The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Homestead Bird Flocks and Flock Happiness December 1, 2019

Baby ducks!

On the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have many feathered friends. I think a lot of people see birds just as livestock, but here, we see them a little differently. Thus, I wanted to create a short guide for people who were thinking about cultivating a relationship with a backyard flock of birds but they weren’t sure what kind of birds they might want!  Of course, this is my own druid perspective on homestead bird flocks, which might be a bit different than what you’ll find on more general sites.   In this guide, I’ll talk about a variety of backyard flock breeds, how they might help your garden and homestead, challenges, temperament, and more. I will also note that I haven’t raised birds for meat, so I won’t talk about that much in this guide. I’ll cover four common backyard flock birds: chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl.

 

Entering Into Relationship

Stemming in part from my post last week where I talked about seeing all aspects of nature as sacred, having agency, and the need to honor life, I think it’s important to start any conversation about backyard flocks from this perspective.

 

 

Before entering into any relationship, it’s important to start with your own intentions and think about these questions framed by relationship. What do you want from backyard birds? What can you offer them? For us, we keep our birds as pets, as companions, and as helpers on the homestead. Our intentions are to let them have long, happy lives and to build relationships with them. And we work to offer them plenty of free-ranging outside time, secure and safe coops and runs, healthy food, treats, and a variety of things to keep them entertained.  Like any other relationship: the more I invest, the more rich rewards I gain. Many of the backyard bird breeds, when offered good housing, shelter, food, and so on, can live many years and provide you amazing companionship and joy.

 

This relationship and intention might be different if you are raising birds for pets vs. meat.  For meat animals, I ascribe to the “one bad day” philosophy. When raising meat birds, those birds should have the best life possible up until their “one bad day.” Animals can have great lives even if they are intended to be eaten. Raising meat birds personally isn’t something I do but I support others who do so ethically.

 

Thus, these birds are living, breathing autonomous individuals with their own desires and capacity for love/friendship. Each one has their own personality and is unique. The more you treat them as deserving of this respect, the more rewards you will have from raising them.  And certainly, this kind of thinking I’m advocating here goes against much of the conventional wisdom about “barnyard animals” and their treatment.

 

Flock Overview:

Now that we are through the philosophy of raising backyard birds, here are some of the backyard flocks that you can consider raising.  We are currently raising all four of these flocks and have hand raised all from babies or eggs.

 

Chickens:  Most people are most familiar with chickens of the birds on this list. I love chickens and have kept them for most of my life. They are fun, quirky, entertaining, and sweet mannered.  I only raise heritage breeds because these breeds are older and live longer (8-12 years).  Some breeds of chickens today are genetically selected to grow quickly, have large breasts, or produce so many eggs that it soon destroys their poor bodies–these are battery hen breeds (and are only expected to live 1-3 years).  I will rescue battery hens, but never seek them out as peeps!   A good heritage breed chicken will lay anywhere between 200-300 eggs a year and live 8-12 years. They typically stop laying during the darkest and coldest months–some chicken owners will choose to put a light in their coop at night to encourage them to lay through the cold and dark parts of winter, but I prefer to let them have a break and work with nature.  If the girls want a break from egg-laying at the winter solstice, they can have it!

 

Good heritage breeds are Wyandottes, Rhode Island Reds, Black Copper Marans, Easter Eggers, Plymouth Barred Rock, Australorps, and Cochins.  If you are in an area with *any* hawk pressure, I would not recommend bantams or Silkies, but rather, full size hens.  If you want a rooster for protection, consider standard size hens and a bantam rooster–a larger rooster can be rougher on the girls, pulling out feathres, etc.  A bantam rooster can still protect but can’t be as rough.  One rooster is all you need for up to 12 hens!

 

Chickens scratching it up!

Chickens prefer to free-range and are omnivores. They also love food scraps and leftovers, and so, when I go out to eat, I always bring anyone’s unwanted leftovers back for them.  They are so happy to have anything to peck and scratch at.  They can eat almost anything except potato peels.  They adore moldy cheese!  So you can certainly have them help transition compost into soil and eggs!

 

The biggest problem with chickens can be their scratching behavior.  If you have nice garden beds, new seedlings, nice landscaping, or anything covered mulch, you won’t soon because chickens dig it up.  This digging action can be put to good use for fall beds and fall leaves but during certain parts of the year, keeping chickens out of beds and gardens is necessary.  I like to send the chickens into the garden in the fall, where they can dig up all the grubs and worms and help till the soil for next season and deposit their rich fertilizer!

 

Personality-wise, chickens are more independent than the rest of the birds on this list.  The flock may scatter often, with each individual chicken going off on her own to peck and scratch at what suits her fancy or small groups of hens may wander here and here. Thus, you will see them dotted everywhere when they are free-ranging.  This means its easier to lose a single chicken because they don’t stick together.  We have one currently have one rooster and eight hens, and he can’t stay with all the hens when they scatter, which is a bit of a problem when he’s watching for hawks.  But Pythagoras does his best!

 

Those same baby ducks much older!

Ducks are considered one of the best flocks for all-purpose backyard homesteads. This is because they don’t scratch up your mulch, are excellent at garden grubbing, and they lay almost as many eggs as a chicken. Ducks do need access to more water than chickens; ours get a kiddie pool filled with fresh water (usually twice daily in the warm months) and they are quite content.  The area around their kiddie pool will eventually turn into an absolute mud pit, so do be aware.  Wherever there is water, there is a muddy duck, however, so if you have water features on your landscape, this is something to keep in mind. In the winter, they get a smaller bucket that they can dip their beaks and heads into that sits on a heated waterer.

 

Ducks are great for gardens and the smaller breeds (like Khaki Campbells) are light enough to not damage garden plants.  On the other hand, our Pekins just stomp small plants down with their heavy bodies, haha!  There are many possible heritage breeds for ducks, but you want something less heavy if you are going to be having them eat slugs in your garden.

 

Ducks are very social with each other and form a tight-knit community.  I have never seen any of our four ducks stray more than about 10 feet from the other ducks.  When they move, they move as a unit, like a quacking, waddling school of fish. They have a great deal to say and constantly will run commentary on anything you are doing (or anyone else is doing).

