The Druid's Garden

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

The Bee and the Machine: Moving Beyond Efficiency and towards Nature-Centeredness November 24, 2019

Animals have spirit!

Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.

 

Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast.  If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”,  I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.

 

One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.

 

The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned.  My response is that I’m a druid.  There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.

 

To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.

 

The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.

 

Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it.  Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.

 

Doing things the old way….at the North American Bushcraft School

By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.

 

But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar.  All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.

 

We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it.  The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are.  We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey.  In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.

 

Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily.  It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings.  The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift.  Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines.  I really appreciate the work that both do).  But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.

 

Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:

  • Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year.  I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints.  While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
  • Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
  • Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school.  You can find a list here.  I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places.  Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!)  The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
  • Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc.  As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world.  These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious.  Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it.  Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
  • Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature.  You’ll be glad you did!

This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post.  I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat.  If we change mindsets, we change the world.

 

On Being a Minority Religion and Paths to Building Respect November 17, 2019

“I’m sorry, I’m unavailable to meet on that day.”

A pause, “well, why is that? This is an important meeting.”

“Because it is a major holiday for me, and I am taking a personal day to celebrate it.”

Another, longer pause.  “Wait, your holiday is Halloween? That’s not a religious holiday.”

“No, my holiday is Samhain, which is a holiday dedicated to my ancestors. Modern Halloween traditions actually derived from this much older holiday.”

Another pause. “Can’t you celebrate it on another day?”

“No.  The timing is critical to the celebration. Would I ask you to meet on Christmas or Easter?”

Another pause. “That’s not the same thing.”

 

The above interchange is a fairly common interaction fairly typical of my workplace experiences in being a minority religion, a druid, here in the USA. In fact, I had this exchange with someone just last week. Since this kind of thing seems to come up around Samhain, in particular, I thought I’d take some time today to share my perspective on some of the challenges that people like me, walking a minority religious path, face.  But most importantly, I’m going to share some ideas for how we can build bridges and build respect (beyond mere tolerance, but actual understanding).

(*I use the word “religion” understanding that this word represents the dominant term for people who have a spiritual path.  A lot of druids don’t like it, and I don’t necessarily like it either, but it gives certain credibility and legal standing–so I choose to use it.)

 

Challenges Druids and other Nature-Based Religions face

Minority religions face a lot of challenges in general in the modern US.  Some of the challenges we druids face are shared by other minority paths, and others are unique.  Here are some–certainly not all–of some of the typical things that people walking the druid path may face.

Just being a druid!

Just being a druid!

 

Invisibility. The Pew Forum offers some general demographics on Religious life in the US.  If we use the numbers from their Religious Landscape Survey,  nationwide, the category “pagan or Wiccan” (which is the closest one can likely get to druid) has about 0.03% of the population.  In other words, my path isn’t even listed on the survey, and so, we are much lower than 0.03%.  Some druids do identify as pagan, others do not, so it is really hard to tell exactly how many of us there are.

 

But regardless of the specific percentage, because there are so few of us, people have no idea who we are or what we do.  This is actually beneficial in some cases, as assumptions are hard to change (ask anyone calling themselves a witch about that!)  I’m of the opinion that a blank slate is better than a slate filled with misinformation. A blank slate means that I can educate people who ask me about it in a productive way (at least some times) and define “druid” in ways that actually represent our practices.  Recently, for example, I told my employees that I was taking Samhain off. They were supportive, and one of my newer employees asked me, what’s a druid? And I was able to respond in a productive way, and we had a good conversation, and she wished me well on my holiday!

 

On the other hand, you do have things like RPGS, World of Warcraft, and D&D that paint druids in a certain light.  If people find out I’m a druid, I sometimes people get the impression that I run around in robes lobbing globes of green nature energy at villians. Again, not necessarily a bad impression, but also, not quite right.

 

This invisibility also means that holidays aren’t recognized, and as my opening example discussion shows, that can lead to other kinds of difficulty.

