The Druid's Garden

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

Druidry for the 21st Century January 13, 2019

This is a challenging age, doubly so for anyone who is connected spiritually with the living earth and who cares deeply about non-human life. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released towards the end of 2018, presents a dire picture for the future. This isn’t the only recent report from governing bodies globally–report after report continues to paint a clear picture of what humanity is doing, and what we need to do to change.  And yet, it seems to be business as usual.

 

The cycles of nature

The cycles of nature

When I talk to druids about their thoughts about this present age, there seems to be a few ways to think about it.

 

First, the glass half empty approach is feeling extremely demoralized, looking at climate change reports and long-term forecasts and seeing the continued inaction on behalf of world leaders. The glass half empty approach may also have feelings that nothing we do now matters, and may wonder what the point of even trying is. Druidry for them is a means of coping, a means of connecting, even if they think it may all go down the drain.

 

Second, the glass half full approach is feeling concerned about the state of the world but also recognizing the great potential in this age–we must adapt or not survive. One of the core permaculture design principles is “the problem is the solution” meaning we can see into the nature of the problem and in seeing it, we can find solutions within it. These eternal optimists feel that we can be the solution, and it’s just a matter of finding out what to do and how to do  it, and doing it well.

 

Finally, the third approach is ignoring the glass altogether: those who choose not to think about whats happening large-scale, and instead, respond by individual and local action and what they can control.  These druids are fed up with what is happening broadly and pay it no mind–but care deeply about what they can control and work to live in a way that honors and cares for all life.

 

There are probably more responses than I named here (and if I missed yours, please share it!).  Regardless, living in the 21st century is an incredible challenge for druids and any other practitioners of spiritual paths where nature is sacred and revered.  The questions that I keep getting asked, and that I keep asking myself are:  What does druidry do for us in the 21st century?  What does druidry offer the future?  How can we become good ancestors, and create a world that is safe, vibrant, and stable for our descendants?

 

I don’t profess to have all of the answers, by any means.  But I do have thoughts I can share.  I’ll tackle this first question above in this week’s post and the second question in next week’s post.

 

What does druidry do for us in this age?

This is a complex question that requires a number of different answers.  On one hand, we have to look at what it does in an individual’s life–how it supports an individual’s spiritual practices.  We also have to look at what it does to the world around us, ecologies and communities. Finally, we can look at larger paradigms that it challenges and helps us replace, more broadly.  Thus, in this age, it works on at least three levels: the level of the self, the level of the land, and the level of the community.

 

The Self: Tools and Practices. In my work as Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I see a lot of applications from new members. As part of our application, people need to write a letter that explores what encouraged them to join AODA, what made them come to druidry, what they hope to gain. Most of them have key similarities: the need to reconnect with themselves through a spiritual path, the need to connect with nature, and the need to find balance in their lives.  These needs bring me to one of the core gifts of druidry: helping us live in this age fully, powerfully, and sanely.

 

Being connected with nature

Being connected with nature

Modern western culture, particularly here in the USA, has discouraged many things: creative practices, being outside, having any kind of thoughts or an inner life, being curious about the world.  Druidry offers people a way back into these very human and fundamental practices. Druidry is ultimately a connecting practice.  This includes our connection with nature through the ovate arts, our connection with core spiritual practices that sustain us and allow us to cultivate a rich inner life through the druid arts, and our connection with our creative spirit through the bardic arts and the flow of Awen. Druidry offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, reflect, and ground.

 

Again, in my role in AODA, I get to read a lot of people’s reflections at the end of their coursework.  It’s amazing to hear just how much a single year of druid practice changes them: their healing from past trauma, their deepening appreciation and care for the natural world, their cultivation of a rich inner life, their cultivation of a creative practice.  These kinds of things get to the heart of what a spiritual practice can, and should be, for each individual–a way to connect with themselves, their creative gifts, and the world.

 

Tools and Practices for the Land. Druidic practices don’t just benefit us as individuals; they benefit the world around us. One of the great challenges of our age is that humans are radically disconnected from nature; our food comes from somewhere else, our products come from somewhere else; we don’t know the names of plants or animals in our local ecosystem, we don’t know what a healthy ecosystem looks like. We could not survive in our ecosystem without modern conveniences in place, as our ancestors once could.

Through learning about nature, through nature study, wisdom, and experience–we learn how to be in nature.  Once you begin seeing nature as sacred, you treat it as sacred.  This manifests in so many diverse outward actions–we learn how to live more caring lives that support rich ecology and diversity; we learn how to nurture and tend the lands around us. Druids plant trees, tend gardens, do river cleanup, convert lawns to wildlife sanctuaries, and so much more. Druids make lifestyle changes to reduce their impact on the living earth and help sustain life. Ultimately, druidry takes us from potentially indifferent to knowledgable and connected with nature–and that helps us do good in our land, rather than cause harm. This change on our inner selves has outward results that support our broader ecosystems.

 

What can druidry offer the future?

Druidry helps individuals and those individuals can make some impact on ecosystems–but what about what is happening broadly? While the glass half full and the local action readers are probably nodding and smiling with what I’ve written above, my glass half empty reader is probably reading this and saying sure, that’s great, but we still have an unsolvable predicament on our hands.  And to this, we begin orienting ourselves not only to the present, but to the future.

 

As druidry develops in the 21st century, I think it will inherently look differently than it did in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. It’s a personal spiritual practice, yes, but it’s also an alternative philosophy–druidry is in the process of developing new mental models for living and being and interacting in the world.  Let’s look at why this matters, and the power it holds.

 

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model  offers us a way of understanding how change happens, and at what level change happens. This model suggests that if we want to change behaviors and actions, we must change the underlying mental models–the paradigms we live by. In this model, the top of the iceberg is events–things we react to, events that happen.  That’s what is sticking out of the water, what we can see.  So something occurs, and we react to it. A lot of people get stuck here–reacting to events that occur, not realizing that most of the iceberg (the cause of the event) lies under the water.  The second layer down, just below the water line, are patterns or trends.  These are the series of events that are connected over a period of time and form larger patterns of actions and events.  We don’t always see the patterns, but they are often there.  The third layer is the underlying structures: physical world, organizations, policies, rituals (in the societal sense).  These are the things that govern and support a lot of patterns, and thus, a lot of events.  These are also the structures that make it detrimental to engage in certain kinds of activities (such as going fully off grid).

 

The layer we are most concerned with today, however, is the final layer–that which underlies all else.  This is the layer of mental models: where ideologies, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, values, and myths reside.  These are the stories we believe and the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as cultures.  These mental models drive larger structures in society as well as individual actions.  These are the myths we live and die by.  If you want to change action, the mental models themselves must change. And here’s the thing: right now, western culture has some incredibly destructive myths: to individuals, to communities, and to ecosystems.

 

So what does this have to do with druidry and the future?  And my response is — just about everything.  Druidry isn’t just a spiritual path for individuals in the here and now.  Druidry is a way to change the world.  When individuals take up nature spirituality as a path, the practices lead them to shifts in thinking–to rethink and reframe mental models.