 

Geese are my favorite of the backyard flock birds. When I was a kid, I was chased by a flock of mean geese and cornered on my uncle’s porch for almost an hour till my father rescued me. Thus, I never considered them an option for a backyard flock, but my partner talked me into it and I’m so glad he did.  Some breeds of geese are the most friendly and intelligent of all of the birds listed here. The breed that we raise right now is called American Buff, and they are beautiful, super friendly and curious. One gander can mate (for life) with several geese. On our homestead, we have a mated pair and they are always together–and usually following one of us around as we work on the homestead.

 

Geese lay about 20-30 eggs a year, but each egg is enough for a meal for two people (and if you do pysanky, goose eggs are amazing). They are vegetarians, eating grass as their primary food source. Our geese are on the lawn all day, grazing it and chirping in joy. Like ducks, Geese need access to pools of freshwater–our geese have a large tub that we fill up daily for them. We also give them the smaller tub in the winter for their heated waterer when necessary.  They aren’t filthy like ducks though and don’t make a mess of their water.

Our happy geese swimming in the back creek

 

Both geese and guineas (below) are excellent “guard birds” in that they sound a loud alert when someone comes up or driveway or they see a predator. The geese will also aggressively chase something off if they can. This can be useful for the homestead as a whole, and also keep you apprised of the overall situation (especially if you don’t have a dog for these purposes). Geese are quite loud, especially when they get their adult voices, so this is something to keep in mind.  When my geese want something (like grapes or chestnuts, their favorite treat) they will honk quite loudly.

 

Geese will go in the garden, and while you can get them to weed grass for you, they will also likely take a big bite out of some of your ripe fruits and veggies, so keep that in mind.  Also, coming in at 18-20 lbs a bird, they are heavy and can crush seedlings and small plants.

 

Geese are also by far the most intelligent, curious, and personable of the birds listed here.  They enjoy playing with cat and dog toys, chewing on anything they can (including your hair, clothing, etc) and getting themselves into trouble.  I love them so much and if you are looking for a companion bird, I would suggest a pair of geese.  Some people do bring their geese in the house and train them with diapers!  I wish I had thought of that when mine were young!

 

Guineas are the least domesticated of the flocks present here, in that they won’t want cuddles or to be pet, but they are still very friendly and fun. They are loud, with a range of different calls and honks, which help scare away predators and alert you as to what is going on.  I think they are by far the most aware of their surroundings and hence, you can learn a lot about nature observation from watching them.  Like the ducks, they move like a school of fish and stay close to each other. Particularly in their first year of life, they are pretty jumpy, and you’ll often hear them doing their loud alarm calls. They also have other lower whistles, which they use when they want you to do something (like offer them treats or mealworms).  Guineas are powerful birds, and even though they are the smallest of the birds on this list (weighing only 3-5 lbs) they are able to fly and move very quickly.  If a guinea doesn’t want to be caught, the guinea will not be caught! We have trained them with hand signals and mealworms–with a single hand signal, we can get them to move in a certain direction or go into their coop (our independent-minded chickens would never do such a thing).

 

Our adult guinea flock

Guineas are fantastic tick control. With the rise of tick-borne illnesses and radically increasing tick populations, we got the guineas to help us address a growing tick population. Since getting the guineas, the ticks have been far less and our lives have been more joyful because the guineas are such fun. The guineas are excellent in the garden for bug control of all kinds–bugs have no chance with an army of chickens and guineas let loose!

 

One of the things about guineas is that they want to roost in trees at night.  Thus, we always make sure we put our guineas away at least 45 min before dark or they will be 50 feet up in a tree and we won’t be able to get them down.  Roosting like that keeps them away from some ground predators, like foxes or coyotes, but makes them easy to pick off by owls.  A lot of people around here raise up a guinea flock and just let them go once they are about 10 weeks old–they rarely live a year (and often much less than that) with that approach. One friend raised up 10 and lost them all within 3 weeks. I don’t think it’s safe or ethical to raise and release in that way. Rather, we lock our guineas up with our chickens when we aren’t home and at night. The guineas have their own separate run during the day for when they are in the run, and they roost with the chickens at night. Thus, our guineas are two years old now and should live their full lifespan of 8-10 years with protection and night safety.

 

Happy ducklings taking a trip to grandma’s house!

Raising Peeps, Keets, Goslings, and Ducklings

Once you’ve committed to getting some birds you have to make is whether to get peeps or raise them yourself.  Remember that all of these birds are flock animals and cannot be raised alone, so you will want to think about how many you want.

 

Hatching Eggs. We raised up two of our four ducks from eggs our friends had given us–the incubator with seven eggs sat on our counter for a month.  One peep hatched successfully and my partner had to intervene and help the second hatch–they are now our large and beautiful Pekin Ducks (white) that you see in the photos here.  I loved that experience because you got to be the only one the ducks had ever seen–they’ve been here since they were eggs. We sang to the eggs, cuddled the eggs, and welcomed them to our lives before they were even born.  If you have a broody hen, you can also get her to hatch some eggs for you (she will hatch anything but a goose egg–it is too big for her to sit on!) The problem with hatching eggs is that it is what is known as “straight run.”  You may get all males or all females or a mix of both.  And the gender balance in your flocks can be the difference between a flock with fighting and a peaceful flock (as a rule of thumb, too many males equals trouble).  We have that problem now–too many male guineas and ducks, which means either we cull the flocks (which we will not do) or get some more females in the spring (which is our plan).

 

Baby guineas less than 1 week old! So cute!

Young Peeps/keets/goslings/ducklings:  You can also get peeps locally (around here our feed store carries them in the spring) or through the mail. I’ve done all of these options and all seem to work fairly well.  We had to get our geese via mail because we are raising an endangered heritage breed and nobody around here carries any geese, much less American buffs. They are overnighted within 24 hours of being hatched (they don’t need to eat or drink for the first 48 hours of life) and you call the post office and let them know about the birds coming in. They are usually tired from their journey for the first day and then perk up after that. I prefer to get local stock when I can, but it’s not always possible.

