how to properly prepare walnuts.

 

 

Walnut Lore: Beating and Ingratitude (Greek, Roman, European):  Let’s now turn to the other side of the world, where we can see stories from the European subcontinent. In fact, walnut features prominently in many tales. There is a long history of discussion of the “beating” of walnut trees to gain their huts—where folks went at walnut trees with sticks showing ingratitude for the nuts that are produced and harming the tree. These fables and references span quite some time. Two Greek Fables, for example, illustrate the plight of the walnut tree; later, Antipater of Tessalonica offered this epigram:

“They planted me, a walnut-tree, by the road-side
to amuse passing boys, as a mark for their well-aimed stones
All my twigs and flourishing shots are broken,
Hit as I am by showers of pebbles.
It is of no advantage for trees to be fruitful; I, indeed
Bore fruit only for my own undoing”

This same principle weaves its way into other early Roman poems as well as Aesop’s fable of the Walnut Tree, where it is treated with no respect. Into the 1500’s, a horrible proverb about how women, dogs, and walnuts all benefited from beating was widely circulated. This proverb continued to propagate the idea of walnut tree benefiting from beatings with sticks and rods to produce more nuts.

 

I’m not honestly sure what to make with this.  Some trees benefit from regular pruning, but this is the first instance I’ve seen any reference to just beating the tree with sticks.  Part of me wants to question, again, the difficult relationship we have between humans and nature.  I’ve translated this as “gratitude” below (but I’m open to other interpretations and suggestions!)

 

The Wise Walnut: Hermit Philosopher. In Georgian Folk Tales by Marjory Waldrop (1894), a wise man who lived in solitude came to a old walnut tree in his garden. He questioned why the walnut tree was so tall, growing for over 100 years, yet never producing bigger fruit, while the melons and pumpkins on the ground were so massive. He thought about it, eventually falling asleep under the walnut tree. A few nuts rain down from the tree, and he marvels in how his head would have been “broken” if not for the small size of the walnut.  In this tale, we see the walnut offering wisdom.

 

Small Beings and Things Hidden in Walnut Shell. In the traditional story of Thumbelina, a woman who wants a tiny daughter visits a witch and gets some magic barley-corn. From this corn sprouts a flower, and within the flower is Thumbelina. The woman gives Thumblina a beautiful polished walnut shell (my guess is an English walnut) for a cradle. Thumblina is later whisked away, shell and all, by an ugly toad. Thumbelina’s tale is quite similar to Tom Thumb, who also lives in a walnut shell due to his tiny size. In another tale, called Puddocky, the princes of the kingdom are given a magical mission of finding a small dog that can fit comfortably in a walnut shell, among other tasks, to become the king’s heir. In yet another story, a walnut contains a wasp whose sting is made of a diamond; and the walnut can contain the wasp within.

 

In another tale, this one from Popular Tales from the Norse by George Webbe Dasnet (1904), we hear the tale of “Boots and his Brothers.” A king in the land has offered his daughter and half his kingdom if the ancient oak (that grows each time it gets taken to the axe) can be felled and a well dug to hold water. As John (Boots) walks in the forest, he finds a magic axe, a magic pick, and a walnut that spills forth water. He takes these things up, plugging the hole in the walnut shell with a bit of moss. He is able to fell the tree, dig the well, and fill it with water from the walnut—thus securing half the kingdom and the princess. In each of these tales, something important or precious is kept safe within the hard shell of the walnut, suggesting some protective qualities.

 

Overall Magical Themes

Drawing upon all of the above lore and material, I would like to propose the following magical themes and uses for the Walnut tree.  These can certainly be added to, over time, but I hope this is a good start for those of us who want to work with walnut.

 

Walnut as a “container” for many things and as a protector. The stories of Thumbelina, Boots and his Brothers, and Tom Thumb all speak to the magical nature of the walnut to contain or hold those small things which may otherwise get lost. Now, these stories talk about English walnuts, but there is a long tradition of hiding things or keeping them safe within a walnut. This speaks to some protective quality that walnuts have.  One of the ways we might see this is using a visualization of walnut surrounding us to protect us.  I can also see us using a whole walnut as a protective object to carry.

 

Walnut as an expeller. Just as walnut has its protective “within” quality, it also has a very strong “expelling” quality without. Walnut, through its very nature of producing juglone, expels things away. Walnut’s same medicinal qualities expel parasites from the body.  We see this same expelling quality in the lore and magical lore of walnut. Given all of these parallels, it is reasonable to connect these to the spirit world: I would certainly want walnut as an ally on my side when there were things I wanted to be rid of, especially spirit activity.  I’m sure there are many ways you can use walnut for this–what comes to mind most immediately is planting walnuts around a property, or taking a bit of walnut tincture to work to remove something unwanted (like sadness, depression, etc).

