The Druid's Garden

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

An Introduction to Druidry October 8, 2017

Two weeks ago, I was asked to speak at our local UU Church (First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, PA) on the druid tradition.  Of course, given the diversity of the druid tradition and the perpetual challenge in answering the question “What do druids believe?” it took some time to sort out what I wanted to say.  I thought I might share these thoughts here as a good introduction to the druid path for those wanting to know more and/or as a resource to share with non-druids.

 

Hemlock Healing

Hemlock Healing

I grew up in the beautiful Laurel Highlands region of Western PA. As a child, I spent every free hour in the forest behind my house, building cabins, exploring, and talking with trees. When I was fourteen, the forest was logged, and my heart broke. For weeks, the grind of the chainsaw was in the air, and I suffered as the forest suffered, my own pain and past trauma welling up within me. I went down into the forest after it was over, to see which of my tree friends had remained–and it seemed like almost nobody had survived. It was so heartbreaking, I ended up not returning to the forest for many years.  Almost a decade later, a friend who was dying of cancer insisted I return with him to that forest—and so we did.  A miracle had occurred. No doubt, the forest was still full of downed trees and brush, but the way was passable, and the land had done tremendous healing. That step, back into the forest, and seeing the healing present, was the first formal step I took on the druid path, a path I’ve now been walking for over decade.

 

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots.  The tradition is inspired by the ancient Druids, wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors: the druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

 

In the period between 1700 and 1800, radical changes were happening in the British Isles, here in the USA, and across much of the western world. The rise of industrialization shifted many relationships between humans and the land. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories. My spiritual ancestors, those associated with what we now call the “Druid Revival” watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; the rampant pollution and exploitation industrialization was creating; the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to a resource for extraction, a machine.  The importance of balance and nurturing the land was quickly being replaced by the ideas of infinite growth at any cost and exploitation. It was during this time that those that founded the druid tradition reached deeply–and creatively–into their own history to the ancient druids, to a time when humans and nature were more connected.  And thus, the beginnings of my tradition, “Druid Revival” was born.

 

A river in the PA Wilds region--once a site of logging, now a site of regrowth

A river in the PA Wilds region–once a site of logging, now a site of regrowth

Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, continues to cause considerable pain to our earth and our human communities—and certainly each community and person experiences this in extreme ways.

 

It is in this seeking of reconnection to nature that we can see how for two and a half centuries, modern druidry is a human spiritual response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon us in the Western world.

 

The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry is us finding our way “home”; back into deep connection with the living earth.  Many people today are drawn to the druid tradition there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection to nature.

 

Like the ancients, the modern druid tradition still recognizes the three divisions in druidry, and each druid embodies aspects of each of the paths of the bard, ovate, and druid.  So, now that we’ve talked about the history of this tradition, I’d like to share information on each of these paths.

 

The first path of druidry is the Druid Path which focuses on dedication, magic, and mystery.

In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each druid’s relationship and interaction with nature is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, we have different cycles and seasons. Because of this, the druid revival tradition recognizes and cultivates the development of a personal spiritual path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are encouraged rather than minimized. In this way, revival druidry has a very similar philosophy to the Unitarian Universalists – belief is an individual choice. Being a druid doesn’t mean you can’t also hold Christian, a Buddhist, a UU, Pagan, or Atheist perspectives. Some of us are simply druids, and many of us are on a pagan path, but we have plenty of others who combine druidry with other things, like Christianity or Hinduism. All are celebrated.

 

Nature

Nature

Of course, in the druid tradition, we have common frameworks inspired by our spiritual ancestors. I belong to two druid orders: the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), which is based in the UK and is the largest druid organization in the world, and the Ancient Order of Druids in America (or AODA), in which I currently serve in a leadership capacity and is focused on North American druidry. In AODA, for example, we have a common set of practices and a three part study program that people can engage in to spiritually connect with nature. These practices include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working a daily energetic practice called sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes that honor the earth, planting trees, observing nature, daily meditation; honoring our ancestors of land, tradition, and blood; and practicing of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts. However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest. In fact, different views of the druid tradition interpret the “druid” path in various ways: the druid path is a path of magic, a study of the esoteric arts, a path of advanced practices, and/or a path of leadership.

