The Druid's Garden

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

Reparation and Healing the Land as part of American Druidry December 10, 2017

Sunrise over the land

Sunrise over the land

Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness.  In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward.  This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective.  That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.

 

The Right to Speak?

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things.  But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.

 

To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices.  I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries.  I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present.  I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.

 

The Work of Repair

When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc).  But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.

 

Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:

  • 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
    • b reparations plural : repairs
  • 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
    • b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
  • 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation usually used in plural

All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair.   We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b).  We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples.  And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged.  And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.

 

A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace

On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice.  My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:

 

First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer.  He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit.  We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc.  In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited.  The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity.  The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.

 

Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools.  The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on.  The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.

 

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits.  I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it.  Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.

The Work of Repair

In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land.  When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human?  Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted.  No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair.   It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.

 

And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods.  I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc.  And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:

 

  • both psychical and energetic in nature
  • offers healing and strengthening to the land
  • puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
  • offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality

 

I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work.  What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework.   I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.

 

Some Examples of Repair

I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.

 

Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting

Some of the trees planted!

Some of the trees planted!

I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste.  I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then.  And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day.  I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.

 

This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property.  Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal.  As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees.  After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more.  And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).

 

It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent.  Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy.  And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health.  The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.

 

Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook).  In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it.  I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work.  I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging.  I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood).  Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it.  That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.

 

Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair

A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds.  As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature.  Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work.  It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.

 

There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here).  You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up).  This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

 

Supporting Native Peoples

I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people.   Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles.  And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.

 

Closing

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done.   It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.

 

I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people.  But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!

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Sacred Tree Profile: White Pine’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings December 3, 2017

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend, there was a terrible conflict between five different nations of people. This conflict was rooted in cycles of pain, revenge, and chaos. A messenger of peace sent from the Great Spirit, the “Peacemaker,” sought to unite the five warring tribes. After convincing them to unite, they came together to make peace, but they still carried their weapons. The Peacemaker uprooted a White Pine tree and had them throw all of their weapons into the hole. He then replanted the tree, and the underground waters carried away the weapons. On the tree, the needles grew in clusters of five, to represent the five nations who came to find peace. The roots of the tree spread out in four directions, to the north, south, east and west; the roots are called the roots of peace. An eagle perched on top of the tree to watch over the roots of peace. Under the tree, the branches spread wide for all to gather. It is from this Native American story that we can understand why the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is called the “Tree of Peace” and why the White Pine carries such power here on our landscape. In today’s post, we explore the White Pine and his peaceful energy, examining the mythology, magic, medicine, and uses of this incredible tree.

 

This post is from a larger series on sacred trees that have included Sassafrass, Ash, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut. I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

The White Pine is a magnificent tree reaching up to 100 feet in height.  With beautiful green needles that have a soft, feathery appearance, it is one of our most iconic forest trees on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. The further north you travel up the East Coast, the more dominant White Pine becomes in the ecosystem. Here in PA, we have White Pine planted primarily in urban and suburban areas with fewer of them found in forests. Because they like it cold, you can often find them up on the ridges. Another reason we have less here is that White Pine doesn’t tolerate logging well; hemlock and other shade-resistant hardwoods (maple, cherry, beech, birch) will take the place of White Pine if they are cut.  But if you head further north, into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and those areas, you will see that White Pine is an incredibly dominant tree.

 

White Pine grows tall and straight, with a massive canopy of feathered, soft needles stretching out from long and strong branches. You might find White Pines in clusters or planted in rows–she makes an incredible “cathedral” tree for sacred spaces and people to gather.  In fact, in New Hampshire, a place called the “Cathedral of the Pines” exists. For many years, White Pines stood in and around the gathering space. A tornado devastated many of the ancient pines in that place in the late 1980’s, but old photos show how incredible this sacred place was with the White Pines towering over all (and there are still some nice white pines there!) I have been to other places where White Pines were planted in a long line and have this cathedral appearance.

 

History and Early American Uses of White Pine

In New England, Eric Sloane writes that White Pine survived logging primarily because it made really poor charcoal; the “coaling” activities that were fueling industrialization at the turn of the 20th century decimated many other species and yet left intact patches of White Pine. This means that even where coaling and logging were dominant, we still have many old-growth forests with White Pines, a true beauty to behold. However, today, White Pine is now used extensively in construction, cabinet making, pattern making, and more; it is a soft, warp-resistant and light wood, meaning that these old trees are sought out for their economic value.