 

Walnut and gratitude. The long history of people “beating” walnuts to make them grow better and the problem of over-harvesting the walnut teaches us an important lesson in gratitude.  We humans are so quick to take without consideration: the walnut reminds us of the important lesson of honoring the earth, harvesting that which is offered, but doing so in kindness, respect, and care for the living earth.  I think these

 

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part I: Why We Go on Retreat, Preparation, and Herbal Allies August 7, 2016

Each of is like a light bulb. No, not one of those new-fangled compact florescents, but rather, one of the old style standard bulbs with the firmament and all.  When we go out into the world and do good, through healing work, through engaging in people care, earth care, or fair share–the inner light of our souls, the inner light of our bulbs, burns brightly, illuminating all of those around us.  As we work through our lives, read the news, hear of suffering and violence, experience tragedy, loss, suffering, and violence–our light bulbs get stuff sloshed on them.  They grow dim, dirty from the world and its evils.  As I wrote about two weeks ago–life seems to be getting harder, with more sharp edges, and so many of us are on edge throughout. Our light bulbs get mired in the everyday grime of living and being in the world. It is important, then, that we maintain the integrity of our light bulbs so that we can do the good work that we are called to do. This isn’t the first time I have shared this metaphor on this blog (and it was taught to me by the brilliant Jim McDonald), but it is one that I find so useful and important that I keep on returning to it.

 

And so, once in a while, we need something more drastic to give us a boost and allow our inner light to shine forth.  And today, friends, I will be writing about a key practice that helps us do just that: the druid spiritual retreat.  It is this kind of retreat, even for only a few days at a time, that can leave us refreshed, whole, and ready to go back into the world with our lights shining brightly.

 

This will be a two-part post series: the first part will introduce the retreat, explain how to set one up, and explain some decisions to make (to fast or not to fast, solitary or companions), options for how to hold the retreat, herbal allies for your retreat, and so on. The second post, next week’s post, will explore how to ease into the retreat, the work of the retreat, and easing back into everyday life–the ceremony continuing on well beyond the retreat itself.

 

Introducing the Druid’s Retreat

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

One of the ways I think about the druid’s retreat is like this: your everyday life, you are hiking a path in a forest. There, you have a long way to go, you rest, you find mushrooms, you see what is before you on the path, you adapt, crawl over fallen trees, and more. What the retreat does is allow you to leave the forest of your everyday life and instead, sit on a mountain cliff, above that forest, looking down at all below. It allows you a different perspective, a broader view, where you can see the everyday patterns in a new light. It allows you to look at the interplay of the different trees, the meandering of the river, the mountains beyond the valley. When you return to that forest path, as you most certainly will do, you have more wisdom about it because you have seen it from a different perspective.

 

In the Tarot, the Hermit card teaches us much about the idea of a spiritual retreat. The hermit has gone off to seek solitude and illumination. He spends much time wandering the land, by himself, and coming to an understanding of life’s great mysteries. Of course, when he returns, he has much knowledge and illumination to share with others. The tarot is ultimately a deck of archetypes, and we see this same arch-typical story of hermitage, of solitude, of retreat encapsulated in mythology, stories, and religious lore from around the world–Jesus, Buddha, Thoroeau, even fictional characters like Obi Wan Kenobi–all retreated and had deep insight and wisdom to share. Another tarot card that is fitting is that of the hanged man–gaining a new perspective offers much in terms of insights, healing, tranquility, and more.  It is when we are able to get this new perspective–from the mountain far away from the valley of our life below–that we gain insight into what to do next and the next part of our journey.

 

Retreats are serious business, for this reason.  They can facilitate inner and outer transformations, allow us to have a new perspective on old problems, clear out old things that no longer serve us, jump-start a new set of spiritual or creative practices, help us clear out old patterns and establish new, more positive patterns, in our lives, among many other things. All of this is deep work, potent work, magical work, that we cannot take on lightly or without clear intent.

 

Breaking the Everyday Patterns

The principle of a retreat is simple: you get away from your everyday life (your home, your family, your work, your other demands) for a period of refreshment, rejuvenation, and seclusion (alone or with select others, see below). Where to take this retreat is a critical thing: I have learned that its near impossible to do this retreat in your everyday living space, because both things/stuff and patterns have a way of creeping in. Your stuff holds energy and puts particular kinds of demands upon you.  For example, your computer is there, beckoning for you to turn it on, maybe browse Facebook or your favorite blogs.  Your bathroom is there, in need of a good scrubbing.  Your phone is there, everything else is there, your pets, family and/or kids. These things are necessary, perhaps, and part of your daily rhythms.  But they work against us when we need to go on a retreat because they pull us back into the experiences of everyday living.

 

Likewise, the patterns of everyday living that we establish are critical for our overall “getting things done” and forward momentum, and our spaces are conducive to supporting and encouraging those patterns. Sometimes, we can get stuck in cyclical patterns, especially cyclical patterns associated with being in indoor spaces that harm us. Getting away from our patterns are also an important part.