 

In other words, if you ask five different druids about their beliefs and spiritual path, you’ll likely get seven different answers. But inherent in each of those answers would be an acknowledgement of the sacredness of nature, the power of nature to teach us the deepest lessons, and the importance of reconnection with nature, our creativity, and our spirit.

 

The second path of Druidry is the Path of the Ovate, which focuses on the sacredness of nature.

When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing I share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces relationship to nature at its core, and that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes, nature awareness, and ecological study). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship towards nature is multifaceted: we see nature as sacred, it is our source of wisdom, our sacred text, and our church/sacred space.

 

We recognize that in order to treat nature as sacred, we must align ourselves with nature and her cycles. For us, druidry is a path we strive to walk in each moment and each day, and we work to align our inner truths with our outer actions. We focus on healing the relationship between ourselves and the living earth (and each of us does this in our own way; you might note the number of plant walks I do for charitable causes each year—this is part of my own work on the ovate path). The more that we, as druids, understand the living earth, the more we are able to reconnect with her, but also, to protect and heal what we hold sacred.

 

Another part of the ovate path isn’t just learning about nature and honoring her, but recognizing the inherent role in humans have tending to nature. Many druids find themselves connecting their spiritual life to outer physical practices that give them tools to work with nature. I, for example, practice permaculture, which is a nature-oriented design system that offers me tools to regenerate damaged ecosystems and rather than focus on doing “less harm”, I focus on doing “more good.”

 

Worlds within and without!

Worlds within and without!  Moshashannon State Forst in PA.

Part of the ovate work is the energetic work we do with nature—for example, fracking wells are present throughout the world. Each year, at certain points, druids and other like-minded folks organize to send healing energy to the earth surrounding fracking. We recognize that even if we are physically unable to heal the land, we can energetically support it (much as the practice of Reiki supports a sick person). This practice aligns with a truth known in the druid tradition: as above, so below. As within, so without.

 

Writing in the early 20th century, Max Weber, a strong supporter of capitalism and industrialization, wrote that the world had been disenchanted. Druids, however, know that this is not the case: despite the many imbalances caused by humans in our age and in recent ages past, nature has not lost her magic. Druids see the land as not only a physical thing but a metaphysical thing.  Most druids believe in animistic views of the land, recognizing the soul or spirit in all living things (and often, in places as well). We have experienced, firsthand, the sacredness of the living earth, and it is a powerful thing.

 

The third path of druidry is the Path of the Bard, where Creativity is Sacred.

As the story of Taliesin in the Mabinogion describes, an emphasis on rekindling of our creative gifts is another central aspect of the druid tradition. It is our belief that a core birthright of humanity is to be able to use our bodies, minds, hands, and hearts for creative expression.

 

In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (Welsh term pronounced “ah-wen” or chanted “Ah-Oh-En”). It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs; it was this same awen that flowed through Gwion who became Taliesin. It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hand, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole. It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow other people’s commercialized creations to take the place of our own.  And it is the inspiration of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creative gifts and expressions and reclaim them.

 

At our gatherings, you will often see an Eisteddfod, or bardic circle, where we share stories, songs, music, poetry, dance, and more while we sit around a roaring fire.  Image it—a hundred druids or more gathered to appreciate and honor our creative gifts. In sum, the third path of druidry is in rekindling our own creative inspiration and recognize the inherent sacredness of our creative work.

 

Concluding thoughts

Stump with reishi growing!

Stump with reishi growing!