 

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

According to Using Wayside Plants, by Nelson Coon (1969), straight White Pine trees were known as “mast trees” in British Colonial days as they were used as masts for ships. The emissaries of the king would go through the woods a mark the White Pines with the King’s Broad Arrow indicated that tree would be used as a mast on one of the British Fleet. This symbol told anyone else that this tree was the king’s property and none other could cut it. Interestingly enough, the “broad arrow” mark in some, cases, looks a ton like the Druid’s Awen symbol /|\.

 

In Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane writes about the White Pine as being one of the most important trees to early Americans, as from it, people could produce paint, tar, turpentine, firewood, building materials, lampblack, tanbark, resin, and pitch. White Pine was most frequently used for creating these products, followed by Pitch Pine. Sloane also notes that even though they are called “blackboards,” most early colonial blackboards were actually white pine boards that were sanded and painted black. Further, he writes that, in the 18th century, many houses in the MidAtlantic and New England were built from White Pine due to its soft, strong, and workable qualities. Early Americans also used the branches to make wreaths and to create ropes.

 

If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall that Thoreau built his house out of White Pine and interacts with white pine often.  He writes, at one point, about an old man who used to come fishing at the pond who used a White Pine canoe.  The White Pine canoe was fashioned from two logs, dugout.  The old man hadn’t made the canoe, and as Thoreau puts it, “it belonged to the pond.”

 

According to Using Wayside Plants, the cambium (inner bark) of the White Pine was used as a food both by Native Americans and colonists. The cambium could be powdered and used as a flour (or added to flour in order to stretch it further). White Pine seeds are very spicy and were used by Native Americans to cook meat (I will add that they are generally not easy to get–the squirrels always have gotten to them before me!) The material suggests in this section that White Pine is an incredibly useful tree to humans and has been in relationship with humans for a very long time.

 

White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

White Pine, being an American tree, doesn’t get any considerable coverage in the Western esoteric literature (although more generally, pine of other species does get such coverage). For example, in the Ogham, Alim is either translated as pine or fir (or “conifer” more generally).  In the Ogham, this symbol is often associated with healing, wayfinding (that is, finding one’s life purpose, finding a home, setting one’s feet upon the path), protection, and purification.

 

Hoodoo, an African American Magical tradition, looks at pine in a very similar way. In Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, Yronwode describes it as a as a spiritual cleanser. Pine needles (fresh) in a bath help offer clarity and remove mental negativity. Burning pine wood can be used to clear a new home of unwanted spirits. Unopened pine cones help bring in health and longevity. If you keep a pine cone near you, as long as it stays closed, it will bring this in. Yronwode writes that if the pine cone starts to open, plant it and get a new one. Pine of all kinds also are connected with abundance or finances. Its evergreen nature also means it draws in steady money.

 

In the “Book of Sacred Magic by Abramelin the Mage“, a 15th century magic manuscript translated by S.L.M. Mathers, the Ambramelin describes the sacred place for which magic is to happen (what he calls the “operation”). In the many details he gives, he indicates that the floor should be made of white pine and swept clean.  Ambramelin does not specify why the floor should be of white pine, but given some of the other lore associated with it, one might infer it is for the purifying and protective nature of the tree.

 

Medicinal Uses of White Pine

White Pine, both physically and energetically, appears to be able to draw things out.  This is true not only of the pine pitch but also of the simple presence of pine.  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 for people who have problems with breathing due to smoking. Further, Wood describes how White Pine was widely used by Native Americans (primarily, the bark was used medicinally) and adapted for use by colonists and early doctors in North America. Chewing the inner bark was used for respiratory infections (especially with sticky green phlegm) or used when an infection started to keep it from getting worse. Native Americans also used a “patch” of pine pitch to seal up wounds and prevent infections (White Pine, like Blue Spruce, is antiseptic and will also draw debris out of a wound). White Pine pitch can also be used on wounds that are already infected to draw out the infection and heal the wound. Wood also notes that the Ojibwe use White Pine bark (along with wild cherry and wild plum) to treat gangrene.