 

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

The Myth of Progress vs. the Cycle. One of the core arguments that John Michael Greer has made about industrialization is that the myth of progress is a national, cultural religion (see Not the Future we Ordered, among his other writings). The myth of progress insists that growth must happen always (economic growth, technological growth) and that progress will forever continue. That is, the idea of progress is so central to the way that humans think and act, and the decisions that we make, that this paradigm drives nearly everything else. The myth, like all good myths, is rarely questioned: to grow is good, and not to grow is bad.  A housing development is progress over a forest.  The myth suggests that humanity has progressed from the stone age to today, with today being the pinnacle of progress, and tomorrow being even better.  This myth also asks us to value efficiency, expediency, mechanization, and standardization.

 

Druidry asks us to confront this myth.  Lessons of nature, of the wheel of the year, of the seasons, teach us that the world doesn’t work in a straight, ever-upward moving line.  The land works in a cycle, with seasons of famine and of plenty, with light and dark times.  Nature’s lessons offer us key ways of re-orienting our own philosophy away from the destructive myth of progress and into something that is more sustaining.

 

Infinite Growth vs. Balance.  Tied directly to the myth of progress is the myth of infinite growth. The idea that all growth is good, and the only way to have a stable society and stable economy is by growing.  This is embedded in to any discussion of modern economics, and certainly, is a driving force.  Edward Abbey wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell” and this very much rings true.

 

Druidry teaches us differently.  Nature is certainly about growth, but like everything else, it is growth for a season.  Nature teaches us that limits are real, and necessary, and that growth and limitation are always in balance.  If trees grew too tall, they would blow over.  If the summer never ended, pests on the land would grow and multiply to great numbers, harming plants.  Nature spirituality teaches us the lesson of balance.

 

Harmful consumption vs. Humans as a force of good. In the permaculture film “Inhabit” permaculturist Ben Falk talks about the challenge we face as humans who care about the land. So many of the things we buy, the narratives we hear, suggest that we should do “less harm.” As though the only thing we can do is harm less, or be a little better than we were before.  But, as he argues, if you follow this thinking to its logical conclusion, it almost seems better if we weren’t here at all, if we had never been born, or that the best thing we could do is end our lives rather than keep polluting and consuming.  This, of course, makes us feel guilty just for inhabiting our earth, for going about our daily lives.  I agree with him in that this thinking is extremely problematic because it defines our role only in a damaging sense.

 

Druidry, and ecological approaches like permaculture, offer us an alternative perspective: we can interact with nature in many other ways–we can be a force of good.  Through tools of both spiritual action and physical action, through the head, heart, and hands, we can regenerate and heal our lands.

 

There are more paradigms than just these that druidry confronts, but I think these three are a good starting point.  To go back to the iceberg metaphor, we can see how what happens (events) and patterns surrounding what happens are supported by underlying structures.  But those structures exist ultimately because of mental models–that which we think, believe, and hold sacred.  If we can change the mental model–we change everything else.

 

What will druidry do for our descendants?

The mental models that have driven this world, particularly, the western world, into the 21st century are failing.  They are failing humans, non-human life, and every ecosystem on this planet.  And frankly, given how destructive they are, they need to fail.  We are quickly approaching the time when a lot of people are going to be seeking new mental models. We are already seeing movement in this direction–the decline of traditional religions and the growth of ecologically oriented religions, the growth in other kinds of ecologically-based thinking– it’s already there.  We’re seeing this movement in the youth of many countries. The paradigms we learn from nature are being shared in many nature-oriented practices and communities: balance, wholeness, integration, connectedness to the land, cycles–lessons from nature.

 

If we can rewrite the culture’s mental models and paradigms using lessons of nature, and if that new myth can become a driving force, all of society will change as a result of it.  And here’s the thing–people are looking for these kinds of new ways of thinking, doing, and being.  The mental models, rooted in nature, can offer us the next paradigm–the next society we build, one that is in line and honors nature and all life.

 

As we grow in our understanding of what this tradition is now, and where it is heading, I believe that we druids are the forerunners of so much change.  Humanity will either have to adapt and develop more ecologically sensitive models, or go extinct.  Think of us druids like the forerunners of that change.  This is the gift we offer our descendants–the mental models that precipitate new structures, patterns, and actions in the world.

 

Abundant milkweed along a field

Abundant milkweed along a field

The Road Forward

 

As I’ve shared before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age, and through the ages, it has always been such a response. Revival druidry began at the dawn of industrialization, responding to that day.  Modern druidry has gained speed as our ecological problems have increased.  Revival druidry saw the beginning of industrialization, and I honestly believe it will see us through to the end of it.  For those of us in the 21st century–druidry is our response to today.  And what we offer our descendants, then, is hope.

 

What we do today will help shape what our tradition–and our world–looks like tomorrow. Today’s practitioners have much to contribute to this conversation–What are we currently doing? What will we do? Who will we become?  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us as we pave the way for the future.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Druid Gratitude Practices – Nature Shrines and Offerings November 25, 2018

Black Raspberry in fruit

Black Raspberry in fruit

Every year, I look forward to the black raspberries that grow all throughout the fields and wild places where I live. These black raspberries are incredibly flavorful with with crunchy seeds. They have never been commercialized, meaning no company has grown them for profit. You cannot buy them in the store. You can only wait for late June and watch them ripen and invest the energy in picking. Each year, the black raspberries and so many other fruits, nuts, and wild foods are a gift from the land, the land that offers such abundance.  If I would purchase such berries in a store, my relationship with those berries would be fairly instrumental–I pay for them, they become part of a transaction, and then I eat them. There is no heart in such a transaction.  But because these berries can’t be bought or sold, when I pick them, the land is offering me the gift of sustenance.  Gifting is a much different kind of relationship, a powerful and connected relationship, a relationship that asks not only for reciprocation but gratitude.

 

Gratitude is an incredibly important aspect of reconnecting and reciprocating with the living earth. Given the recent cultural holiday of giving of thanks, I wanted to reflect on the idea of gratitude practices and share ideas for what we could do in the druid tradition to offer gratitude to the living earth and her many aspects. So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to develop a gratitude practice and why it matters.

 

What is a gratitude practice?

There are lots of words you might use to describe a gratitude practice: honoring, venerating, giving thanks, respecting, and so forth. What I’m calling a “gratitude practice” puts us in regular contact with the living earth and allows us to express our respect, gratitude, and offer our thanks to the living earth and various aspects of nature.  Nature provides everything for us–even if we are mostly disconnected in the western world from that process.  Re-imagining our relationship as one full of gratitude helps us reconnect to the living earth in incredibly powerful ways.

 

There are many, many ways to engage in gratitude practices–speaking them, writing them, saying them. One common gratitude practice is ancestor work, which I wrote more about in an earlier post, and where we are in gratitude towards those who came before. Today, I’ll explore a long-term strategy for gratitude practices surrounding the living earth–through choosing aspects of nature to honor, creating shrines, and making offerings.

