The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

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

 

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

 

Oaks in Many Forms

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

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

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

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

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings September 30, 2018

“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed

“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms.  Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time.  When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox!  It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.

 

About the Apple

Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild.  Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten.  There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out.  Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!

 

Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away.  These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life.  Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting properly.  By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree.  he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider varitey.  He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.”  I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree.  Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.

 

One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US.  Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)

 

In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America.  Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe).  Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks.  Unlike today’s limited varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples).  Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.

 

And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apple.  Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season.  Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era.  Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.

 

Wild Apple Foraging

Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms.  I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early Stepember, I return to these trees for a potential harvest.  Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat.  Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varities and tastes!  Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varities, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly.  He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc.  Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on.  Let this cool and strain the juice.  (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor).  This juice can be used to make a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a delightful wild apple jelly.  I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider. 

 

If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby.  You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apple. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore.  Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.

 

Apples and Healing

“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side.  He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.

 

Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health.  Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely.  Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple.  However, Wood notes some consitenencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples before they are ripe have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker).  Therefore, herbalists today use apple for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses.  Here are some highlights:

 

Love magic:  In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

Expelling evil.  In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight.  The apple tree’s apples are gaurded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound.  He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound, and then goes to the castle to claim his bride.  This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.

 

Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.

 

Apple and Healing  Long Lost Friend (an American Grimorie of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.

 

Apple’s Protective Nature.  As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle.  Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:

 

Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything.  She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.

 

Apple as a Gateway to the World.  In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree.  A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtles back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

Apple’s Blessings.  Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in.  Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain.  Apple offers us connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.

 

Apple as Healing and Life-Giving.   The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples.  Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.

 

Apple as a Gateway.  Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place.  Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.

 

Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples.  And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.

 

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

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

One of my favorite mushrooms- the Chicken of the Woods

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

Three aspects of nature wisdom:

Lessons that come from others

Lessons that come from experience

Lessons that come from deep questions

 

Knowing Nature

 

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

 

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

 

Learning and study together on plant walks!

Learning and study together on plant walks!

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Understanding Nature

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

 

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

Observing American Ginseng (so rare!) in early spring

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

 

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

 

Probing nature

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

 

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

Potatoes!

Potatoes!

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees May 20, 2018

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!

 

Walking the Path of the Ovate: Building Localized Ecological Knowledge May 13, 2018

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Everything changes in this wild place. The ebb and flow of the tides drives the ecology on this rocky shore. The landscape abruptly changes its appearance based on proximity to the sea and elevation. Firs and spruces dominate along with a groundcover of laurel and blueberry. Even old friends, like birch, maple, and beech, take on new skin. The mountain peaks offer a desert-like climate where air and fire dominate. I am in this wild place, letting it seep into my bones, into my breath, into my spirit. Desipte the books on ecology I’ve purchased, I really have no idea what I’m seeing, no real knowledge of the deeper mystery of this land and shore. Books cannot teach that kind of wisdom, only time and experience can. My eyes physically see, but I am seeing without any real understanding of what it is that is before me.

 

Industrialization has taught us that local context is only a marketing tool, a demographic base through which to sell products. We have eliminated much of what made local contexts unique and have replaced them with the same worn-out stores selling the same worn-out products. But nature has her own wisdom. Nature teaches us that the local context is sacred: it is what gives us distinction, it is what gives uslife, it is what roots us in a place. My localized knowledge base, rooted in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA and in the wilds of South-East Michigan, offers me a familiarity and comfort with the plants and animals I know. These are plants and animals that I have developed relationships with over a long period of time. When I enter a forest in my home region, I see my old friends and that relationship deepens. With that deep knowledge of my own ecosystem, an opportunity to visit a new place allows me begin to understand differences, subtle or major, in new ecosystems.

 

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality and connecting with nature through walking the path of the ovate, our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls. These landscapes literally become like a skin that we wear, a skin that comes with us wherever we go.

 

Building Local Knowledge

Indigeneous peoples were woven so closely into their landscapes: their land forms, their bodies of water, the local plants. They ate the fish and animals they hunted, they ate the plants they gathered, they made medicine from what was around them. These elements of their surrounding shaped every aspect of their daily interaction and their culture. They preserved the land and tended the wilds because the land sustained them fully. They understood their landscape in ways no modern human, living indoors, can do. And so, much of that knowledge is lost at present. Certainly, some places in the world, that knowledge still exists–but in places, like where I live, long colonized by those who would seek to destroy native peoples, only fragments remain. In truth, it is likely that modern humans in current western society can never have the deep knowledge, developed from infancy and shared across generations, that humans living in other times or cultures had. But, we can build a start, and we can work to connect once again.  In generations to come, we may once again have that kind of deep knowledge of our world. Part of this connection, to me, is the most sacred work there is to do in this world. And part of this is building our own ecoregional druidries and localized understandings.

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

When we want to learn something today, especially about our local ecosystem, I have found that in person teachers are often hard to find (and if they can be found, expensive).  Books, then, become our teachers, and we can gain much knowledge of the landscape and our local ecology. The knowledge contained in books today was the kind of knowledge we used to have human and non-human teachers teach us: how to identify plants, how to use them for food or medicine, and so on. But there is no substitute for lived experience, the viceral and sensual experience of life–neither of which books can give us. There is no substitute that tells us that the ramps grow in this vally on the eastern side of the mountain where the emphermeal springs open up. Bridging the gap between book knowledge and direct experience is part of what walking the path of the ovate is all about–it is not just about the study of plants, animals, ecology, it is about connecting with that spirit of the landscape, weaving yourself into it, and reconnecting.