 

Pine is used as one of Bach’s flower remedies.  The essence of Pine is said to help with nervousness, allow for deeper contemplation/introspection, and help release any guilt or self blame. Pine more generally can be used as a “pick me up” by placing a few drops of pine oil or fresh pine needless in a bath for general tiredness, especially if one has been “burning the candle at both ends” so to speak.

 

Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

I’ve already shared what I believe to be the most important legend of the White Pine, the Iroquois story of White Pine as a tree of peace. Here are three other stories that give us some deeper insight into the White Pine:

In one Micmac legend, three brothers seek out a great magician, Glooskap, in order to be granted three wishes. The first brother wants to be exceedingly tall so that he would be admired by all of the women. The second brother wanted to stay in the forest, beholding its beauty, and never work again (a man after my own heart!). The third brother wished to live in perfect health till old age. The way to see Glooskap was fraught with trials and difficulty, but the brothers persevered and arrived. After sharing their wishes with Glooskap , Glooskap calls upon Cuhkw, the earthquake, and asked him to plant the three brothers feet in the ground. And they turned into three white pines. The first brother was the tallest white pine in all of the land, he towered over everyone. The second brother got his wish of staying in the forest as a magnificent tree. The third brother stood healthy and strong.

 

In a second legend, a Kwakiutl tale (from the Kawkiutl Indians in British Colombia) the Great Inventor took a girl for his wife. He puts the gum of the White Pine in his mouth and lays with her, and she is immediately pregnant.

 

In “The Origin of People“, a legend from the Shoshoni people of what is now present day Nevada, the animals (Coyote, Mouse, Woodpecker, Crow, and more) work to get pine nuts from people who have hung them in a bag on a white pine tree. They play games with the people to distract them, and finally, succeed in getting the nuts. They eat and eat the nuts and then there is but one nut left. The humans woke up and grew angry and chased them down. Coyote’s people relay the nut to the fastest runners, and finally, Crow bites the end off of the nut, hides it in his leg, and runs. He is shot and killed but his leg with the nut in it keeps going up into the mountains. Now, white pines grow there in the mountains but not where the people originally harvested them (only Juniper grows there now).

 

Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

In summarizing all of the above with regards to the white pine, we might see that this tree is a powerful symbol and broker for peace in a variety of different ways.

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

The Work of Peace. The work of the White Pine in the opening story, especially here in the region where the tribes of the Iroquois once lived, makes it clear that this tree is powerfully associated with peace of all forms. Perhaps when we think of peace, we think of human relationships (and certainly, the White Pine is needed here).  But Peace isn’t just about human to human relationships, but relationships with the past of all kinds.

 

Human-human relationships. White Pine, as the story suggests, offers much to promote peace between humans. Given the contentiousness, seething anger, and intensity we have in these days, we might all spend some time with the White Pine to help facilitate peace among our friends, family, neighbors, community, and broader world.

 

Human-land relationships. I think its particularly interesting that while all of the other trees were cut down and coaled, the great White Pines largely remained intact. In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary. When I first went to speak to the spirits of the land on my old homestead in Michigan, the spirits were angry at having the land so mistreated. The only tree that would speak to me was a towering White Pine in the middle of the land–this tree taught me much about how to build a relationship with the land, do repair work, and cultivate peace between us. This tree did this, all the while the stump of its partner white pine, oozed sap after being cut down next to it. Since that time, I have found the peacemaking qualities of the White Pine to be true–the peace-honoring nature of white pine makes it a good choice for a variety of land healing and repair work.

 

Peace within One’s Self.  Perhaps one of the hardest ways to broker peace is within one’s self. Healing and growth begins with making peace with the past and coming to a place of acceptance. Begin angry at yourself, not letting the past go, and continuing to hold onto old hurts is so common for us as humans.  It causes wars and tension between people, and certainly, it can cause pain and stagnation within our own hearts. The White Pine powerfully suggests to us that it is time to let it go. To heal, to renew, to simply stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, or to stop holding onto what was done to us.