 

Stephen Harrod Buhner writes beautifully on this topic as follows, “The daily cares that occupy so much of our time, the demands of work, of social conventions, of family, and of things that we feel we “have” to do often accumulate, filing up our time, taking our attention, becoming toxins to the soul.  The incessant mutter of the television, the continual sounds of technological civilization, the chatter goes on continually in our heads–these things fill us up with distractions and take us away from who we are and who we knew we were to be when we began this journal through life.  As our lives unfold, each of us is often channeled into paths that are not part of living a fulfilled life.  Fasting and retreat in wilderness allows the inessentials of life to be stripped away, allows our souls to detoxify.” — The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.

 

But there’s another aspect to this pattern breaking:  by removing ourselves from the situation for a time, we break the everyday patterns that no longer serve us.  The patterns that no longer serve us, that perhaps we want, and need to, be rid of for our own health, happiness, and fulfillment.  Those are another aspect to the patterns we remove when we go on retreat.

 

Finding a Retreat Space

The space for your retreat is really critical to the overall success of the endeavor–and I consider it one of the more difficult pieces to determine.  A good space facilitates a successful retreat; a poor space (where there are other people, noises, distractions) can really harm your overall retreat and goals and end in frustration.  The important thing is that the healing retreat be secluded, preferably from other people, certainly from life’s demands. Preferably, it will have no Internet service, no cell service, and no television!  The idea is to get away for a bit, have quiet, and be able to be fully present with nature.

 

Nature, too, is a critical component of the Druid’s healing retreat.  You want to be somewhere where you can easily commune with nature without distractions.  You need to be able to be in nature, and hear her messages.  You want to be in nature that is whole, pure, and not damaged in some way (retreat is not typically a time for land healing work, but a time for inner healing work).

 

Otherworld forest...

Otherworld forest…

Here are a few models for the healing retreat:

  • Go to a friend’s secluded cabin, yurt, etc.  Ask friends if they have shares in hunting lodges or know of a place you can go for a few days.
  • Backpack into a secluded spot and stay a few days; bring minimal supplies and tent
  • Rent a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere far away from others (*rustic* cabins are hard to find; you may have to do some searching and use non-Internet sources.  Most of the cabins I have been finding on the web are luxury / glamping cabins–not really necessary or needed for retreat).
  • Go into the woods with minimal things (maybe like a tarp); vision quest style.  I did this when I went on my vision quest a few years ago–a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, my flute and drum, and a journal were my companions.  It was perfect.
  • Plan a “walkabout” journey where you wander for a time on a trail (or do an all night walkabout).  If you do this during a full moon, in a semi-open space, you may not even need a light.
  • Get in a boat/canoe/kayak and do a river trail or go to a secluded lake; camp along the edge of the river and float for a day or two down the river.

 

Before the Retreat

Timing and planning. Take at least 24 uninterrupted hours for your retreat, although several day retreats are even better (I like to do a 3 or 7 day retreat)—and for those who are insanely busy, ask friends to help with watching children or pets, take a vacation or sick day from work, etc. The key here is to make space for your healing retreat.  So you need to plan it in advance, line up your ducks in a row, and be prepared for the distance and space necessary for a healing retreat.

 

Food. If you are going to eat (see fasting, below) I would suggest cooking in advance for the retreat unless cooking is a healing and nurturing activity for you. Then you can focus your energies only on the retreat and not worry about feeding yourself during it.  I will say that even if you plan on eating, I would keep the meals very light: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds.  Too much food, especially heavy meats, have a way of grounding you firmly in the physical realities–and the whole point of retreat is to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the everyday.  So do plan your food carefully with this in mind.

 

Vision quest altar

Vision quest altar

Consider packing and bringing the following items with on your retreat:

  • A journal for personal reflections and discovery.  I believe this is the most important thing to bring on your retreat!
  • Spiritual objects of significance to you
  • A blanket or something to sit on (I have a nice sheepskin that I like to take into the woods; it was a gift from a good friend)
  • Ritual items (candles, incense, whatever tools you will need)
  • Musical instruments (a drum, if nothing else, is a great idea).
  • Offerings for the land (my favorite offering blend that I make is a combination of tobacco that I grow myself (including leaf, stem and flower) + wild rose petals + lavender flowers.  It smells great).  Urine is also a great offering!
  • Medicine making and harvest equipment (if you will be doing any wandering, foraging, etc.  I always do this on my retreats)
  • A forest hammock (this is an important part of my retreats–I have a great hammock with tree straps that will easily attach to any tree. It is good for resting, looking up at the stars at night, and simply “being” present (and keeping the ants and critters off of you).
  • Things to keep you warm (hand warmers, etc) if the weather is cold.
  • Extra shoes and layered clothing, especially if you are going to be outside.
  • Bring really good water.  I know this kind of sounds silly, but our bodies are made of water, and most of the water that is available is not good water–its stored in plastic, chemically tainted, shipped from who knows where, bottled and chemically ionized or whatever.  I would suggest that you find some really good water (like spring water, locally sourced if possible) and bring that with you for drinking during your retreat. What you will find is that really good water does something to you–it makes you feel more alive, you feel extraordinarily refreshed after you drink it–it works on many levels.

