The Druid's Garden

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

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

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

 

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

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

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

About Poison Ivy and Identification

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

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

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

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

 

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

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

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

 

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

 

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

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

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

 

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

Defending the Land

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

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

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

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

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

 

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

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

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

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

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

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

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

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

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

Calling in our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

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

A view from the back of the rope lines

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

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

 

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

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Celebrating the end of the long pull

Celebrating the end of the long pull

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

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

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

The stone rising up!

The stone rising up!

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ecoregional Druidry and the Wheel of the Year: Rituals, Observances, and Activities September 3, 2017

Abundant crab apples (the first year after we wassailed!)

Abundant crab apples (the first year after we wassailed!)

A group of people gather in an orchard, the snows quietly falling, the cold brisk and clear.  Our voices ring to the heavens, toast is offered to the branches of the tree. We drum, sing, make noise, and scare away any spirits who would seek to harm the orchard’s harvest. We enjoy hot mulled cider and retreat back inside for feasting and community. This is a wassail for the health of the apple trees, an ancient celebration that is now very much part of my yearly wheel of the year (and one that I’ve described in some depth on this blog earlier this year and a few years ago). This is one of many rich traditions that we can engage in in honoring the land and living an earth-based path. In my last post, we explored how druids in various ecosystems might adapt the UK-based wheel of the year (a set of seasonal holidays) to their local ecosystems and cultural norms. Today, we continue this by exploring how to take your ecoregional wheel of the year you are developing and turn it into a set of rituals, observances, and activities.

 

Developing Localized Rituals, Observances, and Activities

After some research and reflection, perhaps you’ve started to put together your own wheel of the year (see my last post) that includes a series of astronomical observances combined with regional and local observances. And you look at your wheel and think, “now what?” The most immediate thing that comes to mind is that you have to do some kind of formal ritual to celebrate, and that is certainly a possibility.  Today, I’d like to suggest that there are at least three ways you can celebrate these events on your wheel of the year: activities, observances, and rituals.  Let’s now consider each of these in turn:

 

Activities

The first thing you can do to celebrate events on your wheel of the year is to engage in various activities that are associated with the event.  Activities are just that: things you can do, with sacred intent, but not necessarily with formalized ritual.  Activities might include outings/trips, arts and crafts, cooking/fermentation, foraging, gardening/planting/harvesting, making things, and so on.  I like to think of these as activities as supporting a larger seasonal observation or marking a minor seasonal occurrence.

 

Basket of freshly made smudges!

Basket of freshly made smudges!

For example, after the first hard frost (which is a minor observance on my wheel of the year), I go and harvest whatever aromatic plants are left that typically get some frost damage my garden: lavender, sage, mugwort, rosemary, thyme, etc..  I also visit some confiers that are my friends (white pine, white cedar, and juniper) and gather some branches.  I then open up a sacred bardic arts grove and make my yearly smudge sticks.

 

In a second example, as part of my Summer Solstice celebratory events, I have a whole routine I typically do that spans several days. This includes being up for sunrise to witness the sunrise on the longest day of the year. Typically, I make at least two different canned goods: an elderflower cordial from fresh elder harvested on the day of the solstice and a strawberry jam with home grown and wild strawberries (also harvested on or near the day of the solstice).  I open up a sacred grove in my kitchen for canning and do the canning as part of my celebration.  I then give these special labels and enjoy these during the winter months and share them with friends who need a bit of the light of summer in their lives.  Further, as part of my summer solstice celebrations, on the day before or day after, I also go out and harvest certain sacred herbs beyond elder such as yarrow and raspberry leaf for my use throughout the year.

 

In sum, a seasonal celebration can be as simple as a special actitivy you do once a year to celebrate the passage of an important moment.  It can be done with friends, loved ones, and family and doesn’t have to be an “overt” druid ritual (so you can quietly celebrate and still enjoy the company of others, even if they are on a very different path).