 

The work of peace is difficult work, and to do this, we can look at three other messages that seem present in the White Pine based on my synthesis of the above material:

 

Drawing Out. It think its no coincidence that this tree’s sap has been used to draw out poisons, splinters, infection, and other kinds of things unwanted from the body. In order for the process of peace to happen, we must pull all of the old pain and festering wounds  and allow peace to flow within us. The White Pine, in its work of peace, does this for us.  Drawing out past anger, sadness, and pain so that peace can take place. This can happen on every level: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual.

 

Cleansing and Purification. Also associated with the power of peace is the work of cleansing and purification. Once the pain of old wounds is drawn out, the site must be cleansed and purified for the work of peace to continue so that nothing else can work its way back in. White Pine does this work, and does it well, both on the physical body as well as the mind and spirit.

 

Wayfinding. After peace has been brokered, the question of where to go next is an important one. What happens to the solider when there is no longer a war to fight? What happens to a person when he or she finally lets go what has been occupying his or her heart for years?  This period of time can be confusing, disorienting, and potentially very scary–but White Pine is here to help us find our way and to see a clear path forward.

 

Conclusion

White Pine is an incredible tree with much to teach us in an age with so much pain, suffering, bad blood, and relational difficulty. As an evergreen, Pine tells us the work of peace is never ending–it is work we must continue in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, and in our hearts. When you see a White Pine, stop and enjoy his towering presence and his peaceful energy–and know that he is there to help broker peace in the many different ways we–as people, as a society, and as spiritual beings–need it.

 

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

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

 

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

 

Abundance of the Land

Abundance of the Land

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

 

Inner and Outer Work

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

 

Shaping A Shared Vision for Sacred Land

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

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

 

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

 

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

 

Energetics and Ritual

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

 

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

 

Smudge sticks for blessing

Smudge sticks for blessing

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Vision and Goals: The Story of the New Land

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

 

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

 

Breaking down the old and regrowth

Breaking down the old and regrowth

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

 

Stones Rising: A Reflection on Raising a Standing Stone September 10, 2017

We gather to the outstretched rope lines, ready to move the 22 foot long stone weighing thousands of pounds by hand. Our goal is about a half a mile away, through hilly terrain. This stone destined for the a place in the ever expanding Stone Circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. All have gathered for one purpose: to move this massive stone using our hands and hearts, and to give it a home in the honored northern quarter of the circle.

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

So much preparation has gone into this moment; building this sacred space from the ground up, the years and years of work. Countless hours of developing expertise on how to move stones.  More recent preparations, from the “stone peoples intensive” volunteers arriving a week early to prepare the site, building and securing the moving equipment, developing the rituals, preparing the grounds.  And there are the stone movers– the huge group of people who have gathered from far and wide. The evening before, we held ritual around the flame stone and called in our ancestors to bless our sacred work.  The next day, we volunteered on one or more of the many paths of service necessary to help the event take shape.  Anticipation built, especially for those of us who had never done the work before.

Calling in our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

And so, here we stood, on the day of the “long pull.” Our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits ready for the work ahead. Everyone is quiet on the lines except those who are directing the activity. We stood in silent communion with the stone.  The order is given–pull slow and steady.  The stone people work closely with the stone, shouting orders, watching to see how it moves along the path, putting logs underneath so that it can roll along smoothly. The logs are particularly important for rises in elevation and flat areas (as the road we pull the stone down is full of many dips, hills, and turns). The leaders call out commands–we stop, we move left with our ropes, we pull.  We stop, shift again to the right, and pull.  We gather together to shorten the ropes and pull.  We move apart on the longer stretches and pull.  We breathe.  We pull.

A view from the back of the rope lines

A view from the back of the rope lines, the signal to stop.

We are many tribes within tribes gathered here to pull this stone.  And yet, on these ropes, there are no differences among us. Regardless of race, class, vocation, identity, skill, physical appearance, gender, sexuality, political orientation, or ability, we gather as a single tribe with our one purpose–to pull. We have three lines coming from the stone–I was in the middle line, with my small community of druids surrounding me. These druids are dear friends, people with whom I have long shared sacred space, with whom I’ve conducted the work of initiation, with whom I’ve spent many an evening at the bardic fire, sharing mead, stories, and songs. If I fall, I know they will catch me.  But I realize in that moment, looking to the broader tribe of people around me…so would any other person here today.  Whatever differences or divisions there were before this stone pull, they fade away, and with that, our small druid tribe flows seamlessly into the greater tribe, all working as one.