 

A basic knowledge identification skills and plant families can lead to many more deeper understandings, magical understandings, understanding the spirit of things. Now that I can identify many plants with ease and know some of their basic features, growth patterns, and uses, I want to understand them deeper. Who do they like to grow next to? What insects live on them? For the trees, what is their wood like? What do they look like at the different seasons of the year? What medicine and magic do they hold? And so, I wonder, wander, and walk through this landscape. A loupe (jeweler’s loupe) in hand offers me a more detailed perspective of the flowers. The more time I spend in the land place, the more I want to simply experience it.

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

When I spent time at Acadia National Park in Maine last year, and recently in the Konza Prarie in Kanas, one thing was clear to me: despite studying field guides that helped me identify plants, to really know either landscape, like I knew my own ecosystem, it would take a lifetime. Prior prior to this, I’ve had no exposure to Maine’s craggy and rocky coasts. I had no experience with the burned out prarie stretching into the distance. Intellectual knowledge in my field guide offers a stepping stone, but true understanding, this weaving into the landscape, would take years of regular interaction and time spent in nature.

 

While in Maine, I spent numberous hours in the same spot, on a place called Otter Cliff, first observing the spot at low tide, and a different day, watching high tide come in. I watched the way that the various seaweed adapted to the incoming waves, how different species lived at different heights and were exposed to different wave action. A field guide tells me that I’m seeing bladderwrack, rockweed, wormweed, barnacles, and mussels. But yet, nothing but observation can teach me how the waves crash into the bladderwrack, or how it feels in my hand, or how it is adapted to move with the waves that would rend my own flesh from my bones against the rocks.

 

And this is what visiting a radically different ecosystem can do. You are out of your comfort zone, the plants and animals may be similar, but not exact. It is an extremely good time to study plant families (like through the book called Botany in a Day). Even if you can’t identify the specific plants, you can certainly identify their families, which teaches you new and important skills. This newness and challenge leads to rich rewards, new learning, and growth.

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

Different regions also have different elemental balances. For example, I live in a land that is dominated by earth and water. The mountains, especially higher up, often have clouds and mist. The forests remain quite damp and the damp-loving trees like Eastern Hemlock are abundant, especially in dark forest valleys where the streams and creeks flow. On the Maine coast, this land is dominated as much by earth and water as it is by air–the winds, of which we have very little, are ever present here as the waves continue to crash on the rocks. High up on the granite-top mountains, fire and air dominate and life barely holds on. In Kansas, fire and air dominated the landscape–particularly fire–due to the recently burned prarie.

 

Visiting a new number of ecosystems has me realizeing just how much power nature has–I understood her power in the Alleghney mountains in PA, but I have no idea of her power in other places. And the homecoming, of returning back to the place where I belong, is powerful and meaningful–all the more so becuase you are back in familiar territory, where the plants and animals and ecology is familiar, safe, comforting.

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality, should our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls.  They become like a skin that we wear, literally, that comes with us wherever we go. We know the call of the birds, we know just how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction.  We understand the ebb and flow of the creek and know how the water runs over the stones. The longer we are in the land we are of the land, till we are one in the same.  This is what druidry, I beleive, is really about–becoming woven so deeply with your own place.

 

Sacred Landscapes, Part II: Ley Lines and Old Straight Tracks March 25, 2018

As a child, the my family’s property had what we called “the old roads”. These were  flat roads, of packed earth overgrown with brambles and grass, that were running perpendicular to the slope of the mountain.  They ran directly  north to south. Someone had made these perfectly level, with a bank on the lower side, and they went quite far.  There were two of them, an upper “road” and a “lower road” about 100 or so feet down the mountain. My father told me that they were “old roads” and he had no idea how long they had been there or where they had gone–just that they were there. We played on these old roads, walked them, built cabins on them, and thought nothing of them.  Who knows the history of these “old roads”, their straightness and alignment seeming out of place in a more modern time.

 

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–rebuilding sacred landscape features

So many  remnants of ancient roads, of  ley lines and trackways, infused with sacred purpose and intent, can still be found in the out-of-the-way places on our landscape around the world–on every continent where humans have lived.  These roads represent a different era of human conciousness, an era when landscapes were infused with magical power, and where humans literally lived and moved at the intersection of the physical and the metaphysical. While the term “leys” currently has a number of conflicting meanings, I’d like to delve into the earth-based discipline of ley lines and what they were, historically, as a precursor to discussing work that we might do to re-enchant the land using some of these ancient principles.

 

In last week’s post, I introduced the concept of the “re-enchantment of the world” after exploring the “disenchantment” that has taken place in the hearts and minds of modern humans, and through the destruction of the physical landscape due to industrialization. The basic argument was that the world is already an enchanted place, even if many humans fail to see it, but as earth-honoring people, we can work to make it even more so. But in order to think about how we might re-enchant the world, it is useful to know what ancient humans did, how they created sacred landscapes in collaboration with nature for many different purposes. In order to continue to explore this, then, today’s post delves into the history of the World’s ley lines through a review and discussion of the work of Alfred Watkins Old Straight Track book and the work of Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux in Lines Upon the Landscape. And so, let’s go ahead and dive into ley line history in order that we may build something anew.