 

Flock cohesion: One of the things that we have found is that a flock that is raised together, stays together. If they aren’t raised together, they will form separate flocks, even when living in the same area.  Sometimes they can become friends, but often, they will always be separate. Case in point, we raised our guineas about 5 weeks ahead of our chickens and started to integrate them as soon as we could.  Even though they spent their adolescence and adult lives living and roosting in the same area, they are always two separate flocks and the guineas are a bit aggressive with the chickens (hence their separate run).  We suspect that if we had raised them together, they would live together and get along a bit better.  Same with our geese and ducks.  The ducks were about 3 months older than the geese, and the ducks picked on the geese when they were little and they were out together.  Now the geese are not taking anything from anyone, and they are a full 8-10 lbs heavier than even the ducks….but I wish sometimes they would get along better.  In talking to other friends who have these flocks, if we raised the ducks and geese together, we would not have this problem.

 

Needs for flock raising:

All of our flocks required fairly similar setups for incubating and raising babies, but each has its own needs and nuances.

  •  Chickens are very easy to raise, but by comparison to geese and ducks, grow much more slowly (assuming heritage breeds).  They take a while to get large enough to have their full feathers and be outside (about 12 weeks)  A heat light, source of food and water, and clean bedding are essential.  I also like to give the little ones lots to explore and peck at, so I give them fruits, veggies, scrambled eggs, etc. Chickens are very tame when they are little and the more you handle them, the better.  They are so much fun to cuddle and hold when they are little.

    Chicken on a tortoise!

  • Guineas have very similar requirements to chickens, but they are wild and will want not to be handled. From the beginning, they will likely avoid you and freak out when you are near the brooder; that is part of their wild nature. As they get older, they can be worked with and you can develop a great relationship with them–but they are not birds to be cuddled.  They also can fly out of the brooder really easily.  Guineas don’t do well with change–once we moved them out of the brooder and into the coop, they stayed in the coop for about 4 weeks solid before being willing to come out.  They eventually did!
  • Ducks are the most difficult by far to raise because they are obsessed with water and poop a lot!  They make a horrible mess of their brooder almost immediately.  Finding some way of catching the water before it goes into the bedding is essential; if not, you will be cleaning the brooder literally 3-4 times a day.  A setup like this one works well!  Ducks are fun to handle and mild-mannered; you can put them in your bathtub or sink and let them swim.  They don’t have their own oils till their feathers grow in though, so you have to limit swimming time to 10-15 min till they are older.  They are really personable and friendly when they are little.
  • Geese are super easy to raise–they don’t make the water mess that the ducks do and will bond with you quickly and follow you everywhere.  They also enjoy swimming.  They also have interesting tastes, and you can hook them on some veggies and fruits early in life (which will keep them coming back to you as they get older).  Our geese basically followed us around for 3 months while they were growing up and wanted to do everything we were doing.  It was a blast.
  • All of these little ones need to be kept warm; ducks and geese need less warmth than guineas and chickens.  Basically, the rule is to keep them at 95 degrees the first week, 90 degrees the second week, 85 the third week, and so on.  Geese and ducks want their temperature dropped a little faster; I think its due to the thicker down they have.

 

I prefer to raise little ones later in the year (starting in early June) so that they can see the sun and get outside as soon as possible. That way, they can start to eat grass, see the land that will be their home and so on.  If you raise them in the summer months, they can go outside early because it is warm.   That’s important to me–that they see the sun.

 

Predator Protection

Rooster and happy hen

One of the things I tell my chickens every day is “Be careful girls.  You are made of chicken!  Everyone wants to eat you!”  They ignore me, scatter across the property, and proceed to eat bugs.  Predator protection is a serious issue and you must take it seriously from day one or you will lose birds quickly. During the day, it is often hawks or neighborhood dogs that cause the most problems.  We have found that hawks get more desperate for food in the dark half of the year, and thus, we usually have to let the chickens out only with supervision during the months of November through March. Most of the birds have a good sense of self-preservation (except the chickens who seem oblivious to the fact that they are made of chicken) and the flocks are alerted at the first sign of an overhead hawk. Our geese are good hawk deterrents and we’ve seen a lot less hawk activity since they grew up and started honking.

 

At night it might be a fox, raccoon, weasel, or fox that is trying to eat your birds.  For this, you want really carefully constructed coops that provide day and evening security (especially for when you aren’t home). For our ducks, guineas, and chickens, we have covered runs so hawks can’t fly in.  The entire run is wired together and we also sunk the wire in an L pattern into the ground, several inches deep, to prevent raccoons or weasels from burrowing in.  Within each of those secure runs is a secure coop that gets locked up tight each night with a raccoon-proof lock.  Whatever you do, don’t purchase one of those cute looking cedar chicken coops they sell at the big box stores and online.  They are all much too small reasonably for birds and their security is non-existent (a raccoon can open any of the latches on those coops) and they are super flimsy (something could break it open easily).  I can’t tell you how many people have lost birds who have started with one of those cheap coops.  You are better off building something on your own if you can. Paying attention to your security will ensure many years of happy flocks.

 

I will also say that we have lost birds over the years.  The last bird we lost was Chickweed, one of our Australorp hens, about this time last year.  A hawk got her when she was on the other side of the house and away from our other flocks.  Rather than driving the hawk off, we put the rest of the birds in the run and then let the hawk have her meal, recognizing that this was the cycle of life.  We held space. After the hawk was done, we took her out into the woods and left her there with a chicken funeral.  We recognize that, as druids, the cycle of life is part of our existence.  While we do everything we can to be vigilant to minimize losses, we also realize that sometimes they are inevitable, and we honor all life–even the hawks.

Geese playing with pinecones!

Treats and Training

Treats can help you train your birds and bond them to you.  All four of our flocks, even our vegetarian geese, love mealworms.  You can grow them yourself or get them dried in bulk.  The mealworms keep the flocks happy and always coming to our door.  Other treats depend on the birds themselves.  Our geese prefer grapes and will come looking for grapes multiple times a day; I feed them grapes one at a time and they sit in my lap while they enjoy their grapes.  Our chickens like dairy, meat, bugs, and eggs the best of all.  The guineas prefer mealworms and also like millet, which we throw in the run for them when they are locked in.  The ducks prefer slugs and mealworms.  Different individual birds may also have their own preferences and so you have to figure out what everyone likes the best.

 

We use the mealworms to train them–when the flocks wander into the woods, we call them back with mealworms.  When we want them to go into their run, we train them with mealworms.  If there is an altercation between one or more birds, tossing a handful of mealworms into the fray immediately ends in it many cases. Pretty much, mealworms keep the peace on our homestead.

 

Conclusion

Me and my roo, Pythagoras!