 

Choosing Aspects of Nature to offer Gratitude

The word “honor” refers to treating someone or something with admiration, respect, and recognition. If we think about the way we honor humans–soldiers, guests, or dignitaries–we may offer gifts, set aside special spaces for them (statuary, memorials, etc), or hold various kinds of celebrations for them. For example, in American culture we have presidential monuments, days honoring Martin Luther king and others of importance, monuments to fallen soldiers, and we offer regular respect to those humans who have done something extraordinary. If we use this same kind of thinking to honor nature and aspects of nature, we can develop a deeper relationship to nature over time and make this a core of a gratitude practice.

 

Some druids may choose to honor all of nature or focus on “the land” or “the earth” as the center of a nature honoring practice, while other druids may choose to focus and work with a specific aspect of nature intensively. Working to honor that aspect of nature—say, an element manifested in the world, an animal, a tree or plant, a mountain, a river, a natural phenomenon (storms), etc, can put you in a very deep relationship with that particular aspect. Thus, choosing who or what to honor in the natural world is important and is highly individual. Some druids may have already been drawn to a particular animal, plant, place, or other aspect of nature, while others may need to seek out different aspects to honor. Perhaps you have a plant species you have always been drawn to, or perhaps an animal species frequently visits you.  Perhaps you’ve had powerful experiences in a particular place, or along a particular mountain ridge.  Perhaps you feel energized and excited by the storm. You can select one, or multiple aspects of nature, to honor. As you choose to work with nature or aspects of nature, recognize that gratitude is work of the heart. The most important choice, then, deals with your own personal connection to the living earth and her spirits. What aspect of nature is deeply meaningful to one person may not be to another—the point of all of this is to develop, for yourself, deep relationships. Follow your heart and intuition.  In this section’s activity, a specific ritual is given that can help you choose which aspects of nature you want to develop a devotional practice towards.

 

In an animistic perspective, we recognize the difference between matter and spirit, and in this case, both can be honored. For example, one druid decided to honor the black bear, so she begins by bringing in black bear imagery and statuary into her home; learning about the black bear; and creates a small shrine in the woods near her home to honor the greater spirit of the bear.  She also learns about a local movement to protect bear populations and volunteers her time. In doing these kinds of honoring activities, she is able to deeply connect with the bear energies and bring those energies into their life. In a second example, a druid chooses to honor the local mountain range where he was born and raised. He learns about this mountain range, its history, and what lives there and grows there; he spends time hiking and backpacking on various parts of the mountain range; and he does regular ritual to protect the mountain from harm. He also carries a piece of wood in his pocket from the mountain and places a second piece of wood on his home altar. He connects to the spirit of the mountain through deep meditation and journeying work.

 

Nature Shrines as a Gratitude Practice

Poison Ivy shrine

Poison Ivy shrine

One way of engaging in a gratitude practice is through creating a shrine or special space inside or outside of your home to honor the living earth and/or specific aspects of nature. In the druid tradition, a “shrine” is typically dedicated to a specific aspect of nature, while an “altar” is typically more of a working tool where you might engage in various kinds of rituals and practices. “Sacred spaces” are larger areas, perhaps containing a shrine or altar, that are dedicated to sacred activity. However, these can blend together, and we druids don’t get too picky about the differences.

 

To create a nature shrine, you need to consider four aspects: where the shrine will be, how you will construct the shrine,  what the goal of the shrine is, and how often you will interact with the shrine. There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions–but you should give them some thought.

 

To start getting your own creative juices flowing, I will now share a few shrines I’ve built over time:

  • Honoring the Fallen Shrine (Outdoor). The “honoring the fallen” shrine was a large shrine on a recently cut stump. The shrine consisted of sticks, stones, and bones, with a stack of stones in the middle. The sticks, stones, and bones came from sites that were damaged or hurting. The shrine honored trees, animals, and others who were passing on due to human interference. I would honor species going extinct, trees and forests that were cut, making regular weekly offerings at the shrine.
  • Protecting Waters Shrine (Indoor). The “waters” shrine was to honor the waters of all kinds: rain, lakes, rivers, streams, springs, and so on. I gathered water offerings from all over the world (and asked friends to bring me water from various places) and I would put the new waters in little glass vials with a label. The shrine held the glass vials. This shrine had a beautiful large bowl of water as the centerpiece, which I kept regularly filled. This shrine was near a large tub I had in my bathroom, up on a little ledge.
  • Poison Ivy Shrine (Outdoor). Everywhere I’ve lived, poison ivy has lived with me, and I’m one of the very sensitive people who get it easily. The poison ivy shrine was created to honor the poison ivy on the property and ask it not to harm me or my guests. I built this shrine in the winter when the poison ivy was more dormant after scoping out a place with the most poison ivy on the property. I created a small shelf with several rocks and then created a clay statue that was my personification of poison ivy. I put the statue on the rock shelf. And then, I let this shrine alone.  As the poison ivy grew back into the space, it mostly covered the stone and statue.  I left this shrine largely be, as poison ivy wanted to be left alone!
  • Land Healing Shrine (Outdoor, Group). I created a land healing shrine with a group of druids was a land healing shrine, also on a large stump. We took fallen wood from the property, cut it into wood rounds, and then woodburned protective and healing symbols and ogham onto the wood. We left these on the shrine along with aspects of the four elements. The goal of this shrine was to send healing out to the land.
  • The Mother Earth Shrine (Outdoor). This shrine was created to honor the entirety of the land and all of her spirits. I would frequently gather new things for this shrine from wild places and add them to the shrine. Over time, the pile grew quite large! The shrine itself was wild—I never cleaned leaves off the shrine but rather let everything layer just like it does in nature. I left regular offerings of cornmeal here as part of my daily spiritual practices.
  • The Animals Shrine (Indoor). I created a small shrine, using only photographs on a wall space, in my office. I wanted to honor certain animals in my local ecosystem and also draw upon aspects of those animals while at work. The cluster of photos didn’t appear to anyone as a sacred space, but I understood the intent of the work.

 

One the things you might notice about the shrine examples I’ve offered above is that the shrines don’t just have a theme—the have an intention or goal. Your goals and intentions may evolve as you work deeply with the spirits of nature, so you can see these kinds of shrines as evolving things. I do think as you create a shrine, the shrine will evolve just as you evolve!

 

Earth Shrine

Earth Shrine

Sourcing Materials for Your Shrine

Sourcing materials for your shrine is also a critical choice, and sends a particular kind of message to the land and her spirits. For outdoor spaces, it is a good idea to make sure anything that you leave will not cause harm or pollution to the land. Further, you want to make sure that the earth was not harmed in the creating of that thing or the taking of that thing. This means you might use more naturally-oriented things or representations: sticks, stones, collected objects, secondhand objects, handcrafted objects, and so on. You can make beautiful shrines, altars, and sacred spaces using materials only from the land around you in many cases. Using things directly from the land allows them to break down and return to the land gracefully.

 

Building Your Shrine

Spend time planning and building a shrine to nature or to a specific aspect of nature. The process shouldn’t be rushed—often, the process of building a shrine takes time and unfolds in unexpected ways! First, you want to source the right location. Whether indoors or outdoors, it takes time to find the right spot. If it is in the house, you want to think about where it might be, and how visitors and other family members may interact with it (or not), and may respect it, or not. I once created a beautiful shrine in a guest bedroom, which worked except when I had guests who didn’t understand it and didn’t respect it well.