Let’s return to the forest of my childhood for just a moment. When I walk in that forest now, my studies in the ovate arts have helped me to understand the landscape: I can see the changes in the ecosystem based on different microclimates, I know the names and uses of many of the plants and trees. However, my years of mediation and energy work also allows me to sense the spirit of things; I can hear the laughter of the creek as it cascades down the blackened stones, and I can hear the message in the creak of the two old trees rubbing together. I come to the ancient Eastern Hemlock stumps that once were my friends and now are gracefully returning to soil, covered and moss and bright red shelf mushrooms. A closer look reveals that these stumps are growing Ganoderma Tsugae, the hemlock reishi, one of the most medicinal mushrooms in the world.

 

Nature’s response to the logging of the forest by human hands was a simple one: to regrow, to heal, and offer humans her own sacred medicine. In a time very soon, the forest may be logged again.  But even if that were to happen, nature will heal.  And in the process of that healing, she will welcome us into her sacred places, into her circle of stones and trees, with open arms.

 

 

PS: I have been selected as the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus scholar and am currently working on a research project about the bardic arts (tied to the learning research I do professionally). I am conducing a short survey to start the project off–if you are willing, I would very much appreciate it if you took my survey!  The link can be found here.

Advertisements
 

Urban Food Profile: Cornelian Cherry Harvest and Recipe for Soda Syrup, Jam, Pickles, and More September 14, 2017

I really enjoy foraging for foods in urban environments, you just never know what you are going to find.  In the spring, keep a good eye out for various kinds of flowering trees in an urban or suburban setting–any tree that is flowering is a tree that is worth looking at closely and identifying.  Most frequently, they are flowering crabapples (which are awesome for jellies and other things) or flowering cherries but sometimes you are rewarded with something extra special. Spotting flowering trees at a distance and identifying them is how I found a boatload of urban foragibles this year. Back in June, a few friends and I harvested upwards of 10 lbs of serviceberries from a urban spot in town, and I had spotted another grouping of trees I was excited to return to in the fall–Cornus Mas, or Cornelian Cherry.

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

Almost ripe Cornelian Cherries

These are in the dogwood family and have absolutely beautiful flowers in the spring. Cornelian cherries are not native to Pennsylvania or anywhere in the US, but like serviceberry, they are frequently planted as ornamentals so you can find them if you look around. In fact, the ones I found were planted right near the serviceberry; they are all “small” trees that don’t get too big. I found four cornus mas trees and have been patiently checking them all summer to see their fruits ripen. As we near the fall equinox, their fruits grow deep red and drop–and are a wonderful treat for those who seek them out. In terms of flavor, Cornelian cherries are fairly similar to a sour cherry flavor, but they have more floral undertones and a different level of complexity.  After they are cooked, they also can take on a kind of cranberry taste, but without any bitterness.  Truly, they are a fruit into and of themselves, and they are well worth trying for new and interesting tasting experiences!  This post, part of my foraging / wild foods series, will introduce you to harvesting and several recipes for these delightful treats!

 

Harvest

Harvesting Cornelian Cherry requires some patience.  The fruit, while still on the tree, are usually super tart with a good amount of tannins.  They take all summer to ripen.  They go from hard and green to lighter yellow/red to darker red, and finally almost to a deep red/purple. When they are ripe, they are soft to the touch and have a hint of sweetness and are deep red, almost purple.  You can harvest them less ripe if you cook them more or let them sit out on the counter for a few days, but you won’t get that really good floral undertone that is only present with a *very* ripe Cornelian cherry.

 

Every few days, I’ve been checking in on the trees, and they are finally ripening.  One tree dropped all of its cherries while I was at Stones Rising last weekend and the birds cleaned those up in a hurry, but this week, two friends and I harvested a very nice ripe tree, and there are two more than appear to be ripe next week.  They are two different cultivars, but individual trees seem to ripen at slightly different times.

Cornelian Cherries on the tree--the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

Cornelian Cherries on the tree–the ones that are ready to fall off are ripe!