 

Observances

The second way you might celebrate one of the events on your wheel of the year is what I call an observance. It is less formal than a ritual (which I’ll cover last), but is still a kind of ceremony. I engage in a lot of observances with anything beyond the eight holy days on my druid calendar.  Observances usually do not take place within a formal open grove, but still with an observance you have the sense that you are stepping out of time for a moment or two in order to experience the sacred. An observance might be a moment of silence, making a small offering, chant a few Awens, drinking deeply of the first flow of maple sap, observe a sunrise, coming to a sacred place and saying a few words, reciting a poem, doing a simple divination, walking in nature and looking for messages, and so on.  These are minor things, yet powerful. They can be planned or unplanned.

 

For example, literally in the middle of me drafting this paragraph, a powerful summer thunderstorm came through. I stopped my writing and went out in it for a time, simply to experience its power and beauty, taking in the signts, smells, sounds, and feel of the rain and wind on my skin.  Then, I gathered a bit of the rain in a small bowl and lathed my head with it to keep the awen flowing, then, I came inside and continued to write. This was not a formal ritual, but it was a chance for me to experience the sacredness of the storm, step for a moment out of “normal time” and witness the power of nature.

 

Another such observance takes place with the first snowfall of the year.  During the first snowfall, I get outside as quickly as I can. There, I chant a number of “Awens” and catch at least three snowflakes on my tongue. Even if I am at work, I will go and quietly chant the awens and catch the three snowflakes, sneaking back into the building after visiting our Oak Grove on my campus.

Small Spiral in Snow honoring snowfall

Small Spiral in Snow honoring snowfall

 

A third such observance is when I encounter any place in nature that resonates with me in any setting. I usually carry a bit of home-grown tobacco offering (combined with lavender and rose petals, my favorite) and make a small offering to that place. I might do a full Sphere of Protection (from AODA‘s practice) or Light Body Exercise (from OBOD‘s practice) or sit for a time in reverence and awe at the moment.

 

I visit the forest once a week in the months of April and May to wait for the first blooming of the hawthorn. I have a particular tree that I visit, deep in the forest, that I wait to bloom. Once the buds open, I leave an offering (of home grown tobacco mixed with lavender leaf and rose petal) at the base of the tree.  Then, I create a floral water (by taking a glass bowl of spring water and holding it to the blossom for a few minutes) and then drink the water.  I sit with the tree in silence and honor the return of spring.

 

As the above indicates, many of the minor holidays on my own wheel of the year list are observances that are “in the moment.”  They are simple ways of connecting with what is happening in the broader world, and bringing the sacred to everyday life.

 

Rituals

The final way you might celebrate the turning wheel of the year is the most commonly known and practiced, and that is a formal ritual, wherein you open a sacred space, engage in some series of activities to celebrate the event (including raising or lowering energy, making offerings, reading poetry, and so forth), and then formally closing the space.  I’m going to have a separate post on ritual writing so for now, I’ll offer some basic information.

 

Having a consistent framework from which to do your ritual (which may include words, actions, or activities that are repeated over time) gives your rituals both power and meaning. Usually, this is done through set opening and closing rituals (of which both OBOD and the AODA offer good onesf or solidary or group use). Using a standard opening and closing practice from an established druid order also means that you aren’t going to miss important steps (like energetically sealing a space or releasing energy from that space once you are finished).

 

Eclipse at full strength near our ritual space

Eclipse at full strength near our ritual space

Assuming you have the openings and closings covered, typically what is missing is the “meat” of the ritual–that is, what is it that you are doing to celebrate it?  Consider three things: first, it should respond to the energy of the moment, second, it should be a ritual that serves a specific purpose that you set (your intentions or goals). and finally, it should also be effective and moving for you.