I hope some of you found this guide useful!  I really can’t imagine my life without these wonderful companion birds.  It is amazing to have them come up to you, fly around you, and communicate with you.

If you are interested in birds and flocks, I have one more suggestion: watch the Nature show called  My Life as a Turkey. This was recently recommended to me by a friend, and it taught me a good deal about animal communication and is useful for anyone who wants to learn more about nature.  Blessings of the feathered friends!

 

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

Animals have spirit!

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

 

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

 

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

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Challenges Druids and other Nature-Based Religions face

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

Just being a druid!

Just being a druid!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Small altar in the woods

A simple altar on public land

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

 

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

 

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

 

Bridges to build

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

 

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

Trail into the woods....

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Druid's prayer for peace painting

Druid’s prayer for peace painting

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

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

 

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

 

History and Hope

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

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

 

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

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

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

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

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

 

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

 

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

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

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

 

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

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Ancient Order of Druids in America September 29, 2019

Dear readers, I’m taking a pause from my regular article-style blog posts this week to share some big news and do a bit of reflection. Last week, as of the Fall Equinox, I became the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). I’ve been in leadership and service with the AODA since 2013, serving first as Trilithon journal editor for four years, then as Grand Pendragon, then as the Archdruid of Water for the last four years. And now, I’ve stepped up to lead the AODA, following Gordon Cooper, and before him, my friend and mentor, John Michael Greer. Because of this, I wanted to take a week to share my story of AODA and reflect on this path. I do this for a few reasons–first, I wanted to share the news. But also, I realize that a lot of people may find this reflection useful in deepening their own practices–learning about others’ paths helps us see possibilities for our own. Additionally, a lot of what I talk about on this blog is rooted in some way to frameworks from the AODA. A lot of my thinking about nature spirituality, druidry, and permaculture have an underlying foundation of AODA work. Thus, in this post, I am going to do two things.  First, I’m going to share my story about AODA and how I got to where I am today.  Second, I’m going to share what I consider to be the strengths of AODA practice, the highlights, the things that make AODA an amazing druid order.

 

The Road to a Spiritual Home: My Path into AODA

Druidry and the trilithon

Druidry and the trilithon

I’ll start by sharing some reflections about my own journey into AODA. After leaving home at 18 to go to college, I released the last hold of my parents’ religion. I called myself a secular humanist and an agnostic and went blissfully along my way. And while that path was useful to me for a time, after watching my closest friend battle with, and die of brain cancer in my early 20’s, I realized I needed something more. I had experienced his spirit after death, I had a deep knowing of his passing long before the formal news came my way, and with that experience, I knew I could be agnostic no longer. So in April of 2006, I began working through my grief and also finding a spiritual path that I could call home. The only spiritual experiences I had were with nature, so I started with that–I needed a path rooted in nature. I found druidry sometime in the fall of 2006, and after researching numerous druid orders, I found two I really liked (consequently, the two I belong to and work with today- AODA and OBOD). I decided to join AODA and did so in early 2007.

 

My first few years were spent learning and growing and asking so many questions. As a teaching order, AODA is dedicated to giving people a set of tools and practices to help them develop and deepen their own nature spirituality, rather than offer dogmatic belief or sets of rules. This self-directed path was useful, both because fundamentalism of any kind was not welcome in my life, but also because self-direction allows for ownership and mastery in the deepest way possible.  You learn by doing, by practicing, and sometimes, by making mistakes. I also think that part of why I took to AODA’s practices so quickly is that it didn’t require me to believe anything, particularly surrounding deity, a concept with which I was wrestling after coming out of my birth religion. Instead, I was given a set of working tools, rituals, and experiences that helped me shape my own druidry, deepen my connection to myself and my creative gifts, connect deeply with the living earth on multiple levels, and learn to be fully present and alive in this world.  I learned about the power of meditation, spending time in nature, making lifestyle changes to reduce my ecological footprint, and more.  I opened up myself to the bardic arts, the living earth, and the world of spirit (you can see AODA’s full curriculum here for more info). My developing nature spirituality, on both inner and outer levels, unfolded over a period of years.  Several years into my path, as I was finishing up my AODA 2nd degree, I also joined OBOD and found those practices to be wonderfully complimentary, particularly as OBOD’s course offers a lot of deep psychological work.

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

As time went on, I continued to grow with my AODA practices, eventually moving into the AODA’s self-designed 3rd degree.  This is a three-year project that you undertake to enhance your spiritual practices in some way–it is entirely self-designed and self-directed. For my project,  I took up the practice of permaculture and applied it to druidry (and as some of you may know, I have my first book coming out sometime next year–and that book is on the synthesis of permaculture and sustainable living practices and earth-centered spirituality!). This blog was also born from that project–I started this blog in 2013 as a way to document my experiences in the third degree in learning about the synthesis of permaculture, sustainable living, and druid practice. Obviously, I decided to keep it going long after as writing this blog became one of my primary expressions of my bardic arts!

 

What are AODA’s strengths?  What does AODA do well?

Now that you know a bit about my own experiences with AODA, I wanted to share some of what I think makes AODA unique and special. I draw this list from several places.  First, obviously, my own experience having gone through the curriculum. But also, for the last four years, I have read most of the degree reflections from AODA; these are what people write at the end of competing for one or more of their degrees. You can get a deep sense from these as to what people are really taking away from these practices.

 

Nature Reverence

One of the most central and abiding aspects of AODA practice is the way in which nature is central to everything we do. This isn’t just a respect for or use of nature as part of a spiritual practice, but rather, seeing the natural world immediately surrounding you at the core of your spiritual practice. AODA druidry has several key features that help members root themselves deeply within their own bioregions and practices.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Deep roots

Nature Connection: Wildcrafting your druidry.

The first is a concept of wildcrafting your own druidry, first described by Gordon Cooper years before he became Grand Archdruid. This manifests as a deep commitment to developing locally-based druids that focus on a deep understanding of your local ecology, local seasonal wheel of the year, and so on.  I wrote a number of articles on this blog about ecoregional druids in this same theme: you can see them here, here, and here. What you see with AODA druids is rather than “boilerplate” seasonal wheels of the year based on far off locations, you see all kinds of different druids based on location

 

Nature connection : Reciprocation and regeneration.