 

Defining Ley Lines

Before I can talk about the ancient systems of human alignment that were originally known as “leys”, I want to start with some definitions.  When one says “ley lines” today, chances are, they are talking about “energetic” lines, lines that run across the landscape and carry energy in various ways.  These energetic lines, and the idea of lines of energy in a grid, tied to the earth’s magnetism, is the most common definition.  These ideas rose over the 20th century with the works of W. Y. Evans Wentz, Dion Fortune, and John Mitchell.  I will be talking about energetic understandigs of leys in next week’s post–but this week, we are going to delve into physical alignments along the landscape. But to be clear–even if a ley traditionally means a physical alignment, as this post will show, the physical alignments reflected metaphysical and spiritual understandings of the world.

 

Sacred Alignment and Straight Lines

A key feature of the ley lines throughout the world, including in the UK, is that they are straight–very straight. They do not deviate from their straightness, even if it means going over a moutnain, over a river, and so forth. To the ancient peoples all over the world, there was something very sacred in a straight line path. Pennick and Devereux note that straight line features were regarded as sacred, and they write, “The fact remains that the further back in time we go we can see that the engineering of straight linear landscape features, even if for ostensibly utilitarian purpsoes, was accompanied by a sense of veneration.  Even the Romans, we ahve seen, had wayside dieties and gods of the survey….in recent times, straight landscape lines have been simply a form of fashion, or utilitarian, for geodesy or a means of getting wheelend transport from one port to another in the shortest distance.” (246).  They note that as Western history moved on, the sacrendess of ancient alignments moved to the profane (246).  Today, it is hard to fathom that a landscape could have once been infused with such sacredness.

 

The Old Straight Track: Features of Ley Lines in the UK

Creating sacred landscape features

Creating sacred landscape features

Alfred Watkins, in the Old Straight Track, wrote about his findings concerning what he called “Ley lines” in Britain.  The most traditional use of the term “Ley” is as Watkins coined it–it is a feature of “alignment”, or as he writes, “alignment across miles of country of a great number of objects, or sites of objects, of prehistoric antiquity…straight trackways in prehistorical times in Britian…the old straight track decided the site of almost every branch of human communal activity” (xx).  Watkins discovered these leys after extensive fieldwork all over the British Isles and studying maps. Watkins chose the name “ley” (which has many different spellings/forms: leigh, lay, lee, lea, leye (153) due to his understanding of more prehistoric etymology based on place names (159).  Another term he uses is “old straight track” for the leys.

 

Leys in the UK often include multiple objects over many miles, with physical markers (mounds, mark stones, standing stones, sacred sites, churches) at various points along the ley.  I want to share some of the features of the British ley systems, because I think knowing this information can help s as we are envisioning our own sacred landscape features.

  • Straight lines: As noted above, ley lines are straight–over many miles.
  • Mounds:  Mounds, according to Watkins, are a “a separate heap of earth, or earth in stones, usually circular in form, but sometimes of a longer shape. The word is also used to infer an artifical structure, not a natural knowl, although suchanatural high point was often empahsized by slight artifical addition, and then becoems included in the designation.” (1)  Some of the mounds are long, others are round or oval (2).  Further, some mounds have a concave top, almost like a mound with a bowl at the top.  They are often placed across ridges or high points; and were arranged so that as travelers walked them, they could be hidden from people who might be below (3).  Mounds are part of the ley system.
  • Mark Stones: Mark stones are distinguished somehow from other stones naturally occuring in the area, either by shape, size, or appearance; Watkins notes that the smallest mark stones are a foot or less high and are typically distinctive but unworked, but often of altar shape. Watkins surmises that the purpose of these stones was to let the traveler know that he or she was on the right track.  Many of them are planted near sighting mounds, to signal the direction of the ley and others are placed at the crossing of two leys.  Some in Great Britian also have clear grooves; Watkins believes they may have been set with lights (23-25).  Many of the stones that Watkins describes are also named and the names persist to this day.  Watkins notes that many mark stones are places of assembly for people or even for sacred work or ritual (143).
  • Trackways: Watkins was able to see, in many places, the physical pathways still marked (with mark stones) along the landscape. People had clearly used them for travel, by foot, or with a pack animal (but not a wheeled vehicle) (40).  Wheeled vehicles would have been to large for the ancient Leys that Watkins mapped, indicating they were created before wheeled vehicles were used. Watkins notes that tree lines were often planted along the old trackways.  Even if a more modern road or track swerves away from the ley (the alignment between two points), the trackway will come back in alighment with the ley at the point where two leys cross (37).
  • Water: Ley lines were often constructed with water features; Watkins describes moated mounds (45) as well as other small ponds (possibly human-created) with small islands which leys run right through.  Watkins surmises that it is possible that water features helped people follow the leys in the darkness, specifically using the “beacon hills” described next.
  • Beacon Hills: Likewise, Beacon hills were part of the ley network that Watkins outlines; these were likely used for pagan celebrations of Beltane (he notes the terms “May hill” or “Beltany Hill” for beacon hill names (110)).  Watkins notes that “beacon” and “beckon”, which are both Anglo Saxon words, come from identical roots and mean “come to me.” (110).  Watkins believes that by day, these beacon hill points could offer a signal of smoke during the day and a fire at night to light the way directly down the ley (112).  He also notes that the use of water features would allow for the beacon fire to reflect from the water below, allowing someone who was on the high point near the beacon fire to see exactly the direction where to go in the night from the reflection on the water.  This means that the leys were clearly used for day travel, night travel, as well as ceremonial purpsoes.
  • Sighting Notches: These are large features, like a notch, road or deeply cut grove, through a mountain ridge.  Watkins surmised that they were used as sight guidelines so that people who were on the valley floors know which way the trackway went (50).
  • Initial points were where leys began: Often, a ley started with either a “natural rock structures used for early ritual or ceremonies” or some other kind of sacred feature, like a sacred well (58-59). This suggests that people may have used the ley line to travel to a particular sacred place: a well, a ritual space, by day or by night.
  • Mark Trees: Trees were also likely used to mark ley lines, and he builds a good case that Scotch Fir (Pinnus Silvestris) as a primary ley line tree.  Other trees he mention are oak, elm, yew, ash, and hawthorn (64).
  • Camps: Watkins refers to ‘camps’ to mean areas that are enclosed areas, on high ground, with an eathen embankment (65); leys would touch the boundry wall of the camp.
  • Sacred Sites: Watkins also describes other kinds of sacred sites, such as old churches (often built on older pagan sites), stone circles like Stonehenge, and the like that are also tied into the Ley network. (106). These ancient sites were aligned with the sun, and Watkins concludes that the sun alignment is also critical to the leys.
  • Orientation/Direction: Watkins notes that orientation (direction the ley faced) was another key feature of ley lines.  For example, Stonehenge’s road, on a ley line according to Watson, is oriented with the Midsummer sunrise (129).  He also notes, however that many leys were not necessarily laid out with the sun, but for more “utilitarian” purposes of travel. This topic of orientation, particularly of churches and temples, was further taken up though John Michael Greer’s recent book The Secret of the Temple.