If it is outdoors, you again want to think about other people who may have access to the shrine and how public or private the shrine will be. I prefer to keep shrines as private as possible, unless I’m working with a group of fellow druids and we are co-constructing a shrine (as one example explored above). When sourcing a location, I recommend taking some time and doing multiple visits to ascertain the right location and if the spirits of the land would welcome the shrine. There are lots of considerations for location, particularly in terms of the weather, seasons, accessibility, visibility, and human interaction.

 

Once you’ve selected your spot, now comes the fun part of building the shrine.  I like to see a nature shrine as an evolving thing—just as the wheel of the year turns in nature, so too your shrine evolve as you find new things for it.  Shrines do not have to be complex, even a small stack of stones or ring of sticks works beautifully for a shrine.

 

The timing of initially setting up your shrine also can be important. Choose a day or time that is meaningful—a new or full moon, one of the druid holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross quarter days) or some other day that lends itself well to the energies of your new endeavor.

 

Tending Your Shrine

After you have your shrine built, you’ll want to think about how you might regularly tend it.  Regular attention to the shrine assures that you are connecting deeply with the energies of the shrine and connecting with that aspect of nature and that you are investing time, energy, and care into the shrine.  Regular tending may include clearing the shrine of debris, replacing objects, and so forth. It may also be quietly sitting with the shrine, meditating near it, and simply observing it during the various seasons (if outdoors).  There are lots of ways you can regularly tend and visit your shrine.

 

Offerings

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Another thing you can do regularly at your shrine is make offerings–this helps you “give back” and engage in a more reciprocal relationship with the living earth.  Offerings are often symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. One of the ways you might think about offerings within a druid framework is that they are part of a larger gratitude practice. That is, through offerings, we are giving thanks, acknowledging, and honoring nature.

 

In terms of what to offer, the general principle here that I like to follow is this: my offering should be an offering of something that I value and that is important to me, not simply an empty gesture of something that I purchased.  These things may be physical or non-physical.

 

On the side of physical things: many things that can be purchased are problematic because their purchase put additional strain on the land (the resources that produced it, the shipping and fossil fuels, the packaging that creates plastic waste, etc.). So you want to give any physical offerings some careful thought.  One of the ways you might get around this is by either growing offerings, finding them, or wildcrafting them. A great offering could be something as simple as acorn caps gathered in the fall with a symbol painted on them in a natural ink. You could gather small stones or pieces of bark and bless them with the elements, and then use them as an offering. Another option is to create or grow a sacred offering blend of herbs (I use home-grown tobacco, lavender leaf, and rose petals as my current mix, see this post for more information).  You can also purchase offerings that are sustainably created—go to a farmer’s market and buy a bottle of locally produced organic wine or locally milled cornmeal or flour, for example.

 

Non-physical things make wonderful offerings as well.  Bardic practices, like drumming, dancing, singing, and so forth can be a great offering of your time, energy and spirit. I will also note here that music in particular is a great offering if you want to honor the spirits of the land while others are around—I like to take my flute to majestic places (which often have other people visiting them) and play a song or two.  The intention of the song is an offering to the land, but it doesn’t hurt to have others hear it too.

 

I hope that this post was useful in thinking about one way–among many–that we might engage in a regular gratitude practice as part of our paths in honoring and connecting with our most sacred earth.

 

Medicine of the Spirit: Plant and Flower Essences – A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part III November 4, 2018

Three completed flower essences

Three completed flower essences

A flower floats in a bowl of spring water under the sun. The drops of the resulting water contain the energetic signature of the flower; a bit of its essence and spirit.  A few drops of this medicine, taken with sacred intent and combined with inner work, can create powerful transformations in the body and spirit, both inner and outer. This is potent medicine, spirit medicine, medicine to work with the soul. It is a gentle medicine, a medicine based in energy rather than matter. It is plant spirit medicine, medicine that can help move us to new places and ways of understanding. Yet, when we think of the word “medicine” today, what often comes to mind are various pills–little white and yellow tablets in bottles, created by some unknown process in some faraway place. Many of them have extremely harsh side effects; they are so potent that they work quickly (which gets someone back on their feet and back to work) but these medicines lack connection and spirit. Just as our bodies need the medicines (most of which I covered last week) or spirits also need medicine–to release the non-tangible things (hurt, sadness, grief, trauma) and to help strengthen our spirits in these difficult times. And so in today’s post, we explore the medicine of the spirit through plant and flower essences.

 

 

Medicine of the Spirit

Flower essences are energetic creations. As I shared a few weeks ago, developing spirit relationships with the plants has many forms, and one of them can be through working with flower and plant essences. This is medicine of spirit, and for spirit, and so your individual connection to the plant deeply matters. In order to talk about plant or flower essences, I think it is important to develop individualized medicine and medicinal knowledge from plant spiritsworks based on connection. There are books and websites that tell you about the different flower essences; e.g. that Aspen is good for anxiety, particularly about unknown things, or that Crab Apple flower essences help you move beyond your imperfections.  And these will likely work well as they are established knowledge that has been worked with by many people. Using these kinds of resources are a great place for you to start, but I would suggest that you not end there–take it a step further. Working with the plant on both of these levels allows you to really understand and acknowledge the plant. Medicine of the spirit works differently than medicine of the body.

 

Creating a Healing Plant Flower Essence or Plant Essence

For some plants, you might want to work exclusively with the energy of the plant, rather than the physical body of the plant. This is because the plant may be poisonous to ingest (such as Thuja Occidentalis, the Eastern White Cedar) but you still want to work with its potent healing spirit. Or, can also be because it has a very low population at present (such as Indian Ghost Pipe); creating a flower essence allows you to not damage the plant as part of the harvest.  Or it can simply be that you want to work more with the spirit and energy of the plant, rather than the physical body.  Flower essences work on the same principles that cell salts, homoapathy, and reiki work on, that is, they work on subtle energy.  You can make flower essences anytime of year flowers are blooming; you can make conifer essences all times of year.  Given this time of year, you might want to try a witch hazel flower essence if you have any blooming around you!

 

Supplies. Once you are ready to proceed, you will need the following materials:

  • A bowl of your choosing
  • Fresh water (preferably rain or spring water, non-chlorinated if at all possible)
  • A strainer(depending on approach)
  • A small knife (depending on approach)
  • Moonlight or sunlight
  • Amber dropper bottle or jar for storage
  • Amber dropper bottle for use
  • Alcohol (vodka or brandy, 80 proof) for preservation.  Brandy tastes better, so it is usually my choice for flower essences.

 

Honoring and permission. Be in a good frame of mind as you start.  You may want to establish a sacred grove before creating the plant.  Make an offering to the plant  and then sit with the plant to make sure the plant is willing to help you create the essence. Listen for any messages that the plant wants to share.