The second is understanding and set of practices that forefront reciprocation ass critical part of a spiritual path. For the last few centuries, humans have felt that they can simply take from nature with reckless abandon. In fact, we cannot, and the true cost of our actions are coming due. In AODA practice, we recognize that saying you revere nature is not enough–but rather, it must be accompanied by practices that engage, in permaculture terms, care for the living earth and fair share, taking only what we need. These practices also focus on regenerating nature. When they take up AODA druidry, all of our members engage in lifestyle changes and tree planting to help “give back.”  Many AODA members go well beyond the required work and truely embrace nature reciprocation as a core part of life, practicing permaculture or other regenerative practices. AODA druidry, then, is the deep green kind of druidry–the druidry that helps protect and heal our landscapes.

 

Nature connection: Nature knowledge.

The third aspect of nature connection central to AODA is a commitment to growing ecological knowledge about the world around you. Most people in the modern world know virtually nothing about nature, and we make it a point in AODA to change that–to have people know about nature in their local area.  Thus, all AODA members focus on learning more about their local ecosystems, through several different practices.  Regular time spent in nature, including in focus and observation, helps us gain direct experiences that allow us deeper connection.  We also read books, take classes, and learn about different parts of the ecology, geology, hydrology, and so forth with our ecosystems.  This is a powerful practice–by learning about nature, we grow more connected with nature.

 

Adaptable and Effective Rituals and Frameworks.

AODA works with a seven elemental system, including the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three aspects of spirit (above, below, and within).  The three aspects of spirit are tied to the telluric current (earth energy, spirit below), the solar current (solar energy, spirit above) and the lunar current (nywfre, the spark of life, the spirit within).  We offer members a core daily practice, the Sphere of Protection (SOP), as a protective/balancing ritual that offers lasting benefit.  I have been working with the SOP and this elemental system for a long time, and it has been extraordinarily adaptable and useful in a wide variety of circumstances.  One ritual, the SOP, literally can do anything from setting me up for my day to help me send healing energy to a friend to doing massive land healing and blessing.  John Michael Greer once explained it to me as a “swiss army knife” and this is an apt metaphor.

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

One of the other great things about the SOP, which is partially covered by my next two bullet points, is that the SOP is also infinitely adaptable to one’s local ecology, local beliefs, and individual practices. There are versions of the SOP floating out there using swords, oracle cards (my last week’s post), various different ecologies, and much more.  Each person has the opportunity to create their own take on this ritual, thus, making it even more meaningful and personal.

 

Creating Room for Individual Paths and Honoring Diversity.

As my story above explored, one of the other strengths of the AODA path is the way in which it appeals to people of many different walks of life and belief systems.  AODA is a path of nature spirituality, compatible with many other belief systems. It is non-dogmatic, and instead, offers you a set of tools to help you discover and develop your own spiritual practice. Within AODA, we have people who practice an incredibly diverse range of druids: polytheistic pagans, animists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and more. I love the fact that you can have a practice rooted in nature spirituality and keep your existing beliefs–or explore them in a new context. This allows AODA to appeal to a wide range of people from different walks of life. I think this is really important today, given some of the social and political challenges we face at present and the rise of extremists and hate groups.  Let’s let peace prevail in the quarters, and certainly, within our order.

 

Flexibility and Self Direction

AODA’s core curriculum focuses on individual choice, individual path, and following the flow of Awen.  In addition to offering individuals a set of core tools (meditation, nature observation, celebrating the seasons, the SOP), it also offers a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s path.  Members can choose to pursue any number of bardic, ovate, or druid practices while working through the curriculum.  Members also develop plans of study that are focused on their lifestyles and local ecosystems.  No two druids end up doing the exact same thing as part of their path into AODA.

 

Sacred rays of the sun

Sacred rays of the sun

Traditions and History

AODA is the oldest druid order in the US.  Established in the US in 1912, the AODA is currently 106 years old.  During that long history, it had several twists and turns, the most recent being that John Michael Greer resurrected the AODA in 2003 when it was down to less than a dozen elderly members.  Now, the AODA is thriving with 1200 members, mostly located in the USA. The SOP, the oldest of our practices, dates to sometime in the 1960s, also likely adapted from older practices.  This is a tradition with staying power, and that matters.

 

Conclusion

When looking back on my own life, I have no idea what it might have been without the AODA.  Most of the core parts of my spiritual practice, and my life today, is directly resulting from the core practices that I’ve been doing for over a decade.  AODA practices allowed me to return to my bardic arts (now an indispensable part of my life), those practices led me to study and practice permaculture, herbalism, homesteading, radically change my life, and taught me so much about nature (so much, that now I can teach others and do so through regular plant walks and herbal education).  I’m grateful to be taking this next step with AODA, and I hope some of you will join me on that journey!

 

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob September 15, 2019

An earth spirit statue in my greenhouse, freshly made with sticks and an oak gall

A lifetime ago, myself and a dear friend dug some clay out of a hillside.  We each took half of it.  My half of the clay was used to form an earthen statue, a guardian statue, for that same friend who was struggling with terminal cancer while still in his early 20’s. It had a wooden tree knot head, stones for its belly, a stick staff, and an earthen body.  My friend accepted it reverently, and it went with him everywhere, even till the end. As he struggled with his battle with cancer, it grew nicked and chipped.  The wooden head fell off, just as my friend’s brain cancer grew more serious. When he passed on, the earthen statue passed on with him, returning to the earth. This statue was an impermanent being; fashioned of unfired clay. It was brittle, yet, in its own way, full of strength. It was ephemeral, and yet perfect in its lack of permanence.  It was a spirit statue, channeled from nature, with a bit of spirit within it, there to help my friend on his journey.

 

I had forgotten about this small statue until quite recently.  I’ve been cobbing several times a week, working to get my back greenhouse cobblestone/cob heatsink wall done.  One day, I had just a little cob left over. Not enough to set more stones on the wall, but enough to play with.  I started to shape it and felt the power of the Awen and of spirit flowing through me.  I saw a vision of all of these earthen statues, shaped, with sticks, shells formed and strong. I saw them left, to break down quietly in the elements and return to the earth with her blessing. And then, I remembered that earthen statue that I made all those years ago to try to provide healing and strength for my friend. And so, I’ve been experimenting working with such earth spirit statues. After sharing a few of my photos with friends, several suggested that I write about how I make these and how I use them ceremonially.  So today’s post, part of my cob building series, looks at the process of making earthen nature spirit statues all from simple materials found in your local landscape.  This is something that ANYONE can do, regardless of artistic skill.  So let’s get muddy!

