Category Archives: Nature Philosophy

Druidry for the 21st Century: Setting and Co-Creating Intentions with Nature

Colorful tree with spiral roots into the earth

Nature has so much magic, it benefits us always to work with her!

Intentions are powerful things. They allow us to shape our force of will and set a path forward.  They help us figure out what our own goals are. And I think because of that, we often see them as very personal. This is something that we do for our own purposes. In many western occult traditions, and even in druidry, intentions are often framed as highly internal things: things we set, things we want to manifest, things that help us shape our vision.  You’ll see this very frequently in any ritual work–set your intentions for a ritual, a creation, a space, a new piece of land, and so forth. I think a lot of this is influenced by western occultism, which unfortunately puts the practitioner in a place of power and at the center of a working. I also think a lot of this is culturally influenced–westerners are inherently individualistic and self-focused, and this individual focus is both subconscious and conscious. This self-focus is an enormous problem when it comes to building reciprocal relationships with nature.  Westerners also have a view of the land that implies ownership–ownership of lands gives full rights to do anything you want with it. Thus, it’s hard to say you are respecting the agency of the land and her spirits when you pretty much go in and do whatever you want to the land at any time.

I wanted to share an alternative approach that I’ve done with our land here, a way of moving me out of the center of my own intentions and instead considering intentions as a mutual and shared thing that I create in relationship with the living earth (for more on reciprocity and nature, see this post). If we open up our intentions and let the spirits of nature be co-creators in shaping intention, it can lead to some amazing results and allow us to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature.

Reciprocation and Intention

I’ve been arguing that reciprocation should be a core value that we build into nature-based spiritual traditions. It is through reciprocation that we can build a stronger nature-based spiritual tradition, that we can work to repair the wrongs of previous generations (particularly those in relation to lands and indigenous peoples), that we can work to reverse colonialization, and that we can build a better future for all life on earth.  It is through reciprocation that we can begin to understand that humans are not above nature but are part of nature.  Reciprocation is also built into the Ancient Order of Druids in America (see our vision statement, here), the order where I am currently serving as Grand Archdruid.

I think that reframing intentions as something that can be reciprocal can move us a few steps in the right direction, both through our magical practices and our intentions for the living earth.

Intentions are the spark of an idea; they are an early commitment to moving in a particular direction, and they are often the beginning of a magical, spiritual, and/or physical practice (or something of all three).  So now let’s look at two ways we might shift intentions to a more reciprocal relationship.

Preliminaries: Nature Communication

In order to do any of the work I’m suggesting below, you will need ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and the land around you.  If you’ve been on a nature-based spiritual path or practice any kind of deep nature awareness, you probably don’t need anything I’m going to say and can skip this.  But if you are newer to this or unsure, I wanted to give you some options and resources.

  • Gut feelings and intuition. A lot of nature communication is based in feeling and understanding the signals that our body tells us.  In other words, when you walk into a forest, how do you feel? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel unwelcome and like the forest doesn’t want you there? Those initial gut feelings are a critical part of communicating with nature–particularly in listening.
  • Divination. Divination tools such as ogham, tarot, pendulum, geomancy, etc. are great ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and are particularly useful for those who are still developing other methods of spirit communication.  For setting intentions, I recommend that you use something very simple that has a yes/no function, thus, a pendulum is most appropriate (things like tarot or ogham get more complicated in their interpretation, where a pendulum will be very direct).   To use a pendulum in this way, I would suggest creating one with something from nature (a stone from the land around you and a string).  Then simply ask it to “show me yes” and “show me no” and now you know how to interpret it.
  • Spirit communication. More advanced practitioners can develop more direct ways of communicating with spirit through their inner vision: visuals, conversation, sensing energy, etc.  This method is what you will want to work up to–being able to converse with a tree, for example, allows things to be quite clear.  I have a series on how to cultivate plant spirit communication, so please check out these posts for more information: part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

The only other preliminary thing I suggest you do is to prepare some kind of offering for your work with the spirits of the land.  I’ve written more on offerings here, here, and here.

Setting Intentions for a Space or Project

The earth oven project

The earth oven project

Let’s say you have land and you want to create a new project on that land.  It might be a sacred grove, a druid’s anchor spot, or a sacred garden.  Here’s another great opportunity to set intentions collaboratively.  As one of the first things you do, reach out to the land

I would suggest that this should not be a one-time practice but rather a practice that is done on a regular basis.  The practice is simple: go to the spot and simply say, “I’d like to set shared intentions for [this space, the project, etc].” Then have a conversation, use divination, or any other means to set those intentions.  It may take some time as nature often works on a different timeline than we do.  But this work will unfold and you’ll see how rich the collaborative intention setting can be.

Intentions in my druid’s anchor spot. In one example, I’ve found that my druid’s anchor spot likes to set new intentions with each season, so I make it a point to do that work at the solstices and equinoxes.  Usually, at the Winter Solstice, the intention is simply “rest” but in the other seasons, we set intentions together for the work to come.  These intentions can vary pretty widely: last year in the fall, the shared intention was to share a story of the day, and as it grew dark, each of us would tell a story and listen to each other’s story.  The year before, the land was very intent on having some of the biodiversity returned, so we worked together on various approaches to bringing in biodiversity (specifically through cleaning up certain areas that had garbage, bringing in new soil, and planting new trees, understory, and woodland medicinal species).  I am excited to see what this season’s intentions will be!

Intentions for the earth oven project. In a second example, I’ll share how to set intentions for a project.  The Druids Garden homestead is a 5-acre homestead in Western Pennsylvania, run by two druids.  We spend a lot of time prior to engaging in any project setting intentions with the land in collaborative ways.  On a larger scale, this includes figuring out what parts of the land want to be wild, which want cultivation, and where we can create gardens and more human-tended spaces (in permauclture terms, this is about setting up our zones of use, among other things).

Thus, when I decided to build the earth oven, I sat with the land over a period of months and asked, where can I build this oven?  Once both my partner and I had a clear sense of where to build, I began to narrow down the spot to the specific work at hand.  I was given permission to create a small path about 15′ into the brush and to create my oven there.  I was also shown a clear space for a shrine that would sit on the path to the oven.  I explained to the land that this would require me to move/cut some plants and remove the topsoil, and the land told me that I could ask each individual plant what to do (compost, replant, pot up and give away) as well as any stones in the area.  So I began that work–it took me a few sessions, but it was very rewarding. Some of the plants wanted to be harvested and made into medicine (blackberry roots).  Others were rhizomatic (like mayapple), and wanted to simply be composted.  The small cherry tree (also abundant) wanted to be made into pendants and gifts.  The wild yams wanted to be replanted and showed me where.  Spicebush wanted to be potted up and given to a specific person. The fledgling sassafras made it clear that she was the boundary and that I needed to situate the oven in a way that did not disturb her growth.  By the time I had “cleared” the land, every specific plant and tree that was there had the opportunity to state their intentions, and those intentions were honored.  After that, I could begin building the earth oven knowing that the land was fully honored and included in the intention of that space, and because of it, we would be able to work deep magic with the oven in the years to come.

Now imagine the difference in this experience if I had just come into the land, started pulling up plants, piling them up, and then clearing the land. The end result–a physical space for an earth oven would have been the same.  But my own relationship with the land would have suffered; the land being a victim at my hands.  Thus, when I talk about reciprocation, this is exactly what I mean.  We include the land, we not only as permission but we ask what we should do, how we should do it.  I think that its important to recognize that the land loves us, and wants to help us meet our goals.  This reciprocation puts nature in equal partnership with us, and the blessings flow from that relationship.

Setting Intentions for a Magical Working, Ceremony or Ritual

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Perhaps the most common means through which people set intentions are at the start of magical working, ceremony, or ritual.  I would say that co-setting intentions for rituals really depends on what the ritual is for–for yourself, for the living earth, for something else?  Whoever is involved should be involved in setting the intentions for the ceremony.

If it is a ritual that is primarily focused on you and on something tied to yourself, I would still suggest connecting with the spirits of nature for their guidance and wisdom.  Here’s a simple approach: anytime before you begin the ritual, take a short walk in nature.  Find a place to sit (such as your druid’s anchor spot), and describe to the spirits of nature what you are planning on doing.  After you share, make an offering and see if they have any guidance.