 

Holding the bowl for a hemlock needle essence

Holding the bowl for a hemlock needle essence

Moonlight and sunlight. You can make a plant or flower essence in both moonlight or sunlight.  The choice of which depends in part on the work you want to do with the plant.  The energy of the sun is protective, it is outward facing, it is energizing, and it is potent. Use this for any healing work where you seek to strengthen, build, move forward, or start something new.  The energy of the moon is receptive; it is inward facing, it is calming, and it is subtle.  Use the moonlight for any healing work where you seek to remove old wounds, where you are doing shadow work on yourself, or where you seek to bring things in.  You can also use a combination of sun and moonlight–leave your flower/plant essence out during the day and then during the evening for a full 24 hour cycle to create balance.

 

Plant matter: You will need a very small amount of plant matter for your flower essence.  Use flowers if they are available (which means you may need to wait till the plant is flowering) or leaves/seeds if they are not.  Seeds and flowers both contain the potent energy of the plants.  Don’t use commercially grown flowers (like roses from the grocery store) or from greenhouses; nearly all of these are sprayed with poisons which will be infused into your water.  Instead, use wild populations or those you grow yourself or that are at friends/family’s houses where spraying doesn’t happen.  Grow your own on a windowsill if necessary!

 

Choose your approach and make your Essence.  There are two approaches to making flower essences, involving cutting or not cutting plants. Both with their drawbacks and strengths.

  • Cut plants approach: Go to your plant, and cut a small amount of plant matter or several flowers for creating the essence. Floats the flowers/plants in the bowl in the sunlight or moonlight for 3-4 hours or up to 24 for the sun/moon balance approach. When you are finished, remove the plant matter and complete the essence (see below).
  • Whole plants approach:  Go to your plant and dip a small amount of plant matter or plant flowers into the bowl.  If you can set the bowl on the ground or hang it somehow to keep the plant matter submerged, this is ideal.  If not, hold the bowl there as long as you can (at least 15-20 min) and allow the essence of the flowers or plants to infuse into the water.

 

Creating the “Mother Essence.” Once you have your essence, fill your jar halfway with your plant water.  Now, fill the rest with alcohol.  You have created a “mother” plant essence; this will last you a long time and be preserved indefinitely).  Take 7 drops of your mother essence and put it in the second jar, and fill it with pure water. This is our finished flower essence, and you can take it as often as you like and use it for various purposes (ritual, meditation, medicinal, etc).  You will also have plenty to offer others if you feel the need.  If you have any leftover “mother” water, consider using it in a sacred manner.

 

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Plant and Flower Essence List

Here are a few plant and flower essences that I have used and developed (these come primarily from my own understanding and what has been taught to me as an herbalist and permaculturist):

  • Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis): Getting past deep trauma and grief, getting past inner darkness, bringing light into a darkened soul
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Bringing clarity and insight; focusing the mind
  • Indian Ghost Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora): Offering distance and perspective on current or past situations; offering distance from pain, breaking through addictions
  • Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis): Bringing the flow of awen/creativity into your life; cultivating creative practices
  • Goldenrod (Soladago spp.): Bringing in power and joy into your life; bringing forth the harvest

 

Using Plant and Flower Essences

Once you’ve created your flower essence, you are now free to use it.  But how do you use it?  The most standard way to use a flower essence is to take four drops from your dropper bottle four times daily.  You might do this while in ceremony or meditation, or when taking a quiet moment.   If you aren’t sure you are going to be able to do this, if you carry a water bottle, add the drops to the water bottle and drink it throughout the day.  Or, add them to a glass of water at meals.  The point is to get the essence into you however you can (and for some of us, taking something regularly, much less 4x a day, is not something that comes easily!)

 

I’ve found there are other ways of using the essences, however, and they lend their own magic.  One I really like is to take any leftover “mother” water and bottle it up in a spray bottle (or split it and bottle it up in several spray bottles); I use cobolt glass bottles for this purpose.  Then I can spritz myself with it when I want the energy of that plant, or spritz a room with it.

 

I also like to add three drops of my flower water to any ritual bowls of water as a way to infuse the ritual with the energy of that plant.

 

Finally, especially for cleansing floral waters, you might add a few drops to your bathtub when you are taking a bath.

 

This concludes my post for this week–and one way, of many, to use plants for medicine of the spirit. Blessings upon your spirit medicine journey!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part II: Preserving and Preparing Sacred Plant Medicine October 21, 2018

The moonlight shines through the window in my kitchen as I carefully use a mortar and pestle to grind dried herbs for making tea.  Candlelight softly illuminates the space, and I have my recipe book with me, ensuring that I record everything that I’m doing for future use. Magic is in the air; working in a sacred space at a sacred time on the Fall Equinox ensures that these medicines will be potent, effective, and magical. On the counter, I’ve already finished my fresh New England Aster flower tincture; this keeps my lungs in good health and helps me manage my chronic asthma without pharmaceuticals. A pot of olive oil is infusing with herbs is on the stove; I am getting ready to add beeswax and pour it off into small jars.  This healing salve will be for friends and family as Yule gifts.  The kitchen is bursting with good things and healing energy.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

In last week’s post, we explored some different ways to interact with and harvest plants: an animistic worldview that recognizes and honors plant spirits, planting and harvesting by the signs, and preparing for harvest through offerings.  In this week’s post, we’ll talk through different ways to preserve and prepare sacred plant medicine– so let’s get started!

 

An Herbal Sacred Grove

Before beginning your plant preparations, I would suggest setting up a sacred space (what we druids call a Sacred Grove). You can create a sacred space in which to prepare your sacred plant medicine. I offered details for one way of doing this in my earlier post on Hawthorn tincture creating.  You could also do so using an existing grove ritual (from OBOD, AODA, etc) or by creating your own.  I love to do this and I have found that it really adds to the magic and power of my plant preparations. For sacred plant crafting, I typically use a modified version of AODA’s solitary grove opening, including the Sphere of Protection.  The Sphere of Protection is highly adaptable, drawing upon the four elements and the solar, telluric, and lunar currents (three realms of spirit).  For plant medicine, I will use something like this (depending on the plants I’m working with at that time):

  • East/Air – New England Aster
  • South/Fire- Sassafras
  • West/Water – Hawthorn
  • North/Earth – Reishi Mushroom
  • Spirit Below/Telluric Current – Comfrey
  • Spirit Above/Solar Current – Goldenrod
  • Spirit Within/Lunar Current – Reishi

So my opening might look something like this:

  • Declare the intent of the ceremony
  • Declare peace in the quarters (part of the druid tradition)
  • Druid’s prayer / Druid’s prayer for peace (part of the druid tradition)
  • Sphere of protection; sealing the space
  • Offering to the spirits of the plants

Once the grove is open, I can begin my plant preparations, recognizing the sacredness and magic in this work.

If you plan on continuing to do sacred herbalism, I would suggest developing your own version of your sacred grove opening.  It can be dedicated to certain plants or activities, be done in a special room at a special time, etc.  The important thing is to make it matter for you!