 

As an example, let’s look at a recent eclipse ritual that a few grove members and I did to see some of the building blocks of a celebatory ritual. In designing this ritual, we responded both to the classical interpreation of the eclipse (that it was a dire warning and a negative event) as well as the events of the last few weeks in our human community here in the US, and also our own challenges in the present moment). We opened up a simple sacred space in our permanent sacred grove in the forest as the eclipse grew in strength.  Given the challenges with today’s age, I played the panflute while my two friends worked to draw from the energy sources we had raised and visualized sending light out into the world (countering the growing darkness of the eclipse). Then, we smudged each other and used a lavender hydrosol (floral water). The smudge was to take away any pain and darkness we might be carrying and the lavender was meant to uplift our spirits and bring clarity.  We then closed out the space and basked in the sights and sounds of the eclipse.

 

So in this ritual, we have four parts: an opening, and acknowledging of the event, and two core pieces of work: radiating light into our human community and purification of our own bodies.  This was a successful and impactful ritual because it held meaning and significance for us.  We had no scripts, had simply talked through it in advance.

 

You can do many different things as part of your own rituals.  Most often, the simple things without the elaborate scrips are the most effective and meaningful. Here are some of many possibilities:

  • Reading poetry that is fitting for the holiday (I love a lot of Wendell Berry’s poetry for this)
  • Speaking about the holiday, and reflecting on its energy in your life
  • Raising energy to radiate into the world as healing/light
  • Removing negative energy from ourselves (casting into a fire is a good one) or from the broader land (see my “Land Healing” series for more on how to do this)
  • Meditation
  • Inner journeying
  • Tending a sacred fire
  • Making offerings
  • Consecrating objects with the elements
  • Sacred movement (dance)
  • Sacred music
  • Moving through gateways (particulary at the equinoxes, moving into the dark half of the year)
  • Connecting with the energy of plants/trees through sitting with them, working with them, drinking tea, etc.

In the end, whatever you might do, it is your intention that matters, rather than whether or not you get the words perfect, or it works out just like you hoped it would.  What matters is the heart of it, the feeling, the experience.  If you mess up what you planned, laugh about it and keep going.  These practices are for us, for the land, for the spirits–and no one minds a few mistakes!

 

The Wheel Turns

As you develop your own rituals, activities, and observances for your own wheel of the year, your connection with the living earth and your sense of the sacred will continue to unfold.  Everything, ultimately, should have meaning to you and be rooted in things that give you a sense of the sacred, of significance, and of purpose.  As you develop these activities for your wheel and with each time you do them, your relationship  to the practices  will deepen.  Over time, some practices you setup will fall away and/or be replaced by new practices.  This is the natural evolution of your own spiritual practice.

 

I’ll continue this discussion next week with talking about localizing symbols and other things commonly used in celebrations and ritual activities.

 

Druid Tree Workings: Working with Trees in Urban Settings August 13, 2017

Maples growing up through grate--been there for years!

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home.  As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her, and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall.  She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return.  I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread.  Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four foot space below the grate and the drainage channel and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit becuase of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples).  And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.

 

As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible.  I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from bustling city and town life.  But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, and establishing deep tree workings.  You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so.  Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines.  Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree who simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one who has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction.  This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different.  The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.

 

In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon.  It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going.  One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old.  Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism.  I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were.  I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.

 

In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees.  These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees.  Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch.  I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks.  So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.

 

Working With Trees

Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places.  Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction.  On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly.  Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old.  On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus.  They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels.  These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.

 

On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans.  Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc.  Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry.  Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade.  A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.

 

For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there.  For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.

 

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks).  These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree.  I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town.  They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.

 

Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!

 

Variety and Species

Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest.  I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples,  fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more.  Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places.  I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work.  It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.

 

Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification.  For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest!  And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!

 

Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts.  Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species.  For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas.  In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.

 

The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge.  I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more.  When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing.  There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.

 

In plain sight

Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passerby) around.  This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing.  I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much unwanted attention.  Unwanted attention from passerby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work).  So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways.  One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.

I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree.  Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music.  I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.

 

When others aren’t present

The other way work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As is a the early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present.  My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning, when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed!  This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.

 

Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environment go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife).  There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)

 

One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.  Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.

 

Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.

 

Acorns

Acorns

And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall.  This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.

 

Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship.  My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged oursevles on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry.  These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!

