The Druid's Garden

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

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Pandora’s Box and Tools for the Future March 3, 2019

The story of Pandora’s box has always been a favorite of mine, ever since I was little.  Pandora was so curious. She just had to open the box. She just had to. And when she did, she let out all the bad things in the world: suffering, pain, war, famine, pestilence, betrayal….but she also let out one good thing: she let out hope.

 

I think when we start talking about the present and the future of the world-its kind of like being inside Pandora’s Box. It seems that more and more reports come out, more and more news comes out, and the longer that things go on, we keep being surrounded by all the bad things. Ten or fifteen years ago, perhaps these things could be ignored.  But today, I don’t think there is any more time for that. The reports, like the recent National Climate Assessment, don’t often offer a lot of solutions, just a lot of facts about where we are and the harsh present and even harsher future we face. The reports, combined with global inaction on issues of critical importance, the backpedaling by world leaders to set hard limits on carbon emissions, to stave off ecological collapse–we are in that Pandora’s box, the box full of bad things. I’m teaching a sustainability studies class for the first time in five years, and even among the young, 18-22 aged population, there is a considerable shift.  When I taught a very similar course 5-7 years ago, students were upbeat and ready to engage.  When I’m teaching it this term, students are less empowered, more quiet and somber.

A variety of permaculture books

A variety of permaculture books

I think one of the most important things we can do as druids is maintain hope–hope about our own lives, hope about the future.  Today’s post offers some tools: thinking tools, processing tools, and tools that offer us new perspectives and ways of engaging with today–in a way that empowers us, that gives us ways to act, and helps us get into a better space about it all, rathe than being demoralized about the future. If you haven’t read earlier posts in this series, you might want to do so to see where we’ve come from and where we are heading: druidry for the 21st century, druidry in the Anthropocene, and psychopoming the anthropocene.

 

A Thinking Tool: Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern

A framework that I think is really important for druidry and other action in the age of the Anthropocene is the Sphere of Influence vs. the Sphere of Concern tool. This framework is adapted from the work Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I think its a *really* useful tool for personal empowerment and hope in the Anthropocene. The graphic below shows the difference between a person’s circle of concern (which could be global and long-term) vs. a person’s circle of influence (which is local and immediate).

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

Sphere of Influence vs. Concern

 

Your Sphere of Concern is what you are concerned about–and often, due to media and the Internet, this is often global. For all of the potential benefits that a globalized world may offer,  it creates an enormous sphere of concern, which given the world’s predicament, is psychologically really challenging.  News is almost always outside of our Sphere of Influence, but exposure to the news encourages us to have a huge Sphere of Concern.  We have very little power to leverage change in systems that are large and distant–cutting down of rainforests, the plight of polar bears or whales. This creates a sense of general disempowerment, which can lead to apathy or frustration.  However, before modern globalization, people mostly were concerned with what was around them.  News was local and quick, news from afar took a lot of time to arrive, if it arrived at all.  Local concerns were often able to be acted on by local people.  One’s sphere of concern was probably a lot smaller–likely, for many, within one’s sphere of influence.

 

Today, despite many of us having an enormous Sphere of Concern, we have a fairly limited Sphere of Influence.  A Sphere of influence is what you have power to control: and this usually revolves around the spaces we find ourselves in frequently: our homes, our daily lives, our workplaces, our communities, our local governments, our families, our spaces where we spend time.  When we are bombarded by news from Pandora’s box, we feel powerless because the things we want to change, the big things, are not really changable by individuals (they can be changed by collective action).

 

I think it’s really important to frame these things when we are talking about hope and change over time. This framework offers us a powerful thinking tool: recognizing the difference between our Sphere of Influence and our Sphere of Concern (and maybe, making modifications so that our Sphere of concern is closer to our sphere of influence–that which we can control).  I have found that using this framework helps give me a better sense of where I should invest my energy and time: in those things that I have influence over, in those things where my efforts will produce results.

 

 

A Feeling Tool: Giving Voice and Allowing Processing Time

As I shared in the first post on this series, the reality of the Anthropocene can be overwhelming, intimidating, or even cause distance and withdrawal, apathy. Joanna Macy’s beautiful work Coming Back to Life offers a lot of discussion of the importance of not letting ourselves get into an apathetic or disempowered state.  Apathy is the root of disengagement, and we need people in this day and age ready to engage and face some of these challenges.

Honoring all beings

Honoring all beings

Everything that is happening in the world, like climate change, is really hard.  I’d argue it’s doubly hard for druids who really love land because we hold the land sacred, and so much of it is under threat.  People have different emotional responses to what is happening, but one of the most common and destructive is apathy–trying not to feel, because feeling is too hard. Ignoring it, not letting ourselves feel.  Given this, if we are going to return to feeling things about the world and the future, we need good spaces to process our feelings, safe spaces.  We can do this in the context of our spiritual practices, like druidry.

 

Once we’ve dealt with some of these feelings, we can move forward with actions and empowerment–we can turn our own lives and influence the lives of others into creating the present and future we want to see.  We can offer hope.

 

Macy’s book offers a number of rituals for individuals and groups that allow us to give voice to feelings, to process our feelings, and allow us space to move forward.   One of her rituals which works particularly well in a druid setting is called the Council of All Beings.   Beings help us process and give voice to what is happening now.  This is a particularly powerful ritual where people prepare to speak on behalf of animals, plants, and natural features and give them voice, while others take turns listening as humans.

 

Another one of Macy’s rituals that we’ve adapted for druid ritual work is a 7 generations ritual.  People form two circles. The ones on the outside are today’s humans. The humans on the inside are future humans, 7 generations from now.  Today’s humans speak about everything they are concerned about; the future humans listen, and then, offer hope.  It is a very powerful way to process and think about what is happening now.