 

Garbling

Once you have harvested a plant, you should engage in what is known as “garbling.” Garbling has both mundane and magical qualities.  On the mundane level, this basically means going though the plant material, cleaning it, removing bugs or soiled parts, and making sure you don’t have parts of other plants (like blades of grass) in there. As part of the garbling process, if you are drying your plants, you will want to remove any thick stems–this can prevent plants from drying thoroughly.  On the magical level, this process lends your energy to the plants you’ve harvested.  Feel their energy, attune with them, and do a bit of energy exchange with the plants you harvested.

 

Drying Plants

Plants need to be very dry if they are to stay fresh and preserved over a period of time or if you are going to use them in an herbal preparation. One of my favorite tools is a portable herb air drying rack. Its a mesh column with tiers where you can lay many fresh herbs.  If you hang this up in your house or porch, your herbs can be dried in a matter of days and not use any fossil fuels.  Other options include an electric dehydrator (sometimes necessary in places or times of high humidity).  If using a dehydrator, make sure you keep it on the lowest (herb) setting. Solar dehydrators (such as this design here) are another good option.  The oven is not a good option for most plants for drying, particularly leaf and flower parts; the oven starts out about 100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than you want for your plants and you will likely burn them. You can use the oven to “finish off” already mostly dry material, however.

 

If you feel your plants and they still feel soft or cool, they are likely not yet dried enough for proper storage.  This is particularly a problem in high humidity areas. You might finish them off for 10 min in the oven at the lowest setting to make sure they are super dry.  Then place them in a mason jar (which has an excellent lid that won’t allow any bugs, dust, etc, inside and place them in a cool, dark place.

 

Typically, drying directly in the sun is not a good idea.  The sun destroys many of the volatile oils, which is where a lot of medicinal content is held in the plants.  So air dry them, but never in direct sunlight. (This is also why you store plants in a cool, dark space–because sunlight is damaging to the longevity and potency of dried herbs and tinctures). You can use the sun’s energy for other kinds of preparations, however!

 

Specific Plant Preparations: Teas, Tinctures, Oils, and Salves

 

Healing Plant Tea (Infusion or Decoction)

If you are drying plants and storing them, you are already ready to make tea. Tea is best used for working on the internal systems of the body; the gut and GI system can hugely benefit from healing teas.  For teas, I usually grind up my plant matter a bit further (in a mortar and pestle, or cut them up further with herb scissors).  This is done so that the water has more spaces and opportunities to extract the plant matter. There are two kinds of herbal teas that you can make: infusions or decotions; the kind you make depends on the plant matter you are working with.

 

Infusions are created when boiling water is poured over plant matter and allowed to sit for 5-20 or so minutes (what we typically know as ‘tea’ using a tea bag).  This method is best for leafy plant matter and flowers.  When you make an infusion, make sure to cover the tea so that you are not losing the volatile essential oils through the steam (that’s often where the most concentrated medicine is).  The longer you let the tea sit, the stronger it will be, and for medicinal teas, 10-15 minutes is a good amount of time.  You can use tea strainers or purchase single use tea bags that can be sealed or tied.  I prefer the metal tea strainers as I make a lot of tea and don’t want the tea bag paper to go to waste.  Good plants for infusion teas include: mints, rosemary, lavender, monarda, lemon balm, chamomile, catnip, nettle, and more.

 

Decoctions are created when you boil your plant matter, with a lid, in the water, again for 10-20 minutes.  These are best for roots, barks, nuts, and other tough woody plant matter as it takes more time to extract the medicine from roots and woody material.  A hard boil of a plant would destroy leafy bits and flowers, so if you are combining woody bits or roots with flowers, add your flowers after you are done boiling and allow them to sit (again with the lid on) for 10 or so minutes before drinking your tea.  Plants for decoction: sassafras root, wild cherry bark, echinacea root, yellow dock root, etc.

 

You can also add the energy of the sun and/or the moon to your tea:

Sunlight and solar tea!

Sunlight and solar tea!

Lunar tea: A great way to bring the energy of the moon.  For infusions, pour boiling water over your plant material and allow it to sit in a jar with a lid in the moonlight.  For decoctions, boil your plant matter and add to a mason jar with a lid.  Let it sit overnight in the moonlight. Drink the next day and enjoy the energy of the moon.

 

Solar tea:  Some days, the sun is hot enough to do its own infusion of leafy or flower plant material.  Place your material in a large mason jar (I like to use the half-gallon mason jars) and sit it in the sun.  If you want to make your tea stronger, consider putting your jar on a reflective surface (like in a big stainless steel bowl) to increase the heat.  For decoctions, I like to soak my plant matter in advance in the sun (in a pot or jar) and then do the final boil.

 

Finally, you can make a ritual out of drinking your tea: perhaps it’s what you drink each morning when you rise, or each evening as you are getting ready for meditation.  I like to make my tea and then walk out on our land here, communing with the plants both within the tea and without!

 

Healing Plant Tincture (Alcohol, Vinegar, and Glycerine)

Tinctures are potent extracts that turn the plant medicine into a more easily accessible form by the body, and are used for an extremely wide range of uses (daily strengthening, cleansing, supporting a healthy fever, gut issues, etc). Tincturing can be a fairly complex and involved process if you want it to be (I wrote about it in much greater depth on my herbalism blog), but we are going to use a simple folk method here.  A tincture suspends healing plant matter in a menstra (in our case, alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine) which makes the medicinal properties more readily available and also preserves them for a period of time (for vinegar and glycerine, about a year; for high proof alcohol, indefinitely).

 

Alcohol tinctures. Your goal for most plant matter is to have at least 25% alcohol for preservation purposes. Start by chopping your fresh or dried plant matter finely.  If you are using fresh plant matter, you will want to start with a higher proof alcohol (as the plants add some additional water). You can use a “neutral” spirit; vodka is a typical choice for most herbalists.  An 80 proof vodka is 40% alcohol, so even if your plant material has a bit of water in it, you should still be above 25% alcohol when you are finished. Place your chopped plant matter into a jar, and weigh it down with a smooth, clean stone that you have scrubbed well in advance.  You can do this without the stone, but the stone really helps keep all of the plant matter submerged, which prevents mold and other issues.  Pour your alcohol over it and store in a cool, dark place for one moon cycle.  Strain your material, and enjoy!  Tinctures can be sweetened with honey or maple syrup to make them taste a bit better (or just take them in a glass of water).

 

Glycerine tinctures (glycerites). Glycerites have a shelf life about a year, and often taste a lot better than alcoholic preparations.  They are also very good for children or people who cannot have alcohol (such as those in recovery). Purchase some vegetable glycerine (in the USA, if you find “USP Glycyerine” the USP stands for the United States Pharmacopeia, which means it is a pure and standard formula). Water the glycerine down by 50% and add your plant matter, usually dried (or water it down less if you are using fresh).  Give it all a good shake and let it sit for one moon cycle (but not more), shaking it at least once a day.  Strain and enjoy.