 

Doing the work of raising this stone requires an incredible amount of trust. It requires that we put aside our differences, our disagreements, our pain, whatever we carry with us, and simply trust the other people who are there beside us. You can’t have barriers between you for this work, because you can’t be anywhere but present in the moment. Anything else has no place. I can understand now, in ways that were unfathomable to me before, why the ancients built big things. They built things to build community. They built things to build bonds of friendship and trust that transcend any other boundaries. They built things to bring people together. You couldn’t hold a grudge against your friend or neighbor because the next day, that person you are angry at might be holding the wooden lever that is keeping 2000 pounds of stone from crushing down on you. The ancient monuments that still stand are symbols of that community and trust.

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

In fact, working in a community to accomplish so many tasks used to be a skill that every human had. Communities worked together to accomplish incredible feats, like building stone circles that stand for 10,000 years.  It is no wonder we need our ancestors here to support us–we reach deep within our own blood and reconnect with their wisdom to guide our hands, hearts, and spirits.  We are not a separate people, but one.  Pull, wait, move.  Breathe.  Pull. Pull, Pull!

 

As much as you depend upon your community during the moving of the stone, your community depends upon you. The stone is so heavy; every person is needed. You have to pull your own weight in the most literal way. At one point, we were pulling the stone up a really long hill, and it was really intense. If we stopped, we might not get going again, so we just kept pulling. Our muscles were burning, everyone was sweating, groaning, giving it our all. There’s a temptation at that point to ease up just a little, to not pull quite so hard, to catch your breath. But you don’t. You pull with all of your might because if you don’t, someone else in your community will have to do so, and that might be too much for them as they are already giving their all. This is another form of trust.

 

If there is one thing that can be said it is that anything worth doing takes time. And stones in particular, move slowly. To move a stone quickly would risk serious injury to either us or the stone. The stone forces us to slow down, to be in the moment, to simply be present, and listen, and attend to exactly what is happening right now. I had to be present in each moment to hear what was coming next. For four hours while we moved that stone, I was in an extended movement meditation where my entire existence was focused on listening for those instructions and doing it exactly as asked. We get into a rhythm. The pauses allow us to reflect on the moment, on the beauty of it. I look to my brothers and sisters of the tribe of the standing people, noting the hickories and white pines who send us their blessings as we slowly pass. As we wait, as we pull, as we move left on our rope lines, as we drink the water that other community members provide, we are simply in that moment.

Some of us on the lines--and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

Some of us on the lines–and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

 

Our bodies grow sore, but the journey has not yet ended.  For some of us, we spend most of our waking hours in our minds, disembodied, our minds focused on screens of information.  Our bodies come to life in the moment where we pull, our bodies are fully, and sometimes painfully present, to let us know that we are still alive.  Our sore muscles remind us that we are here now, and that we are making this living monument that will last for generations.

 

As our sled that the stone rested on broke, as our log rollers broke, as everything seemed to break and we moved the stone up the last rise by sheer determination, we continued to pull. Finally, we reach our destination. The stone is once again celebrated and we come together as a tribe. That evening, the warriors, the veterans among us and others who choose to join, hold vigil over the stone.  We let the stone know that the community is here, this day, and always.  That evening, we released our fears, doubts, pain, and sorrow and came together as a tribe for the great work, the rising of the stone, to begin.

 

Celebrating the end of the long pull

Celebrating the end of the long pull

The next morning, it is time for the stone to rise to its sacred place in the north. We gather in the morning. All night long, while the warriors held vigil, the corn mother tribe baked us bread. They offer it to us to break our fast. It is delicious, slathered with honey butter. This warm gift fills our bellies and hearts. We pull, pull, pull and the stone is in place. We watch as the stone people slowly use leverage to lift it up, inches at a time, building sturdy wooden foundations to hold it. We wait, we watch, we listen. Finally, it is time for the stone to rise.

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Two ropes are laid out, and those of us who are at Stones Rising for the first time are given the place of honor at the front of the ropes so we can watch the stone rise into place. The drummers beat their steady rhythm, while the entire stone circle is decked out in beautiful colors; an outdoor sanctuary to the living earth.  We pull on the ropes, hand over hand, but this is easy work, as we are also using some block and tackle (ropes and pulleys).