 

This kind of processing can also take place in the context of spiritual practice: talking through things with others, engaging in regular spiritual journaling, and discursive meditation are all ways that we can process emotions.

 

I think the key thing here is recognizing if we are going to be effective and productive, we need emotional processing tools–we need to recognize that these feelings are important and necessary, and we need to work with our emotions regularly.

 

 

An Action Tool: Permaculture

Now that we’ve considered thinking tools and emotional processing tools, we can come to tools for action. There are lots of tools out there that encourage us towards various kinds of action; my tool of choice is permaculture.  Permaculture offers a complete system of planning and action; it is a design system that teaches us to use nature, and work with nature, to regenerate and build ecosystems, gardens, and communities. Through three powerful ethics (people care, earth care, and fair share), design principles, and an emphasis on ecologically-rooted techniques, I think tools like permaculture can help us go from thinking about a problem to action.  One of the most important philosophies in permaculture is that humans can be a force for good (not just harm) and that we can always leave a piece of land in better shape than we’ve found it.

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

I’ve written pretty extensively about permaculture on this blog.  For an introduction to permaculture ethics, see here.  For the principles of permaculture, see here, here, and here.  For background on permaculture and ways of thinking about it, see here and here. .  For an example of how permaculture can be used in urban and suburban areas, see here, here and here.  For an example of a five-year permaculture design on my old homestead, see here.  Books I recommend are Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemingway and Rosemary Marrow’s Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture.  You can do a free online permaculture design certificate, which will immerse you in many good things, through https://openpermaculture.com/.  There are lots of other ways to learn–check it out!

Design of Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Design of Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

When I did my permaculture design certificate in 2015, which I did through Sowing Solutions at Sirius Ecovillage in Massachusetts, I had already been practicing permaculture for many years. The PDC helped me really leverage a lot of skills I picked up here and there into a cohesive whole and gave me the design skills to really plan and execute a variety of projects.  More importantly though, it empowered me.  It was probably one of the most empowering things I ever did.  It gave me hope, it gave me real tools, and it showed me that the solutions to many problems were right in my hands (the problem is the solution is a permaculture principle). If everyone practiced permaculture, we’d have a very, very different world.

 

Conclusion

The last few weeks have explored a lot of topics with regards to Druidry for the 21st century.  Not all of it has been particularly easy to digest or think about, but I think if we are going to practice nature spirituality in the age of the Anthropocene, it is necessary for us to have these kinds of conversations. I will keep returning to this topic throughout the year!  I hope this series has given you some food for thought, if nothing else–and some tools for empowerment and change.

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Psychopomping the Anthropocene February 24, 2019

As an animist druid, I recognize the spirit of all beings.  I honor and interact with the spirits in the land, in the trees, in the animals and birds, in the insects, in the rivers, in the mountains. Animals die, plants die, insects die. Their spirits live on.  In the Anthropocene, even mountains die, they are removed for mining activities all along the Appalachians and in many other places.  Rivers die, and have been dying for centuries as we fill them with refuse. In the Anthropocene, many things die. What happens to that mountain’s spirit when the mountain is gone? What is happening now to the millions of non-human lives that are dying because of human activity? That’s the question we focus on today–as part of my druidry for the 21st century series.  Earlier posts in this series include Druidry for the 21st Century and Druidry in the age of the Anthropocene.

 

As I shared in last week’s post, non-human life is dying at an incredibly alarming rate at this very moment–with almost 50% of all animal life dying in the last 50 years. One article discusses that while extinction is a natural process, extinction rates and die off rates are currently between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher. I think a good resource for this is to look at IUCN’s red list and see the 26,500 species threatened with extinction–these are species regularly losing regular numbers. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, it is expected to get much worse in the next decades. The mass amounts of death and extinction of non-human lives are not “natural”; they are directly the result of human activity.  This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible.  Not just for the actions that cause such death, but also, I would argue, for what happens to those spirits when they die.

 

The journey into spirit

The journey into spirit

Death is an inevitable part of life. Death is another journey, and some of us are called or choose to help spirits along that journey.  This work has many names, one of the most common being called “psychopomp” work. Psychopomp derives from the from Greek words “pompos” which means “guide  or “connector” and psyche which can be translated as “mind soul, life, or breath.” A psychopomp, then, is a guide of souls. Other names I have heard for this work include death midwifery, soul midwifery, deathwalking, death shamanism, to name a few.  Regardless of the term, this work has been a regular part of the healing, magical, and spiritual arts in nearly all cultures across the ages.  Many cultures recognize that humans with certain sets of skills do this work (such as a shaman or other religious leader), as do non-humans (deities, animal spirits, angels, and other such beings). In fact, it is very likely that this was work done by the Ovates in the time of the ancient druids, for they were described by various classical writers as working with spirits and the dead, along with herbalism, divination, and other kinds of healing arts.  They were also described by classical writes as “mastering the language of nature” which I believe comes into play into this kind of present 21st century ovate work.

 

This sacred practice of helping spirits pass is largely forgotten in mainstream consumerist life, however, it is still quietly practiced in many earth-centered, pagan, and new age spiritual traditions. Every person I have ever met who does this work does it for human souls. Human souls, of course, may often (but not always) need help crossing over. Humans are complicated, and when we die, our deaths may be complicated too. Many human get lost on their way across the veil. They may get stuck, they may die unexpectedly and need to process their death, they may have unfinished business that prevents them from leaving, and/or they often need assistance to find their path. Psychopomps are the shining beacons in that confusion, helping a wayward soul find his or her path to the next part of their journey.