 

Intolerance.  Like any other religion with a “pagan” label, a lot of druids worry about what happens when their conservative Christian neighbors learn about who they are or what they might be doing. Some druids choose to do public ritual to help build tolerance, while others simply want to be left alone to do their own thing.  Last year, the Wayist Druids in Tennessee decided to do a public ceremony and had some trouble with the local conservative Christians. But often, these protests are more bark than bite.  The Wild Hunt reported on two recent events that were slated to be protested by conservative Christians, and in both cases, the protesters, few in number, showed up briefly and left pretty quickly. And yet, even one or two intolerant people can make doing anything public very uncomfortable. One of the things that I worry about where I live, for example, is that I’m in a rural area that does have a fair share of hate groups. There’s a Moose lodge nearby that is a known hate group hangout, very rural, only about 5 miles north. Their presence so close to where I live certainly gives me pause.

 

Lack of Basic First Amendment Rights and legal protections.  I am a legally ordained clergy member through the Ancient Order of Druids in America, a federally recognized religious organization in the US.  Despite this federal legal recognition, I am not permitted to perform religious ceremonies in my home state (Pennsylvania) because PA state law says that in order to be recognized at the state level, my “church” must have a building and meet regularly.  With the 15 or so practicing druids in my region, this is simply an impossibility. Technically, we do have a building (our home) and meet regularly (about 3-4x a year for grove events).  But this doesn’t “count” from the state’s perspective–they only want organized religions that look and act like Christianity to be legally performing ceremonies.  You find a lot of these kinds of things–assumptions that “religion” equals things that look and act like Christianity.  Many states have laws that are really designed only to allow traditional religions to be recognized, and that’s a sad thing.  But things are changing if the battle over veterans’ tombstones is any indication.

 

Small altar in the woods

A simple altar on public land

Lack of Places to Celebrate. Especially in urban and suburban areas, it’s surprisingly hard to find quiet places to celebrate your path and to do outdoor public ritual.  I can’t tell you how many rituals were disrupted over the years because I thought I had chosen a quiet space to celebrate a druid holiday or just do some of my own ritual work, but it turned out, I did not.  Hiking deep into wild public areas is a generally safe approach.  Renting private places for a weekend is a safe approach. Doing things on your land or someone else’s land is a safe approach.  But doing outdoor public ritual otherwise is a gamble: it might go fine, or it might draw the ire of someone who is not supportive and will cause a scene (in the middle of your Samhain ceremony!)  Lots of groves and individuals find workarounds, like designating 1-2 people who are there to keep outsiders from disrupting a ceremony.

 

Part of this is because we are druids.  It’s so nice just to be outside, at some amazing place, and be able to celebrate there.  Or even just have a quiet moment.  I think if druidry and other nature-based paths were more well known, there would be more opportunity to have ceremonies in public places and a lot more tolerance of those ceremonies.

 

Lack of family / friend / loved one support.  Probably the most difficult of anything is the intolerance and lack of support that one gets for choosing a different path, particularly if you have strongly religious famliy members.  I’ve struggled with this in my own life; my Christian family largely still doesn’t support my path and its better not to say anything than try to push the issue.  I’ve made good inroads with my parents, but that was a very long and hard fight spanning over a decade.  My extended family, I don’t even bother with.  I let them think what they want because there is not really a way forward in that particular area.  I’ve had relationships (including some long-term ones) end because of my religious identity, and I’ve also had friendships end when someone found out what I was.  When I mentor other druids, I often find this is one of the most challenging things–its not the random strangers that you have to worry about but rather, the people that you love and that are closest to you.

 

Bridges to build

So now that I’ve outlined some of the major challenges druids face, I want to talk about strategies for building understanding and compassion.  Note that I’m not using the word “tolerance” for a very specific reason. The concept of “tolerance” gets a lot of airplay here in the US.  We want to “build tolerance” between different faiths. Dictionary definitions from Merriam Webster about the word “tolerance” say things like, “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something” or “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”. I think tolerance is the first step in what hopefully becomes a deeper understanding, respect, and mutual support of diverse paths. That’s my ultimate goal and what I’m working towards.  Tolerance to me isn’t enough–what that basically means is that someone “tolerates” my existence.  What I’d like to see is someone going well beyond tolerance and into invitations to share, mutuality, collaboration, and respect.