 

Leave the following stuff behind:

  • All electronic devices. Bring your phone in case of emergency, but turn it off and do not look at it or check it at all during your retreat. The world can survive without you for a few days, and you can survive without it (that’s one of the patterns that is useful to break!).
  • Unnecessary stuff.  Minimal packing is good for retreats–you don’t need fancy hair dryers or five pairs of sandals, or whatever.  The more you bring, the more that stuff weighs you down.  Think about needs over wants here.  Its not that I’m saying to be uncomfortable, but I am saying that minimal packing is ok!

 

Herbal Allies for Your Retreat

If you are interested, certain herbal allies may aid and strengthen the work that you do on retreat.  I have found that working with a series of plant allies can  extend the work that I are doing on various levels. Here are a few of them:

 

  • Hawthorn.  Hawthorn is a plant that helps us clear our lightbulbs, to get the grime off, to return to our heart spaces and engage in our own deep healing work.  It is particularly good for retreats. I usually take this as a tincture (berry, or berry/leaf/flower) and/or tea.  You can even rub the tincture on your heart for added effect.
  • Stinging Nettle.  Stinging nettle is many things, but in this context, we are focusing particularly on its regenerative properties for the nervous system and adrenals.  Part of what we do on healing retreat is physical regeneration work and nettle is quite good at this work.  Cold nettle tea is also a good diuretic, which helps flush toxins from the body and does healing on the kidneys.  Stinging nettle: I would not go on retreat without it!
  • Wood Betony: Wood Betony is another plant that works on the central nervous system, and is a tonic nervine plant.  Most of our nervines have very specific qualities, things that they do better than other nerviness.  In the case of Wood Betony, it is good for those who live in their heads, who over intellectualize, over think, and suppress instinct.  Culturally, we are all in this place–privileging our minds over our hearts, suppressing emotions and intuitions, and learning to work in more of a heart space. It is for this reason that I believe that this is always a good plant to take on retreat:  combined with the others on this list, it will allow for powerful transformations!

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

  • Mugwort. Mugwort has been known to many cultures and traditions as a dreaming herb.  I have found that it certainly stimulates good dreams, but also good visions while we are in shifted spiritual states, trace states, in deep retreat/vision quest, and so on.  Consider mugwort like a guide to your unconscious and sub-conscious–mugwort expertly leads the way on the path into the deep recesses of the soul.  There, you can do the work you need.  Mugwort tea is a bit bitter, but you can take it internally.  You also get the exact same effects if you burn it (like a mugwort smudge or mugwort-infused incense).
  • Indian Ghost Pipe. I have written about Indian Ghost pipe or Ghost flower before, and this is a *fantastic* plant ally for your retreat.  The principle of Ghost Pipe is simple: it provides us distance and perspective, both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  Ghost pipe helps us get into the retreat space and stay in that space, giving us the “up on the mountaintop” perspective we seek during retreat. Ghost pipe can be found and eaten, tinctured, or smoked in a herbal smoking blend. Beware, however-this is a delicate plant, a sacred one, and you need to cultivate a sacred relationship with it. Please take only what you need of this most sacred plant and treat it with the utmost respect.

 

Now, you can take these plants internally (as described above). You can simply make a tea beforehand and take it with you on the retreat, for example.  But you can also just have them with you, maybe in a little medicine bag, or find them and sit near them.  They will do their work on whatever system you need: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Trust your intuition and work with them accordingly.

 

The alternative is to find the plant allies you need while you are out on retreat.  Foraging and seeking the plants–the ones that you need will be there, waiting for you, when the time is right.  If you know how to see them, if you have your mushroom eyes on, they will come to you.

 

The Retreat-Fast

Another option you can add in is the fast for your healing retreat. I have done fasting retreats (and recently completed a seven day fast about a month ago combined with 3 days of retreat). What I found was that fasting adds an additional dimension to the retreat, a very intense dimension, and one that must be prepared for.  A lot of us have never fasted, and a lot of us have never gone into the woods alone.  Combining these things all into one 3 or 7 day journey might be too much for a person the first time.  So consider fasting as an option, but don’t feel you have to do it.

 

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

One of the things that happens when you fast is that you get really weak, so consider a “staying put” and “quiet” retreat if you are going to do a fasting retreat.  E.g. if you lug 50 lbs of equipment into the woods and fast there for 7 days, you will still have to lug that equipment out–and that might not be possible for you after 7 days of fasting.

 

With these caveats, I have found fasting to be an incredible part of retreats, especially retreats where healing and/or releasing is a primary goal.  I would highly recommend that before you take on such a fast, you read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.  This book describes water and juice fasting, including short fasts and extended fasts.  Buhner argues that you can detoxify spiritually through fasting and achieve higher levels of consciousness and awareness (which works partially because food grounds us; fasting puts us in a ceremonial space or deep intuitive space). He argues that because so many of our emotions are wrapped up in food, and because our bodies hold those emotions inside, fasting, and shedding some weight during fasting, can help us clear up emotional trauma. Finally, there are the physical benefits.  Here’s one of the things he writes:

 

“When you are empty, you are ready to be filled.  And you cannot be filled with what you want unless what has been in your way is allowed to pass out…the residual toxins, the side effects of shallow food, have to emerge from the deepest recesses of the self and exit.  Some of these things as they pass out of you might be frightening, some difficult, many boring: some are surprisingly easy to let go of, and some are joyful. ..You are intentionally entering a new territory, intentionally deciding to suffer, not to eat.  You are allowing yourself to empty so that something else, a better food, can fill you up.”