 

But today, I’m not here to talk about human souls. You can learn about that kind of psychopomp work from many other sources. Today, I’m here to talk about non-human souls and the work we can do given this time, this age, and the present conditions.  I will also note that the rest of this post is entirely from my own experience, from the many years I’ve been quietly doing this work.  You can agree, disagree, or share your own experience–and I hope this blog can be a space for us to talk about it.

 

The cycle of life and death of animals, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, etc, has been going on as long as life in some form has existed on this planet.  Spirits of the land know how to handle their own deaths, and human psycopomps would not typically interact in that way in regular circumstances.  Think about a death in a forest: if an animal or plant dies, within a few days (or in the case of a tree, a few years) those nutrients are completely cycled back into the ecosystem.  I have always gotten the sense that this same process takes place on the level of spirit as well—the land cycls her own.

 

However, because we are in another extinction-level event, where the whole world is threatened, whatever happens typically to non-human souls is simply not enough. In the last few decades in particular, and with increasing frequency, a much larger number of souls began departing, with some of them being the very last of their kind.  Some non-human souls who pass are exhibiting many of the same characteristics that human souls who pass often exhibit: anger, confusion, being lost, being stuck, not wanting to go.  I don’t get the sense that this is “normal”, but rather, this is a product of the anthropocene. If a typical cycle of life and death is a gentle forest stream, right now, the stream is massively flooded well beyond its banks, causing erosion and destruction, and this spillage needs some attention. I think another way of framing what is happening is that spirits of these various species are experiencing new phenomena, a phenomena that their own natural paths and natural cycles are not adapted to. Anything can adapt over a long period of time; that is the nature of evolution.  But it is hard to adapt–for any species or spirit–to such frequent and intense change, the kinds of changes driven by relentless human activity in the Anthropocene.  And that is where the trouble seems to lie.

 

Trees

Trees

Before I get into some of the specific practices I’m going to suggest today for actual psychopomp work, I want to start by saying that each person has different spiritual gifts (a topic I explored before in this blog) and not everyone has the gift of spirit communication (although you can learn to do this over time).  The work I describe below is fairly advanced.  It requires you to have extremely good protection, practiced ways of spiritually cleansing yourself, a solid mental state (do not try this if you are mentally unbalanced, depressed, etc), and excellent self-cares trategies. It also requires you to have basic plant spirit communication and journeying skills.  Finally, it requires inner contacts (guides, deities, spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, etc) who will partner with you for this work; it is very necessary to have individuals on both sides.  This is a list of some of the many deities and guides that do this work; it might be that you are already connected to someone. Some people find themselves drawn to this work intuitively, and for others, they may seek out training, books, teachers and other such resources.  I think like anything else, it is a skill you can learn to do, and do well, if you dedicate yourself to it. There are plenty of options out there to learn, and I can share some of the best.  I can also direct you to some of the basic skills that you need to do this work: spirit communication and journeying skills being most central. This page provides a good list of books for more information, for those who want to read more and understand.  I also want to stress that this work is not for everyone: there are many other kinds of work we can do in the Anthropocene. I think each of us should do something, but that something should be tied to our gifts and own journey.

 

So to get into the psychopomp work, I’m going to share a few examples to help illustrate some of what I understand to be the basic principles. Again, these are my own experiences; yours may be very different (and if you feel led to share, please do so in the comments–sharing is important at this stage, as we can build our knowledge and help the land in this way).

 

I remember the year the Christmas trees came.  Thousands of them, just after the holiday rush was over. They waited for me, patiently, planting themselves all over my property. I went out and walked among them. They wanted to understand why they had been cut and left to die. These trees, I realized, had never found themselves in the center of the family home and hearth adorned with gifts. Or if they had, once their use was over, they were unceremoniously thrown on the curb without so much as a thanks. They wanted to understand, needed to understand, what had happened and why.  Their whole lives–and deaths–were wrapped up in a cycle they did not understand, and they had to understand it in order to pass. I thought it was a fair question.  And so I showed them; I talked to them about humans and human life today. I invited representatives to join me for a few days in the world, to see how humans think and what they do, and I shared a human perspective. The representatives asked questions, and eventually, they were satisfied. They understood, after seeing me interact with humans and with my translation and explanations, that humans didn’t realize they had spirits. That humans didn’t realize that they were anything other than objects.  I apologized on behalf of all humans who did not understand. This seemed to appease them. When I felt the time was right, about two weeks after they arrived, I opened up a sacred grove in my outdoor grove.  I built a fire and, with the aid of my own spirit guides, helped open a gateway for them to pass. They went through it, one at a time.  It took a very, very long time.  Finally, they were all through.  Afterwards, I got the sense that that work was done, and now, others could pass.  Not through that specific gateway, which we closed at the end of the ceremony, but through their own means. Afterwards, I also did extensive cleansing and self-care; as the energies of the dead are not to be worked with lightly.

 

I’ve always been connected deeply with trees, and have long done this kind of work for forests who were logged. One forest, however, in particular stands out. It was a section of forest that I had spent time in; it was a wild place that, when I was a child, I would often go into with my parents. Maybe eight years ago now, the township decided that their industrial park was going right in the middle of that beautiful forest. They cleared giant swaths of it, put in infrastructure, and there, it sat.  Empty. I drove through it soon after it happened, and I felt such incredible sorrow, such loss, such anger and frustration. The spirits of the trees, of that land, of the animals who died, of insects whose lives were over, crowded up around me and demanded to understand why this had been done. Again, I asked them to choose a representative, which ended up being a spirit of a red maple. First, I sat in the forest for a long time, observing, singing to them, simply honoring them and letting them know that I was there, I was not alone (I describe many such practices in my earlier land healing series in the work of witnessing and apology). I walked along that recently cut land, and I found a piece of wood that had been cut, part of a stump.  I took it with me, along with some other materials, and made them into a piece of art honoring that forest. The artwork and use of the wood in a spiritual way seemed to appease the spirits. But, they still had questions.  Their representative went with me, learned what he needed to learn, and then we returned together to that place.  I did a ceremony for them (similar to the one I described above) and helped them move on.  After that, when I passed other logged sites near there, I got the sense that the spirits were once again taking care of their own work in those kinds of cases.  I was welcome to help, but I wasn’t necessary for me to do the deep work I did with this forest.