 

What Watkins was describing was a set of intentially-created prehistoric alignments all over Great Britain.  Certainty about what these lines were for, and how they were used, is lost to pre-history.  It is clear that these leys, these alignments, had sacred intent and were used both for sacred and mundante purposes.   However, as we’ll explore more next week,  Pennick and Devereux take Watkins’ material, along with material from many other sources, and describe some likely uses of these ley lines in terms of a sacred landscape.  I also will note that there are also deities associated with the pathways and trackways, like the antlered goddess, Elen of the Ways / Elen of the Old Straight Track.

 

This information above would be fascinating enough of it were relegated only to the UK.  But As Devereux and Pennick demonstrate in Lines on the Landscape, these same features are replicated over and over again in the world.

 

The Etruscan Discipline: Sacred City Planning in the Graeco Roman Tradition

In other parts of Europe, for example, in the Graceo-Roman tradition, we again get the sense of the physical choices for placement being based on sacred intent.  A very good example of this is the Etruscan Discipline. Discussed in Varro’s Antiquities (47 B.C.E), the Etruscian Discipline describes a sacred practice of straight-line planning that was used to survey, plan, and design all Roman cities. As Pennick and Devereux describe, the Etruscan Discipline was a system of divination, ritual, and processes that used augury and sacred geometry to lay out cities. Part of this work included dividing the landscape into quarters (north east, north west, south east, south west); this quarter division was the basic plan used for all Roman city planning (ironic how we still use sacred quarters!) Later in the process, the city plans were divided further into 8ths and 16ths. Each of these sections then, were dedicated to various dieities: Gods/Goddesses of earth and nature being located in the south, the “chief deities” who helped humans in the north; the west held deities of fate and also the “infernal powers” (p. 97).  Further, an auger engaging in the Etruscan discipline would look for various signs on heaven and earth: the flight of birds (particularly songbrids or flock birds), weather features (wind, clouds, lighting, storms, etc), and the heavens (astronomical features).

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

Standing stones in Bangor, PA (recently set)

Of this process, Pennick and Devereux write, “With all of thse factors assessed and assimiluated, the newly founded city, or laid out road, would have the best possible inauguration, because the Etruscan Discipline was the relfection of objective spiritual processes and cosmic laws through the medium of a technique which accessed information directly from nature. By founding the undertaking at both the right place and the right time, according to prescribed rules, the venture would be in harmony with both the material and non-material worlds. The Etruscan discipline thus expresed a world view in which the material reflects the spiritual, and the spiritual is revealed in the material.” (p. 98).

The Etruscan discipline is one of many, many sacred pieces that ancient Europeans used to create sacred landscapes.

 

Lines in North America

On the other side of the world, Ancient Native North Americans also used straignt line features, or what Pennick and Devereux call “Linear Earthworks.” We have far less information about the Native Peoples and what they did with these earthworks due to the genocide of the Native North Americans, but the physical features are still present in some places on the landscape.

 

The Adena peoples, who lived more than 3000 years in what is modern day Ohio and Pennsylvania,  created elaborate earthworks. These earthworks included burial mounds and sacred circles (of up to 200 feet in diameter), sometimes with other geometric features. One such mound is the Serpent Mound in Peeble, Ohio.The Hopewell, were a tribe of trade-oriented native people that lived around 150 BCE to 500 CE, also in the Ohio valley. They, likewise, produced elaborate mounds with complex and precise geometrical earthworks.  These earthworks included giant circles, squares, and straight parallel lines running outward from the circles. Other such earthwork features have been documented in Georgia, Mississippi, and California.

