The Druid's Garden

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

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!

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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!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

Diary of a Land Healer: January January 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond.

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

 

Mushrooms!

Mushrooms!

 

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

 

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

More mushrooms!

More mushrooms!

 

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

Grasses by the flooded creek

Grasses by the flooded creek.

 

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

 

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

Imperfection saved this tree!

Imperfection saved this tree.

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

A mighty fine burl indeed!

A mighty fine burl indeed!

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

 

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

Acorn in the brush!

Acorn in the brush!

 

PS: I have two annoucements for this week:

 

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

 

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

 

 

Establishing Sacred Land: Shaping A Shared Vision November 5, 2017

In Tending the Wild, a book that has deeply shaped my thinking about humans, nature and relationship, M. Kat Anderson reports in her introduction that the concept of “wilderness” had a very different understanding to the native peoples of California.  To the native peoples, “wilderness” was a negative thing; it was land that was essentially “untended” and left on its own. Native peoples saw tending the land–scattering seeds, selective burning, cultivating various kinds of perennial and annual spaces–as necessary for the health and growth of the land.  And the abundance that is reported by early western visitors to California and all of what is now known as North America certainly supported that fact: the land was incredibly rich, diverse, and abundant.

 

Of course, today, we see “wilderness” as a good thing. It is something that humans haven’t touched, it remains pristine and unbroken. In the post-industrial western world, the typical “touch” of humans on the landscape are far from nurturing ,which is why the idea of wilderness is appealing. But as we’ve seen through the permaculture movement, humans are re-learning how to tend nature, how to become part of nature, and how to tend their lands.  It is from this mentality, that of “tending” and of “stewardship” that we can see how establishing sacred land requires a completely different way of thinking about you and your relationship to the land.

 

Abundance of the Land

Abundance of the Land

In my first post on this series last week, I discussed the concept of a “sacred landscape” or “sacred land”; an intentional piece of land where you can co-create a sacred place with the spirits of the land.  This sacred land may include multiple kinds of things: stone circles, gardens, wild spaces, but the overall intent is that the entire land is sacred and you dedicate it as such. Typically, this would be done on land that you “own” or have unrestricted access to. I’ll also note that I’m not implying that all land isn’t sacred–it very much is. However, I am saying that we are working to do something here that uses spiritual tools in charging land for spiritual purpose. In my post last week, I offered some background about language, ownership, and honoring. Now, we’ll talk about shaping a shared vision and doing some key ritual work to help bring this dream into a reality.

 

Inner and Outer Work

As I discussed in my long series last year on land healing and in several other places, the most basic magical adage comes from Hermes Trismegistus and has been modernly described as “as above, so below; as within, so without.” This is critical to know when creating sacred landscapes and sacred spaces. Any work we do energetically reflects outward physically; and any physical healing work offers energetic benefits on the land. I believe that the most effective way of co-creating sacred land is to attend to both of these sides, in harmony with each other. Your energetic work can begin immediately; the physical work on the land will likely unfold over a period of years. Keeping this in mind as you begin to shape your shared vision for your own sacred land is a very useful approach.

 

Shaping A Shared Vision for Sacred Land

As you are continuing to take care of the preliminaries I discussed last week: cleaning up garbage, honoring the spirits, being present with the land, you can start to move into the second part of the work: shaping a vision. I again want to encourage you to take the time that this process needs–don’t do anything too quickly or without a clear sense of the will of the spirits of the land. In permaculture design, before we create or design anything, we spend a period of time observing and interacting with the land around us (in an ideal setting, this would be a full year’s time to see the full cycle of the seasons and patterns of light, wind, rain, and growth upon the landscape). In terms of creating a sacred landscape, I would suggest a similar process: I think that we need a period of time in a shared vision and coming into an understanding of the work that should be done. It depends on where you are and where the land is in terms of how long this takes.