 

Former life....

Former life….

On one otherwise ordinary work day when I was working from home, I suddenly sensed a very angry presence. Opening up my spiritual eyes, I saw an entire tribe of lions.  They were angry, they were thrashing about. They could see me, and I could see them.  As their eyes bored into me, I felt almost like prey.  They demanded answers, and they were going to get them. I set my work aside, and told them I would speak with them, but only if they backed off and calmed down.  They left, and I thought that was that, that since I wasn’t feeding into their anger, they were going to go somewhere else.  But, a few hours later, they were back. I asked them about who they were, where they had come from.  They had been poached, they were the last of their tribe in any land as far as they were aware.  I simply listened,  acknowledged their hurt, and apologized for their suffering and deaths. As is the way of things, I invited a representative to come with me for a few days, to better understand the way that humans lived. To see. To understand.  In time, they were satisfied.  I did a similar ceremony to those I had done before: opening up a sacred grove, making an offering, inviting any final conversation, working with my guides to open up a gateway, inviting the spirits to pass through the gateway, and then carefully closing the gateway and space.  Again, afterwards, I did lots of spiritual self care, cleansing.

 

After a number of these experiences, I realized I needed a permanent space on my land where I could properly honor these spirits.  So I did that–creating a shrine that I used to “honor the fallen” and as any spirit interacted with me in this way, I would put a representation of them on the shrine.  When I moved to new land, I took a stone with me from that shrine and took the rest deep into the woods, to lay at peace.  The stone is now the start of my new shrine on our new land here.  I do not photograph these shrines out of respect for the dead, but they are like many others I’ve talked about on this blog: full of natural things and regularly honored. This shrine helps me honor them, to hold them in my memory.  I wrote about them, researched them, and told them that while I lived, they would not be forgotten.  With these words I write, this holds even more true, because they now live in more than just me, they live in you.

 

The Ovate Psychopomp

These examples are fairly consistent with my larger practices surrounding what I now understand to be some of the Ovate work of the Anthropocene, at least from my own perspective and experience.  So what is the nature of this work? We’ll now explore it from two perspectives: first, what I call “prerequisites”, i.e. the things you need to bring to the table to do the work.  And second, the things you do surrounding the work itself.

Prerequisites

The first prerequisite is being open to working in this way.  You have to be willing to see, be willing to acknowledge, and spend the necessary time and energy to do this work. If you aren’t open to it, they are never going to come to you, or you aren’t going to do them justice.  Some people probably read this and know this work isn’t for them, and to that I say, good!  I’m sure some other work is out there that is better well suited for you–like physically regenerating the land, teaching humans to honor nature, fighting to protect forests, fighting for environmental rights, etc.

 

Second, as I mentioned above, it requires some advanced gifts and skills: spirit communication, spirit sight, and solid practices surrounding protection and self-care.  It might be that you aren’t ready to do this till you’ve been walking the path for a number of years–and that’s ok.  I don’t recommend that any new person take this on.

 

Third, you must have guides, spirits, and/or deities working with you.  You need to have those you can trust in the spirit world for this kind of work; both for your own safety but also because this work seems to require it as a balance.  You are helping a spirit move from corporeal life to non-corporeal life, and that requires both someone who is corporeal and someone who is not to do it properly.

 

 

Cultivating connection

Cultivating connection

Fourth, you have to find balance and practice good self care and spiritual cleansing. This is true for everything we do, but especially true for this kind of deep work.  The energies of the dead are not good for the living long term (and if you’ve ever tended a dying person, you’ll know exactly what I mean).  I don’t do this work every day; I do it as necessary, and as individuals or groups of spirits come to me.  I can always refuse to do it if I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind–which I have done more than once.  Don’t let the dead stay near you for long periods of time.  They must pass, and you must find your way into self care and balance and embrace the energies of life.

 

Fifth, you will always have the gratitude of the spirits who pass, however, understand that this is quiet work.  Its work you do on your own, that you don’t typically talk about, and other humans have no idea.  That’s ok, the work isn’t for them.  But if you are someone who needs regular validation from human others, this is probably not for you.  This work is never about you.

 

Finally, a lot of people who I’ve spoken with who have gotten into this work one way or another had almost had some close experience with death, some way that helps them better understand it.  These experiences may have been having a very special person (human or otherwise) die, tending a dying relative, having a brush with death themselves.  Its not always the case, but does seem to be something that a lot of folks have.  I think that experience opens up something within you that then can be used to help others.

 

The Work Itself

Given the above, we now turn to some of the core aspects of psychopomping in the Anthropocene, as I understand it.  They are:

 

One, being open.  If you are doing this work regularly, somehow, the spirits sense it, and somehow they know. Its like you have an “open for business” sign up on the astral plane. Even if it’s just a self acknowledgement that you are willing to do this work, they will come once you are open.

 

Second, being ready to do the work of apology. Humans all over this planet are doing awful things and are causing the genocide of many, many lives and species. Why would these spirits of the recently departed trust a human?  Because you are acknowledging what is happening, you are compassionate, you can offer them perspective, and most of all–you can offer them a true and heartfelt apology.  Acknowledgement and an apology is all that many need to move on.