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Vinegar tinctures. Vinegars are best for food-based material that you want to build into your cooking and consumption regularly and can be a great addition to an herbal medicine cabinet. For example, my father needed to have regular hawthorn in his diet and he enjoyed eating vinegar and oil on his salad, so I prepared him a hawthorn-infused apple cider vinegar that he could use each day with his meal.  Vinegar tinctures are made similar to the others–start with a high quality vinegar, preferably organic.  Chop up your plant matter finely and add it to your jar.  Let the plants infuse in the jar for one moon cycle, strain, and enjoy.  One more common vingear based preparation you may have heard of is “Fire Cider“; it is a vinegar-based tincture of ginger, onions, garlic, horseradish, and herbs that is used for healing purposes.

 

Some Plants for tincturing: Monarda (bee balm, antimicrobial), Nettle (anti-histamine, adrenal support), Goldenrod (anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory), Culinary Herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano – good for the vinegar infusion), Chickweed, Wild Yam.

 

Healing Plant Infused Oil

Infused oils are topically used primarily for wounds/stings/bug bites, for joint/muscle issues, or for varicose veins and other skin issues. Herbalists have a multitude of ways to make an infused plant oil, and I will share two of the most simple ways. Start by thoroughly drying your plant matter (see instructions above) and chopping it finely; if you are in a hurry, at least “wilt” your plant material for 12 or so hours by letting it sit on the counter before using it. Choose a good quality oil, I most often use organic olive oil as it is readily available.  Coconut oil is another good choice, but only if you will be keeping it in a temperature controlled environment due to its low melt point.  Otherwise, at some point, your infused oil may be solid or liquid (and this is even more important if you plan on making it into salve).

 

Pour the oil over the plant matter, making sure the plant matter is thoroughly saturated.  Leave in a sunny window or on the porch on warm days for one week, then drain and store in a cool, dark place for use.

 

Alternatively, you can use a double boiler on a low setting and infuse the oil for 12-24 hours.  Ensure the oil doesn’t get too hot–if your plant leaves turn brown and crispy, you likely made it too warm and boiled away the medicine. Thoroughly strain your oil with a small strainer or cheesecloth, and store in a cool, dark place for further use.

Infusing plants

Infusing plants

Make sure your oil is completely strained; small bits of plant matter can make it spoil much faster.  Also make sure there are no water bubbles in it; they will appear on the bottom and look like little clear or brownish bubbles. These will also make the infused oil spoil much, much faster.

 

Healing Salve

To make a salve from infused oil, begin by placing your strained oil into a double boiler and heating it up.  Add approximately 3 tbsp of beeswax (shaved or grated finely) per cup of infused oil.  As the oil heats up, the beeswax will melt. You can add less beeswax for a more liquid salve or more beeswax for a harder salve.

 

To test the consistency of your salve, place a spoon in the freezer and then pull it out and put a few drops of your salve on the spoon to see its consistency.  When you are happy with the consistency, you can add any additional essential oils (in small quantities; I like to add sweet orange or rosemary oil to make it smell nice).  Pour your salves into small jars or tins. Let them cool and then label appropriately.

 

Plants that work well for salve (in any combination): Plantain (skin healing, drawing), Calendula (skin healing), Comfrey (wound closing), St. John’s Wort (inflammation), Ground Ivy (skin healing, drawing), Chickweed (skin healing), Goldenrod (inflammation).

 

Conclusion

The world of plant medicine and herbalism represents a lifetime of study–but the best way to learn is to start doing it!  Next week, in our final post in this series, we talk about making herbal flower/leaf essences and working deeply with the spirit of plants. Blessings!

 

Weather Prognostication and the Wooly Bear Caterpillar October 17, 2018

In the last week, I’ve seen almost 50 wooly bear caterpillars. These caterpillars are also known as “wooly caterpillar”, “bear caterpillar” and “wooly worms” (latin: phyrrhartica isabella). These fuzzy, brown and black caterpillars come out just as the weather grows cold. I often find hidding in woodpiles or garden mulch getting ready to hibernate till the spring. The cold seems to summon them forth–you see nothing of them all summer, and then, a few weeks before Samhain they are everywhere. And, dear readers, they are here with a message.

 

These caterpillars, not unlike other famous wildlife in the area, have long been known to predict the harshness of winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar has more brown than black, that means the winter is mild. But, if the caterpillar has more black than brown, the winter will be tough. Here’s a graphic I made to share this wooly bear caterpillar prognostication!

 

The more advanced version of this was taught to me by my grandfather, George Custer, who said that you can “read” the beginning and end of winter with the caterpillar. The brown and black do matter, but the more black at the beginning of the caterpillar, the harsher the beginning of winter will be. The more black at the back of the caterpillar, the more harsh the end of winter will be, and the more prolonged.

Here’s some live examples from photos I’ve taken over the last few years.  This wooly was from last year (and did, in fact, predict a terribly harsh and cold winter!)

 

 

This is a wooly I just found this year–I’m hoping this little guy is right and that winter will be mild and very pleasant!

 

There are stories about where this tradition originated and how it was popularized in the mid 1800’s (you can read more here). This particular folk tradition appears to exist all along the Appalachian mountains, anywhere that the caterpillar typically lives. And the wooly bear is not the only weather prognosticator in this region; we also have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog 45 minutes north of where I live who also does weather predictions about winter and the coming of spring.

 

I think that embracing these kinds of folk traditions is an important part of rewilding our druid and nature-based spiritual practices. These kinds of locally-based traditions get is more intune and aware of our surroundings.  And folk traditions, whether rooted or not in reality, have tremendous power.

 

Before modern weather prediction, humans relied on a large number of subtle cute from the land and clouds to know what kinds of weather was happening and what to expect both short term and throughout the winter.  Preparation for winter, effective preparation, was critical to survival.  Being able to read the land in this way was a skill that many people once had. I don’t think a lot of us realize how much we see without understanding.  A book ( Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty).  really helped illustrate just how much I didn’t know, and Gatty’s book is a great place to start regaining this lost wisdom.  Gatty shares a lot of information about how to read the landscape, the clouds, the trees, and so on to establish prevailing wind patterns, read the weather, and get from one place to another. His is a rather scientific and observational approach. I like to combine his approach with more esoteric approaches, like the wooly bear’s weather predictions. The combination of these things can help us be more aware and prepared in our environment.

 

The Wooly Caterpillar!

The Wooly Caterpillar!

 

I love seeing the wooly bear caterpillars this time of year. Yes, they say, winter is coming. And yes, you need to prepare. I think its great that they live in my woodpile–just what I need to be attending to before winter comes. I hope that you, dear readers, are settling in. The caterpillars tell me that winter will be fairly mild this year.

 

(I’d also be delighted to hear about other folk customs of similar animal/insect divinations if you have any to share!)

 

A Druid’s Guide to Herbalism, Part I:Harvesting by the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Sacred Intent October 14, 2018

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

Field of Goldenrod in Fall

A field of goldenrod, nettle, and aster greet me on this warm post- Fall Equinox day.  As the moon comes up with a sliver in the afternoon sky, I joyfully take my basket and harvest knife into the field for my fall plant preparations. The breeze has change on the air–winter is coming soon, and the sacred medicines I prepare will bring my family nourishment and strength for the coming dark half of the year. As we are well into the harvest season at this lovely Fall Equinox, I thought I’d take the time to talk about harvesting and preparation by the sun and moon and honoring the harvest. Next week, I’ll talk about the most basic plant preparations and we’ll end this series with talking about energetic preparations through the creation of flower and leaf essences.  That is, we’ll talk about the medicine of both the body and of the soul.