 

Now how he describes these transformations are, in themselves, a journey worth taking in book form!  So read it, consider your options, and go from there.

 

Retreating with Others

I have done healing retreats with others and by myself, and there are benefits to both. Most of what I’ve described in this post assumes a solitary druid healing retreat.  But I wanted to share another model: the retreat with companions.  A dear friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist often does these kinds of retreats–a group of people, together, support each other with mindfulness practice days.  These retreats are often interspersed with group sharing, teaching, and a lot of quietude.

 

A healing retreat with others–the right others–can add much to your experience.  But it is fundamentally a different experience than a solitary retreat, and you will likely do different kinds of work. With that said, there is room for others on this retreat if they are the right kind of others, those who will help heal and rejuvenate rather than drain us. If you are going to take a friend on a healing retreat, make sure you establish in advance what the retreat will be about (e.g. a full day of solitude with no taking; specific work to be done at the retreat).  If you are going to plan this kind of retreat, here are a few suggestions:

 

  • Have a structure planned out in advance. (E.g. daily retreat times, no talking, ritual planned at night + one shared meal).
  • Have goals for the retreat and a goal-setting session early in the retreat.  The goals may be inward focused (healing and guidance) or outward focused (healing of the land).
  • Consider if one person will function as the “retreat” leader or if all will be equal participants.  A retreat leader is a space holder–their function isn’t so much spiritual healing or journeying, but rather, focuses on facilitating the retreat energetically, physically, spiritually).  A retreat leader may be needed if there are a lot of inexperienced/new people at the retreat.  But if there are those that are experienced, one may not be needed and the group can function cohesively and all can get their own work done.
  • Have a feast at the end of the retreat (perhaps combined with an eisteddfod!)
  • Consider group journeys–physical and spiritual.  Visiting healing springs, etc, are always a nice idea!
  • Consider group healing work.  This is where I would do my most serious land healing work with others–on a retreat weekend dedicated to that purpose!

 

The important thing is to establish and maintain structure prior to beginning the retreat–this will allow all participants to get the most out of the retreat.

 

Closing

Going deep into the woods, wilderness, away from it all has tremendous benefits.  We are coming up on the Fall Equinox, which is a really good time to consider a retreat as we move into the dark half of the year.  As I mentioned above, this is my first of two posts on druid retreats. I’ll be posing the second half next week. In the meantime, blessings upon your journey!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Everything to see here!

Everything to see here!

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

 

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

 

Negative Ways of Seeing the Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chanterelles (tasty mushrooms)

Chanterelles (tasty mushrooms)

Positive Ways of Seeing the Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Up-Close observation reveals worlds within worlds!

Up-Close observation reveals worlds within worlds!

Cultivating Mushroom Eyes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Beautiful Jack o Lantern Mushroom!

Beautiful Jack o Lantern Mushroom!

 

The Work of Regeneration: Taking a Stand on Your Land September 9, 2015

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

The Mountains of PA (Cambria County, looking out onto Bedford and Somerset Counties)

As I write these words, I look out my window at at rounded, weathered, Appalachian mountain, topped with trees, rising up from behind the houses in my small town. This mountain, and the many others in Western PA, are part of my blood–the nutrients that came from these soils are what built the very structures of my bones. These mountains are where my ancestors walked and toiled; generations and generations of them, going back two centuries (which is quite a long time for the USA) and in one particular family lineage, much much longer. And now, finally, after most of my adult life away, I have returned home. The funny thing is, Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a place people are moving to, and in fact, its a place many are running from. The mountain that stands north of my small Pennsylvania town is a nature preserve–and yet, at least a dozen cleared locations, many fracking wells are present there, even in the wild spaces. Heck, the community garden has a well sitting less than 30 feet from the vegetable patches in this town, if that give you a sense of things. These wells are just the newest iteration of the long-abused land’s history: from the logging industry that nearly wiped Pennsylvania’s forests out a century ago to the mining industry who left their toxic mountain-size piles of coal waste and whose long-abandoned mines continue to pollute our streams, to the farmer’s fields that are now so toxic that even the plants on the edges of the roads cease to grow there–it seems there is no end to the toll that this land takes on behalf of the natural resource demands of industry and humanity.

 

Because of the environmental issues present in PA, I think that some question my move–why did I return to a place with such active fracking and other environmental challenges? Why, especially when more and more stories each day show the seriousness and destructiveness of the practice and the toll on both human life and nature? Why would I endanger myself in that way, when I could have stayed where I was or found another job I would enjoy somewhere else? It is for a simple reason–this is my land and I was called home.