 

Third, being ready to explain things from a human perspective. This seems to be very, very helpful for many spirits who are dying in the age of the Anthropocene. They want to know why things are happening, and their minds cannot understand human behavior without your help.  And so my basic strategy is to let them tag along for a few days as I’m out and about in the world, explaining to them what they see, answering their questions. This has always led to success, at least in those I’ve interacted with.

 

Fourth, ritually helping them move on, if they need you to (often, I offer, and not all of them accept or need me to help).  I have my specific techniques, which I have shared above through stories, and which I do in the context of druidry.  Some of my techniques are unique to me, some of them would likely work for others. I would suggest learning what will work for you directly from a spirit, guide, or deity that you work with who is on the other side.  For me, I use music, fire, natural gateways, and other such things to help them pass.  These techniques were all taught to me by spirit, so I don’t know how translatable they are to others.

 

Finally, practicing extreme self care. This is not easy work; it can be rewarding but also very draining.  You have to take care of yourself, you can’t do too much of it, and you need to make sure to spiritually cleanse carefully after doing anything like this.  I like to do a herbal vinegar bath: I take a few tablespoons of infused herbal vinegar and add it to my bath and scrub myself all over.  I infuse it with plants that are significant to me personally and that are personal plant allies.  For a general blend, I would suggest sage, mugwort, rosemary, bay, lemon balm, and/or hawthorn.  You can simply throw handfuls of dried herbs into a quart jar, fill it with vinegar, and then have it available when you need a cleansing bath.  In addition to the bath, make sure you take time to do what fulfills you most–and let nature heal you!  For me, spending a lot of time gardening (working with the energies of life), being in healed and whole natural places, and working in my art studio are the ways I heal from this work.

 

There’s a lot here to process, and I hope it is of use to some of you who feel led to do this work.  I never thought I would write this post or talk about this in such a public way, but spirit said otherwise! If you are doing this work, please share if you are willing; I’d very much want to hear others’ experiences.  If you aren’t doing this yet but would like to, feel free to reach out!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Druidry in the Anthropocene February 17, 2019

Druidry is rooted in relationship and connection with the living earth: the physical landscape and all her plants and creatures, the spirits of nature, the allies of hoof and claw, fin and feather. The land and her spirits are our primary allies and energies with which we work as druids. The question I keep coming back to is this: how do I practice a nature-centered path in a time when nature–those of the hooves, fins, feathers, and claws–are going extinct and dying all around me? How do I practice druidry when everything that I hold sacred and love  is under severe threat, and when it is likely that in my lifetime, I will witness severe ecological collapse in multiple ecosystems.  How do I practice druidry with my “eyes open” to all of this, and honor nature in this great extinction event, and still say sane? How do I do this “druid” thing, given these challenges?

 

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

Druidry in the 21st century is a complex topic, and I’ve been trying to work my way into it in different ways on this blog. I started this by thinking about how druidry offers coping mechanisms for those of us faced with the many challenges of our age: that is druidry offers refuge in dark times. I think it’s critically important to acknowledge that first and foremost, we need self care to do it well.  While all humans need self care in these dark times, our spiritual relationship with nature requires it. I followed this up with a post about the future of human civilization (Druidry for the 21st century) and made the argument that one way druidry may serve the future is through developing and providing paradigms and mindset shifts.  The idea that druidry is the seed of something different; that druidry offers us new paradigms and hope; paradigms to replace the thought processes and civic ideals currently driving post-industrial civilization to the brink of global collapse.  These are two useful responses, but they certainly aren’t the end of this conversation–not by a long shot.  So today’s question is a serious one: What can druids do about what is happening to all of nature now and what will continue to happen in the foreseeable future?

 

Today, then, I’m going to talk about death.  I’m going to talk about nature and relationship, and I’m going to talk about extinction. Maybe you want to stop reading at the words “death” and “extinction”; these are things we don’t talk about.  These are things our media refuses to cover. These are things overwhelming to even well meaning people, people who love the land, people like you and me. These are things that bring tears to my eyes when I read them or think about them.  But it is necessary that we honor and acknowledge those parts of nature that are no longer with us; that are dying and may never return because of human indulgence. To avert the eyes is essentially allowing a loved one to suffer alone.  If your grandmother were dying in a hospital, would you ignore her, or would you go visit her? (For more on my idea of “palliative care” and why witnessing is so important, see here and here).  If your sacred companion on the druid path–nature–is suffering and dying, can you really pretend everything is ok? I don’t think I can just go into my woods and do some woo-woo and get healed by nature and call that druidry.  Druidry is not a one-sided relationship.  If we want to gain our strength, wisdom, peace, and healing from nature, we must also offer something in return. I believe that now–in the 21st century, in the Anthropocene, nature needs us just as much as we need her.

 

The Hard Stuff

So let’s start with the hard stuff. Scientists are clear that the world’s sixth extinction-level event is underway. “Biological annihilation” is the phrase used to describe what is happening–since 1970, at least half of the world’s animals are gone. That means that we had twice as many animals living on this planet in 1970 than we do today. This isn’t some far-off future prediction. It has already happened. It is continuing to happen as you read this. It has happened in the time that you have been present on this earth. Here’s a list of the “recently extinct” species–those who have gone extinct primarily since industrialization. There are many more who are not on this list because they weren’t discovered or documented before going extinct. A 2017 study, examined 27,600 land species and found that all species were showing huge amounts of population loss, even among species of the “lowest concern” with regards to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s guidelines (which sets guidelines for endangered species).  This study suggests that 80% the traditional territories of land mammals have been eradicated, making way for cities, people and shopping malls–this is the “biological annihilation” that they speak of.  The study also indicates that this trend will likely increase in the next two decades with the rise in population and continued rising demands on the earth. Another piece of this comes from the work of Bernie Krause, who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra (which I discussed a few years ago on this blog).  Krause’s work focused on recording nature sounds, and he demonstrates that the sounds of nature are simply vanishing, along with the life and species.  These issues are also not limited to vertebrate species–another study, released in October, showed a 75% decline in insects in protected ecological areas in Germany.  The problem isn’t that change is happening; the problem is that it is happening so quickly that natural evolutionary processes (processes that allow species migrations and adaptations) cannot occur.  And so, how do we honor those animals, plants, insects, trees, amphibians, reptiles and so forth that have passed, many unnoticed?