 

Moving the Seedlings

Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed wackers and mowers.  It is crushing have one’s young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places.  I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).

 

Offerings and Songs

Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good.  This is particular true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees.  Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizning their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.

 

I like to make these little “blessing” tokens.  They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town.  I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches.  This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.

 

Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.

 

Ritual work too, works well.  One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea.  I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone.  After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree.  This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us.  It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant.  It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people.  We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away.  I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples.  This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different.  Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!

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Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.

 

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.

 

And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.

 

The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).

 

The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).

 

But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.

 

At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.

 

Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.

 

The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.

 

Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.

 

Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 

 

I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.

 

Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).

 

The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).

 

Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!

 

Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.

 

Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?

 

The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.

 

I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.

 

Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.

 

My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.

 

The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.

 

The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.

 

Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!

 

And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!

 

Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.

 

I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!

 

So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.

 

I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.

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Coming Home July 16, 2017

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

Rocky shore of Maine at sunrise

My heart sings as I look out upon rocky shores where the clean waters meet the rising sun. I watch as the waves crash upon the bladderwrack-encrusted stones. Further inland, the land is vibrant, wild, and beautiful. The rivers and brooks rejoice as they cascade down from the mountains. The stones covered with lichen and mosses dripping with the recent rain. The lakes are so clear you can see 40 feet down. Visiting such pristine places are like a balm for my weary and tired druid heart. And yet, these wild places are not my home. The rocky coast of Maine is not the land of my blood and birth. Despite the singing in my soul, the healing and energy pouring into me from this beautiful landscape, I know I’m not home.

 

On my train trip back to Western Pennsylvania, my spirit grows heavy. I know that an invisible line exists between the states further north and my own state. In large parts Pennsylvania, including where I live, the land is far from pristine. Due to its richness in natural resources and lax environmental policy, it has been polluted, fracked, sprayed, and poisoned. This is an all-too familiar story for many such resource-rich places around the globe.

 

I know that once, that the Allegheny mountains sang in a way that the land still sings in the more remote and wild places I had just visited. Many centuries from now, it is likely that the Allegheny mountains will sing again after nature and humanity have done the necessary healing work. I have witnessed the potential of such healing in secret places, hidden places, places like an old growth Hemlock Grove that somehow was spared the destruction that ravaged these lands in the name of progress. I have also witnessed it in the regrowth of logged forests closer and dear to my heart.

 

However, knowing that nature can heal from widespread ecological destruction at a future point doesn’t change what I feel now, heavy. My heart is torn in two directions: both excited to be welcomed home by my beloved mountains and saddened to once again take up the burden of witnessing and living in these times. As the train rounds the famous Horseshoe curve outside of Altoona, I see new strip mines and logged areas appear since the last time I took the train several months ago. As the train nears my final destination of Johnstown, I feel the weight of the ongoing ecological destruction of my own home lands returning in full force. I am at ground zero: the extraction zone. This term that was told to me by residents of my area, friends who were working in envornmental activism for many years. It is, unfortunately, a fitting one. This is a place where the sacredness of nature is so far from the human mind, in part, due to the economic harsh realities.

 

Solastalgia is a term coined by Albreight et. al. that refers to the psychological distress caused by environmental damage. And the term fits well: there is a general distress (that is, depression, melancholia, powerlessness, hopelessness) that people sense when they see the environment around them being damaged, when they lose their sense of “home” because the “home” they knew is no longer there. The environment has been altered and damaged so much that it seems like an entirely different place, or the home site itself is gone due to mountaintop removal, strip mining or other tragedy. For someone who follows a path of nature spirituality and views the land as sacred, solastalgia isn’t just a psychological thing; it is a spiritual dilemma. One cannot only physically see the suffering of the land to experience solistalgia, but one can experience this energetically. It would be akin, perhaps, to someone burning down one’s church or mosque—an utter disregard for the sacredness and sanctity of life. A number of fellow druids who have visited me from other parts of the country have remarked on the “deadness” that is present here in what we call the telluric currents, that is, in the patterns of energy that run deeply within the land. This land’s deadness, from the many extraction activities, is particularly hard to those sensitive to such patterns. But I think, maybe on a semi-conscious level, the land is also hard on those who don’t have such sensitivities. There is a general “run-down” nature of folks around here, and it stems from many things, but I think this is one of them.