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

In earlier posts on this blog, I worked with the idea of building nature shrines and sacred spaces of all kinds.  One of the things I often stressed as part of that work was not bringing things into those spaces that might be harmful or damaging to the land.  So I suggested natural things, things like shells, stones, wood, bones–things that you gather yourself, from the land, and allow to return to the land.  Or I suggested things that would easily return to the land, like wood burned object, hand-dyed natural fibers, etc. These will break down quickly due to the elements, but that’s exactly the point.

 

Many earth spirit statues

As I have talked about over the last few weeks, Cob is a natural building material made of clay, sand, and straw.  When you make something from Cob, it’s not fired.  It will not hold up to water. It will break down in the snow, wind, rain, and ice. Why, then, would you make statues out of cob if you know they will break down? First, because there is a magic in impermanence, magic in the making.  When you know something is only going to be a certain way only for a short period of time, it holds additional value.  For example, when my strawberry patch starts to produce the best-tasting strawberries, I know there is a short window, maybe 2 weeks, where I get to enjoy them fresh from the plant.  The rest of the year, I might enjoy preserves, but never that fresh succulent strawberry right from the vine.  Sacred objects can be like that too–an object you carefully construct, with the full knowledge that it will be broken down, creates a different kind of relationship. A sacred relationship based on the immediate moment. Creating these statues asks you to be in a place for this moment in time, to simply be present, making these, working with the cob between your hands. Letting the natural objects find their own shape and in their own time.  And not rushing it.   For there is much magic in the making.

 

There is magic in the making, and there is magic in the placing. An earthen spirit statue’s goal is to return gracefully to the land.  If you want, you can work slow magic with these, on nature’s time and at nature’s pace, as part of this work.  Almost all of my earthen spirit statues are used for the purposes of land healing.  As I shape them, I speak my healing words into them, I work healing energies through my fingertips. I sing, I chant, I smile, I laugh. I put the energy of life and light into my statues. And maybe when they are done, I put some more into them ritually, adding the powers of the elements and the sacred animals of the druid tradition.  Then, they become like little healing shrines all to themselves.  Carefully wrap one and put it in your backpack while you are on a hike, leaving it in the nook of a tree.  Place one on a stone in a stream, knowing the floods will carry it away.  Bury one in a snowdrift in a logged forest to offer peace to the survivors.  Offer one to your local lady of the lake.  Place one in your garden to nurture your plants to grow, letting it become soil you will plant in.

Gathering Materials and Decorations

There are two parts to an earthen spirit statue.  Natural items, such as feathers, leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, roots, seeds, and more are one of those parts. Take a small basket into the woods, beach, bog, desert or whatever is near you.  Walk intentionally and slowly, letting small bits of nature speak to you.  If they call out, pick them up, and leave an offering in thanks.  Once you have a good selection to work with, its time to make your cob!

 

Making Cob

And so, let us put our feet and hands into the earth and make our cob! For an introduction to our delightful material, you should look at the introduction to cob construction here, and how to make cob here. I will also offer basic instructions here, as they differ slightly from the instructions on my introduction to cob page. In a nutshell, cob is a combination of clay, sand, and straw.  This combination, in the right amount (1 part clay/silt to 2 parts sand) makes a perfect material for building earthen spirit statues.

To make your cob:

  • Dig down to the subsoil (see here for more details).  Fill up part of a wheelbarrow (1/2 or so).  Screen it, removing any rocks, sticks, or other debris.  The goal is to have just clay, sand, and straw.
  • Put your material on a tarp.  Make a well in the center of the soil, and then, add water.  Mix with your feet, putting your prayers, energy, and love into that material.  Dance with the spirits as you dance on your cob.  Take a side of your tarp and flip the cob, adding more water to make a good firm dough consistency.
  • If you want extra strength, you can add a bit of fine straw.  To add straw, take your scissors and carefully cut the straw up into 1/2 in pieces or less.  then sprinkle it through, working it in with your feet.
  • Pick up some of your cob.  It should hold its shape well and you should be able to work it.  Add more soil if its too wet and more water if it’s too dry and crumbly.
  • The goal is a nice firm but doughy texture that will hold its shape and that you can form.

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

Make your statues however you see fit.  the easiest way is to create a cylinder by rolling the cob in your hands or on a solid surface. Then, find the natural objects you want to include.  Press them into the cob, shaping it as you go.  Stick some sticks coming out of it, shells, or dried turkey tail mushrooms (or similar small polypore mushroom). Let the objects speak to you, and let the clay speak to you. Make no thought if it is “good” or “right”; refrain from any value judgments. Your goal is to channel the spirits of nature, and they are not concerned with the physical vessel you are creating.  Don’t fuss over it.  Let it be complete, and make another.  And another, and another, until you feel you are done.  As you make, laugh. Get muddy. Sing to the statues, drum.  Call for the sacred powers of nature who might aid you.  Put happy, healing, and light energy into your work.  Let go.

 

Bless your statues

If you feel the need, you can do an additional blessing for your statues.  Draw upon the power of earth, air, fire, and water, and give a blessing to them–smudge them with incense, drip some beeswax on them or hold them to the flame.  Give them some water drips, smear them with soil.

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

Find a home for your statues in the nooks and crannies of the landscape.  They want to travel, go somewhere, send their healing energy out as they begin to break down. Put them in unconventional places.  Put the in places in need of light and healing.  Put them on nature shrines.  Put them in your druid’s anchor spot. Visit them and watch them break down, or leave them never to return. You can put one on your altar for a while, but make an agreement between the two of you how long it will be there so that you can return it at the right time (these energies are meant to move between you and the land freely). There is no right or wrong path, just you, the spirits of nature, and how spirit moves through you.