 

One more piece here, that I think is critical to consider. All ecosystems have what is called a “carrying capacity.” That is, given the resources available (sunlight, soil, plant matter, water, weather, etc) the land can reasonably sustain so many lives of different kinds: so much insect life, so much plant life, so much animal life, so much human life.  Ecological collapse refers to when an ecosystem suffers a drastically reduced carrying capacity–that is, the ecosystem can no longer support the life it used to because of one or more serious factors.  These factors are usually compounded and may include the loss of a keystone species, general pollution or degradation, deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, you name it.  Its like a domino effect–sometimes, all it takes is one core species to go.  Climate scientists call this the tipping point–think of it like a chair.  The chair is being held at 45 degrees, and just a fraction more, and it will crash.  It is almost certain that we are heading into a nose dive of ecological collapse.  Ecological collapse doesn’t just affect all of nature–it affects humans too.  So while we should care about even one life, a single species, we also need to be concerned deeply for all life.  This will happen in our lives–how do we spiritually prepare to support nature when it does?

 

Now, put this in context. While we practice druidry, while we enjoy nature’s benefits and her healing, this is happening. When we are honoring nature, celebrating the wheel of the seasons, this is happening. Its happening in every moment of every day. This is part of our reality, as nature-honoring people.  Given that this is the reality, responding to this should also be part of our druid practice.

 

Exoteric / Outer Works: Refugia

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

Druidry is about nature and relationship.  Its about your relationship with nature both exoterically (that is, in the material world) and esoterically (that is, in the world of spirit).  In the case of this information, I think it’s really important that we develop a range of responses, both esoteric and exoteric.  In terms of the outer world, I’ve long advocated on this blog a very wide variety of things that can aid the land in healing, regeneration, and growth.  I think that each of us can do something, and that something varies based on our life circumstances.  All of us can attend to our ecological footprint, consumption behaviors, transit, energy use, and all of the usual things.  I think that’s part of just being a druid–living your practice.

 

To be more specific to the material above, however, I’ll share what I consider to be my key method for responding this kind of extinction level event: building refugia. Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader changes that destroyed most habitats. Pielou describes specific isolated pockets of life that survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so forth, while the rest of the land was covered in ice. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America stripped bare by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions. In the 21st century, in the time of human-dominated land use, things are not as different as you might think from our glaciated pre-history. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can be found in the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation in the US or the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland in the US. Many areas that aren’t lawns or farmlands are subject to other kinds of stresses that create inhospitable lands: pollution, resource extraction, deforestation, and so on.  Refugia allow us to create small pockets of biodiversity–which is going to really, really matter in the next 20-30 years.

 

Refugia are all about individual action.  While no average person has control over what much of what is happening in the world around us, even in the landscape around us locally, we can create refuges for life. Refugia are small spaces of intense biodiversity, critically important during this time of mass extinction and habitat loss. Cultivating refugia allows us to put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands. That is, refugia is that they are little arks of life, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again. A network of refugia created by 21st century druids may be the difference between extinction and thriving for many diverse species.  What you do can make an incredible difference–it could save a species.  I have written more about how to create a refugia garden here and here!

 

Esoteric / Inner Works: Honoring the Fallen through Ritual, Shrine, and Sound

Given the state of nature and that we practice a nature-oriented spiritual practice, I think it is necessary to directly honor the massive loss of such life through rituals, shrines, moments of silence, psychopomp work, and other practices.  I would argue that this work should be a regular part of our practices as druids. I’m going to share two ideas here, and next week, I offer a larger set of suggestions on psycopomp work for the animals and the land.

 

Ringing the Bell/Sounding the Bowl

After reading the Great Animal Orchestra, I thought it would be very appropriate to honor the loss of life through sound.  Since we are missing the sounds of that life, and the world is growing silent (or replaced by human sounds), I wanted to create space in my rituals to honor the loss of life.  There are lots of ways you might do this, here is mine:

 

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

Anytime I open a sacred grove to do ritual, I have begun with a simple sound ritual to honor the life that has passed.  I have a small singing bowl, and I go to each of the quarters and ring the bell in each direction.  Sometimes I do this silently, and sometimes I say some simple words, like “honoring those who have passed on in the east.”  I allow the bowl to resonate until it is completely quiet again, and then move on to the next direction.  I’ve found for typical OBOD or AODA grove openings, this is best done just after declaring peace in the quarters.

 

You don’t have to do this in ritual; you can do it anytime.  I like doing it in ritual because it is in ritual that I’m drawing upon the land and her energies, and I want to honor and acknowledge the suffering of the land before I ask for anything else (that’s why I do it early in the ritual rather than after I’ve called the quarters and established the space).