 

Although there is much less documentation than on the leys in Europe, the North American Indians also had a “straight track” system of trails. These are poorly documented in many regions, but the 19570 Laetitia Sample described them as follows, “The trails on the sierra regions followed natural passes….They seem to have gone on straight lines…without detouring for mountains along the way…trails were marked in various ways…somtimes piles of twigs or carins of stone along a trail have been called markers. ” (Quoted in Pennick and Deverux, p. 171).  The Anasazi people, likewise, created “arrow straight” roads demonstrating that they had some advanced surveying systems to lay out their roads in straight lines (p. 175).  The Anasazi roads are a great mystery–they have parallel features to the roads, they are much too wide for a culture that did not have wheeled vehicles, and there is evidence that they connect potentially sacred sites/locales (known as the Great Houses).  Pennick and Devereux suggest that the evidence points to the roads themselves as holy; other archeologists have labeled them “ceremonial highways” (p.179).

 

These are several of many such documented “straight line” trails– others exist in  Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and more.  Pennick and Devereux note that many more Native American earthworks and straight tracks all over the east and central USA that have been destroyed with modern farming, road construction, and so on.  Many such straight tracks and trails in the East are now non-existent due to this kind of activity.

 

Other Straight Line Feature Globally

Pennick and Devereux detail many other “straight line” features around the world: those created by the ancient Mayans, the ancient Inca, and the Aztecs. The ancient Aztecs had a very elaborate system of straight lines on the deserts that are still visible (p. 182) and likely were representations of astronomical features. The lines can only really be appriciated from the air, however, calling into question what exactly the Aztecs were buildilng the lines for!  Likewise, lines can be found in the Islamic world, in China, Japan, and Indonesia.  As this post is getting long, I’ll refrain from going into more details on these lines-if you are interested, you can read Lines on the Landscape for more details.

Labyrinth in Bangor, PA

Labyrinth in Bangor, PA

Re-Enchanting our Landscape

In this post, I’ve done my best to share and summarize some of the ways in which ancient humans created sacred features upon the landscape: through old straight lines (leys), through sacred roads, connecting and marking pathways between temples, and more. In compiling this information, it is clear that creating physical sacred landscape features was something shared by all ancient and even not-so-ancient humans: the idea that the physical world and features we create should be in alignment with the non-material world.  It seems hard to understand to the modern mind, immersed in a disenchanted world, that ancient cultures, all over the world, saw the land as such an enchanted place.  But if we are able to take on this ancient mindset, and recognzie that our ancestors have paved the way for such sacred work, we, too, can re-enchant our land.

 

I want to close with a quote from Pennick and Devereux which sums up some of the challenges we face in even entering the mindset, “For us, the sense of travelling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions. The road, the way, is taken for granted, and runs as a map in our minds, our mental perspective thus being that of the aricraft or sattelite.  It is such a perspective that makes our understanding of the earlier atrributes of straight lines so difficul for us.  But if we make the effort to look carefully, we can in the use of the landscape line–until the present, literally godless, culture–the unviersal expression of an archetype, a deep-seated sense, in the human mind” (p. 246).   When does this landscape, and its alignments we put there, take on magic of its own?

 

I do think it is not a concincidence that every major earth-centered religious group that I know of that has land is building some kind of stone structure–labyrinths, sacred stone circles, mounds, and more.  The ancestoral knowledge is  are swelling within those who choose to see the land differently, teaching us, encouraging us to build sacred landscapes anew. Even though, here on the East coast, these sacred landscape features have been largely erased from modern conciousness and the physical land–somewhere deep in the soil, the magic still sleeps, waiting for a new group to come and re-enchant the land.

 

Elder (Sambucus Canadensis): Sacred Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Uses of the Elder Tree March 4, 2018

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

Dana gathers elder as the sun rises on the summer solstice!

I remember when I first found the massive elderberry patch. It was a few summer solstices ago. There is an overlook deep in the state forest lands, where the roads are more goat path than vehicle worthy, and it takes about 45 minutes to go only a few miles. The overlook is facing east and you can see across multiple counties, for countless miles. Visiting the overlook earlier in the summer, I had said to my mother how much I’d love to witness the summer solstice sunrise from that spot. And so, at 4:30 am on the morning of the solstice we got up and were dismayed to find that it was overcast and drizzling. With hope in our hearts that it would clear, we made our way up the winding path, avoiding potholes and huge rocks, and eventually to that mountain overlook.  It was still gray and overcast, the opposite of what I had hoped to witness that day. The sun was not interseted in coming out to greet us. We were a bit saddened by the experience, and began our drive back. Suddenly, something caught my eye—a whole lot of something. A massive patch of hundreds of elderberry bushes, all in incredible bloom. We had bags for foraging in the car (my family is rather obsessed with foraging and mushroom hunting; you don’t leave the house without foraging gear) and so we stopped to pick them.  It was magical.  and I made my first batch of elderflower cordial later that day.

 

That morning so dreary, and the elder was so bright. She lived in a swampy area, so my sandaled feet were covered in mud. She had brambles growing all below her, so I was scratched up from tangling with the brush. But getting to pick that beautiful cluster of flowers, and taste the joy of the elderflower cordial—it was a true delight. There is so much transition here–and transition is one of the key themes that Elder offers. And so, in today’s post, we will explore the magic, medicine, folklore, and mystery of the elder tree. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. We’ll do this to understand elder’s role on the landscape and what gifts she may offer us—and how we, too, may seek her deep mysteries.