 

Two months ago, I spent time in New England while I was doing my permaculture design certificate. On my journey there, I stopped in Western New York, at an amazing organic vegetable farm. I had lunch with the farmers, and we spoke of their land and the work they were doing. They revealed that many people were flocking from Pennsylvania to New York to escape fracking, selling their homesteads and farms and starting anew. In a second visit on my trip to New Hampshire, I spent time with a group who was working hard to prevent a natural gas pipeline and compressor station going into their community. When plans for the compressor station were revealed, a number of houses immediately went up for sale on the market, and others I spoke with said that they would be leaving for certain if the station went in.

 

These issues are hardly unique-the Amish in Ohio and Illinois, who are cashing in and getting out due to the disruption of their lives. I’ve seen firsthand the oil boom in North Dakota and what it did to the communities there. I think about recent reports of horrible environmental devastation in China and those who are helpless just to live in the pollution. The list could go on and on. When I think about stories from around the world, I can’t help but wonder what percent of humans today are facing the issue of living in environmentally degraded land and witnessing, firsthand, that devastation. When we see our lands degraded, or even threatened with such acts (as in the community I describe above), I think one of the big questions to ask is–If I have the capacity leave the environmental destruction where I live now, can I go somewhere that’s better? Or, as in my case, am I willing to move into an area with known environmental destruction?

 

Better than here? Really?

Better than here? Really?

I don’t think the answer to these questions are simple–not for anyone who faces them. And unfortunately, more and more people ARE facing the harsh reality of environmental devastation at their doorstep. So let’s break down the issues that contribute to how we can better answer these questions if/when the need arises:

 

First, there is the privilege of being able to leave, which very few actually have. For as many humans as may have the privilege to leave, there are many more humans and others who are forced to stay whether or not they want to. Just as importantly, the land does not have the privilege of leaving; the trees are rooted where they are, the streams ebb and flow in their valleys, the plants grow each year in the soil, and all of the land is exactly where it is. What happens to everything and everyone else when you leave? They are still there.

 

Second, there is the matter of humans’ existing displacement and a lack of connection to the land we are on. Many people that are alive today, at least in the USA, have decided or been forced to move elsewhere and may already have been displaced 4 or 5 times from the land of their birth. So we also have the issue of living on land that doesn’t resonate with us in the way that our birth lands do. This is not to say that we don’t care about the lands where we end up living–we very much do. But they don’t always feel like “home” and when they aren’t home, its easier to leave them. This problem isn’t a new one. For a long time, people have being displaced from their birth land and with that displacement comes distance–and most importantly, less care and concern. Many modern thinkers (Wendell Berry and John Michael Greer come to mind) have posited that the goals of industrialization were to mechanize labor, to essentially replace people with machines, to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and to displace people from their land. And it worked–people flocked to cities for work, and slowly, farmers left or were forced from their farms and those farms were mechanized so many less people were needed to live there and work there.  You treat land differently if you think you’ll be on it your whole life, and you’ll pass it onto your children, and your children’s children.  The land is not a commodity–its part of the family. Today, we are at an all-time high for people being disconnected from their land–and part of it has to do with these displacements.

 

Third is the issue of scale. To me, the most important question for those thinking of leaving land that is under threat or actively polluted is simply “How do you know that where you are moving to, in the long term, is going to fare any better?” Part of the issue we face is that climate change and environmental degradation are not local problems. They may manifest differently in local settings, but ultimately, they are a problem on a global scale. Everywhere you live, everywhere you go has something that is harming you and the land; some resource that someone wants to extract, some existing toxins, or some factory or plant producing something. This might be mining, mountaintop removal, acid rain, city pollution and smog, oil extraction, gas fracking, oil pipelines, various industries and abandoned industries, polluted waterways and oceans, Superfund sites, polluted soil, illegal dumping, an unexpected environmental disaster, and so on. Look at the effects of extracting fossil fuel energy–on this continent, at least, we have all sorts of issues that span every state and challenge so many: pipelines, fracking, oil spills, oil wells, offshore drilling, power plants, coal veins and acid mine runoff, and many others.  I point to North Dakota as a good  example–when I first visited it over 10 years ago, it was a beautiful, serene, and very unpolluted place to be.  Now? Its one of the fracking capitals of the USA, and everything is different about it. Could the North Dakotans ever have imagined this radical change over such a short period? I think not. The truth is, that all of us, on a global scale, are facing environmental degradation, likely of multiple kinds and likely over a period of our lives. I’m not convinced that moving anywhere “special” solves the problem–you move away from one thing and move toward something else. I left region plagued with oil pipelines and a lot of leftover toxicity in the soil because of industry and went to a region with acid mine runoff, boney dumps, and fracking. Both have their challenges–and the truth is, anywhere I would move will have its challenges, and things like climate change are affecting us all with increasing intensity.

 

And so, we come to the precipice and stand on its edge. Behind us, the lands we know and love, being ravaged by something we cannot stop. We maybe have tried, and failed to stop it, or we have learned about it to late to stop it.  Before us lay, potentially, options of moving somewhere new, somewhere “better”? Do we stay? Do we bear witness? Do we hold space for this land and share in its fate? Do we leave? Do we even have a choice?