The stone rising up!

The stone rising up!

Orren Whiddon, whose vision has created Four Quarters, is leading us in raising the stone.  He tells us that reason we are using block and tackle is because we don’t have the experience of working in a community together. We don’t have enough control.  We would get too excited, and we pull to fast, and so, the block and tackle slow us down. When we are 75% of the way, an additional tool is needed, and it takes time for someone to fetch it from the farmhouse. We hold the ropes. We wait. We breathe. It is not hard work with all of us here; we trust that the community will hold. Then, we are pulling again, hand over hand, as the stone raises up. With a final thump, the stone fits into its hole in the circle. We cheer and hug each other. The great work is done. Children are blessed, the community spends time in celebration, and later, feasting.

 

The main ritual that evening welcomes to the stone to the circle, it is powerful and moving and magic. I catch my breath and look around at my tribe, their faces shining in the dim firelight. I think about so many things there, as we stand in the firelight as a tribe honoring the new stone. Modern humans almost never have the opportunity to experience something like this. We have grown so dependent on fossil fuels and machines that do this kind of work that we have forgotten the most important lessons of trust, forgiveness, community, slow time, and craft. As Wendel Berry writes about in the Unsettling of America, the point isn’t to do something quickly.  It is to do it well. This is especially and poignantly true of building sacred spaces. Fossil fueled powered heavy machinery could never, ever compare to what we experienced here as a tribe. We might gain in efficiency in using fossil fuels, but efficiency comes at an extraordinarily high cost. In the case of building a stone circle or other sacred space, it may come at the cost of the heart and soul of a community. Fossil fuels have made life easier, quicker, but certainly not any more full.  Fossil fuels have stripped us of an extremely important gift–the ability to work together. Raising this stone has given us the briefest glimpse into the power of what that once looked like. And I want more.

 

This experience also has a tremendous amount of value to those of us here in the United States practicing nature-based spirituality. As any druid practicing here knows, we are in a bit of a pickle. We are practicing a nature-based spiritual tradition that originated with the Celts–their land isn’t our land. Some, but not all of us, can trace ancestry back to the British Isles in some form or another. That doesn’t really matter much when we don’t live on that soil. The truth is, here in the USA, we live on someone else’s sacred land. That unavoidable fact puts us in a serious bind–the most compassionate, respectful, and meaningful solution is to build our own sacred spaces. I’ve long advocated before the necessity of creating our own sacred spaces (and have offered some suggestions for how to do so), and this experience radically affirms and extends this idea. Building small spaces with a few friends, or very magnificent spaces, like the stone circle at Four Quarters, is part of our own flavor of what it means to be an American earth-centered spiritual person, an American Druid, an American anything else.

The "Flame Stone", the northern most stone of the circle

The “Flame Stone”, the northern most stone of the circle

The truth is, I’ve been attempting to capture in words an experience so sacred, words can never fully describe its power. But for those who do not have such an opportunity to raise a stone, I hope that my attempt to give the experience voice has given you pause for reflection.  To understand the work of the stones, you must do the work of the stones.  To understand a sacred place, at least the kind we are trying to create here in the USA, you have to take part in the creation of it.  Before I raised a stone, I really had no idea what the circle of stones there at Four Quarters meant, what their power was. I couldn’t hear the singing of the stones. But now, I understand that place. I am connected to it.  It is part of me, and I am forever part of it.

 

And, perhaps, I will pull stone with you next year, on Labor Day Weekend, for Stones Rising 2018! (And for those of you attending the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering this upcoming weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

PS: I am indebted to Patricia Robin Woodruff, who took most of the photos in this blog post.  You can learn more about her and her amazing artwork here.

 

Ecoregional Druidry: A Druid’s Wheel of the Year August 27, 2017

In the 1990’s, now Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Gordon Cooper, developed the idea of “wildcrafting your own druidry”; this practice is defined as rooted one’s druid practice in one’s local ecology, history, legends and magic.  In today’s age of adapting and drawing upon many different traditions in the quest for spiritual wholeness, we sometimes forget that all knowledge, regardless of how ancient it is (like the Celtic Tree Alphabet and divination system, the Ogham) was originally developed in a local culture and ecosystem.  Thus, too, I believe our spiritual practice reflect our own local ecologies and ways of understanding.  I’m going to expand on some of Gordon’s ideas here and talk about my own work with “local druidry” or “ecoregional druidry” and how to put some of this into practice to create a “druid’s wheel of the year” that is specific to your local ecology and customs.  While I’m using druidry as an example here, anyone who is following a nature-based spiritual path and using the wheel of the year as their structure of holidays would benefit from such information.