 

In the last several months, even as I was waiting for the house sale to close, I have been on the land as often as possible, watching the land transition from summer to fall and now, quickly, to early winter. I have spent a lot of time engaging in deep listening and visioning work, and each of the experiences has started to help shape, for me, the work the spirits would like to see here on this land: in other words, this land’s sacred purpose(s). There are countless strategies for how you might go about shaping the vision together–I’ll share a few that I’m using.

 

Find the Dominant Tree(s) and commune. One strategy that I have used to understand and connect with the spirits of the land is to find the oldest tree on the land–the one that has presence. You know it when you see it–around here, the oldest, dominant trees were often once the corner trees of fields, marking boundaries, with stones from the field piled up around them. When the forests filled back in around them, they just kept growing. Find these trees and spend time communicating with them on the inner and on the outer planes (see links for how to do this work).

 

I found several such trees on my new land: a black oak in the west and a white oak in the east, down by the creek that runs on the edge of my property and have been working with them since I first came to this land. Just this weekend, I found a third massive oak to the south (so now, clearly, I just need to find the northern one!) I have already spent–and will continue to spend–time communing with these trees to understand the work that we are to do on the land. These oaks are the some of the elders here–they have witnessed much and have much to share. I’m delighted that they are Oaks–for many trees go to sleep during the dark half of the year, but the Oaks typically do not. So I will be able to work with them and several other conifer species during the winter months: eastern hemlock, white pine, juniper, eastern white cedar, and white spruce.

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Dowsing and Pendulum work. Even if you have not cultivated the kinds of spiritual gifts to speak directly with the spirits of the land (and these gifts can be cultivated with practice, meditation, and time), you can discern a great deal by using various divination methods. For example, if you wanted to establish a sacred space or stone circle on the land for the purposes of ritual work, you can use a dowsing rod or pendulum to help point you in the right direction. These tools do take practice, but anyone can learn them. For basic instructions on dowsing, Webster’s Dowsing for Beginners is a good place to start. For basic instructions on using a pendulum, see here. I’ve used the pendulum method myself–you set an intention aloud: I would like to establish a sacred grove. Then, you can walk around the land and see which way it is pointing you. When you get to the spot, it will often go crazy and in a circle. Things like this can help the spirits of the land guide you.

 

Observe and Interact. Working with the land isn’t just an inner principle–it is also part of the outer work we can do to create ecologically diverse and rich landscapes that serve a variety of functions and purposes. The rise and fall of the sun, the flow of water across the landscape, the issues of pollution and toxins, the patterns of shade–all of these also matter. These are basic elemental realities–and modern humans often choose to ignore them. In permaculture design, before developing or finalizing a design, a year of observation is considered to be the best practice, the one that can lead to the most successful and well-thought out designs.  This observation and interaction allows the designer to see how the changing seasons impact the landscape, to observe the flows of water, the sun, the wind, to find microclimates, to see what life is already there and growing. This, too, is part of how we align with nature–simply being present with it and understanding it as fully as we can.  Figuring out what the vision will be, working with nature’s flows, patterns, and rhythms to bring that into reality.  Thinking about small, slow practices that spiral and unfold like petals of a rose opening up.

 

These are just some, of many ways, of communing with nature.  The more time you spend on this process seeking deeper understanding, the more effective you will be.

 

Energetics and Ritual

A second thing that you can begin to do very early in the process of establishing sacred land is to do various rituals for the space.  Typically, these are are welcoming rituals and cleansing rituals. Rituals that help set the tone for everything that is to come. A few of the things you can do are as follows:

 

Land and House Cleansing/Blessing: You can do a simple cleansing and blessing using the four elements. Get a friend or two and carry representations of the elements around the property. A smudge stick/incense, a bowl of water, a bowl of earth, and a candle are all you need for this. If you are alone, bring a smudge stick that is burning and a bowl of salt water and you are set.