 

Wheel of the Sun, the Phase of the Moon, and the Turning of the Stars

With working with plant spirits, as we’ve been exploring in this series, we can do everything with sacred intent and awareness that plants aren’t just physical beings. This includes our planting, harvesting, and plant preparations. I have found that when I time my herbal practices by the wheel of the sun (harvesting and planting on sacred days, particularly Beltane, the Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain), these sacred times add a bit of magic to my plant preparations. Further, by working with the plants on these sacred days, I begin building a more rich and full wheel of the year practice focusing on medicine and healing. This means, that, over the years, I have special plants that I harvest at certain times of year, and part of my celebration of that sacred say includes harvesting plants. Some of these plants, like tobacco, are plants that I grow while others are wild plants that I have cultivated a relationship with over time. For example, Elder is one such plant: the Summer Solstice is “here” for me when elder is in bloom, and I will often make elderflower cordial on that day to enjoy throughout the year. When the Elder is ripe with fruit, Lughnasadh is here, and I make elderberry elixir for health and healing. These two plant preparations are not only critical to the health of my family throughout the year, but also help me mark and celebrate these holidays with something meaningful.  You might select a few plants to cultivate this kind of yearly relationship with.

 

Moon phases

Moon phases – the Land card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

The phases of the moon offer additional opportunities for sacred timing and herbal preparations. To me, there is little as enjoyable as going out under the full moon or dark moon to create a flower essence. There are two ways to use the phases of the moon: the simple way based only on moon phase, and the more complex way based on what planet astrologically the moon is in at that given time.  In terms of moon phases, preparing and harvesting at a new moon or during the waxing moon is good for when you want to bring healing into the body, strengthen the body, or offer nutrients to the body. The full moon  brings power to herbal creations and energizes them. A waning moon helps draw out or remove toxins, sickness, or other impurities.  If I want to work with removing sickness from the body, perhaps I start with a lunar flower essence of wormwood or walnut, created during the waning moon, and draw upon that energy to help remove sickness.

 

The turning wheel of the stars combined with the moon phase through astrology, offers yet a third possibility for harvesting and herbal preparation. This way is the most in-depth, but also perhaps, most powerful. This way to plant, harvest, and prepare herbal preparations by the phase of the moon is to use astrology, specifically, the moon sign. Each month, the moon spends about two days in each of the 12 astrological signs. The easiest way to know what phase the moon is in is to purchase a biodynamic calendar or a farmer’s almanac; both of these will offer this information. Generally speaking, here is what is important to know:

 

  • Water Signs (Cancer, Pisces, and Scorpio): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting leafy, above ground material for herbal preparations.
  • Earth Signs (Taurus, Capricorn, Virgo): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is a good time for harvesting and working with roots (below ground material) for herbal preparations.
  • Air signs (Aquarius, Gemini, Libra): When the moon is in one of these signs, it is considered fairly barren and dry.  Libra, however, is also associated with flowers, so flower harvests and preparations are appropriate under Libra. Otherwise, these signs should be avoided for plant preparations and harvest.
  • Fire Signs (Aries, Leo, Sagittarius): These signs are good “removal” signs, so good for weeding, but not very good for harvest (with the exception of the fourth quarter fire sign, this will be good for preservation).  Generally, you want to avoid harvesting under these signs.

 

These moon phases are fairly complex and can change on a daily basis; what I like about the biodynamic calendar and/or farmer’s almanac is that they spell it out for you on each day (and down to each minute). If you are practicing astrology, you wouldn’t need this kind of tool, but if you aren’t, it is very useful.

 

These are all tried and true methods for working with plants and also recognizing the many different ways in which sacred timing can be used to increase the potency of the plants. There are many opportunities to choose timing that best fits your purpose with herbal creations, and doing so adds a layer of sacredness to your actions.  Some of these systems may be contradictory (what if the moon is in a fire sign, but it is the Fall Equinox and you want to harvest?) so you need to pick your time and focus on the energy of that particular aspect.  I have found that the wheel of the sun has the most power, and if not, I will use a combination of the second two; or work hard to find the perfect moment where all three are in alignment (like 2 days before the fall equinox when the full moon is taurus for root harvest and preparation!) You don’t always get such amazing timing, but when you can, it makes the event more meaningful.

 

Honoring Spirit and Harvesting Plants

From an animistic perspective, when you harvest a plant or do any other kind of plant preparation, engaging in respect and honor is part of the necessary work. Part of this is because plants are lending you healing power through its actual body; in the case of root harvests, your harvest may end the life of that plant entirely. I believe that part of the sacred medicine of the plant is built into the relationship that you, as preparer, have with the plant itself.  In taking any part of a plant for healing purposes, and asking a plant to work for us, it is only right that we honor the plant spirit as part of our harvest.  We can harvest ethically and with sacred intent. So let’s talk about a few ways we might do this:

 

Honoring the plant. Prior to harvest, make an offering of some kind to the plant. This can be anything simple: a blend of herbs specially prepared (see my tobacco Beltane blend, for example), a song, music, drumming, a dance, a bit of your own liquid gold, a bit of your own energy, a small stone or other token.  Doing this ensures reciprocation between you and the plant, and lets the plant spirit know that you respect it. I belive this also makes the medicine stronger, as you are building a relationship of respect and mutuality with the plant. You might find, through inner listening, that the plant has a particular kind of offering it wants you to make–and different plants, just like other kinds of people, have a variety of different preferences.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

 

Harvesting for life. Harvest only what you need and think you’ll use.  For anything above the ground, harvest parts of plants or plants at the end of their life cycle, taking a small amounts.  For plants that are abundant, you can harvest more; for plants that are rare, harvest very little (or cultivate them further before harvesting anything at all). If you are doing a root harvest, make sure that your harvest will not damage the larger plant population.  I grow or wild cultivate nearly all of the plants I want to do a root harvest from, that way I am in control of exactly how many plants I have planted and how many I am going to harvest. I will not harvest from wild populations unless A) they are extraordinarily abundant and B) I have already worked to spread these populations further.  You can also consider doing plant or flower essences for plants that are extremely rare (Indian Ghost Pipe being a good example).

 

Cultivation and Relationship. Harvest and preparation are not one-shot events but rather, can be lifetime experiences rooted in a practice of nature spirituality. This means that these plants aren’t just a passerby you interact with once in a while, but can be strong plant allies and friends. Recently, I shared a post at Lughnasadh about how to cultivate long-standing relationships with plant spirits.  I used sacred tobacco (nicotiana rustica) as my example for this work and offered one strategy to do so.  The plant spirit posts I also recently shared offer more tools for this work.

 

That’s it for this week–during my next post, we’ll get into four different kinds of preparations you can make: drying herbs and teas, tinctures, infused oils and salves, and finally, plant essences.