 

Dividing Up the Landscape

The Laurel Highlands (Alleghney Mountain Range in the Appalacians).  These are the mountains I call home--my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

The Laurel Highlands (Allegheny Mountain Range in the Appalacians). These are the mountains I call home–my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

Before we get into how to adapt some of the druid path practices and material to a local setting, it’s important to understand the different ways in which we can divide a landscape into smaller units that are more uniform. Most of us understand divisions from a political sense: the line that separates two countries, states, or provinces. These divisions may help us understand some of the different cultural practices that we can draw upon that are regionally or locally-based. Local feasts, local foods, local agricultural practices, local traditions and folklore all may contribute to our own understanding of ecoregional druid adaptations (and I’ll talk more about those in a second post).

 

However, political lines only occasionally follow ecological boundaries, and so we also need to understand something about ecological boundaries. At the largest level are ecozones (like the Nearctic ecozone, which constitutes most of North and Central America) and bioregions (like the Eastern United States). These bioregions are very large areas that have many, many different ecosystems within them, but do share some broader characteristics (such as patterns of light and darkness throughout a year).  For our purposes, likely the most appropriate place to look is at the level of ecoregion (or ecological region) which is, according to Brunckhorst (2000) is a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterize a region.”  This may include patterns that repeat in the geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, flora and fauna, and soils of a land area. In the case of the United States, the Laurentia ecoregion which also includes all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest east of the Mississippi as well as parts of South-Eastern Canada. Within this ecoregion, there are many ecosystems which are unique to their specific locations but also broader species that are shared across them.

 

With knowledge of both your regional or local traditions and ecoregion and local ecosystems, you are well on your way to adapting your druid practice.

The Adapted Wheel of the Year

The holidays that make up the wheel or cycle of the year in the druid tradition follow the path of the sun and include the solstices and equinoxes are determined by the path of the sun. The solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days manifest differently upon the earth in quiet dramatic ways. The modern wheel of the year, which is celebrated by druids, was developed in Great Britain from older agricultural holidays from Europe. While it fits the UK ecosystem quite well, it may be far less appropriate Texas, USA or Australia. Particularly, while the astronomical event of the longest day and longest night are present always, how they manifest on the earth is tied to how the holidays are celebrated. For example, in the UK or Eastern US, the Fall Equinox is a ritual devoted to harvest because that’s what’s happening in the landscape. Many different adaptations of the wheel of the year have been created by druids all over the world, unique to their ecosystems.

 

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

Further, the four season model present and assumed in the Wheel of the Year is based on a temperate climate. Some druids don’t live in regions with four seasons. Even within a temperate ecosystem each season may vary considerably by weeks or months, with different bloom times. Each year also is variable; a warm and early spring equals a growing season that has flowering and fruiting maturing earlier.  And so why the sun and solar currents are steady, dependable, and predictable, the hydrological cycles, weather, and manifestation of the season on the earth herself is ever changing.  It seems, then, to create a truly representative body of holidays, we must observe both the progress of the sun across the sky, but also consider the role of the specific season upon the earth and how it manifests where we live.

 

While the overall themes of the wheel of the year manifest in most ecosystems (a time of light/spring, a time of harvest, a time of being indoors/shelter (which might be from sun or cold, depending on the location), these are not consistent with the traditional wheel of the year in many places.  Not all locations have traditional spring, summer, winter, and fall. And so, some druids may find it necessary to develop a modified seasonal cycle and wheel of the year. For example, a wheel of the year in the tropics might include a dry season and a stormy season; this would drastically change the nature of the seasonal celebrations and the overall themes.

 

Deepening the Wheel of the Year: Adding Ecoregional Sacred Observances

Even if you live in a temperate climate (like I do) that is fairly representative of the standard wheel of the year, one of the ways you might adapt the wheel of the year is by adding in what I call minor sacred observances. These, unlike the path of the sun or cross quarter days, do not have specific dates on a calendar set by the consistent path of the sun and patterns of light and dark. Rather, they mark a period in time in the ecosystem, and that specific occurrence changes from year to year.