 

If a choice is available–the choice is for each individual to make.

 

I’ll share mine: I specifically chose to come back to this very environmentally challenged region because it is the land of my blood and my birth. I was honored that I was able to have the opportunity to choose to come–and I took it.

 

If I don’t stand for this land, if I don’t hold space for it, if I don’t understand the long history here of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources, if I don’t begin the process of energetic healing and regeneration–who will? We all have choices to make each day and each moment.  How we spend our time is particularly critical in a time when our world is hanging on the precipice of so much change–how the world is shaped in the years to come, is largely based on the actions of each of us, today.

 

A healthy ecosystem!

A healthy ecosystem!

People write to me a lot on this blog, and one of the questions I frequently get asked is: how do you develop a deep and spiritual relationship with the land?  My response is this: go where you are needed most. Find the most degraded place you can find, a place that really needs you and the healing that you–and possibly only you–can provide. And take a stand on your land. Love that land. Do the healing work there, on the soil, on the rivers, on the waters. Fret not about what you can or can’t accomplish, just do everything that you can. Learn, grow, listen, use your intuition. Mimic the patterns of nature, bring abundance and biodiversity back. Do what it takes. Work with the soil. Understand the soil. Understand everything you can about that land and what is growing there. And most importantly: commit to staying. Our lands need us, to be there, to be present, to do something, even if that something is small. Take a page from the Native Tribes on this continent, so many who see no difference between their identity and their land: they–and their lands–cannot be bought for any price.

 

To me, this is where the path of of my nature spirituality lies–in really making a commitment to be in and with the land, to understand it, to teach others about it, to heal and regenerate it. Nature is not there just for my benefit–its not there just because I want to have a special relationship with some trees or walk into the forest and be healed. It is not there to please me. Nature gives so much to me, but I believe I must have a relationship with it in order to create a deep spiritual connection. Relationship, by its very nature, implies a give and take. If I want to walk in that forest, or walk up to that tree, and really connect with it, I must treat that forest like any other family member–and when that family member is in need, I must recognize that need, hold space, and be willing to help as I can. I must realize that my actions, each of them, can be sacred actions in communion with that place.

 

One of my favorite poets and writers is Wendell Berry. A man well ahead of his time, he has been writing about the ramifications of industrialized agriculture long before any others–and he continues to hold a sacred vision of a different kind of relationship with the land. His poem, called “Work Song, Part II: A Vision” deeply inspired my post this week. I close by sharing it here, in its entirety:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are gone
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, a new forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

– Wendell Berry

 

Spiritual Lessons from the Land: On the Vines that Catch and Snag September 4, 2015

Nature is abundant with stories and metaphors that allow us to reflect upon our own lives and draw deep meaning, as I’ve written about many times on this blog. It is in these simple lessons that we find the most profound truths–ways of re-seeing our own lives, stories that allow us to spiritually grow, and methods of better living and interacting with our lands. I believe that everything we need to understand to heal ourselves, our lands, and our communities can be found within nature–if only we listen. Today, I’d like to share two stories about vines and the spiritual teachings that they provide.

 

In the weeks following my move to Western PA this summer, I made it a point to visit as many wild places as possible. The closest one was a park to the north, visible from my window of my rented house in town, that’s about 270 acres. As I was walking through this park on my very first visit, a friend and I came across some Common Buckthorn vines on a grove of Sassafras. One of the Sassafras had been strangled to death by the largest vine and was standing dead.

 

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Three more Sassafras trees had vines crawling up them, but the vines were smaller and had not yet choked out the tree. We found where the vine met the ground, and decided to cut it to save the other trees. The problem was that we lacked the right tool—we had a Hori Hori that has a small saw on it that’s not that effective, but that will work in a pinch (described in this post).  Unfortunately, we didn’t have my portable fold-up saw that I usually carry (which would have made short work of the vine and is much more effective for that kind of job). So cutting the vine and liberating the sassafras trees was slow going, with each of us taking turns, cutting through this vine that was about 2.5” round. That Buckthorn vine was not interested in being cut in the slightest and was quite tough, and the job was quite taxing and difficult. We took turns, and still ended up cutting for a good 30 or 40 minutes in the high heat and humidity before we were finally through the vine. The trees thanked us, and we continued on our hike.

 

In a second story, I recently visited some friends who have been long-time gardeners (their entire backyard is converted to a vegetable garden). A series of stressful events have left them less time to work on the garden this year than in previous years, so the weeds have taken over. I decided to put a few hours into weeding while I was there, and found myself weeding two vines—some kind of morning glory vine and a lot of honeysuckle vine. Its been very, very wet year and the vines have used that, and the fertile soil of the garden, to really take off. The honeysuckle vine was easy enough to clip at the ground to temporarily cut it back, but the stuff was just everywhere. The smaller vine, the morning glory vine, proved exceedingly difficult. In what I thought was just a pile of vine I found garlic and onions, some strangled to death by the vine, all brought to the ground. One vine could send off up to 10 different tendrils. The beans fared a bit better, but even they were likewise pulled down by these vines. It was very slow going, and I opted in some cases for pulling out the root and leaving some of the vine on, cause the damage to the plant to try to remove it would be worse. By the end of my weeding session, I had saved a good deal of the garlic and beans and the vines were already beginning to wilt in the sun–but not all could be saved.