You can harvest them from the ground, which will give you the ripest ones.  You can also harvest them from any tree ready to give its fruit.  In this way, it is like an apple–you know the fruit is ripe when the tree gives it to you with minimal effort.  If you are there taking stems and having to pull on it, it is not quite ripe.  You can harvest under-ripe ones, but you need to prepare them differently than ripe ones.

 

Recipes

Most of the recipes for this amazing fruit come from the lands where they grow natively–Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and so on.  I have looked at a lot of recipes online for the fruit, and have made some adaptations based on safety and canning here in the US.  I have drawn a lot from Fig and Quince, but added my own touch.

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Ready to be turned into tasty treats!

Cornelian Cherry Persian Moraba and Sharbat (Aka. Cornelian Cherry Whole Cherry Jam + Simple Soda Syrup)

You get two kinds of products from one recipe–a whole cherry jam (that contains the pits) and a Sharbat/simple soda syrup that can be used for a variety of things.  I have adapted this for safety standards for canning so that you can get a long shelf life out of this delicious fruit!  Note that the flavors of Cornelian cherry are fairly muted and subtle–you can add other stuff (like coriander or mint, which is very traditional) but doing so loses some of the flavor of the cherries themselves.

For this recipe you will need: hot water bath canning equipment (jars, new lids, hot water bath canner, lid lifter, jar lifter, towel).

  • 6 cups of Cornelian Cherries, washed and drained
  • 6 cups of water
  • 6 cups of sugar
The Moraba (whole fruit jam).  Delicious!

The Moraba (whole fruit jam). Delicious!

Moraba / Cornelian Cherry Whole-Fruit in Syrup

Combine your cherries, water, and sugar and bring the mixture to a boil.  If you have very ripe cherries, you will want to just boil it and then immediately can it.  If you have a mix or some that are really not ripe, you will want to cook them longer; up to 10 minutes.  I have found that if you let them have their skins crack a little bit, you can get the sugar more deeply into the tart fruit, which helps. Canning will make that sugar go deeper and soften them up beautifully.  Of course, you have less firm fruit, but that’s ok.

Adding sugar and water

Adding sugar and water

Ready to can fruit and syrup

Ready to can fruit and syrup

While this is going, prepare your jars and lids for canning (heating them up to a boil to sterilize and keeping your boiling water going).  Fill your jars full of the cherries and then pour liquid over, giving 1/4″ head space for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints.  Leave a handful of berries floating in the remaining liquid for your Sharbat.  If you have a regular sized canner, you will need to hot water bath these for 10 minutes (15 for pints) before preparing the second recipe.

Getting Ready to Can

Getting Ready to Can

Removing jars from hot water bath

Removing jars from hot water bath

Sharbat / Cornelian Cherry Soda Syrup

The Cornelian Cherry sharbat is probably my favorite of the different preparations that I’ve tried. In Turkey, a Sharbat is a concentrated syrup beverage mixed into water. If you want, here in the US, we prepare something very similar but instead, we mix it into fizzy water/seltzer water and then enjoy it as a homemade soda. Either is a good option for this second recipe.  After you have pulled out almost all of the fruit, you should be left with a deep red liquid that has a really nice flavor–tart, slightly floral, slightly fruity, and sweet.  Make sure this is near boiling, and again, prepare your jars for canning.  Fill to 1/4″ headspace for half pints and 1/2″ headspace for pints and then can (hot water bath) these for 10 minutes for half pints and 15 minutes for pints.

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

The Sharbat (after removing most of the fruit)

Getting ready to can Sharbat

Getting ready to can Sharbat

To enjoy the Sharbat, you can add about 10-20% liquid to 80-90% cold water.  It is incredibly delicious and refreshing (and probably packed with good Vitamin C among other things!) You could also pour this into mixed drinks or over ice cream and so on.

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

3 tbsp of Sharbat in a mason jar of water = delicious!