 

I grieve what has happened to these lands, but I don’t blame the people here who have sold their mineral rights or timber rights to prospectors in order to feed their families. Most who grew up in this region share a similar cultural ancestry—people who settled here did so because work was plentiful in an expanding industrialized economy that demanded timber, coal, and steel. I drive past the abandoned Bethlehem Steel Mills where my grandfathers worked. I drive past the old mines in the Alleghney ridges where my great grandfathers mined coal. They stripped the local forests bare to create support beams to keep the mine from caving in so they could go home to their families safely each day. This is where the old growth forests went. A century later, these minds, long abandoned, still pour acidic water into the streams, polluting them for hundreds of miles. The stripping and pillaging of this land, too, is part of my own ancestral heritage.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

On my drive back from the train station, I lose count of how many conventional and deep injection/fracking wells I see. They dot the countryside, showing up in nearly every field and forest along the way. These wells are not only on private lands, but also on public lands, and so even a hike on a public trail puts you in close contact with them–there really is no escaping it. With a heavy heart, I think about the plans I and some friends have been making to possibly start an intentional community. It is devastating to be looking for land for a new home and see property after property with fracking wells, stinking of gas and toxins, pipes from each well under the skin of the earth. No mineral rights, they say. No timber rights, they say. The rights to these things long ago sold separate from the land, so land here is only for the surface and sometimes, even that has been sold as timber rights. After looking at everything available for the last few months, I’m not sure such a clean “refuge” exists. But maybe I will yet be surprised.

 

I say to myself: how could I live here and not be drained? How could I live here and not feel weary? How could I live here and not need a refuge? The solastalgia is certainly present, and acknowledging that and engaging in good self-care is certainly necessary.

 

But other questions, arise, as well. How could I live anywhere else when this is my home? How could I abandon this land when it has never abandoned me?  How could I leave when my own ancestors contributed to what is happening at present? I am not a powerless victim here. None of us are. We fight the hopelessness and despair with tools, knowledge, and spirituality. My path of druidry offers me tools to energetically heal the land and support my own self care. My knowledge as a permaculture designer gives me the tools to engage in physical healing and regeneration of the land.  I have everything I need to care for myself and for this land.

 

And so, as I round the last bend and come into the valley where Indiana, PA rests, I feel a growing sense of clarity, purpose, and vision. I might not be here forever, but I am here now, and I will continue to learn how to best respond and heal the land. I drive past the farm where I and some friends have been putting in a garden rooted in permaculture principles and hosting events. I drive past the community garden, a source of much light and activity in this community. I see a sign for an upcoming natural health fair. I think about our permaculture guild meeting this month, and the plant walks I’ll be hosting that will be full of people wanting to reconnect with nature. And my heart gets lighter.

 

And so, I must grow where I’m planted. Not wishing to be somewhere else, some distant rocky shore where the land is pristine and beautiful, not allowing the solistalgia to creep within my bones and lodge deeply in my heart. The pristine lands I visited were well loved, and that land has no need of someone with my knowledge and skills. But rather, I must be rooted in my own own heritage, be rooted in the lands where I live, be connected with my people who have done what was necessary to survive.

 

Hope

Hope

I can feel the blood of my ancestors flowing within me. They, too, know that it is time for this land to heal. They, too, knew the sadness of the crash of the ancient hemlocks, hickories, and pines. They, too, saw the tears of the river flowing as pollution made it too acidic to fish.  They planted apple trees and hoped for a better tomorrow. They too, wanted a better life for their children, and their children’s children, where black lung didn’t take them early and where they didn’t die of poisioning from the mills. Their spirits are here, in these lands, looking to set things right.