 

Bridge building is a really important step, and I find that this is best done individually.  I gave the example above about simple conversations, such as the one recently between my employees.  Part of why that conversation worked was that I’ve been working with these folks for a while, they trust me, and I have a good reputation in my workplace and in my field.  A good reputation, being well respected, makes something “weird” like druidry go down easier.  This is why timing really matters–I don’t want to open with “I’m a druid” to new people, necessarily.  I prefer to build relationships first, and then, over time, they can get to know this side of me after they’ve already formed a basic opinion of me. Those conversations will have much more impact this way.

Trail into the woods....

Trail into the woods….leading to understanding and respect!

One of the strategies that I find helpful is looking for similarities.  When I talked to my mother about druidry for the first time, I took her for a walk in the woods where she prays.  Then, I talked about my path of druidry and how it shared many things with her path of Christianity–she seeks messages in nature, she goes to the woods to commune and pray, and she recognizes nature as God’s creation.  I seek messages in nature, I got to the woods for reverence, and I recognize nature as a sacred place.  When you frame it in this way, what seems foreign becomes familiar.

 

Go-to-Responses. Let’s say you decide to be fairly open about who you are as a druid.  If you are, people will ask questions from time to time.  I prefer to be prepared and know what I’m going to say rather than flounder.  Thus, I have developed some “go to” statements that help me talk about druidry.  I usually practice these from time to time. I like to remind myself that hat the first impression is possibly the only impression you can make. Here are a few common ones and how I frame it:

What is a druid?  Druidry is a spiritual tradition rooted in connecting with nature.  For druids, nature is our sacred text and our church, in the sense that we derive deep spiritual meaning from nature.  One of the things we do, for example, is work to attune our own lives with the seasonal changes that are happening around us.  Especially with some of the challenges we face in the 21st century, we see reconnecting with nature critical to our own lives.

What do druids believe? Druidry is a set of spiritual practices, and we honor belief as an individual’s choice.  That means that different druids have a differing understanding of deity, the afterlife, and other such questions.  I am an animist druid, which means that I do not work with the concept of deity, but rather, understand all living beings and natural features (such as forests, rivers, or stones) as having spirits. I work closely with those spirits as part of my own druid path.

What is X holiday about?  I generally will explain the wheel of the year and how we look to nature for guidance; then I shift to talking about where we are at this point in the year and the closest holiday.  Most of the time, I get asked about Samhain, and I would share something like this:  Samhain to many druids is really about two things: honoring various kinds of ancestors and letting go  Ancestors to druids include blood ancestors, but may also include ancestors of the land, ancestors of our druid tradition, ancestors of our profession, and others.  We remember them, honor them, and commune with them.  If you look on the landscape right now, we’ve just had the first frost, the leaves are falling from the trees, and winter is setting in. This season is over, and a new one is beginning.  We work with that energy at this time of year.

 

Public druidry.  The final strategy I use is some public outreach and public druidry.  For example, in the last few months, I’ve been asked to come and speak about druidry at the local UU church and offer a lesson in druidry for some of the middle school kids that go to the church.  Soon, I will also be giving a talk for a pan-spiritual group on campus who wants to know about druids.  I think that once you’ve been walking this path a while and you feel ready, this is good work to do. Every person who hears about you now knows something new.  That person in the future is more likely to build bridges with you and others.

 

Druid's prayer for peace painting

Druid’s prayer for peace painting

Subversive druidry. Finally, I like to get the ideas of druidry out there sometimes without even attaching the label.  For example, I have been giving medicinal and edible plant walks for many years.  As part of my plant walks, I talk about reciprocation, repair, regeneration–concepts that I understand because I am a druid.  These are concepts that lead people to deeply connect with nature and begin to see nature as not only a physical thing, but a metaphysical thing.  To be clear: I’m not trying to create new druids. But I am trying to expose people to some druid thinking so that perhaps later, when they hear the label, it doesn’t seem as weird.