If the ritual is on behalf of the living earth or tied to the land in any way, you need to take whatever time you need to set intentions in a collaborative way with the living earth.  This is not always a simple process and may take quite a bit of time. Begin this with a conversation that is open to the spirits of nature.  Rather than saying, “I want to do this ritual,” instead, go to nature and simply say, “What do you need?”  “How can I support you?”  and see what comes from that conversation.  Don’t assume you know what the spirits of the land want and need, but rather, allow the spirits of nature to collaborate with you to co-create the ritual.  You can also reach out and say, “I’d like to offer a healing ritual for the land.  Do you think that would be a good idea?”  The point here is that if you go in telling the land what you are already planning on doing, that’s not very reciprocal.  Rather, create space for a conversation and a shared vision to come forth.

You can do this essentially on any level–individual, group, or even with a larger group. Here’s a recent example of a larger group practice that we recently completed. A few years ago, AODA had released our Vision Statement, and it became clear to some of us n leadership that we wanted to do something order-wide that was reciprocal with the land.  Individual members already do a lot in our curriculum in terms of tree planting, earth path lifestyle changes, and so forth.  But we wanted something that was community-based.  And so, a few of us began speaking with the lands around us.  What could AODA do, on an order-wide level, that would support the living earth where we lived? What would the land need?  Through our own work over the next six months, a very clear picture emerged of what we, as an order could do–a summer solstice land blessing and a winter solstice waterway blessing using AODA’s frameworks (here they are if you are interested!)  These rituals were not just created by humans in AODA, but rather, in conjunction with meditations and collaboration with the lands around us. I’m really excited that these rituals will be starting this year in 2022, and you are most welcome to join us in this endeavor!

In these examples, we can again see how setting intentions–magical and mundane–in conjunction with the living earth allows us to reciprocate and collaborate in ways that we cannot do if we only set intentions within ourselves.  I hope you found this post useful and inspiring.  I would also love to hear from readers about how you may already set intentions in co-created ways with the living earth!

UPG and Me: On Gnosis, Personal Gnosis, and Unverifiable Personal Gnosis in NeoPagan Practices

As with any spiritual path, the question of how we build knowledge, what we believe, and where that knowledge comes from is important.  I think it is particularly important to druids as we have so few fragments of the Ancient Druid tradition.  We are constantly asking ourselves–where can we gain knowledge from? How do we build knowledge, and from what sources?

What is Gnosis?

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Gnosis refers to “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.” Gnostic traditions are those rooted in the idea that knowledge can be gained through esoteric (inner) practices, such as communion with a deity, prayer, meditation, repetitive activity, dreams, and so forth, and that that knowledge is important and valued. Throughout history and in many different spiritual traditions, Gnosis was an important part of any spirituality.  Seeking the mysteries on the deepest level often requires contemplation, silence, and communion with the living earth–as we have seen in monastic traditions throughout the ages. In the Gnostic traditions, this gnosis was said to be the most important knowledge one could hold and this belief transcends anything that might be provided by external sources. In other words, a Gnostic gets their messages and truths from spirit/deity above all else.

Gnosis is important to those on the druid path for several reasons.  First, druidry (at least the kind of druidry I practice through OBOD and AODA) is non-dogmatic and focused on individuals’ spiritual development.  This means, in AODA, for example, that druids work to hone their own personal spiritual development, spiritual expression, channel Awen, and wildcraft their druidry.  These practices, which form the core of those practicing druidry (especially AODA druidry) require you to localize and personalize your understanding; and thus, are enriched by your own personal gnosis.

Most people who practice druidry use a combination of personal gnosis (inner knowing) with external knowledge seeking (outer sources). A good of this is through working with sacred plants: if you wanted to work with maple trees, it would benefit to you to read some books about maples: their ecology, their function in the ecosystem, how humans may have used them for food or medicine (such as tapping trees for syrup), and also traditional folk uses.  But the key part of this is that you balance that outside knowing with your own direct experiences in nature: observation, meditation, and spirit communication.  It is through these different inputs you can develop a personal spiritual path rooted in nature that also supports the development of personal gnosis.

Cultivating Personal Gnosis

Personal Gnosis can come in many forms as you travel along the druid path. These methods are fairly varied but many of them end up with similar results.

The first is our intuitive “knowing” or gut feelings. The reason they are called “gut feelings” is because we often experienced these in embodied ways–a sensation we get within the body, a knowing we have that cannot be shaken. Intuition/gut feelings are very important to those practicing spiritual paths and can be very useful to cultivate on your journey.

Another form of personal gnosis is Direct contact with spirits/deity who offer messages or teachings. This contact may be in many forms: voices, songs, feelings, visions, messages on the inner planes, teachings from spirits, etc. There’s an enormous amount to learn and navigate on the “inner” planes, and much of this is connected to the spirits you connect with and what they have to teach you.

Bardic arts is another area where personal gnosis may come to be. As you create, the awen, which druids see as a spiritual or divine force of creativity, will flow through you, inspiring you and deepening your understanding of the world.  As Jung noted, creative expressions help you connect with your subconscious, and there is much wisdom to be gained in such a connection.

Dreams may be yet another area that you can connect both with your subconscious and with the larger sense of dreaming of the world.  You can cultivate a dreaming practice where you delve deeper into the world of your dreams and work to understand the messages they provide you. (I highly recommend the teachings of Sarah MacLean Bicknell for more on a systematic, intuitive, and highly engaging dream-based practice).

Meditation is another area where you can develop a deep understanding of yourself, your life, and your spiritual path.  Meditation quiets the mind and/or focuses the mind, allowing it to move in particular directions, connect with spirit and with the subconscious.  Jung noted that dreams, creative practices, and meditation were powerful ways of getting in touch with our subconscious.

As you continue your studies, personal gnosis may come infrequently or regularly to you. It is a frequent occurrence for many more experienced practitioners but varies considerably by an individual.  Some practitioners see gnosis and their interactions with the inner worlds/spirit/deity as the most central part of their practice. If you aren’t yet experiencing these things, continuing to quiet your mind, seek the sacred in nature, and engage in regular meditation is a sure path to receiving personal gnosis from nature and spirit.  Keep at it and it will come!

Verification: Outer Plane Checks and Confirming Insights

Those new to these practices may question what they experience/hear/learn and question if these experiences are “real” or if they are all “making it up in their heads.”  This is a critically important question to consider–even with trusted spirit teachers or deep gut knowing, it is always wise to test your insights.

The first question towards unpacking this is: where do the messages come from? There are two parts to this question to consider.  The first is tied to what you believe–and thus, you will want to think about how your own experience fits in with your belief.  If you are in the woods and are in prayer/meditation and receive a message, a Christian druid may believe that message came from God, while an Atheist druid may believe the message to originating from their subconscious.  So understanding the “source” of personal gnosis as it fits your belief is important.  The second part of the question is also tied to the source and your level of trust.  Did you receive this message from a trusted inner contact, one you have experience with, or was this a random spirit or entity?  If you’ve developed a longstanding relationship with a spirit/deity and that connection is healthy, there is probably little reason to question what you received.  But if you aren’t sure of the source or if this is a new spirit, there is great cause to be wary.

Further, there are numerous questions beyond questioning the source of the message.  What does the message say? What would acting on the message do, if anything?  Does that action make sense?  Is that message asking you to behave in a way that is your best self or not?  These kinds of questions are important to ask, particularly as you are starting out–we tend to be very trusting early on our journeys, and that can get us in some trouble.

Outer Plane Checks and Confirming insights. One of the ways to “verify” personal gnosis is by asking spirit/deity for what is known as an “outer plane check.” This is some kind of external message or verification from spirit/deity and it can vary quite widely but it is somehow rooted in our physical reality.  Part of what you will receive as verification again goes back to your own personal belief system and how much skepticism you have.  Here are some examples:

A great example of a message from nature--the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual--the messages we received have an additional verification

A great example of a message from nature–the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual–the messages we received have an additional verification

Some druids would consider an outer plane check confirmed if they were in nature, received a clear message, asked for an outer plane check, and then had a very clear sign from nature–such as a flock of wild turkeys walking through the center of their grove, a large eagle flying overhead, or a ray of sunlight shining through the clouds.  This kind of confirmation may not occur immediately but should be obvious when it happens.  For example, I was making a very serious life choice some time ago, a choice that had a significant impact on the future of my life.  After hearing guidance from the spirits and making a tentative choice, I asked spirits for confirmation that it would be the right one.  A bad storm blew through and dropped a  big tree away from my house–a clear message confirmed.  They aren’t always that drastic, of course.