 

Smudge sticks for blessing

Smudge sticks for blessing

Land Smudging. I like the idea of employing specific herbs for specific magical purposes, and this kind of “introductory” work is also super helpful here. Building a fire and casting certain cleansing and healing herbs or tree branches upon it is one such way: eastern white cedar, white pine, sage, or lavender are particularly good for this purpose. Or, in a more extreme example, At the last OBOD East Coast Gathering, I ran a smudge stick workshop (based on this post). At the end of the workshop, we had some leftover materials of various kinds: extra white pine, cedar, sage, lavender, sweet clover, and so on. A friend and I made what we called a “smudge bomb”; we used two paper bags and layered in all of the material and then tied it up with white cotton string. When the Ovates met around the fire the next morning, they laid the smudge bomb carefully on the still-hot coals and it smoldered there, offering an incredible smell all around the camp (and cleansing smoke into the air many miles beyond).  In fact, I’m constructing several smaller smudge bombs for my work here over the winter months (maybe I’ll write more on this soon!)

 

Music and Dance. Play some music, dance in the land, show the land that you are happy to be there! I have some drummer friends, and within a month or so, weather providing, I will invite everyone out to drum up some good energy and simply be present on the land. If not, we’ll convene for such work in the spring!

 

Energy work. Many people practice a form of energy work like Reiki, etc. In AODA, we work a lot with the three currents (solar, lunar, telluric) and working with those through the Sphere of Protection is my most basic energy working. Doing any energy work you can to bring in positive energy to the land early on is very useful–it gives the land a boost to continue to facilitate deeper connections.

 

A Vision and Goals: The Story of the New Land

Throughout all of the ritual work, preliminary work discussed during the last post, and the listening and communicating work above, you should hopefully come to a larger vision or goal for the sacred land you are co-creating. In permaculture design, we might call this a “design concept statement.” Its a simple statement that offers us the overall goal for the space–this statement allows us to always keep in mind the overall goal when making any specific decision. In the visioning work I am doing, one of the goals that came forth was that this was to be a place of deep healing for many.

 

One of the things that has been weighing on me even during the purchasing process is the use of the land prior to my arrival. About 3 acres of the land has been “sustainably” timbered 4 times in the last 40 years, or once every decade. In fact, the owners timbered it again just before they put it up for sale (which deeply saddened me, but is, unfortunately, typical of the mindsets average Americans have towards the land as a resource-extraction machine). About six months before this, in my work with the land spirits in the region in doing land healing work, I was told that the land that was waiting for me would be in need of healing. Given this, I had been prepared for a lot of things–it is one of my callings in the world to heal damaged lands.

 

Breaking down the old and regrowth

Breaking down the old and regrowth

My path as a druid has taught me about the pain of the land, but also her possibility of healing. Here in PA, in visiting and traveling all over this region, I was able to witness what had been done to the broader landscape and listen about what was needed for the land to heal. I saw the darkness in the land, the pain, but also the incredible promise of things to come. I came to better understand the energetic problems with fracking and natural gas extraction, strip mining, “sustainable logging” and all of the extraction activities that are so prevalent everywhere (many of which I have blogged about in previous posts). But I also came to understand the beauty that healing brings–the spaces that have been set aside or preserved, the old forests that have regrown (like the amazing PA Wilds are!) and the healing power of nature.

 

The ancient oaks told me that this land would serve as a microcosm for healing across the broader land: that was the ultimate purpose of our sacred work here upon this land. Any land healing work or physical healing that is done on this land would radiate outward. This knowledge, then, will shape everything that I am going to do moving forward.

 

Further, as I walked the new land to which I belong, I thought about my own deep pain and hurt over in my lifetime, particularly over the last 5 or so years. I realized that the land and I were the same. We both had been partially timbered several times over the recent years, so to speak. To heal this land was to heal myself. But on an even broader level, as these oaks shared, to heal this land was to bring healing to everything surrounding it. This land, then, will be like a brightly burning lightbulb radiating outward to the rest of the land. This will be a place of healing for all who come here–and with that goal, things like healing herb gardens, sanctuary spaces, and more, may unfold. I know that there is a lot more to this work than what I’ve shard above, but it is a good start!

 

I’ll continue to write about my work on the land in the coming months and years–when I have something to share :).  In the meantime, blessings as November deepens and winter is soon upon us.