 

To those who are saddened by the deadness of the telluric currents and the raw destruction of the land present in this place and in so many other places, I say “go deeper.” To myself, in my tired and weary state, I say, “go deeper.” The magic of nature is still here, even if it is more hidden, more quiet, more still.  It waits. It has all the time in the world to wait. It is like the lichen, who can survive 100% desiccation. Lichen can literally survive the vacuum of space, being buried in a crypt for 500 years, living in the harshest and coldest places on earth, and yet still thrive when exposed to water and light. The lichen teach a powerful lesson of hope, of patience, and of nature’s incredible ability to heal all.

 

I, and others here, are finding ways to live, in the words of Wendell Berry, in this ruined place, renewing it, and enriching it. So that someday, the rivers will run clear as we will never know them, and someday, families will be singing in the fields while healthy forests once again stand. So that someday, this place will be sacred to all of those who live here again. The words of Wendell Berry resonate like an anthem deep within me. I realize there is still more work to do. The blood of my ancestors flowing within me, the land of my birth around me, the hope of a brighter future in front of me, I ready myself for the journey ahead.

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Druid Tree Workings: Establishing Deep Connections with Trees July 2, 2017

Imagine walking into a forest where you are greeted by many old tree friends, each members of different families that form a community.  You know their common names, their less common names, and the secret names that have taught you.  You know their medicine, how they can be used, even some of their stories and songs. They rustle their leaves in joy as you continue to walk.  The movement of their branches is music in your ears, the sound of the leaves a song, playing in your mind.  Their medicine and magic is open before you.  And yet, you realize how much more you have to learn, to know, and realize that this process –the process of reconnecting to the medicine and magic of the trees–will take more than one lifetime to complete.  This is the power of establishing deep connections with the trees.

 

Oak at Samhuinn

Oak at Samhuinn

Over the last two years, I’ve offered a series of posts on what I call “druid tree workings.”  A lot of people who get interested in nature spirituality want to work with trees, and there isn’t always a lot of detailed information out there about it.  Since the trees have sung to me since I was a small child, I have been trying to compile this information on some of the strategies that I used in order to learn their teachings and work with them.  Today, I’m going to explore another strategy that takes some of my earlier posts a bit further.  If you haven’t read my earlier work in the druid tree workings, I suggest you start there becuase this post (and one I have planned in the next week or so), draws upon those initial principles. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, and a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth. Today, I’m delving into a few other strategies for establishing deeper relationships with trees through finding a focal tree and working with it in various ways.

 

Relationship Building

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, and I’ll mention it again here.  Reconnecting with nature, and doing any kind of nature-based spiritual practice, is just like building any other kind of relationship.  It takes time.  It takes both giving and taking.  It takes good listening skills and communication.  To establish relationships with plants, trees, nature spirits or anything else, this is the very beginning of where we start.  Nature isn’t there just to give, and give, and give (and when she is forced to do so, ecosystems eventually break down and we are left with the predicament we are currently facing).  Instead, we are meant to be in recriprocation.  Think about it this way: all of the “waste” products from your body (carbon from your lungs, nitrogen from your urine, and the nutrients in feces that breaks down into rich soil) are required by trees and plants for survival. And in turn, we need them for oxygen, food, shelter, shade,  and much more.  If we work with relationship as our basic premise, we can develop deep relationships.

 

Finding Your Tree

A simple way to begin to connect deeply with trees and prepare for deeper initiatic work (which I will discuss in my next post in this series) is to begin by finding a species, and an individual tree, that call to you. Different tree species work with different human energy patterns, and what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, one of my strongest tree allies is hawthorn, which is certainly not a species that is friendly to all! But over a period of time, hawthorn and I have developed a very deep bond and love each other well.  And so, it might be that as you are reading this, you already have a specific tree in mind. Or it might be that as you are reading this, you need a way to find one that will work with you. So let’s first explore how to find your tree.  Picking a single tree to begin this work is really important. You might think about this like the “central” or “keystone” tree in your larger sacred grove.  Your sacred grove, that is, the many tree species that will work with you, are added after you begin your work with this one tree.  Once you have developed a deep relationship with one tree, it is easier to communicate with others of that same species, and easier to connect to many other trees of different species.  The work spirals out from there.