 

The Work of Peace.  I want to close with what I consider to be the most important part of all of this work–the work of peace.  In the druid revival tradition, peace is a central part of what we do.  At the beginning of our rituals, we declare peace in the four quarters.  Really think about that–we magically and powerfully proclaim peace in the four directions.  We have druid’s peace prayers and an emphasis on aspects of peace in the druid’s prayer (understanding, wisdom, knowledge, justice, the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother). Each time we say one of these prayers or declare peace in the quarters, we are sending that prayer into the world.  Everything I’m saying here, is another way to pray for peace.  Even if we can’t do anything else, or aren’t comfortable doing anything else, we can always offer that prayer for peace.

 

I have a lot more I could write on this topic, but I think this is a good start to talking about these issues.  Readers, I want to encourage you to post with your own experiences and suggestions–things that worked well for you, things that did not, experiences you have had.  Thank you and blessings!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings November 10, 2019

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

 

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?

 

 

 

Ancestral Herbalism and Samhain: Working Deeply with Rosemary October 27, 2019

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

As we quickly approach Samhain, it is a useful practice to spend some time with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and build her into your Samhain practices. In this post, we look into some of the magic and medicine of Rosemary, and I share a number of ancestor and Samhain-focused practices that you can use with Rosemary.

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

Before we get into what you can make or do with rosemary, let’s spend some time exploring and understanding this ancient herb. Rosemary has been with humanity almost as long as we have written records. Native to the mediterranean region, rosemary was first found referenced on cuineform tablets from Ancient Egypt that are from 5000 BCE–thus, humanity has at least an 8000 year old relationship with this herb (but I suspect it is much longer than our written history!). It was spread to China as early as the 2nd century CE, and to Europe in the middle ages.  It came to North America and South America in the 1700s and now has global reach.

 

The “officinalis” in Rosemary’s latin name indicates that this was an herb used as of the materia medica in ancient Rome and beyond. While Linneaus in the 18th century came up with the Latin taxonomy of naming plants, and thus gave Rosemary her official “officinalis” designation, the uses of this plant go back quite further.  In fact, the term “rosemary” derives from Latin, ros marinus (“dew of the sea”).  Even the word itself has a wonderful history.

 

Rosemary has been considered by many cultures as a sacred herb tied to memory and remembrance, and love. This was certainly known in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as in much of the other cultures in the Mediterranean, where rosemary was used both for weddings (in the form of sprigs or wreaths) as well as for funerals to honor the dead.  It is burned as incense, used in cooking, used as medicine and used in funeral ceremonies–a tradition that continues to modern times in Australia and other nations. Thus, you might say that Rosemary is an ally to us both in life, and in death.

Rosemary in flower

Grieve speaks of the different rosemary customs in her entry in A Modern Herbal, particularily surrounding memory and rememberance. This is a common and well known use, such as represented in Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”  Many herbalists recognize the usefulness of rosemary both for strengthening the memory, but also working with us a plant spirit ally in helping us remember. Memory can be a fickle thing this day and age, especially with phones rather than our minds and hearts doing the rememberance.  Rosemary, thus, is a potent ally for us, particularly at Samhain when reflecting back, honoring the past, and honoring those who came before us is central. 

 

Rosemary is also an incredible herbal ally. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write of Rosemary and its many uses.  Modern herbalists recognize rosemary as useful both as an essential oil as well in its plant forms.  Every part of the plant can be used medicinally. Both the oil and the herb can be used as a carminitive, that is, offering beneficial and healing action on the digestive system and aiding in the reduction of gas and digestion of food (in fact, you will find that many culinary herbs aren’t just for taste, but have these same kinds of actions–which is probably why they were traditionally used in cooking!)   Rosemary, in tea or tincture form, can also be used to help calm the nerves.   Finally, rosemary is very useful in a hair wash to strengthen the hair and encourage new hair growth (I use a vinegar infused with rosemary often!)  Research has also shown that rosemary oil can be used to increase alertness and cognitive function, which is pretty cool!