 

About the Elder Tree

The Elder tree (Sambucus spp.) has over 26 different varieties found throughout the world. Here in the Eastern US, the most common elder we have is Sambucus Canadensis, or the black elder. I will focus the remaining post on the black elder as this is the elder that I have the most experience with, but do recognize that most of what I’m discussing can likely apply to other kinds of elders. Sambucus Canadensis is known by a variety of names including the common elder, American elder, black elder, elder blow, Canada elder, sweet elderberry.  According to Grieve in her Modern Herbal, more names for Elder include Pipe tree, bore tree, bour tree, hylder, hylantree, eldrum, and ellhorn.  All of these names have rich histories and are seeped in lore and tradition.

 

Elder typically grows in areas that are damp or wet such as ditches, flood plains, near streams and lakeshores, but I’ve also seen it growing in typical moist forests as well, either along the edges or as an understory species. It can grow in full sun or part shade, but shade will likely reduce the number of flowers and berries produced. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman describes the cup-shaped fungus (auricularia aricula) that grows on elder in the spring and fall. This mushroom, called a “Judas ear” or “Brown ear” is a delicious culinary treat. In rich wet soil with ample sun, elder can produce an amazing amount of flowers and berries that provide habitat and foraging for over 40 species of birds along with a host of mammals including squirrels, foxes, mice, and groundhogs. And, as anyone who has gone to gather elderflowers at midsummer knows—ample insect life. Not to mention, delicious flowers and berries that humans can enjoy.

 

Edible Qualities of the Elder

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderflower gathered at the summer solstice

Elderberry is an incredible food and medicine for humans, and we have long cultivated a rich relationship with elder. As a food, Elderberry is high in Vitamin C, as well as A, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium. However, fresh from the bush, elderberry has a bit of rankness or skunkyness; this is completely eliminated by drying or canning. Some sources suggest that the fresh elderberries should not be eaten raw because they can sometimes cause an upset stomach. I’ve read this statement in a lot of books, and maybe it is true, but I’ve never heard anyone who has actually gotten a stomach problem from them. As a child, my cousins and I enjoyed them every year and ate them fresh from the bush. We were fine, but we are also hardy mountain people!  It may be that this is true of Elder species other than Sambucus Canadensis.

 

The fruits and flowers both are culinary treats, used in creating beverages as well as jams and jellies. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus (which is, to this day, one of my very favorite foraging books), Euell Gibbons describes his version of elderberry jelly, to which he also adds staghorn sumac. I’ve modified his recipe as follows to be a lower-sweetener/sugar version employing Pamona’s pectin (for low sugar canning) rather than normal pectin. First, you begin by stripping the berries of stalks (the easiest way is actually to freeze the berries—then they pop off of the stalks easily). You don’t want the stalks as they are not edible. Next, cover the berries with water and simmer for 30 min, mashing them as they cook in the water. While the berries are simmering, take several heads of staghorn sumac, break them up, and soak them in water for 10 or so minutes). Strain both elderberries and staghorn sumac. Combine 1 cup of staghorn sumac juice to 3 cups elderberry juice (or any higher amount, using this ratio) with between ¼ or ½ cup sweetener (I use honey or raw cane sugar) per cup of liquid (so this recipe would call for a minimum of 1 cup sweetener and up to 2 cups sweetener). Add 4 teaspoons of Pamona’s pectin and 4 teaspoons of calcium water (which you make with the Pamona’s pectin) and bring the whole mix to a hard boil for one minute. Mix these very well, then add to sterilized jars and hot water bath can them for 20 minutes. Gibbons also offers a “juice” version of this that uses no pectin, but in similar ratios to the above to taste. I want to make a note about the pectin used here—Pamona’s pectin is a special low sugar pectin that allows you to “set” jams and jellies using very low amounts of added sugar; normal pectin requires high amounts of sugar for setting.

 

 

Another recipe Gibbons offers is an “Elderberry Rob”, which is where you take a quart of the elderberry juice (prepared in the manner I described above) and add 1 stick of cinnamon, six cloves, and a whole nutmeg. You boil this for 30 minutes, and then add a cup of sugar or honey (if you add honey, you can also use this as a cough syrup). If you are adding raw honey, wait till it cools down so that you also get the medicinal benefits of honey. Finally, a recipe I have yet to try is Gibbon’s “Old time face cream”, where you add 1oz lanolin, 8oz cocoa butter and a handful of elderflowers in a double boiler, then strain and pour into small jars. I like the sound of this!  Elderflower is slighty asringent, so it would make sense that this cream would tone the face beautifully.

 

The Elusive Sambucca and Childhood Toys

As children know, you can make a simple instrument or blow gun from the Elder tree. Culpepper describes this in his herbal, “I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder.” A youngish stalk can have the pith hollowed out to make a hollow tube. The tube can be used for a number of things including flutes, blow-guns, and even, taps for maple syrup trees (homemade spiels), as Gibbons describes in Stalking the Wild Asparagus. As the elder matures, the walls of the stalks thicken and the soft white pith gets less pliable, so younger stalks are often better for these than old granny stalks (and who would want to cut old granny stalks of elder anyways? That would just lead to bad things).

 

In fact, the etymology of the Latin term for elder, Sambucca, has an interesting history. I have found references to a Sambuca (or Sambuke in Ancient Greek) that is an ancient instrument that apparently gave Elderberry its Latin name. In The Earthwise Herbal, Matthew Wood explains that panpipes were originally made from Elder and tied to Pan, the lord of the forest.  As someone who plays the panpipes, I can attest to the truth in this statement!