 

The Ways of our Ancestors: Review of the Mountaincraft and Music Gathering September 11, 2019

Here, in the center of our camp, the sacred fire burns. This fire is tended for the four days we are together, never being allowed to go out. This is an ancestral fire, and all of us at the Mountaincraft gathering have the responsibility of feeding it. This is where we remember that learning primitive and earth skills is the work of our ancestors. This is where we gather for a quiet moment to commune with those ancestors, and will our bodies and hearts to remember. This is where, each morning, we gather as a group to hear about the day’s classes, call to the directions, hear a word of intention, and recieve a water blessing from Nancy Basket, a tribe elder. This is where, at each meal, some of us may find ourselves, talking with each other or engaging in quiet communion with the flame. This is where, each night, we gather to drum, dance, and connect with all in this community. This is where many classes are taught, using fire as a tool for cooking, dye, carving, and more. The ancestor fire at the heart of the Mountaincraft gathering is the heart of the gathering itself–and it represents much of what we’ve come here to do.

Dye pots in the sacred fire

 

As I’ve already begun to do, in this post, I’m reviewing my recent experience at the Mountaincraft gathering. I’ll offer a full review, and also share at the end of the review how you might find a similar earth / primitive skills gathering, and why, if you are interested in nature spiritualiy and druidry, you might really want to do so!  And so, let’s get back to honoring the ancestors.

 

While I had been at the North American School of Bushcraft a few times before, this was my first time at their annual  Mountaincraft and Music Gathering–and in fact, my first earth skills gathering ever. This gathering focuses on the wide variety of earth skills and primitive skills that our ancestors once knew, and that many of us are now trying to re-learn and preserve. Held yearly in early September in Hedgesville, WV at the North American Bushcraft School, this gathering is a wonderful time for people to gather together to learn, teach, share, and grow. I have been looking forward to this gathering for quite some time, and I invited two druid friends to go with me.  And what a time we had.

 

A typical day at Mountaincraft looks like this: breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 8:30. At 9:30, we have morning circle around the fire. Morning circle is as I described above: part annoucements, part community building, and part ceremony.  We hear about the day’s classes from each of the many instructors–they introduce themselves, what they will be teaching and where. We get a word of intention for the day, which helps us focus our energy in a useful direction.  We gain a water blessing (and sometimes a song) from Nancy Basket, who uses cedar to flick each of us with pure water. Then, we go off to one of many classes offered.  Usually about 7-10 classes are being held at any one time. Morning class runs from 10am till 12:30. Lunch is till 1:30 and classes begin again at 2 and run till 5:30. The gathering provides breakfast and lunch, so then everyone goes off to cook or pays for a delicious purchased meal. Signups for classes start at dinner the day before, so around dinner, so everyone visits the board and sees what the next day’s offerings are and sign up. Many find it diffiuclt to choose as so many good options are available. As it gets dark, everyone gathers for drumming and connection. There might be trading activities (trade blanket, or trading/sales of items) or some other activity. The final evening of the gathering, Saturday evening, they had two fantastic Bluegrass bands (I’m not even a fan of Bluegrass but these were quite fun and enjoyable!) Then you go to your tent and enjoy your rest. While it sounds like you stay quite busy, the schedule is quite relaxed and things happen at their own pace. Earth skills are not “fast” skills, rather, they work on slow time. The gathering’s pace reflects this powerful lesson.

Afternoon Classes – so many!

 

Each day at the gathering offered new classes and exciting opportunities to learn. It was often quite hard to pick between the many classes. Here are just some of the many classes that were offered this year: Wilderness survival 101, map and compass, navigation without maps, bow drill firemaking (make your own kit and learn to use it), friction fires of the world, 40 minute forks, spoon carving, blacksmithing 101, make your own atlatl, primitive pottery, zen and the art of woodchopping, tool maintenance, make handles for tools from trees, make a milking stool from a log, flintknapping, tomahawk throwing and course, bow course, cordage, basketry (many, many different types–pine needles, kudzu, vine, etc) combined with storytelling, fingerweaving, natural dyes, bark baskets, parkour, campfire cooking, indigo and shibori dye, leatherwork: moccasins, make your own leather pants or skirt, process a deer and use all parts, cattail reed mat making, herbalism 101, salve making, naturalist classes, nature awareness, weed walks and plant walks, eating bugs and mushrooms, tree identification, drumming, learning guitar and banjo (and other music), nature identification, and so many more I can’t remember and didn’t write down! There was also a full 3.5 day kids program, where kids did many different earth skills along with plenty of play time, swimming, and nature hikes. This allowed the kids autonomy and also allowed parents to go to their own classes knowing that their kids were in good hands. There were also daily sweat lodges that you could sign up for–I did not do a lodge but one of my druid friends did and had an amazing experience.

 

40 Minute Forks

On my first day, I spent the morning learning “40 minute forks” from Fuz, a long-time earth skills instructor from North Carolina. This was a great class to help me build confidence with my knife skills, whittling skills and create some simple forks. Fuz was a strong presence throughout the gathering, not only teaching a wide range of primitive skills (carving, wood chopping, drumming) but he was also very active in the drum circles at night, helping us feel welcome and leading some great beats.

 

The afternoon class was primitive pottery with Keith. We made our way down to the creek bed, dug clay from the bank, and learned how to hand wedge it. Covered in mud, we came back to the primitive pottery area, where we shaped the clay into bowls and other objects. On saturday late afternoon, after drying the pottery by the fire, the kiln was built on top of hot ashes and all of our pots went inside. Then, we built a bonfire on top of it and watched it burn  I remember standing there with our pots, at about 11pm on Saturday night. Bluegrass band playing in the background, heat of the fire before me, and just thinking what an amazing experience this was–to use fire as such a powerful tool. Evening came and my friends and I shared a meal and some downtime at our campsite. We then went down to the ancestral fire, where we participated in the best drum circle jam I have ever been enjoyed!

 

Prefiring pots

The second day cordage in the morning with Jeff Gottleib.  I loved everything about Jeff’s teaching style: practical, knowledgable, friendly, and encouraging. Jeff was a professional earth skills instructors and naturalist and it really showed. He walked us through the intracies of creating cordage from various plants and trees, and had tons of examples to look at.  We made dogbane cordage and then some hemp cordage. He even had a book on the topic for more info, which I was lucky enough to purchase for reference.  (He has a site and Youtube channel you can check out here).