 

Honoring the Fallen Shrine

I also maintain two shrines–an indoor shrine and an outdoor shrine–to honor the many lives that have passed.  I often will do my sound ritual above and leave small offerings (like my offering blend).  These shrines are simple–a pile of stones outside on a stump, I add bones and other things as I find them on my walks.  Indoors, I have smudges I make special for this shrine, usually of rosemary (for remembrance), bay laurel (for passage), white cedar (for eternal life), and white pine (for peace) and I burn these regularly.  I sometimes print out pictures of animals or other species, and add other things of significance.  Like most things, it is the intention of this shrine that is critical.

 

Council of All Beings and Other Rituals

At least once a year, if not more frequently, I also like to engage in ritual (group or solo) to directly honor and support the land.  One of my favorite things to do with this comes from the work of Joanna Macy (who has many great ideas for group rituals and group healing and processing of what is happening now).  She has a ritual called the Council of All Beings (the link will take you directly to the ritual).  I like this ritual because it allows us to give voice to those who do not normally have it, and it helps all participants get into a frame of mine that acknowledges and honors other life’s suffering. I think its important to engage with this not only for ourselves, but with others–talking about it, sharing what we do, and working on doing some things together.

 

I also think that general land healing and blessing ceremonies are useful and important to do regularly and help energetically support the land and her spirits during this time. I wrote a series on land healing; this final post links to all others.

 

There’s so much more to write and say here, but alas, I think this post is long enough.  Dear readers, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts–how do you answer the many questions I’ve posed in this post?  I would love to hear your ideas and stories.

 

A Seed Starting Ritual for Nourishment, Connection, and Relationship February 10, 2019

All of the potential and possibility of the world is present in a single seed.  That seed has the ability to grow, to flourish, to produce fruit and flowers, to offer nutrition, magic, and strength.  Seed starting offers us a chance to connect deeply with the seeds we plant, and to , from the very beginning, establish and maintain sacred relationships with our plant allies. Seed starting is a truely magical druidic practice, and in today’s post, I want to talk a bit about the magic of seed staring and share a simple ritual that you can do to bless your seeds as you plant them. Some of my earlier posts on seed starting can be found here (a general philosophy of seeds from a druidic perspective) and here (recycled materials for seed starting).

 

Seeds coming up!

Seeds coming up!

One of the most important parts of a druid practice, in my opinion, is integrating sacred activities into everyday life. I think working to live our regular lives in a sacred manner is one of the ways we can stay balanced, happy, and connected in an otherwise unbalanced world.  But I also think that this is part of what living druidry is all about–finding sacred moments, sharing them, understanding that each moment can have its own kind of sacredness. This is important in each aspect of our lives, but certainly, in activities that tie us directly to other kinds of life and allow us to interact with other cycles of life.  To me, there is nothing more sacred than starting seeds. And while this may be considered a “mundane” activity to some, to me, it is an incredibly sacred one. Because the seeds we will start are such a blessing to so many, and are part of the sacred cycle of nature, I think its critical to honor them and support them on the journey that they will take from seed to harvest.

 

Connection, Nourishment, and Relationships: What Seeds Offer

This is the time of year for starting seeds. Right now, we are just over 14 weeks out from our last frost date, and the first of our seeds are being started this upcoming week on the full moon, these include our greenhouse seeds (kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula), our alliums, and some slow-growing herbs (rosemary, lavender, white sage). These seeds will feed us, nourish us, and in the case of the white sage, rosemary, and lavender, also be used for sacred offering blends, smudge stick making, rituals here on our land, and other sacred activities surrounding our druid practices.

 

Last year, the white sage and lavender we grew from seed ended up being shared with members of the grove and other friends, mostly in the form of incenses and smudges.  It continues to be offered in our rituals, both individual and grove.  Last year, the vegetables we grew ended up with over 10 families, as well as in our bellies and the bellies of our animals here on the land. So part of the magic of starting these particular seeds is the magic of community, togetherness, and sharing.  I think that happens a lot when we grow things–we end up sharing the abundance.  The plants give and give to us, and it is only right that we give back to them.  One of the ways we can give back is do rituals that offer them the same thing they offer us: physical nourishment and metaphysical energy.

 

Alium going to seed, Summer 2013

Allium going to seed, Summer 2013

 

But there’s another piece of this too–seed starting is about relationships: establishing relationship with new lines of seeds, or, maintaining relationships with saved seed over a period of time.  Some of these seeds we are starting this week are brand new to me and have entered my life for the first time.  That is, we purchased them from organic seed companies or small sellers. These seeds should be welcomed and honored as friends.  But some of these seeds have been with me for a long time.  One of the alliums I am planing, a Long Red Florence onion, has been with me quite a while.  In fact, if you are a long-term reader of this blog, this isn’t the first time I’ve shown the photo to the right.  I began planting this seed in 2012, and I am planting the seeds of this particular onion’s offspring today.  A seed planting ritual, then, should also connect you deeply with the plants–both those who are brand new, and those who you have cultivated relationships with over time.  And so, a good seed starting ritual should be about establishing and maintaining relationships.

 

Relationships with perennials and annuals are a bit different, and I want to talk about that difference briefly here, as it has very direct relevance on the rituals I’ll share today.  Annuals, in a lot of cases, particularly in cultivated varieties that are not native or naturalized to your region, depend on you for continuing to grow.  It is rare for a lot of plants to come back (or they will come back at the wrong time, like a rotted tomato that dropped to the ground and then starts sending up babies from the sprouts 2 weeks before frost!)  These plants, due to their long cultivation by humans, need us.  Perennials need us too, but in that case, its more to visit, to honor them, to continue to make sure they have what they need to grow.  In either case though, we are talking about interdependency.

 

So from the above, we have four key pieces to a good seed starting ritual: physical nourishment, energy, relationship, and interdependency.  Let’s now take a look at some options for how you can build this into an existing seed starting practice.