 

What I haven’t been able to find in any detail is how to actually craft the panpipes themselves out of elder—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying, as panflute is my primary instrument. So far, I’ve failed primarily in the harvest department—the wood gets thicker and thicker till it’s too thick for a good tube. That’s about what I’ve learned so far—there’s a lot more work on this project to be done and someday, I will post more about it once I figure it out. There are some good instructions on making more simple elderberry flutes, for those who are interested. But, I do wonder, what does the elder flute sound like? What haunting melodies would emerge from a Sambuca? Would it only play for the spirits, or would human ears be able to hear it? Given the richness of the elder “song” in the Native American legends, I cannot wait to hear it for myself.

 

One of Elder’s anachronistic names also offers some additional insight: the Anglo-Saxon term “aeld” means “fire.” According to Grieve, Aled eventually became Elder. The original “fire” use referred to the hollow stems being used as a fire tube for blowing oxygen onto the flame. I actually think this is a really important aspect of Elder here in the US and one not to be overlooked.

 

Medicine of the Elder

The Elder is a highly medicinal tree with a range of uses for the bark, leaves, flowers, and berries. The flowers are primarily used as a diaphoretic, that is, they increase periphery circulation and are used for fever support. According to herbalist Adele Dawson, Elderflower is a wonderful support for influenza, especially for addressing the achiness that is so present in the body. Elder increases circulation and sweating, which helps rid the muscles of some of the toxins that build up during influenza.  Herbalist Jim McDonald recommends using elderflower in conjunction with boneset for supporting a healthy fever response (which is not the same as suppressing a fever). Here is a great video of Jim teaching about elder.

 

Elderberry is a strong immune system supporter and can be part of a daily herbal routine to combat regular seasonal illnesses (such as the horrible flu that goes around every year). Elderberry and Echinacea Purpea form a very powerful immune support team.  As I was taught about this plant from herbalist Jim McDonald, elderberry is best used for daily immune system support, to keep you from getting sick. Once you get sick though, it is better to take Echinacea because that stimulates an acute immune system response (through increasing white blood cells).  I actually make an elderberry elixir, a recpie I’ve shared on this blog before, and take that regularly during the year to avoid sickness and boost the immune system.

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Plump Elderberries Gathered at Lughnassadh

Matthew Wood notes that elder bark is semi-toxic, and because of this, it.can be used for an emetic drink—to induce vomiting if that is needed. How like the elder–she’ll give freely of her fruit and flowers, but take her bark and pay the price! John Eastman describes that the Onodaga would drink a brew of elder bark to try to remedy for poison hemlock poisoning (it would make you throw up the poison if you drank it quickly enough). Given that elder and poison hemlock have very similar growing conditions, this makes sense; a lot of “cures” can be found right next to the “poison” itself.  Although I think the best approach would be to avoid poison hemlock to begin with….

There’s a lot more to say about the medicine of the elder—I just detailed several of many uses.  You can see Jim’s video (above) and the link to Grieve’s entry on Elder here for more information.

 

 

Magical Uses of the Elder in Western and American Magical Traditions

Because of its place as an Ogham tree and potent magic, Elder has long been recognized as an important plant ally and has an incredibly rich tie to magic and folklore.

 

Elder is one of the 22 trees in the Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet. It is distinguished by five lines and is tied to the Ogham letter “R” and “Ruis.” The Elder, as an Ogham tree, has strong connections to the fairy realm (as both a gateway as well as the tree representing the Queen of the Fairy, in some tales).  In Ogham, the general divination meaning of Elder is tied to Venus (as a water-loving plant) and to the element of water. Her meanings are many, but are often tied to transformation; regeneration; life, death and rebirth; endings; and fate.  In the Celtic Tree Oracle, for example, Liz and Colin Murry tie this “rebirth” quality to the Pair Dadeni, the Celtic cauldron of rebirth, which is said to be able to revive the dead (as described in the second branch of the Mabinogi).

 

Like any powerful magical plant, Elder has both beneficial aspects as well as warnings to heed, as with any other very potent plant ally. In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes Elder as both “harmful” and “helpful” depending on how it is used. As long as elder is kept out of the house, it can bring a host of magical protection. People have planted elder outside of their houses, for example, for deflecting hostile magic; similarly, elder was planted in cemeteries to allow the dead to rest in peace.  Elder was used to fasten doors shut or tied to windows and doors to keep out the fey as well as other kinds of hostile magic and also used in barns for this same kind of protection.  If the elder was gathered on Beltane eve, it was particularly potent for this purpose. In Hoodoo, likewise, elder pegs were dressed (rubbed) with High John the Conqueror oil  and driven into the earth around a business or home to keep the law away (see Yronwode, Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, for more details).

 

All of these good and protective qualities, however, go away if you take Elder indoors in most cases—the tree spirit gets a bit angry and feisty. If you burn elder wood, you summon evil spirits. A baby crib made of elder for example, angers the tree spirit and the spirit pinches the baby till it is bruised and crying. Similarly, napping under an elder tree is a very bad idea; it is believed to cause madness (probably because of its association as a gateway to the otherworld and fairy traditions).

 

Elder bush in full flower

Elder bush in full flower

In the American Hoodoo tradition, it is similarly used as a protective herb; when leaves, berries, or roots are carried they offer protection, particularly against illness. In Hooodoo Root and Herb Magic, Cat Yronwode shares a particularly interesting ritual involving elder.  First you cut a fresh elder stick, draw a circle in the dirt around you, standing inside the circle, and make your wish or prayer.  Hoodoo practitioners don’t seem to have the prohibitions against elder being indoors that the Old World magical traditions seem to have.  For example, hoodoo practitioners use pieces of it inside the house to protect the house from thieves, shield one from prying eyes, and proved physical and spiritual protection. I wonder if this has to do with the different nature of the otherworld on American soil vs. European soil—or perhaps Sambucus Canadensis is simply more friendly than its European counterpart, Sambucus Nigra.