 

After a great lunch, I went to my afternoon class, which was dyeing with indigo and traditional shibori techniques with Stephanie Davis. I have been longing to learn these techniques for years!  Stephanie’s workshop was amazing. Stephanie brought out examples, pictures, and had her own indigo dyed clothing and tapestries everywhere for examples.  She offered us a box of clothing and we took what would fit.  I ended up with a great cotton sleeveless shirt and an long runner I will use as an altar cloth. Stephanie’s instruction in indigo was magical. Each of us finished our prepartion (with various stitches, string, rubber bands, and more) and then made our way to the dye vat. Stephanie worked with each of us, slowly and purposefully, to dye our work and remove it quickly so that we did not add oxygen to the vat. Her gentle guidance added *so much* to the learning process–I felt like she taught us how to commune with the dye, how to work with the Indigo plant behind it. My two pieces came out beautifully. Many of us stayed to watch the last of the items get unwrapped like precious gifts. I left that class with my heart so full.

 

Amazing dyed fabrics!

Friday night offered a traditional trade blanket. Each of us who participated brought multiple kinds of trades.  We took turns, going around the blanket and offering trades. Or doing side trades, which are ok. I ended up trading for a bag of spicebush seeds (yay for replanting my land), a small leather bag, beads, dried hen of the woods mushrooms, a self-published coloring book, and a wonderful wool shawl with arm holes. I gave iron oxide pigment, guinea and goose feathers, a handmade leather journal, small gourds, and a small gourd drum. This was a  very fun time and a good way to get to know people at the event. For an overview of what this is, you can see this page.

 

Saturday is the “big day” of the gathering. Lots of new folks rolled in and there were at least 10-15 classes running at all times–and again so many choices! I decided to do a natural dyes and ecoprinting class in the morning. My natural dye class was great–we foraged for materials, learned about dyes and prepartion, and prepared and used three different dyes: a pokeberry dye, a walnut dye, and a goldenrod dye. The best thing about this class is that we did these dyes over our ancetral fire, just like our ancestors would have.  We gathered the plants and stained our fingers and faces with pokeberries.

 

My kit, with a fire I started at home a few days after the gathering.

My saturday afternoon class was my last class of the gathering, since I had to return early on Sunday. But I consider this class my greatest success–it was certainly the most physically demanding and challenging but also rewarding. I had class with Jeff again. This time, he was teaching us how to make bow drill kits for friction fire building. We started with a good chunk of dried basswood he harvested. He showed us how to quarter the log and get boards from them, each student making their own board. He then took the rest and offered us smaller shards to carve down into our round drill. After a good deal of carving, we were ready to make the bow. We harvested our drill wood itself and then added lines or did a 3-ply cordage technique with leather.  By this time, we had been making our kits for several hours. Many of the other classes had finished for the day, but we were determined to start fires with our kits!  It took me about 15 minutes of practice to get the hang of it, but then, I HAD AN EMBER!  And then, a minute or so later, I had made fire.  I felt so alive, so proud, so accomplished. From my own hands, I took pieces of split wood and turned them into a friction fire kit that really worked.  I spent most of the evening riding my bow drill fire high, thankful to have learned this skill and feeling damn accomplished. Since returning home, I’ve made three embers and one successful fire with my bow drill–and it tremendously deepened my relationship to fire!

 

That evening was awesome.  We had the trader setup, where you could sell or trade for items from a wide variety of folks who had stuff at the gathering. There were soaps, jams and jellies, herbal medicine, knives, feathers and bones, old school lanterns, various tools, and so many more interesting things. As that winded down, the party began, and we enjoyed homebrew and two amazing bluegrass bands.  I ended that evening at the primitive fire pit watching my pots turn to molten orange.Sunday at the gathering is a half day, but unfortunately, I had to leave early due to having to go to work later on Sunday. I said goodbye and drove away with my heart so full and my mind active, the awen strongly flowing through me!

 

I want to conclude with a few general thoughts and encourage you to go to Mountaincraft or another Earth Skills gathering:

 

Firing the pots!

First, this community is really, really welcoming. I can’t stress that enough. I live in a rural and very conserative area, and that often translates that there are things women do and things men do, and men don’t always want to teach women “men’s” skills. Woodworking and treework, in particular, have been really hard for me to get any decent lessons in. Here at Mountaincraft, Jason and Sera, who run the North American Bushcraft School, are diligent about their land being an accessible and welcoming place. I felt completely respected and believed in, at all times, during the gathering. I had strong women and respectful men leading awesome classes. But its not just gender diversity that is respected: all people are. The elders are respected in this community and given places of honor. The children are likewise respected, and many of them are teachers themselves. I have never been in such an open and welcoming community that honors the diversity of age, race, gender, and path so much.

 

Second, this community has a lot to offer people who put in the time. Besides the incredible list of skills I mentioned, there is a lot of personal work you get to do in building skills. Its a meaningful and powerful method of personal empowerment, where each new skill you learn allows you to gain confidence, gain power, and gain wisdom.  One of my druid friends, also a woman, spent the weekend learning blacksmithing, making weapons, and throwing them.  Her body was sore but her heart was full. She took the warrior’s path, much different than my own bardic journey, and yet, both were fulfilling and enriching for us.  Starting my fire with the bow drill changed something within me; it connected me deeply with my ancestors but also seemed to unlock some as of yet unknown potential within me. All I can say is that I left that gathering a different person than I came, and what that means will likely take some time to sort out through more fire building and bow drill practice.

 

Third, this gathering teaches deep nature knowledge and nature awareness. Nature has so many facets to learn: identification, edible/medicinal virtues, and many other uses–each of these offers a different “face” of a plant. There is such a difference between being able to ID a tree and learning how to make something from its fallen trunk, knowing just the right wood and part of the wood to choose. Before this gathering, basswood was simply a nice tree that I could identify and whose flowers made a demulcent tea. By learning how to make a bow drill of basswood, I learned much more about the qualities of this tree–how the wood behaves, how soft it is, how it smells when it burns, how it carves. Thus, I learned a bit of the tree’s magic: what wisdom and resources that it can offer. Nature knowledge comes in many forms, and the path of earth skills is abundant in such knowledge.

 

Finally, I think earth skills gatherings offeres a wonderful “earth path” suppliment to my many readers who are practicing some kind of earth-based spirituality (such as AODA druidry, which we literally call “earth path” skills).  These are the practical skills, folks.  These are the skills that help you stay rooted and present and build nature knowledge.  It is an incredible opportunity.

 

If you want to find a gathering near you, visit the Earth Skills Gatherings website.