Having a human (friend, mentor, even stranger) confirm a message is another path.  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a friend or mentor shared a similar experience; that allows them to confirm and understand their own experience/message  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a similar message came through to them by another means (friend, mentor, someone sending them a link, etc).  For example, after receiving a message upon which you might act, going to a friend for divination (without revealing any details) could be a useful way to confirm. Some druids would want physical confirmation, such as being able to read or see something that confirms what was shared (not always possible, but useful for things like past life regression).

Sometimes the best way to verify a message is simply time.  Wait to see what happens, seeing if the insights or understanding gained comes to be.

Gnosis without verification: Some Personal Gnosis may not be able to be verified with an outer plane check, but there are still other ways you might think about this in more depth. Here are some useful ways of thinking about the information you receive:

  • Do you trust the source?  If this is a deity or spirit that you have a deep relationship to, it is probably much more trustworthy than from someone you have no relationship to
  • Does the message/insight/information make sense? If the information is outlandish or uncharacteristic, it is a good idea to question it.
  • How strong was the message? How did you feel after you received it?
  • Were you protected when you received it?  E.g. did you do a daily protective working (such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection) or were you in a sacred grove/sacred circle? This also makes a difference.

Sometimes personal gnosis cannot be verified and must be taken on faith.  More interactions over time with the world of spirit are certain to deepen this knowledge.

Unverified/Unverifiable/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG)

While personal gnosis is a critically important part of our own spiritual experiences, it can lead to some trouble, especially when people begin to pass off their own personal gnosis as fact.  In the broader neopagan community, the term is usually “unverified” or “unsubstantiated” personal gnosis, which refers to matters of spirit that cannot accurately be verified using physical means.  It is often, but not always, used in a negative way for at least two reasons.

The first is that UPG can be dangerous when used in groups and can be used as a means of control of individuals and groups.  If one leader or small group claims a direct connection with a deity or set of spirits, and only that leader has a connection and receives messages, then anyone who follows that leader can be led deeply astray.  They can become enthralled by the leader’s visions and there is no way of verifying the visions.  This happens in all sorts of spiritual traditions (think about your typical “cult” here), and unfortunately, does occur within neopaganism.  Thus, it is really important that when you are listening to the words of others, you pay attention to where they are getting their information–is it UPG? What does your own gut tell you?  It is good to take someone else’s personal gnosis with a very heavy dose of skepticism, particularly if they are using it as a means to control.  Ask them where the information comes from, and distance yourself if necessary.

The second place that you often hear about UPG being a negative thing is particularly tied to movements like Celtic Reconstructivism or other reconstructivist movements.  Reconstrutivist movements focus on historical accuracy and recreating/resurrecting lost traditions, and thus, UPG is rarely welcome in such communities because the emphasis is on recreating ancient traditions. In this case, the community’s values are focused on historical sources, not UPG.  Druid revival orders, such as AODA or OBOD, don’t worry as much about this issue as we don’t have less than 9 pages total of preserved works from the ancient druids, but it is very important to understand that different traditions value different things–and to respect those differences.

Sharing Personal Gnosis

Given the above, one of the things that gets tricky in the broader druid community  (and where the negative spin on UPG comes from) is when individuals intentionally or unintentionally pass off personal gnosis as truth, fact, or historical fact. This is something you will want to watch out for in your own interactions.

In sharing your own personal gnosis, I recommend that you make it clear that this is your own gnosis/understanding that comes from spirit. It is easy enough to signal this when you are sharing with phrases like, “in my experience” or “In my interactions with spirit/deity” and simply clarify that this is coming from your personal gnosis. That way, when you are sharing, it is very obvious where your information comes from.  This makes you a more trustworthy person and allows you to have positive, healthy interactions with your broader spiritual community.

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Some personal gnosis is specifically given to you to share. Our world is in a tipping point, and spirits are eager to help humanity transition away from our destructive path.  Thus, you may start getting messages with the idea that they need to get out there.  I point to my Plant Spirit Oracle as a good example of this.  It was very clear to me from the beginning that this project and set of journeys were meant to be shared.  In my book, I made it very clear that this project–the images, meanings, divination system–was my personal gnosis.  I shared exactly how I came to the meanings and images, and with that, I feel like my ethical obligation is complete.  People can choose to use it or not, and they know where it came from because I’ve been upfront about it.

On the other hand, not all personal gnosis is meant to be shared. You will usually have an intuitive sense (if not a direct message from spirit/deity) about what can and should not be shared. Some may be shared with those who are mentors or friends, while other personal gnosis may be appropriate for more public sharing.  There is such a thing as “talking the magic out” of something, meaning that if you had a very deep personal experience and you begin sharing it widely without taking the time yourself to work with it and unpack it, you may never reap the full benefits of the experience or message.  Thus, I recommend always sitting with insights and messages for some time, and then if you are going to share, share carefully.

In reading and responding to others’ personal gnosis, you can ask the simple question–where did this information come from? Are they indicating that they had a personal experience, they were taught this, this is part of a family tradition, part of some larger tradition, or so on?  If they aren’t sharing where it came from, you can gently ask (but be kind, a person is choosing to share a personal thing and we want to always honor that sharing). Part of the reason it is good to recognize when someone is sharing UPG is for reasons I outlined above–someone may claim or use UPG (or claims of UPG) for personal gain. Thus a “grain of salt” approach is useful–again, think about who is sharing and if they are trustworthy.

Personal Gnosis is Personal

One of the most important issues with sharing is to understand that personal gnosis is personal. Your relationship with that plant/spirit/deity may be very unique.  It may not align with what others are sharing–and that’s totally ok.

Think about it this way–you are a different person in your professional workplace, with your parents or siblings, with your childhood friends, or with your druid grove.  In essence, you are many sides of the same person.  This happens in the spirit world as well.  The spirits will work with you as an individual, and the insights you receive may be different than what others experience. Your interaction with spirits is based on a host of factors:  how long have you been doing this? What is your relationship? How deep is it? How much do you walk your talk?  What have you done on behalf of these spirits/land? and so on.

Thus, if your own personal gnosis differs from someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that either of you is wrong, but rather that you are both experiencing different aspects.  I see this a lot with plants and trees.  Trees like Hawthorn or Elder, for example, have a wide range of personalities and magic, and what side of those trees you see may be very much based on who you are and what relationship you cultivate.  You may read one thing in a book about Elder being a certain way, and experience a very different thing.  This doesn’t mean you are wrong; it just means that Elder, to you, appears and offers a different set of teachings. All of this is part of why it’s really important to understand when others are offering their own UPG.

Personal to Community Gnosis

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

In some cases, personal gnosis transitions to community-based gnosis or even cultural gnosis if enough people receive the same kind of messages. For example, there are a number of people in the druid, herbalism, and bushcraft communities that have been individually receiving messages and teachings from the Poison ivy plant. After sharing notes and experiences in smaller groups, these teachings are starting to be transmitted via classes and events and a new name for the plant (Sister Ivy) is being used pretty widely.  All of us who have worked closely with her, over a period of time, have recognized the need for her teachings in this particular age, and have spread the new name for her, more fitting of the role she wants to assume.  At this point, after almost 30 conversations with different people about their individual experiences, it seems pretty clear to me that Sister Ivy has a message and set of teachings she wants in the world right now.  Thus, what was personal gnosis to some individuals is now being shared more widely–because that gnosis was consistent among individuals that received it and the information shared makes sense. The key here is that this same Personal Gnosis has been experienced by a number of different people independently, and, most importantly, nobody is using that personal gnosis to control others.  It is something that is simply being shared, understood, and valued.

Conclusion

A spiritual path is so much richer when we are able to work effectively with our own personal gnosis as part of our path.  By using the practices I’ve outlined here, you can develop your personal gnosis, avoid some of the pitfalls, and learn when it is appropriate to share.

Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

The Wheel of the Year is obviously a powerful symbol, both in nature spiritual practices like druidry as well as more general neopagan practices.  It resonates with something that is ancestral and connected–living by the cycles and honoring the seasons. A host of different traditions use some form of a yearly wheel, and when you join many traditions, the wheel of the year is a critical part of the practice. But what do these holidays mean? How do they actually connect to our lives?  How do they connect to our local ecosystems, and how do the wheel holidays help us connect with nature?  I consider these questions and argue for a wildcrafted wheel of the year rooted in your own observation, connection, and daily life in connection with nature.

As a druid for the last 16 years, I feel like this is a question I continue to return to over and over again.  I even wrote a book on sustainable living practices as sacred action using a wheel of the year framework (see Sacred Actions) trying to explore these issues from yet another perspective.  I’ve celebrated these in all sorts of ways–by myself and in various groves and groups, formally and less formally, with other people’s rituals and my own.  And yet, I feel like almost every year, I get another piece of what it means to really live this wheel but also what complications and changes I have to make.

When I first took up the path of druidry when I was still in college, I began celebrating the wheel by looking at rituals in books and enacting them. There was nothing wrong with this approach, but I was essentially bringing in other people’s visions and classical interpretations of the wheel from an ecosystem in which I didn’t live.  It was a good foundation and gave me a connection to a tradition I was still attempting to understand.  However, it wasn’t until I really started delving deeply into wildcrafting my own druidry and developing an eco-regional approach that I really started to understand these practices.

I had an epiphany this week about Imbolc and the real power of this holiday. We had a pretty warm December and then January plunged us into very cold and dark times.  January was exhausting after weeks of sub-zero temperatures where we were trying to keep our animals warm, bringing hot buckets of water out to them several times a day, learning how to live with chickens in a tent in our spare bedroom–the chickens can’t handle the bitter cold we had.  Thus, the handsome Pythagoras, our roo, woke us up crowing up the sun every day!  Each morning, I’d face the bitter cold to tend to the animals, coming in like an icicle to warm by the fire (which I had to stoke and tend before venturing out). We spent our days making sure we had enough wood, and one of us was always up tending the fires throughout the night and wee morning hours.  It was pretty intense. This was deep winter, cold winter, dark winter, where the sun hardly even came out of the sky. And then, on January 31st, the weather broke.  We moved out of the teens and had a 30-degree day (I’m speaking Fahrenheit here!). The chickens got to leave their house tent purgatory, and the ducks and geese had their pools filled with water for the first time in weeks.  As the geese and ducks joyfully swam in their pool, you could see the joy and relief on their faces.  They knew the weather had shifted. And then  February 1st came and with it the flowing of the maple trees. The wheel had just turned from dark winter into late winter, and we celebrated Imbolc and tapped our maple trees.

I tell this story because, if I hadn’t lived on a homestead where we are required to go outside many times a day to tend our animals, the importance of this day would have likely been lost. I remember when I lived in an apartment, dorms, or a townhouse–I didn’t really pay attention much. I would have probably turned up the heat, ran the water a little extra to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then thought nothing of it on the way to the car or into a building.  Because that’s how it is in modern life is–everything is designed to make you a cog in the machine that never changes.  Regardless of what is happening in the ecosystem, you just keep on going.  But that’s not really what creates a deeply connected and wildcrafted wheel of the year.  Crafting our own wheel requires us to pay attention.

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh...with a portal into the unknown

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh…with a portal into the unknown

It was the experience of having to be out there in the cold for weeks on end, seeing the animals enduring the cold and suffering, and then after all of that, experiencing that powerful break in the weather and the first thaw.  As soon as the thaw happened, local wildlife changed activities, our flocks grew much more active and happy, our own spirits lifted as the temperatures rose.  When I think about the historical origins of Imbolc, how it was a holiday originally surrounding the lactating of ewes, I say yes–this must have been such a relief to those farmers and peasants who had just suffered through a difficult January.  Maybe the food stores were running a bit scarce.  Maybe they woke up for the 30th day in a row and froze each morning like I did while taking care of the animals and think…will this ever end?  And then, suddenly, it does. That was the power of Imbolc.  The breaking of the cold and dark times.  The promise that spring will return.  The flow of milk–of nutrients, of life.

I write all of this to illustrate a simple point: these holidays make more sense when we are deeply embedded in our landscape.  When we are deeply connected with nature, when we are out in it every day, when we–through our own life choices or commitments–are required to endure it along with the rest of nature, then we can learn the lessons the wheel really offers us.  Living the wheel of the year–not just celebrating it–teaches us the important lessons of that moment.  When we spend time in nature and commit to being out there, then we are forced to contend with whatever nature throws at us.  When we are understanding the holidays not only in terms of history or lore but based on our actual experience, then the wheel of the year unfolds for us.

And this is critical–in order to make the wheel of the year yours, a wildcrafted wheel that you build yourself, one of the best approaches is to find seasonal markers that make sense for you (I shared a lot more about this approach earlier in this post).  Maybe it’s the flow of the maples or the return of the robin, maybe it’s the hawthorn blossoming.  To me, these moments in our own landscapes are much more important than dates we may have from traditions that are far removed from us.  These kinds of key observational markers also will make sense in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is throwing off traditional seasons.

And here’s the other thing I learned through this process–not everyone has an eightfold wheel of the year.  Your wheel might be threefold, binary (rainy and dry), or even more.  In fact, I worked up a 12-fold wheel of the year for my region that actually works better than the eight (I shared that philosophy on the link above).  The idea being that there are distinct phases of each of the four seasons (and 4×3 = 12).  My 12-fold wheel allows me to understand my ecosystem in much more detail and allows me to see each season as waxing and waning.  What I found in creating these wildcrafted seasonal markers is that I start to anticipate them, look forward to them, and honor them as they occur.  So rather than having arbitrary dates and times that are disconnected, I do what my ancient ancestors did–I observe, make meaning of the observations, and build that into my spiritual practice.  And, I learn to honor and appreciate holidays like Imbolc at a deeper level.

What I’m suggesting takes time and effort.  You don’t have to do it all at once.  I suggest taking some time, a year and a day, maybe even longer, and simply observing what is right outside your door.  Ideally, your seasonal markers for the wheel will be happening in your everyday life–and if you are in an urban setting, they may also be dictated by the patterns of people as well as nature.  E.g. perhaps the early part of summer is when the local public pool opens.  The built and human-based environment is still part of our environment; we are all part of nature.

PS: This is part of my Ancient Order of Druids in America-themed posts.  AODA as a druid order is extremely committed to helping druids “wildcraft” their druidries and create local practices.  I am currently the Grand Archdruid in AODA, and have been a member for the last 16 years.  For more information on AODA, please visit www.aoda.org.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Restoration at the Winter Solstice

The time of the greatest darkness is upon us at the winter solstice. Each morning, the sun seems to struggle to rise and hangs low in the sky. The world is covered in frost, cold, and snow, and the darkness of winter sets in. This is a hard time for many, perhaps more so now than before, given the cultural darkness and challenges that so many of us are facing globally and locally. So facing the darkness, in this very challenging time, takes something extra.

Winter Solstice Snow

Winter Solstice Snow

In my first post on this series (Receptivity at the Fall Equinox), I made the case that the traditional Wheel of the Year was developed and enacted under very different conditions than our present age. We now live in the Anthropocene, a period of human-driven climate change and cultural unrest which is very different than the Holocene, the period of relatively stable climate where the Wheel of the Year was developed. I argue that it will take a different kind of approach to celebrating the wheel of the year if we are to thrive in this age. Thus, I am offering a series of eight posts this coming year that focus on each of the traditional wheel of the year holidays and how they might be adapted to these darker and less stable times. I believe we need new approaches to celebrating our traditional wheel that emphasize the skills and vision that will help us not only navigate the continuing crisis but also help us bring forth a better future for our descendants and all life.

Previous posts in this series include the Fall Equinox (Receptivity) and Samhain (Release).  So if we think about how the wheel turns, after release–letting go, getting rid of all that holds you to former structures that are, frankly, crumbling around us.  So what comes next in our wheel of the year?  I argue at the time of deepest darkness, we should pay attention to our own needs and healing with the theme of restoration – for, without this, no work can proceed as we move forward back into the light and tackle some really hard stuff to come, stuff that is more externally focused!  In other words, we have to get our own house and mental health in order (the sequence of Fall Equinox- Samhain -Winter Solstice) so we can look externally in the year to come.