 

Seed Starting Rituals

With most rituals, particularly in the druid context (where we don’t have hardly any ancient traditions to go back to), the intentions are what matter most.  You can do a lot of different things to get at the four points above, and you can do different things that go from very simple to fairly elaborate in terms of ritual.  I’m going to offer a few options, but these are by no means the only options you have before you!  But I think the key thing is to think about the principles above:  nourishment, relationship, energy, and interdependency.  Here’s what I like to do:

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Assemble all of your supplies. Before you start, assemble your supplies: potting soil, pots, seeds, a work area, and so on. Put your potting soil or any other nutrients (like coffee grounds, great for seed starting) in your work area.  Have a bucket or potting tray ready to mix.  Also have labels available and anything else you will need, like a small hand shovel, etc.

 

The Elemental Seed Starting Ritual.  

For this ritual, you’ll need something to offer the seeds from each of the five core elements: earth, fire, water, air, and spirit.

  • For earth, you can offer a good potting mix rich with nutrients, the most obvious thing for planting seeds.  If you can, grab a little bit of the soil that last year’s plants were grown in. As part of the ritual, you will mix the soil with nutrients and your own energy, so don’t fill up your pots in advance.
  • For Air, you have your own breath, which is better than anything else.  You can have incense, feathers, or other air-focused elements to supplement, of course.
  • For water, you can offer standard pure water, or, if you are particularly ambitious and want to build tremendous relationship and interdependency, offer a 90% water and 10% of your own urine in a mix.  I know this sounds crazy, but read my blog post here.  Its pretty simple–your urine is very high in nitrogen, which is one of the core building blocks for all plant life. Your waste product is their life–just as their waste product, oxygen, is yours.  Using your own urine puts you in a direct interdependent relationship that frankly, few other things, can do.  I usually have a pot of pure water for mixing and then the urine/water dilution for watering afterward.
  • For fire, you may use any representation of fire; if the sun is shining, I like to bring the seeds into the sun. If not, I like to have candles available.
  • For spirit, I prefer to use an herbal offering that I grew or some other spiritual offering. Anything you’d typically use as an offering will do.

 

A few notes before I describe the ritual:  You can start your seeds all at once, or you can start each different seed type one at a time, using the appropriate elements as needed.  What I’ve offered is just a suggestion of what you can do for the seeds; please feel free to adjust and add your own creativity into this ritual!

 

Establish a Sacred Grove or Sacred Space.   Many druid traditions, including OBOD and AODA, offer clear instructions for how to establish a sacred grove.  (I described one version of a sacred grove in a recent post on herbalism).  I like to start my seeds in a sacred grove, as a sacred grove in my tradition sets intentions for sacred work.  This helps with both energy and relationship. And so, before beginning to plant, I will establish a sacred grove.  While you don’t have to do this, I recommend it.

 

The Work of Earth: Mix your potting soil.  Begin by putting your potting soil, nutrients, coffee grounds, peat moss, whatever you are using as your typical seed starting mix in a potting tray or bucket.  Even if you are using a completely store bought mix, go ahead and put it in the bucket.  Begin mixing the materials together, and as you do, envision some of your own energy going into the soil.

 

As you mix, you might want to chant or sing.  I prefer to chant the ogham for Oak (strength, stability): Duir (doo-er).  So I will mix and chant.  It is  much easier to seed start with wet soil, so after I chant, I will add some pure water to my mix and mix it all well before putting my soil in the trays.

 

Put your soil in the trays.  As you do so, continue to chant.

 

Establishing and Maintaining Relationship through Planting Your Seeds. Hold your seeds in your hand for a moment, and connect with the spirit of the seed.  Welcome any new seeds.  For those who you already have a relationship with, tell them you are glad to see them.  Pause for a moment to see if the seeds have anything to share with you.  Then, plant each one.  As you plant, sing or chant.  I like to chant the Ogham for birch here (Beith) for new beginnings.  Once you are finished, say “My energy supports you, as you will support me. May the great soil web of life bring you strength.”

 

The Work of Air.  Label your seeds.  As you label, continue to chant Beith or offer other air blessings.  When you are done labeling, blow softly over each of the pots of seeds.  Say, “My outbreath is your inbreath, your breath is my life. May the blessings of the air sustain you.”

 

The Work of Water.  Take your pure water or urine dilution, and sing or chant as you water each plant.  I like to chant the ogham Willow here (Sallie) while I am watering.  After watering say, “My nutrients feed you, as you will feed me.  May the power of the water nourish you.”

 

The Work of Fire.  Sing or chant the ogham for Fir/Pine (Alim) (Aye-lim) and hold up the pots to the sunlight.  Alternatively, move a candle around the pots.  Say, “May the fire of the sun let you grow.”

 

The Work of Spirit.  Sing or chant the ogham for Apple (Quert) (or another ogham as you choose).  As you do this, sprinkle an offering lightly over the pots.  When you are finished say, “My offering today, for your offering tomorrow. May the Nwyfre flow through you.”

 

Additions: Singing and Drumming.  At this point, feel free to do anything else you like.  I like to drum or play my panflute a little for the seeds in a welcome and to raise good energy for them.

 

Close the space. When you are finished, thank the spirits and close out your sacred grove.

 

Trays of small plants from seed!

Trays of small plants from seed!

Final Thoughts

While it seems like a lot above, the ritual is actually quite simple.  I’ve used the energy of the Ogham, of sacred trees, and of sacred chanting to do the work of connecting to each of the elements.  But you could connect with them in any way you want, or replace what I’ve done with other sources of power that you work with (such as deity, etc).

 

If you have any other ideas for sacred seed starting, or if you have things you’ve done in the past, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!  Thank you for reading and blessings of the seeds!

 

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.