 

There are two ways to go about finding your tree.

 

The Deductive Method: Having a tree (or tree species) in mind.  Do you have a specific tree speces or have a relationship that began with a tree species at an earlier point in your life?  This might be a tree species you’d like to seek out to establish a relationship with.  For example, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time climbing several trees–an old apple, an old maple, and an old cherry.  As I grew older and found druidry, these were the trees that first called me back and allowed me to reconnect.

 

The Inductive Method: Picking your spot and find your tree. The other way of going about this (and the one I’d suggest for a lot of folks) is to simply pick your spot and then pick your tree.  Before finding your specific tree, you need to scope out your general location. This is a very important consideration; you should be able to visit the tree regularly and do so with minimal disruption (e.g. a tree next to a busy highway might not be the best choice). So you’ll want to find a tree that you have very easy access to but also one where you can be undisturbed by passerby and other human behaviors. A lot of good trees can be found in local parks, forests, even your yard. Make sure your tree is somewhere that you can visit, at minimum, once or twice a week and that it is fairly easy for you to do so. If your tree is difficult to get to, you will be less likely to visit (especially if you are tired or busy).  Now, spread out in the area that you have selected. Use your intuition as well as your physical senses. Is there one particular tree that is calling to you? It doesn’t matter at first if you can identify it or not; the important thing is to feel a strong connection. Once you’ve found the tree, ask permission to sit with it for a time. Listen for inner and outer messages and simply be present with it.

 

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Initial Tree Work

Now that you’ve got a tree, great!  The next thing is start to work with it on the inner and outer planes.  Here are some, of many, options (see other options in my earlier post):

 

Find the Face of the tree. I have a whole post detailing how to find the face of a tree as a way to begin to connect with it. I would strongly suggest that you do this work the first time you meet the tree. How many faces does the tree have? What do they look like? What do they tell you?

 

Communicate with the tree. See what the tree has to say, using strategies on the inner and outer planes. Spend time learning how this tree communicates and developing your own intuitive skills.

 

Tree Research. After you’ve picked the tree, learn a bit about it (which requires you to identify it). Tree identification books are common (and now, there are a whole series of apps, like Leafsnap, which help you identify trees based on their leaves). If you aren’t sure, either take a small bit of leaf/branch with you and/or take good photographs so that you can refer to them. Make sure to get photos or examples of the leaves (both sides), the bark, and how the leaves attach to the stem. Also get photos or examples of any buds/fruit/nuts on the tree. If it is winter, you will need to get a winter tree identification guide (there are good guides on winter botany and on tree bark for example).

 

After you’ve identified your tree, learn as much as you can about about the tree. What role does this tree play in your local ecosystem? (My favorite books for answering these questions in the Midwest/Northeast are the Book of Forest and Thicket, Book of Swamp and Bog, etc, by John Eastman). How was this tree used by humans in the past? Is it still used by humans in the present? What are the features of its wood? Is it under threat? How widespread is this species? Is it native, naturalized, or considered invasive? Does this tree have any medicinal properties? Knowing the answers to these questions can really help you understand how past humans have worked with these trees (or taken from them).

 

Another important question to ask is: What is the mythology and magic of this tree? (You might find that it was a tree that I covered in one of my sacred trees posts; if not, look for both mundane and magical information).   You might need to look to different cultural sources and references to understand the tree. Some trees (like apple) are present in both the old and new world and so you can study the mythology of both. Some trees, like sycamore, are actually different trees and different species in the old and new world, so be careful that you are learning about the right mythology. In the mythology, look at the role of the tree—is it magical? Helpful to humans? Active in the story? Passive? All of these will give you clues into the nature of the tree.