The Need for Restoration: Languishing and Solastalgia

A new term is popping up on news feeds as of late: “languishing.”  Languishing is somewhere in between well-functioning and deep depression. It is a state of feeling apathy, restlessness, feeling like the things that once brought you joy no longer do, feeling unsettled, and not interested in life. According to this article, research demonstrated that a good number of people are languishing, particularly in younger generations.  This term describes well what many people are facing.  What do we do about languishing rather than thriving?

Ice in the Winter Months

Ice in the Winter Months

The other piece that is coming into play with climate change is the concept of solastalgia.  Coined in 2007 by Albreiht et. al., they define it as follows “solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.”  If we think about all of the increasing changes we face–from wildfires to droughts to continued extraction activities, this concept grows more pressing and real.  How many of us have watched a forest that we loved get cut or burned, a pipeline come through our favorite swamp, or even a mountaintop get removed? How does that affect our mental well-being?

The real crux of the issue that I see is that things aren’t going to get any better globally.  Climate change is going to grow increasingly worse, and with it, a lot of other things are also on the decline.  Sure, things may stabilize for a bit, but we are in the ‘slow crash’ and things are going to keep tumbling down. Thus, we have to figure out ways to support ourselves and our communities–and to be strong enough to face our present age. I’m not mincing my words here.  I don’t think at this point anyone can ignore the crisis of our age or its severe impact on our mental or physical health. And if we are going to thrive in the coming age, we need to be in the strongest place possible: mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Understanding Restorative Activities

Restoration can be defined in a few different ways. It includes returning to health, bringing back to a former position or condition, or improving the condition of someone or something.  Part of restorative work is understanding our needs: what needs are being met, what needs remain unfulfilled, what we have the power to change and control, and what we have to learn to accept.

Restoration Meditation: Uncovering what Works

Understanding your own needs for restoration and rejuvenation is really central to this work.  I think that sometimes we buy into the hype of various products and “self-care” gimmicks, as though they can provide us the healing and restoration that we need. Or we listen to what other people think is a good idea rather than our own intuition.  So take a moment to set all of that aside and start thinking about your own needs and how you can be restored.  Thus, starting with this meditation can help you work through what is possible and create a game plan.

  • Think about the times that brought you the most rest.  What were they? When were they? What conditions did they come under?
  • Think about the time that you feel you were in the best mental health.  When was that? What conditions were present?
  • What is your perfect restful day look like?  Is it away from home or at home? What are the conditions that allow you to have this perfect restful day?
  • Do you ever prevent yourself from practicing self-care? Think about the deep emotions or issues that might be present in this issue.
  • Does anyone else ever prevent you from rest and healing? Is there a way to mitigate this problem?
  • How can you create or replicate the conditions that allow you to rest? What limitations or issues might you need to address?
  • What basic needs do you have that are unfulfilled? Is there anything you can dot work to fulfill them?
  • How do you support your physical body?  What can you do differently (food, exercise, rest, etc.)?
  • How do you support your emotions and mental health? What can you do differently?

First, understanding your own needs is central.  Nobody can define for you what rejuvenates you and how you can find your own healing–you must do that for yourself.  And your needs for restoration are not necessarily the needs of other people. For example, for me, the most restful thing I can do is stay home and be in my gardens and art studio, have a lot of unstructured time where I have no obligations to anyone, stay off of social media, and not answer texts or my phone.  Those things can create a deep sense of peace, the flow of awen, and the ability for me to dig into some really cool projects uninterrupted. This is really different than, say, someone who wants to travel far from home and spend a week on the beach. The point here is to know yourself and how you work.

The second part of this, getting at bullet point four, is self-sabotage or sabotage by other family members or close friends.  Sometimes we actively or subconsciously prevent ourselves from getting the rest and restoration we need.  Deeply examine any of these issues and where they may come from as part of this work. And sometimes, we have people in our lives who actively try to thwart self-care activities–and its important to recognize both of these so that we can heal.

Restoration Activities

White Pine Forest Bathing and White Pine Healing Steams, Baths, and Teas

White pine in winter

White pine in winter

Turning to evergreens, particularly the pine family and white pine, is an excellent idea as a restorative activity. Since the white pine is an evergreen tree, it reminds us of the green of summer and holds back the darkness.  White pine, both physically and energetically, draws things out.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine steam treatments and tinctures for people who have problems with breathing.  The connection to the breath is important–as we go about our lives in this very difficult age, it feels like many of us are holding our breath.

As a restorative activity, visit a white pine forest or spend time with a white pine tree.  Make sure you ask the tree’s permission to spend time and leave an appropriate offering. Simply be with the tree or in the forest, breathing in and out, sitting near the trunk, wandering and looking for messages, and allowing the energy of the white pine to soothe you.  Release the tension in your body, mind, and spirit.

Additional activities surrounding the white pine include doing a white pine bath (gather up needles with permission and an offering, add them to a bath and soak), a healing white pine tea (brew needles for 3 minutes, add honey), or a white pine herbal steam (instructions here).  All of these can be combined with other winter solstice activities or

If you don’t have white pine in your ecosystem, you can find an equivalent conifer–a dominant evergreen conifer tree, tall, majestic, with medicinal qualities ideally connected with the lungs.

Slowing Down

The holidays around the Winter Solstice, at least here in the US, feel like an insanely busy time.  Making a commitment to yourself to take some quiet moments and/or embrace slowness really matters.  Our culture glorifies busyness and the constant ticking off of to-do lists and this can contribute substantially to feeling over-worked, over-committed, and exhausted.  The following suggestions are ways to “slow down” and embrace a slower approach–which itself can be very rejuvenating.

  • Candlelight evenings and embracing the darkness. Living by candlelight is another restorative activity that can have substantial restorative benefits.  Electronic devices emit a blue light which can inhibit the production of melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep.  Shift your lighting to any kind of natural light, even for an evening or two.  Pick up a real book (not an e-reader or phone) and enjoy the quiet, slowness, and stillness of the winter. Embrace the extra sleep that this kind of practice allows.
  • Technology detox. Allow yourself to have a serious break from your electronic devices and the many obligations they bring.  Disconnect–for a few days, a week, whatever you want to do–and go technology-free.  To do this successfully, let friends or family know what you are doing and make a commitment in advance.  Often when people do this, at first there is a bit of panic or even withdrawal–we are so used to constantly picking up our phones, etc.  But after a day or two when the initial shock wears off, you realize how much better you feel without the constant technological tether.  This can create more meaningful opportunities to engage in a spiritual practice, explore one’s own understanding of the world, or embrace bardic arts.  Consider how you might fill the time normally spent interacting with technology with restorative activities.
  • Embracing a “slow” philosophy. The slow movement has been gaining traction for many years.  The philosophy has many components, slow food, slow spirituality, slow work, and slow time to name a few.  The principle is simple and yet very difficult to enact: we slow down.  We take our time to cook healthy food that came from local sources or that we grew, we reframe our relationship and time commitments to work, we create unstructured leisure time, and we reject the many cultural demands that say we must work harder, faster, and always be on the go.  This is an incredibly restorative activity!

The Druid’s Retreat

Another restorative that can be done is for you to have a retreat. A retreat is a fantastic way to set aside time for spiritual growth and rejuvenation. A retreat can restore you in ways that few other things can. I have two posts that go into detail about how to set up your retreat and how to go about your retreat.  Winter is a lovely time to do a retreat–rent a cabin, find a way to do a home retreat, etc.  I always do a winter retreat–usually in late Dec and early January, when I’m off from my job, when the rush of the holidays has ended, and it simply allows me time to rest and dig deeply into my own spiritual practices.

Conclusion

My suggestions above hopefully will get your own creative ideas flowing for how to embrace rejuvenation and restoration at this darkest time of the year.  This is such important work to do–for if the healer is herself not healed, how can she heal others?  As we begin to move forward from the Winter Solstice and back into the time of light, our bodies, spirits, and minds are restored and we can consider the powerful and meaningful work that is to come. Blessings of the winter solstice to you, dear readers!