 

Matthew Wood, in the Earthwise Herbal describes how the North American Indians and Europeans were in the tradition of making offerings to the elder.  North American Indiana made offerings at each elder plant when picking them for use. Europeans believed Elder was the “elder mother” or “hylde moer”, who was Queen of the Fairy or Queen of the Underworld—a powerful and potent force. Each elder tree had a “little elder mother” that lived there; they would make offerings at the base of the elder tree, to the little elder mother, to encourage good harvest and potent medicine from the elder.

 

Elder in Native American Mythology

Native American mythology offers us some additional insight into the magic of the elder tree, as it manifests on the soil here in the Americas.

 

In one Miwok legend, How Tol-le-loo Stole Fire, Tol-le-loo has an elderberry flute that he takes with him to a village. Tol-le-loo has the intention of stealing the villager’s fire; to further his goal, he plays his flute and all of the villagers start to fall asleep. Wit-ta-bah, a robin, sees what is happening and spreads his wings over embers to protect it, but the flute eventually puts Wit-ta-bah to sleep as well. Tol-le-loo cuts a hole in Wit-ta-bah’s wing to get at the fire, steals the fire embers, and puts the fire in his flute for safekeeping while he climbs up to the top of a mountain. The fire stays in the flute till he takes it out.

 

In  a second Miwok legend, the Birth of Wik’-Wek and the Creation of Man, there is but a single elder tree, the lah’-pah, in the world at the dawn of time.  This single elder tree was located “where the sun gets up” in the east, surrounded byt a den of rattlesnakes.  The passage from the story is so beautiful, I want to share it here:

 

“Its branches, as they swayed in the wind, made a sweet musical sound. The tree sang; it sang all the time, day and night, and the song was good to hear. Wik’-wek looked and listened and wished he could have the tree. Near by he saw two Hol-luk’-ki or Star-people, and as he looked he perceived that they were the Hul-luk mi-yum’-ko–the great and beautiful women-chiefs of the Star-people. One was the Morning Star, the other Pleiades Os-so-so’-li. They were watching and working close by the elderberry tree. Wek’-wek liked the music and asked the Star-women about it. They told him that the tree whistled songs that kept them awake all day and all night so they could work all the time and never grow sleepy. They had the rattlesnakes to keep the birds from carrying off the elderberries.

 

So in the first legend, the song of the elder flute put people to sleep, but in this case, the song of the elder tree allowed the star-people to keep working and created the “soft whistling song of the elderberry tree.” But these people aren’t normal people, they are star-people and chiefs, so that might be part of the difference. Eventually, Wik’-wek is able to secure a piece of the elder tree and plant it all over the country to offer the Indian people food, music, and medicine. In another tale, which talks talks about this same legend from a book called Tower Legends, the author notes that since all of the elderberry trees came from that singing tree, elderberry trees sing even when there is no wind.

 

In the Tsimshian Texts, a brief note is indicated that Elderberry bush gave birth to her children before little stone, and this is part of why Indians do not live as long. There is not more than this short story, but it does also give the “life and death” theme we find above.

 

Elderflower in hand....ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Elderflower in hand….ready to make into medicine. Thank you, elder!

Finally, in the Hoo’-Koo’-E’-Ko legend, “How O’-Ye The Coyote-man Discovered his Wife”, O’-ye the Coyote man is the creator of the world.  The world was covered in ocean, but eventually the waters receded and there was enough land. O’Ye planted the most important trees to the people: buckeye, oak, and elderberry with many other plants in order to help make the world.

 

Conclusion: Sacred Meanings of the Elder Tree

The Elder is a tree richly steeped in lore and mysticism around the world. Given all of the above, here are several magical and divinatory meanings, based on the tree’s role here in North America:

 

  • Elder is a tree of transitions.  Elder is a boundary tree; she gaurds the boundaries between life and death, between sickness and health, between this world and the otherworld.  Like any transition point, this can be a dangerous road to travel, but can also lead to rich rewards.

 

  • Elder “sings” and offers a magical spirit song that can be used for a variety of purposes. Elder’s long associate with woodwind instruments (sambucca, flutes in the Americas) as well as the many legends about the elder trees in song suggest that a magical sound comes from the tree herself as well as any instruments created from elder branches.  These instruments, always some kind of flute, can be used to slow things down (putting people to sleep, into a revere, into a quiet meditation) or to speed things up/raise energy.  It is all in the intention of the tree or the musician.

 

  • Elder requires caution and wisdom in use. In both of the magical uses above, Elder has two sides: a healing and a harming side; a side of death and a side of life. Knowing how to use her well, how to seek her as a guide, is something that requires wisdom and knowledge of her inner workings.  Here, I also point to the elder’s use as a fire blow stick–she is a lot like the fire itself.  Tend and respect the fire carefully and you have a warm house and a hot meal.  Fail to respect her, and she will burn your house to the ground. And so, failing to use her medicine and magic wisely can end you in a lot of trouble (being caught in the rattlesnake den, trapped in the otherworld, or being tortured by the spirit of the little elder). Tread carefully, friends.

 

As the new spring season is quickly upon us, you might see if you can seek some elder this year–and learn the many things she has to teach.  Blessings!