You don’t have to can either of these–you can eat them fresh.  But this volume of material does give you enough to preserve for a long time.

 

Marinated Cornelian Cherry “olives”

In fact, Cornelian Cherries have pits like olives, so they can be made into them.  I also got this recipe from Fig and Quince, but I have some major revisions to make it tasty.  Remember that Cornelian Cherries are super tart until ripe–this recipe only works best with the ripest of ripe cherries.  Otherwise, you end up with these really tart vinegary balls that aren’t anything really like olives, they are just super sour.  If you use the most recipe cherries, however, you can end up with a really nice flavor.  The recipe is simple, you add in your very ripe cherries, then pour vinegar over them so that they are fully submerged.  You can add other things here as well if you’d like.  Keep them in the fridge (like a refrigerator pickle). A few combinations I’ve tried:

  • White vinegar / Cherries / Mint – Very good.
  • High quality balsamic / cherries – Very good.
  • Peach blush balsamic / Cherries – Awesome.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar / Cherries – Good and local.

I like the addition of the mint, but be careful you don’t add too much.  It can be very overpowering.

Making the cherries

Making the cherries

I haven’t yet tried a fruit leather, but I believe they would make a nice fruit leather as well.  This is a very versatile fruit and a little sweet added to it makes a complex and delicious flavor.  I hope that if you can find some Cornelian Cherries, these delightful recipes will help you enjoy them in the winter months!

 

The Moon’s Sunbeams, or, Reflections on the Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

In the druid tradition, we recognize that the solar currents, those currents of energy coming from the sun, are extremely powerful. And so, when the sun in the noon-day sky suddenly darkens, ancient peoples saw it as an incredibly bad omen. Dragons eating the sun, battles bewteen the gods, portents of other evil and pestilence across the land accompanied a solar eclipse. Given some of the extremely shocking and difficult events and the rise of hatred in the US of the months and weeks leading up to this eclipse, one could approach it with some trepidation. I wanted to share a bit of a druid’s perspective on the eclipse today.

Forest eclipse pattern

Forest eclipse pattern

The Solar Current’s Power

In his new book Secret of the Temple, John Michael Greer describes how temples were designed with particular features to channel the energy of the sun down and radiate it out across the land in blessing.  In AODA, for example, our main seasonal celebrations do this same work: bringing down the light of the sun to radiate it out upon the work.  While this is how AODA and the druid revival frame the solar and telluric currents, these ideas are certainly much older.

 

Given the worship and reverence to the sun in so many ancient people’s lives, it certainly is not surprising that if the sun suddenly blackened in the middle of the day, it would be an ill omen indeed.  What if the light didn’t return? People wouldn’t survive long in darkness.  For that brief moment, the utterly consistent sun appeared like it was being blackened from the sky.

A Simple Eclipse Ritual

Today, our grove met to do ritual during the eclipse.  at our grove deep within the state forest.  Our grove has an ancient Sugar Maple tree in the center and is an easy 15 minute hike in from the trail head.  When we met, we were in the sun by the lake, but decided to go into the grove and do the ritual while the eclipse was taking place.  Our ritual was simple: we did a simple grove opening.  I played the flute and my two friends worked to radiate light into the world, particularly focusing on our human world.  We did this for a time, and then paused to note the changes in the forest floor–the patterns became ripply at first, like waves in the ocean.

Amazing forest floor sunbeams!

Amazing forest floor sunbeams!

After that, we continued our ritual.  The second part of the ritual was also simple: we recognized the value of self care in these times, and we smudged each other.  Then we used a lavender hydrosol to bring clarity and focus for our journey ahead.  At this point, we closed out the grove and did an eclipse walk as the darkest point of the eclipse came into focus.