Announcements:

Article on Druidry 101: Finally, I wanted to share my article on Druidry 101 that was published this week in Spirituality and Health magazine.  Please check it out!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Witnessing the Death of an Old Tree

Oak friend - one of my first interactions with this incredible friend

Oak friend – one of my first interactions with this incredible friend and mentor

Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close.  What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go?  In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass.  My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.

The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak

When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree.  She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property.  At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream.  I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land.  As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago.  The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time.  She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.

My burl oak behind our goose pair

My oak friend and I would talk often about many things.  She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land.  She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth.  I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.

Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time.  She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go.  I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer.  In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay.  She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so.  She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.

Another shot of our beautiful oak

Another shot of our beautiful oak

This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan.  This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves.  In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two.  And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter.  This is just how my Burl oak friend went.

Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance.  As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind.  But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch.  As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her.  At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.

This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.

I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years.  My partner did, and that is his story to tell.  But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.

The Oak has Laid Down

The Oak has Laid Down

The best way that I can explain my understanding is this:  trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land.  All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms.  They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place.  It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream.  But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.

Helping an Old Tree Pass

I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances.  I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan.  Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging.  Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time.  It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing.  Just like people, trees die.  All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect.  Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak--she was their friend too!

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak–she was their friend too!

Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time.  Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come.  Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.

Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree.  Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here.  Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful.  Create a song.

Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc.  In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her.  For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).

Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young.  I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.

While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on.  It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth.  I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.

Transitioning into Deeper Darkness: Seasonal Activities and the the Golden Hour

Sun at sunset

Sun at sunset

As the light grows dim this time of year, as the days grow short, many people find this particular season a difficult one.  Without the light, our thoughts can spiral into the darkness, our spirits long for the warmer days.  The cold and dark are barely here, and there is so much winter ahead.  Just this week, I had three separate conversations with friends about this exact issue: it is a hard time of year, particularly the time between Samhain and Yule, when we know there is much more darkness to come.  It is a hard time this year, in particular, when so many of us are beyond stressed and burned out due to the unfolding events of the last two years.  It also was a strange year, in that we had temperatures that stayed well above freezing, which kept the leaves green–and suddenly temperatures that plunged very deep below freezing, which dropped all of the leaves in about two days.  I realized that there might be some benefit in writing about this time–not so much what is problematic but instead, how we might navigate it from a nature spirituality perspective.

I think that this time is one of the hardest of the year for many people.  We know that the cold and dark are on their way.  We see the death across the landscape as the bitter cold comes into the land.  It’s hard to have a flush, abundant garden one day and the next, find most of your plants have died.  This time of year forces us to come face to face with both darkness and death in ways that it is rare during the rest of the year.  And the more time we spend on the landscape, the more that this issue stares us in the face.   Here in Pennsylvania, it is also complicated by the end of Daylight Savings time, meaning that by the time you leave work, the sun has already set–and there are many days when you do not see the sun at all.

So, what is a druid to do?  I have developed a few strategies over the years that have helped myself and others, which I’ll share in the rest of this post!

Embracing the Season and Spiritual Activities

Late fall sunrise!

The first strategy is to embrace and honor this time for what it is–accept the cold, the frosts, and the death upon the landscape.  I have found that the more I fight against something, the harder it becomes to accept.  But, the more that I seek the good and the joy in it, the more enjoyable it becomes.

For this time of year, I have worked hard to find activities that I really love for the late fall and early winter. I have worked to develop a set of rituals and seasonal activities that bring me joy, that I can look forward to, and that sing to my spirit. The whole idea here is that it’s not just about saying “oh, the darkness and cold are here” but really creating intentional activities that make the most of these cold and dark times.  Your intentional activities may end up looking very different than mine–but I share these for a model of what you could do.  The more things that you have to look forward to and that you enjoy, the better this time of year becomes.

Gardening, Homesteading, and Harvest: Cycles and Looking Forward

If you do wild food foraging, or if you have a garden or homestead, there are a whole host of activities that come with this season–and you can embrace them, make them meaningful, and really look forward to them every year.

For those that do wild food foraging and live in a temperate climate, this is a perfect time to find the last of the nut harvests and spend time processing those nuts.  For example, one of my favorite of these is harvesting and processing acorns into acorn flour, which can be used to craft all kinds of sacred bread, cakes, and other delicious ingredients.  Acorn flour is a serious endeavor but it is just so worth it! Other nuts in my bioregion are hickories, chestnuts, and hazelnuts–each with their own unique sacredness.  This is flour that you can store in the freezer and pull out for sacred activity year-round.

The second activity that I really look forward to this time of year is putting my garden beds to rest.  I have worked hard to develop a series of rituals surrounding the end of the growing season: how to work with the annuals that have perished due to the frosts and freezes (saving their seeds, composting them, honoring their journey); bringing in the last harvests of the year, and also clearing the beds for next season.  I call this “putting the garden to bed” and it has become an important part of my homesteading activities each year–full of ceremony and honor (I can blog about this if anyone is interested!).  I feel like in doing these, I have a good closure to our season and the garden is a blank canvas for planning and planting in the future.

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At Samhain, we also burn our Butzemann, which allows us to have full closure for the growing season.  The Butzemann is part of the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, and it is a kind of magical scarecrow that guards the home for the whole light half of the year.  At Samhain, it is released through ritual burning, marking the end of the growing season.  But like many of the other activities here–it’s not just a closure moment.  You also start thinking about your next Butzemann, which you construct at Imbolc.  Right now, I have some amazing gourds and dried plants that I am letting sit over winter–I have big plans for these for Imbolc and for next season’s Butzemann.

What you can see from these three examples is that while they are all rooted in the moment of this time–in the growing darkness and cold–they are also rooted in the cycle and hope for the future.  The nut harvest and other foraged foods can be brought through the winter and enjoyed in the future.  The garden beds being put to rest allow for you to be ready to plant in the spring.  The Butzemann is burned, but the materials are started to be gathered for a new one, again, already getting you thinking of that cycle of the year and the promise of spring to come.

The Golden Hour and the Flame

Light and embracing the waning light is an important part of finding balance during this time of year. Because there is so much less light, you begin to pay attention to how to bring it, embrace it, and honor the light.  When there is an abundance of light in the summer months, these activities seem less central–but as winter sets in and the days grow so short, finding ways of bringing in the light is critical for balance and peace.  Thus, in the time of darkness and cold is to shift your emphasis from the waning sun to the inner and outer flames–through a physical embracing of the between times of light and fires.

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

One practice that everyone can do is to embrace the “golden hour”.  The golden hour happens twice a day–at dawn and at dusk.  This is a period of time about 10-20 minutes before the sun comes up when the light changes–either from bright daylight to this golden hue or from darkness to a golden hue.  It doesn’t last for too long, but if you go outside during this time, you experience a very magical moment.  It happens just after the really spectacular parts of the sunrise in the morning–the light evens out and then you are awash in a golden light.  It is particularly powerful when the leaves have changed on the trees–the whole landscape is just aglow in golden light. In the dark half of the year, the golden hour becomes quite accessible–it is easy to be awake both at dusk and dawn, and thus, you can make it a point to embrace the golden hour on the landscape. I find the golden hour to be good bookends for the day–watching the sunrise and sunset.  When we are in high summer, these are harder times to access (particularly those in the early morning) and so, it is really in the winter that you can get to experience this lovely time.  For me, I like to go out to my druid’s anchor spot and just sit and observe the land waking up or the land going to bed.

The second is to bring fire into your life in any way you can.  This might mean bringing in candles and candlelight living–take one day a week to use candlelight rather than electric light and see the difference in your own happiness and stability. This might mean making some candles or olive oil burners for the coming season. Or, this might mean embracing fires in your home.  For example, for us, we move from outdoor cooking and having regular outdoor fires to bringing our fires indoors.  This includes a whole host of seasonal activities including preparing the hearth, bringing in the wood and lighting the first fires of the season.  We have two wood burners in the house–a stove in the basement and an open hearth for cooking and joy on the first floor. Creating fires often and spending a lot of time with these fires can really help!

Whatever way you can, embrace these times of twilight, of limited light, and allow yourself to slow down into the rhythm in the dark half of the year.

Conclusion

I hope that these strategies and activities are helpful to you as we move into this time of deep darkness.  Part of the reason I do so much at this time of year is that I do find this time of year–particularly here in Pennsylvania after Daylight Savings Time ends–really challenging.  It used to be one of my least favorite times of the year, a time of year that I dreaded.  After working so hard to find rituals and seasonal activities that allowed me to embrace it, it is now a time of year that I always look forward to.  I wish you blessings in the coming darkness!.