 

A set of powerful lessons lie in these two stories, and I’m sure you can see even more lessons within than I discuss here.  These lesson resonate on multiple levels: ecologically, spiritually, and personally.

 

Ecologically, Common Buckthorn and Japanese Honeysuckle are both some of the more problematic species that are not native to the USA, and there’s been a lot of concern what to do about them (and no, I do not advocate the use of spraying chemicals, nor do I like to use the term invasive species). They are concerns because they are plants that did not evolve here, but arrived here somewhere in the 1880’s as ornamental plants and are now very widespread. Due to their vining nature,  they can cause serious unbalances in the ecosystem in the shorter term, before nature adapts. Honeysuckle can create huge mats where nothing else can grow and pull down other plant vegetation. Buckthorn can quickly dominate and pull down whole trees in a matter of a few short years as it is a much thicker and tougher vine. I think plants like these teach us a powerful ecological lesson–we brought this plant here without knowledge of what it would do, and now we are seeing the effects of that long-term. We have many such lessons at present, of course, but its a good reminder that we harm nature by not understanding her or what introducing unknown elements can do to her.  Furthermore, Its likely that a very small number of these plants were brought here–but now they are all throughout our lands and changing the ecosystems here.  I beleive, in enough time, the land will adapt to these newcomers and all will be well–but that’s on a larger evolutionary scale.  The current situation teaches us the lesson of impact–we never know what small actions (either good or bad) can lead to long-term change.

 

On a spiritual level, lessons that Buckthorn and Honeysuckle are good reminders of what we want to cultivate in our spiritual lives. I think both of these plants teach us lessons of restriction and what can happen to us spiritually if we allow too many things to pile up and entwine around us. Just as we can see these plants at work in the outer world, in the inner world, we can have problematic issues that prevent rich spiritual life from developing.  These include the constant drains on our time, the things that cloud our inner vision (television, politics and media are particularly bad about this, at least for me), living too closely to the destructive patterns of consumerism and industrialization, and more. I see these constant drains preventing us from a richer spiritual life like vines around our inner sacred grove of trees, attempting to bring them down. If we are not careful, the trees of our inner sacred grove are strangled and simply die, as in the case of the sassafras.

 

The vines teach a similar lesson on a personal and interpersonal level. Sometimes we get into situations or have people in our lives that begin wrapping themselves around us—they have that uncontrolled vine energy. At first, it might not be a big deal, because they are just a small vine, but if they are there long enough, they can hurt us possibly beyond repair. Sometimes, it takes a third party to come in, cut the vine at its source, and help you recover. But this work is never easy—and it can be really draining and difficult. We also need to be aware of the kinds of energy that may be trying to pull us down and strangling us. Even if we are able to get out of that kind of situation, it might leave its mark. The Sassafrass trees forever bear the scars of where the vine had twisted itself around their bark–but they will live!

 

In the gardens of our lives, we have cultivated the soil and have planted various kinds of seeds we have planted that we want to manifest (like creative projects, starting a family, finding meaningful work, etc). These seeds need light, moisture, and good soil—but they also need to be free of competition. The vine energy of other pressing matters often puts those things we most want to bear fruit on the back burner. The garlic and beans, much more delicate plants, would have not have produced at all because the vines were not only strangling them but shading them out. It required the full removal of the vines for those plants to have any chance at producing this season–and that was delicate and difficult work indeed.  If we want tender things growing in the soil, we must be ready to keep them free and able to grow without restriction.

 

Not all vines do what these two vines do–and that too, is an important lesson from nature. I’ll draw your attention to poison ivy vine, which is a plant that has evolved in this part of the world (read = native), and a plant which lives in perfect harmony with healthy trees that it climbs.  Poison ivy climbs up a tree in order to reach sunlight, not to choke and strangle, and the trees rarely suffer ill effects of having a vine. I’ve seen trees and poison ivy vines growing together for very long periods of time, the ivy sometimes blending into the leaves of the tree.  Now while most humans may not like poison ivy (I have some on my foot right now and I’m trying to not think about scratching it), the trees have a different relationship with it.  I see this vine as awareness medicine, a plant that tells us to pay attention and be mindful. Many times, I have found poison ivy to be a great defender of the forest–keeping the people out and protecting sacred spaces.  People leave the trees, or forests, alone when it is near.  And for that reason, I have always seen poison ivy as an ally.

 

So this is to say that not not all vine energy is necessarily bad energy in or ecosystem, physical or spiritual lives, and its up to us to recognize the various species of vines (metaphorically and literally) and whether or not they are doing harm. We must meditate on what the vines attempt to teach us and listen and observe their role in the ecosystem.  With this deep observation and meditation, we can understand the lessons of the vines.