Walking in an Eclipse

The land stilled.  Everything grew quiet. Walking in the woods during the eclipse was incredible.  The sun’s rays of light behaved more like the moon.  It was if the sun and moon’s roles were reversed.  We didn’t have any fancy glasses or self-made boxes or welder’s masks.  We didn’t need any of that.  All that we needed were the trees and the light filtering through them.  We saw the eclipse much like our ancestors did–through the gentle light of the trees.  When the breeze blew, the little crescent moons turned into waves on the forest floor.  My friends and I danced in the sun’s moonbeams (or was it the moon’s sunbeams), frolicking along the forest path.

 

It was one of the most magical things I have ever seen.

Eclipse at full strength

Eclipse at full strength

 

The Moon’s Sunbeams (or Sun’s Moonbeams)

Experiencing the extremely magical eclipse in the forest taught me a valuable lesson–I had been feeling rather “doom and gloomy” about the world as well as about some other personal losses that happened in the last two weeks.  I felt like the eclipse was there to continue the pattern, to burn my retnas, to plunge my soul into darkness, to plunge the world into chaos, much like the Ancient peoples believed.  I had been reading too much online, letting some of the darkness of the recent events lodge within my soul.

 

And then, I went out to experience the actual eclipse.  And my heart was filled with joy as the moon’s sunbeams, or the sunny moonbeams, or whatever you want to call the flickering and wavering crescents of light, came down on that forest floor.  We might have went into that forest with heavy hearts and to do a ritual of light.  But the sun and forest surprised us with its own light.

 

It was a powerful experience, not just to see an incredible rare and glorious event of seeing the forest while an eclipse is going on.  But because it taught us, once again, about the healing power of nature.  Sun had no less power when she was behind the moon (or behind a cloud, for that matter).  She simply had different power, focused power, and it was a sight to behold!   So friends, keep your spirits high in these dark times.  Dance in the light of the sun and moon, and let your spirit soar.

Crescent Sunbeams, courtesy of the Moon

Crescent Sunbeams, courtesy of the Moon

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Working with Trees in Urban Settings August 13, 2017

Maples growing up through grate--been there for years!

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home.  As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her, and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall.  She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return.  I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread.  Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four foot space below the grate and the drainage channel and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit becuase of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples).  And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.

 

As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible.  I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from bustling city and town life.  But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. 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, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, and establishing deep tree workings.  You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so.  Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines.  Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree who simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one who has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction.  This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different.  The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.

 

In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon.  It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going.  One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old.  Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism.  I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were.  I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.

 

In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees.  These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees.  Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch.  I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks.  So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.

 

Working With Trees

Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places.  Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction.  On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly.  Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old.  On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus.  They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels.  These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.

 

On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans.  Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc.  Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry.  Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade.  A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.

 

For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there.  For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.

 

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks).  These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree.  I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town.  They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.

 

Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!

 

Variety and Species

Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest.  I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples,  fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more.  Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places.  I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work.  It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.

 

Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification.  For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest!  And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!

 

Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts.  Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species.  For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas.  In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.

 

The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge.  I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more.  When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing.  There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.

 

In plain sight

Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passerby) around.  This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing.  I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much unwanted attention.  Unwanted attention from passerby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work).  So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways.  One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.

I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree.  Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music.  I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.

 

When others aren’t present

The other way work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As is a the early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present.  My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning, when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed!  This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.

 

Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environment go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife).  There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)

 

One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.  Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.

 

Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.

 

Acorns

Acorns

And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall.  This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.

 

Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship.  My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged oursevles on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry.  These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!

 

Moving the Seedlings

Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed wackers and mowers.  It is crushing have one’s young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places.  I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).

 

Offerings and Songs

Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good.  This is particular true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees.  Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizning their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.

 

I like to make these little “blessing” tokens.  They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town.  I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches.  This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.

 

Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.

 

Ritual work too, works well.  One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea.  I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone.  After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree.  This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us.  It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant.  It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people.  We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away.  I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples.  This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different.  Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

 

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!)

Save

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana) June 4, 2017

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   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, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

Save