 

Identification: Work to identify the tree in its various seasons. Look at its buds/flowers, its leaves, the bark, the overall profile.  Look how its branches grow and what their growth habit is. Learn this tree, well, as much as you are able. When you have the chance, work to identify and visit other individuals of that spaces. Get so that you can identify the tree in multiple seasons and both close up and at a distance.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Visits over time.  Beyond the tree research, begin this deep tree work simply with one individual tree, whom you visit frequently. We have to rebuild relationships with these trees, and those relationships take time to establish (just like human relationships do).  Visiting the tree regularly over a period of a year is the best way to *really* know a tree, but that’s likely not possible unless the tree is very close to where you live.  But the more you can visit the better!

 

Tree Offerings

Regardless of the kinds of work you are doing with the tree, you should make an offering to the tree you are working with regularly—consider it like a gift you would give friends. As in any other relationship, we give and we take, and tree workings are no difference.  I would suggest that you make offerings before you take anything.  Nature is being used and abused by so many humans (direct and indireclty) at present.  You want to establish a different pattern, a relationship, not just a taking one.  So start here before doing anything else in terms of the rest of the post.

 

Here are some offerings that work well (and I use all of these, often in combination or at different times of the year):

 

  • One kind of very effective exchange is one where the tree gives of its body and so do you.  Humans and plants form a symbiotic relationship; we depend upon each other for survival. Trees take in our waste (carbon that we breathe and nitrogen that we pee) as some of their primary sources of nourishment and strength. Peeing at the base of a tree is a wonderful offering of available nitrogen to the tree (don’t pee directly on leaves, as they can’t handle such a strong dose of nitrogen). I am very serious here—this works and trees are thankful. Just ask them!
  • Music. If you can sing or play an instrument at all (even if its not very well), I would suggest singing or playing for the tree. It is often very well received (and the tree may have a song to give you in return!)
  • Spreading Seeds/Nuts: Trees need to propagate, and another meaningful offering is one where you are able to harvest the seeds/nuts from the tree and plant them elsewhere. This is especially important for hardwood nut trees, who often are slower to propagate (but don’t spread trees that are already spreading themselves too much, like those listed on noxious invasive species lists—do another kind of offering). Helping the tree establish its young is one of the absolute best things you can do.
  • Growing or making offerings. The one other thing I will mention is that I personally grow sacred tobacco for offerings, especially for wildharvesting. My tobacco is grown in my own garden from saved seeds. I harvest and dry it myself. I blend it with lavender flowers and rose petals. I was told by my own spirit guides to do so, and if you feel led, this might be another part of what you can offer.
  • A special offering.  Certain trees might like other kinds of offerings, and once you learn to communicate, you might get a sense of what these offerings are. They might sound strange or outlandish, but I’d suggest you try them.

 

You’ll notice above that none of my suggestions include buying something and offering it to the tree or burying coins at the roots, etc. Everything that we buy requires resources from nature (often at high cost); and nearly all of it today requires fossil fuel inputs which are severely threatening all life. Buying anything is not appropriate here, or is it with most nature magic—instead, offer something of value that doesn’t cost fossil fuels.

 

 

Carrying the Tree With You and Leaving a Part of You with It

The promise of connection

The promise of connection

In addition to taking the tree within, you can carry a small part of the tree with you and leave part of yourself with the tree. Usually, trees are happy to offer a dead branch or small piece of bark. In exchange, I like to offer them with one of my own hairs. That way, the tree has a piece of me, and I have a piece of it, and each day as I carry that with me, even if I can’t visit, that tree’s energy is present in my life. I usually will use simple carving and sanding tools to shape the piece of tree into a necklace pendant and then I can wear it on a string around my neck near my heart.   That’s just a personal preference—I’m a bit absent minded and have sent one to many nut or small piece of stick that I had in my pocket through the washing machine!

 

These strategies can help you continue to develop deeper relationships with trees. We’ll continue exploring deep tree workings in my next post, where we’ll look at tree initiations.

 

(PS: Please note that I am *still* camping and hiking in the wilds, and while this post is set to auto-post on July 2, I won’t be back till later this week to respond to comments.  I look forward to reading them!)

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