 

Through a period of observation and interaction, which involved being out in every season and through all kinds of weather, certain events seemed particularly meaningful and salient in my ecosystem.  These were events that I noticed happened with regularity and also that were notable or strikig to me in some way. I also used some of my own knowledge of past local history and lore. This wheel of the year took me over a decade to fully develop and, just as importantly, changed substantially when I made the move from Michigan to Pennsylvania a few years back.  Here it is in its current form:

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

 

Anything that is in between the eight holidays is mostly variable – like the first hard frost or first snowfall.  These are particularly significant events that happen each year, and I make note of them and honor them when they occur. I also have noted important dates that connect me to seasonal activities and the land–the yearly creation of Pysanky eggs, a longstanding family tradition. Additionally, all of my gardening and homesteading activities that help root me firmly in the ecosystem like starting my seeds, preparing beds for the fall, harvesting, and so on.  You’ll also see that I have included what I consider to be important markers of changes in my local ecosystem, like the chirping of the Kaydids or the blooming of the hawthorn.

 

You’ll notice on my map, Groundhog Day is included for a simple reason: I live 40 minutes south of Punxsutawney, PA, who has an annual tradition of doing a groundhog weather prognostication (a fancy word for divination) describing how soon winter will end by reading Phil’s shadow. Because of that bit of regional and honored folk magic, I tie my own Imbolc celebrations in with the general regional celebrations for Groundhog day on Feb 2nd and do divinations for the coming year at that time.

 

Of course, a different druid (even one living in the same ecoregion) might have a very different calendar of events. For example, when I lived in the Great Lakes region of the US, the full freezing over of the ice on the lakes (so that you could walk, skate, or ice fish) was a memorable occurrence, as was when the first crack in that same ice appeared. For some druids near the coast, the monthly “tidal bulge” might be particularly salient or the blooming of the beach rose. This is all to say that your own earth-centered holidays and even more specialized seasons themselves can be developed in line with your observations of local ecosystems and ecology. The more that you know about the world directly around you, the more you will have a sense of what is sacred and meaningful about that world.  Perhaps you don’t have a winter, but you have a season of fog—that would change how and when you celebrated that season.

 

Suggestions for Developing and Extending Your Wheel of the Year

First snow....

First snow….

I see this kind of ecoregional calendar as a next step in the druid tradition: we have a set of solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days that occur with regularity and that help bring us together. And these are determined by the path of the sun.  But each druid or group of druids might find their own way forward: the general principle here is that part of the druid tradition ties sacred ecological knowledge with a honoring of the cycles of nature and the cycles of the year. Or, you might choose to keep the solstices and equinoxes and do away with the cross quarter days entirely (as they are agricultural) and instead, build in other holidays or sacred moments that are important to you and your region.

 

How you develop your own seasonal calendar is up to you—it is about what is salient on your immediate landscape, the landscape you inhabit each day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming.  You might be surprised with the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farmers and farm products. A lot of traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems.  You’ll see that reflected in my map above—the flowing of the maple sap, for example, as well as the budding of the maple tree are significant to me both because I have done sugaring most years, but also because of the broader cultural custom in this part of the US.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs (like the celebration of the maple tree present in my region) and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities, might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? For example, for me around the Spring Equinox here (late March) nothing is blooming. But what is happening are the robins are starting to return and the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts are running with their sap. And the maples, in particular, are in a place of their highest power of the year (which I understand from talking to them and sensing their energy over a long period of time).  Maple, then, features predominantly in my local druid calendar as well as in ritual work that I do at that time.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature sprits, the powerful energies of the landscape where you live, and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

And so, with some observation, intuition, and research, you can develop a highly personalized “wheel of the year” calendar that is eco-regional and very specific to your druid path.  I’ll continue to examine this topic next week, when we explore how to develop localized rituals, observances, and activities for your wheel of the year.

 

(PS: If any of my readers are heading to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for Stones Rising next weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

 

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

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

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sassafras and American History

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

 

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

 

Safrole and Safety

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harvesting Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Traditional Root Beer

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

 

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

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

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

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

 

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

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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