 

There’s a lot more that could be said about rosemary’s virtues, but I think you get the idea–Rosemary is an amazing Samhain herb for so many reasons.  So let’s get to some of the stuff you can make and do with rosemary as a focal herb for this time of year.

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

Rosemary (on its own or combined with other herbs) make fantastic herbs for doing any kind of memory work or clearing work. Make sure you use fresh rosemary for your smudge stick making–dried rosemary is brittle and easily falls off the branch. I usually gather up rosemary in the weeks before hard frost (for me in Western Pennsylvania on the US East Coast, this is usually 1-2 weeks before Samhain arrives).  Some I save for culinary use, and the rest I use in smudge stick making. I have full details for how to make your own smudges and a list of recipes for smudges. For Samhain, and ancestor work, I like the following combinations:

  • Rosemary (alone) for deep ancestor work or memory work (such as working with the ancient art of memory mansions, etc)
  • Rosemary, Lavender, and Mugwort for deep dreaming work (which is best done between Samhain and Imbolc)
  • Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme for helping me shift my energies from the light half to the dark half of the year, and accept the frost and cold that is to come.

If you are growing rosemary itself, don’t overlook the roots as another useful part of the plant for incense and smudges–it has a more woody and deep aroma and is excellent!

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

You can construct an herbal oil using rosemary leaf and rosemary essential oil that excellent.  I like to use a combination of rosemary and borage for this work, but you can use other plant combinations.  To make your oil, crush fresh or dried rosemary and borage and place in a small mason jar.  Cover the jar with fractionated coconut oil (prefered over olive oil for this recipe, but you could also use almond or olive oil–whatever you have around).  Wait 1 week (for fresh herbs) or one moon cycle (for dried herbs) and then strain.  For a bit of added punch, add rosemary essential oil (2% dilution, or about 10-15 drops per cup of oil).

Keep your rosemary oil in an oil roller or jar and rub on your temples and heart for any kind of visioning or past life work.  It also doubles as an excellent “memory” oil for wanting to jog the memory or wanting to hold something important in your memory and not lose it.

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

One of my very favorite Samhain traditions is to invite my ancestors to tea.  For this, I typically make a tea of three herbs: rosemary, lavender, and mugwort (small amount of mugwort because it can be bitter) and I sweeten it with honey.  To make the tea, boil water, add your herbs (about 1/2 tbsp of herbs per cup of tea), let seep for 5-10 min, and then strain and stir in your honey.

 

The ritual is simple and can be performed anytime around Samhain (I like to do this Samhain eve).  To set up the ritual, you will need a teapot and two teacups and candles.  I start by  then light a candle and leave it in my western window (also traditional).  I light candles around my space and place a blanket on the floor for me to sit on.  You should also have a large empty bowl.

Rosemary

To begin the ritual, I open up a sacred space (using AODA’s Solitary Grove ritual) and when opening the space, indicate that the sacred space is traversable by any ancestor who wishes to visit.  I then pour myself a cup of tea and wait. When an ancestor arrives, I likewise pour them tea and we sit and converse using spirit communication techniques (if you haven’t yet honed your skill in this area, a divination system like an oracle deck would work great).  After we are done conversing, the ancestor has taken their tea energetically.  I then pour it into the bowl and see if another ancestor wants to come and have tea.  I have met many fascinating ancestors this way–of land, tradition, blood, and bone.

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

Samhain is one of my favorite times to really “cook” for a festival, particularly cakes, breads, and other doughy goodness.

If you are lucky enough to have chestnut flour available (which you can create yourself if you have access to some chestnuts), this is an amazing cake for Samhain that combines rosemary with the hopeful and strong chestnut.

For those who aren’t off hoarding and cracking chestnuts, I highly recommend this rosemary bread that you can make in a dutch oven.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Rosemary is such a powerful and potent plant ally for us, particularly at Samhain.  Dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Rosemary.  Let me know if you try anything here!

 

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply October 21, 2019

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.