PS: I have recently appeared on Rosalee De La Floret’s “Herbs with Rosalee” Podcast.  Please feel free to check it out below!  (Or here’s the link directly: https://youtu.be/RvjQgOMxA9E)

Sacred Gardening: A Druid’s Spiritual Approach to Weeding and Clearing Plants

A shrine for the spirits of nature in a new outdoor kitchen area

Druids revere all nature as sacred–but what happens when you need to weed your garden? What happens when you need to clear a new area for a project where lots of things are growing? Is there a way to clear plants or trees honorably and with reverence?  In fact, there certainly is!  In today’s post, I’ll walk through some simple suggestions for how to weed and clear plants respectfully and with reverence. This is all part of my philosophy of Sacred Action, or bringing earth-honoring, care-oriented activities into our every day life (if you are interested in this concept, check out my Sacred Actions book!).  This is part of what sacred gardening, creating a true Druid’s garden, is all about!

Our big project this year was starting to build an wood-fired, naturally built outdoor kitchen with a maple sap boiler/grill, an earth oven, a small pavilion and set of rocket stoves (this is an ongoing project and I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts). In order to do this, we had to clear a small bit of land. Where we are situating our outdoor kitchen is on the edge of a clearing with a shaded overstory, just as the forest begins. The tentative plan for our earth oven was about 6′ into an area with some brush and small trees. We were hoping to use this spot  for the earth oven because sometimes we get bad winds from the fields that are to the south-west of our home, and by locating it slightly in the brush, it would allow us to provide it some additional shielding from the elements. But, this particular spot required me to clear a small 5′ path and about an 7 foot round area in the brush–assuming the spirits of the land and plants agreed.  I’ll walk through the general principles using the clearing of my earth oven space as an example.

1. Recognize the agency  and sanctity of nature by seeking permission and offering gratitude.

An offering bag near some garden weeds that will be cleared

One of the first things to remember is that if we are going to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature, we must treat nature with respect, reverence and recognize nature’s own agency.  This means we do not take from nature without permission (treating her with the same respect you would do any other person. There are different levels of permission: one-time permission and ongoing permission.

Getting permission for anything is twofold: seeking it and allowing the necessary time for negotiation and conversation.  Don’t expect to get permission to clear a large area of land 5 minutes before you want to clear it.  Seeking permission begins with simply spending time engaging with spirits of the land and explaining what you want to do and why. Explain what you would like to do and how you will do it.  See what results from this converation: sometimes you can get a clear go-ahead, while other times, the spirits may want something in response (e.g. clear this area but leave this area to grow wild; build this shrine, use everything that you’ve cleared, etc).

If you are clearing for a permanent space (such as a garden, outdoor kitchen, home, etc) you can seek a blanket permission statement.  This means that you have the general permission to create the garden and then keep it as a garden, clearing as necessary.

Two months before starting construction of the earth oven, I began by asking permission.  I started by making an offering at the space I wished to clear and speaking aloud what I would like to do, where the boundaries of it were to be, and why.  I asked the spirits to think about my request.  A week later, I returned to the spot and we started discussing. I came back several times over the course of a few weeks and after that, I received the confirmation that I was permitted to proceed. As part of this negotiation, I was told that each plant species would have something different they would like me to do as I cleared.

2. Setting Boundaries for Activities

As part of your request, make it clear what you plan on doing and how long this agreement lasts.  For example, if you are cultivating a garden, make it clear that you would like permission to tend this garden throughout the year and weed any plants that come up in the garden that you haven’t planted, etc.  This allows you to set some clear boundaries for the kinds of activities you will engage in over time.  You can also set boundaries about other things, such as not using any chemical sprays, etc.  The idea here is that you will make a clear agreement with the spirits of the land that you are both satisfied with so that you can proceed.

In the case of our earth oven, I agreed to tend the path and boundaries of our earth oven space and also to cut back some of the surrounding areas if they grew too close to the oven, always asking the plants’ permission.  We established where the areas of the other outdoor kitchen were to be before proceeding.  I was also asked to build two smalls shrines, one to invite the spirits of the hearth to join us (see the first image in this post) and a hidden shrine to honor the earth elementals.

You also may need to negotiate with specific dominant plant species in an area.   For example, in the case of our garden, I’ve made it clear that dandelions are welcome to grow anywhere, but I will be harvesting any within our garden areas for making food or medicine for ourselves and our animals.  But, any dandelions that grow outside of the bounds of the garden will be undisturbed (unless I further sought permission to harvest them for a different purpose, which would be a different negotiation).

3. Clear mindfully and listen to the voices of nature as to how to use cleared material.

Once you have permission to clear an area, establish a garden, or weed regularly, the next step is to start clearing it in a way that is reverent and respectful.  I like to call this “mindful” clearing.  I’m going to clear in a gentle manner, pulling out each plant, checking in with each plant to see how they would like me to proceed (cut you off at the root? Harvest the root? Put you in the compost pile? Feed you to the geese?).  Thus, as I clear, I am also engaging in deep connection with the plants and hearing their voices for how to proceed. As I do this, I continue to make offerings, I sing songs, and I raise good energy for the work I am doing.

Beginning to clear the area for the earth oven

I work to do as much clearing without the aid of fossil fuels as possible, relying on hand tools, as this allows me to get closer to the individual plants I am clearing. Once in a great while, I do have to use a battery-powered lopper or chainsaw, and I let the spirits of nature know what I am doing before I do anything.

So in the clearing of my earth oven space, I spent about 2 hours clearing the space, while I was in a meditative place.  Using movement meditation, I cleared my mind as I cleared down to the soil, making sure that each plant I was clearing had a chance to share what they would like to see happen.  I ended up transplanting several wild yams into another section of the forest.  The Allegheny Blackberry asked me to take their roots and use them for magic (they have been teaching me their magic for many years now) and to compost their stems and leaves.  The small spicebush asked to be potted and given away.  The Virginia Creeper had me pull out enough to clear, asking me to make a small wreath of her and then place that wreath on the altar.  And so it went with each of the plants in this space, where I listened to their voices and did my best to honor their requests.  In the end, I had not only a cleared space but new magical plant knowledge and several roots for my spiritual practices.

I do the same thing in my garden as I am regularly weeding and tending. While I don’t necessarily need steps 1 and 2 each time I got into weed the garden, when I am weeding, I am still listening to the voices of the plants and honoring what they would like me to do with them.  I am treating them in reverence and respect, even as I clear them.

Eventually, you may find that even the most dominant weed can be negotiated with to grow elsewhere.

Doing these practices in this way allows you to both hear what the plant spirits may offer you as well as give you a chance to learn some of the uses of common plants in your area.  For example, if you are clearing a garden, many garden “weeds” have tremendous herbal and edible uses including lambs quarters, ground ivy, pursuance, dandelion, red clover, chickweed, and wood sorrel, to name a few.  If you are pulling out something and you don’t know what it is, take a few minutes to learn and do what you can to make use of that plant for food, medicine, crafts, or spiritual purposes.

4. End in Gratitude

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel, garden weed, delicious food!

Finalize your work each day in gratitude–gratitude for the land itself, the soil, and any plants or materials that were moved or pulled as part of the work you were doing.  Recognize the sacrifice that these plants have made and honor them.  You can practice gratitude by making offerings (such as this offering blend), drumming, dancing, doing a land blessing ceremony, or any other number of things.

In the case of my earth oven, the end of the clearing, I again sat with the space and honored it with flute music and offerings.  I meditated to see if there were any additional messages, and if not, I continued to work on the project.  The next steps in the project were to create a draining gravel foundation to prevent frost heaving, and so when I went back to the site a few days later to start removing soil and subsoil, I made sure to continue to make offerings at the shrine I built and continue to offer gratitude.

Conclusion

As the above explores, the key to honoring nature while also tending spaces, weeding, or clearing land has to do with the approach.  Rather than immediately moving into clearing, spend time honoring the spirits of the land first, the physical bodies of the plants to clear, and take your time to make sure you are engaged in reverence and respect.  This kind of practice integrates spiritual practice with everyday life in the practice of sacred action, and can certainly deepen our own relationship to our immediate landscapes.

Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

The Practice of Deep Gratitude

At the heart of the challenges, we face in transitioning from a life-destroying culture to a life-honoring one is to disentangle the many underlying myths and narratives that subconsciously or consciously drive our behaviors.  These myths include the myth of progress, the myth of infinite growth, the lure of materialism, and the assumption that nature is there only to serve our needs. These myths have, in part, been the underlying forces that have driven us to the present challenges of our age. I believe many of these myths are rooted in colonialism, and if we are ever to end this awful practice and its centuries-old impacts, we must address them. They drive both larger systems at play as well as each of us. And while we can look to broader

A nature mandala offered in thanks for our land that provides so much to us.

systems of power and privilege that sustain these myths, it’s important to realize that they are as much embedded in our individual hearts and minds–and thus, are worth countering directly. But here’s the thing: even if you understand these myths on a mental level, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to be rid of.  Thus, while meditating on these myths and coming to understand them is fundamental to us creating a better future and vision for the future, it’s also in our actions where we can begin to address them.  That’s the whole principle of “sacred action” that I talk about in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Based Sustainable Practices: engaging in behaviors that help us live in a more sustaining and sacred way. That’s also part of what I see as the necessary de/un-colonizing work we all must do.

One of the most important myths to counter is the idea of nature being at our disposal to use as we see fit–and for this, a counter practice that I share today is what I call “deep gratitude.” Deep gratitude is developing a consistent, mindful, and sustaining gratitude practice for the world around you.

Three Reasons to Practice Deep Gratitude

If you want to get right to the practice, skip this section.  If you want to hear why I believe deep gratitude is critical and some of the things we need to counter, keep reading!

Nature Loyalty over Brand Loyalty. One of the problems with industrialization, consumption, and materialism is that we lack a true sense of gratitude for the earth that provides for us. The system purposely disconnects us from our food and the sources of our food and the land that sustains us. The system disconnects us from the sources of nature which provide the goods we use (e.g. the “distributed by” label). Instead of having gratitude for nature, which literally provides our every need (even very indirectly in this current age), we have brand loyalty. Companies and corporations steal that loyalty, cultivate it, and we somehow feel beholden to them.  But the true source of our clothing, housing, food, and possessions is the earth, and thus, we need to cultivate gratitude and loyalty to the earth from which everything is derived. So one way we might realign ourselves with the correct loyalty (to the living earth) rather than the things that strip the earth of resources (Walmart) is by simply practicing deep gratitude.

Gratitude for the sun, rain, and mists that provide sustenance to the land

The other thing here is that brand loyalty erases the other part of this equation: the people whose labor makes these things we consume happen. The hands that grow, and pick, and package, and ship, and sell. These people aren’t just cogs in a machine, their labor–which allows us to eat, have clothes, etc–also matters.

The Lure of Money. I another reason that gratitude matters is because of the disconnection and greed that money fosters. Money disconnects us and, like brand loyalty, cultivates a deep love and desire for money. If you think about it on an abstract level, the system is kind of bonkers: you labor for someone, and they give you money.  Then you go to the store and use the money to buy what you need (clothes, food, etc). That whole exchange privileges money and wealth; what it doesn’t privilege is natural abundance or the earth from which all flows. Money disconnects us.  Money creates a whole lot of intermediaries that distance us from the earth and from our fellow humans.  We are the only beings on the planet who live in such a way.  Everyone else for the most part (unless they are domesticated and live with us) depends directly on the natural earth for everything. At the same time, we can be grateful for our own labor that has produced the funds necessary to procure the goods that sustain us.  Self-care and self-love is certainly part of the deep gratitude equation.

Nature is not Walmart.  But what about things that don’t involve money or aren’t part of the larger industrial system?  We still need gratitude.  I have seen the ramifications of this lack of gratitude in many places, but perhaps none so glaring as in the wild food foraging community.I used to teach a lot of wild food foraging classes locally and regionally, and I’ve paused those classes (the verdict is still out on whether I will again in the future).  Despite my best efforts, I watched people descend upon nature like pirates raiding a merchant ship.  Nature was the treasure and they were treasure hunters.  I watched a group of people–who I had just spent 20 minutes talking to about ethics, reciprocation, and gratitude–strip a patch of woodland nettles down to their roots before I could stop them. I’ve seen people I’ve taught in my previous plant walks posting on social media unsustainable harvests. I feel at least partially responsible for those actions. I’ve been kicked out of multiple foraging groups on social media for talking about the lack of sustainability of harvesting five gallons of ramps with the bulbs intact (my blog readers will know I have a deep love for these endangered woodland medicinal species!)  I offer this example of wild food foraging because getting into the woods isn’t enough–the myths and materialistic forces that drive us there.  So what’s the alternative?

Practicing Deep Gratitude

This all leads me to the practice of deep gratitude as a way of countering these myths. What I mean by deep gratitude is this:

Taking small moments to acknowledge what nature has provided to you and be in gratitude for those gifts. Thinking about the natural resources as well as the human hands that created, moved, and sold things to you so that you can be healthy, comfortable, and well-fed. Slowing down enough to be grateful for what you have and how it has come to you.  Acknowledging the lives and labor that have produced what you will consume and giving thanks.

The practice itself is simple.

If you are consuming anything, have take a moment for gratitude.  If you eat something, have gratitude.  If you purchase something, have gratitude. You want to honor the life or resources that was given (because something is almost always given when we consume).  Take a moment to simply express your gratitude and thanks for what nature has provided you.

Gratitude for the abundance of nature!

For example, let’s say you are having a banana for breakfast. Spend a moment honoring the tree that that banana came from, the soil web that sustained it, the hands that tended that tree and harvested it, and those people who helped get it to you. If you are engaging in repairs to your house, be grateful for the materials–where they came from, what was given (the life of the tree for the board for your home), etc.  Simply take the time to honor and acknowledge the earth that provided, the hands that provided, and be thankful.

If you harvested something directly, either from a garden you grew or from nature in the wild, be grateful.  Before you harvest, ask permission.  If you can, leave a small offering before you take anything.

Try this practice as often as you can–I suggest starting for a week and seeing how it goes. Even if you don’t do it for everything, start with one thing, like what you eat or what you wear.  Practice gratitude at your meals, for example, or for anything new that you buy.  I don’t think you can do this all the time, but if you do it some of the time, that is enough to help cultivate this gratitude within you.

I’ve been practicing this for some time now, and it has done a few things for me.  First, I have paid a lot more attention to the steps and ways in which things get to me: if I’m eating a banana (which obviously doesn’t grow here in Pennsylvania), I think about the steps it took to reach me and offer gratitude to everything from the living earth to those who grew and sold it.  Second, it affirmed the need to source everything as locally as possible (which I already do) so that I can offer my gratitude directly.  For example, I buy milk from my local farmer.  I can take a moment to thank the farmer and when I visit to pick up the milk, thank the cows and the grass that sustains them. Another thing this practice does is center permaculture ethics in my life: I am constantly thinking of the triad of earth care, people care, and fair share as I go throughout my day. I’m thinking about these ethical dimensions and drawing attention to both the earth-based and human-based ways in which others have touched me, nourished me, and helped sustain me. I’m stripping out loyalty to oppressive systems and instead focusing on what actually provides for me: the living earth and those others who are directly involved. Finally, this practice has created more joy in my life. Rather than rushing through a meal, I take the time to savor it, being grateful for a full belly and the beautiful asparagus from the garden.

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep gratitude is a fundamentally transformational practice. It encourages you to slow down, pause, and be grateful. Being grateful makes things more meaningful, and our experience is richer for it. It roots us in the here and now and re-aligns our minds and hearts with the living earth. I think  I hope you’ll give it a try (if you don’t do something like this already). I would love to hear your thoughts about how you practice gratitude in your life!

PS:  I have a few updates on my new book!  Thanks to all who have already supported me by purchasing it!  First, I was featured on the latest Druidcast (episode 171) talking about my new book Sacred Actions.  The book also has a number of reviews: one from Nimue Brown at Druid Life, one from Bish at the Druid’s Network, one from Dean Easton at A Druids Way, and one from James Nichol at Contemplative Druidry, one from Regina Chante, and more out soon!