The Druid's Garden

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

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part IV: Slow Movements and Slow Spirituality March 12, 2017

When I lived in Michigan, each Christmas, a local church just down the road from me put on a drive-by nativity scene. Cars full of people would line up for over half a mile and drive around this circular loop surrounding the church, where church members dressed up and enacted various kinds of nativity scenes.  I’m sure from the perspective of the church (who, clearly, invested a lot of time and resources, taking weeks to build the sets in the bitter cold in the time leading up to the event), it was a way to reach people who might otherwise not come through the church doors.  This same church also offered “speedy sermons” and other “quick” ways of getting busy people in the door. The idea behind these different initiatives was reaching out to people who were otherwise too busy to come to church–a reasonable and rather creative thing to do, given the time crunch everyone seems to be in these days. But for all that was gained (new members, new donations, etc) what was lost in the process of converting religion into a drive-through experience? Of course, just like the burger at McDonald’s vs. the burger you grill at home with time and care, there are likely some big differences not only in taste but also in presentation, nutrition, and energy.

 

In my last three posts in “Slowing Down the Druid Way”, we explored the history of time and our relationship to our working hours, and how we might begin to honor our time more fully.  This directly leads me to the topic of my final post on time and work: looking at the slow movements as a way of slowing down, making slowing down a conscious choice, and embracing leisure time.

 

The “Slow” Movements

The term “slow” has been increasingly used to describe many of the movements connected to sustainable living: you might have heard of slow food (as opposed to fast food or industrialized food) or slow money (in terms of investing, saving, and spending and in opposition to current derivatives/investment market).  We now also have slow schools, slow books, and even (in my own field) discussion of slow writing! The slow movement has, in fact, been around since the 1980’s; it was started by Carlo Petrini, who protested the opening of the “fast” food joint, McDonalds, in Rome, Italy. Since then, the movement has spread and deepened, connecting now to all aspects of life: travel, food, parenting, education, working, gardening, and more. Of course, you won’t see any discussion of this movement in mainstream culture–mainstream culture, here in the US, is focused on the idea that more and faster is better, and that kind of thinking takes some time to overcome.

 

A good slowing down spot!

A good slowing down spot!

The slow movements suggest that we are all the victims of “time poverty” and the slow movements are deliberate attempts by people to live at a reasonable pace (rather than a frantic one).  But these movements are more than just about slowing down–they recognize inherently that the faster we move, the fewer connections we make: with ourselves, with each other, with our creative gifts, and with the world as a whole.  So let’s now explore some of these slow movements and what they provide.

 

Nature Spirituality and Slow Spirituality

I’m going to start by introducing my own kind of “slow” movement: slow spirituality.  Cultivating a deeper relationship with time is certainly a principle that seems inherent in the druid traditions and in related nature-spiritual traditions. Anyone following the wheel of the year is certainly concerned a tremendous amount with time: the eight holidays on the wheel of the year are all about timing and the sun and it’s slow movement across the sky.  The phases of the moon reflect this on a monthly cycle. We focus on the interplay of light and dark, the slow changing of the seasons, the minute changes from day to day of weather patterns.  All of this takes observation and interaction with nature and a lot of time dedicated to understanding this larger cycle of the seasons.  Sure, there are ways of going about these practices that are “fast”, but moving fast means you miss most of the important pieces. In the AODA, for example, we ask that all members spend weekly time in nature, daily time in meditation, and time just observing and interacting with the world. This time is critical–and it is through these activities that deepest understandings are often cultivated.

 

In fact, I think part of the reason that so many people are drawn to meditation, ritual and other druid practices is that it offers a way to slow down and change pace. The more time you spend with these practices, the deeper they will go and the richer the rewards will be.  There is much room for exploration in linking the slow movements to the druid tradition and key practices within it.

 

Slow Travel

Another aspect of these slow movements is “slow travel.”  Slow travel refers to the idea, again, that efficiency is not always the best way to travel to new places and that we miss a lot if we don’t take opportunities to slow down. We are conditioned to work to get to a place as fast as possible: it’s how our GPS technology works and when we sit down to plan a trip, it is often getting from point A to B quickly.  But what about everything between point A and B?  Is that worth seeing?  What might be discovered there?

 

And so, here are a few simple ideas for slowing down: rather than taking the 70MPH highways for a whole trip, consider some 55MPH back country roads and see what there is to see.  This allows you some exploration time as well as gives you much better fuel efficiency!  Or, rather than default to taking flights everywhere, consider taking the train or a bus to get where you are going.  Train travel, in particular, is my favorite: you have ample room, you get to see a lot of the countryside, and you don’t have to deal with extremely intense security situations and screening and blaring televisions.  It also is a more earth-friendly way to travel. When you plan your trip, plan in a few “extra” stops that you aren’t planning. Give yourself some wiggle room so that you can explore and see what is out there.

 

The same applies to hiking and travel by foot–if you’ve ever been on any of the big trails, I’m sure you’ve seen the hikers with their poles, hiking like mad to get where they are going.  Most of them are so intent on their goal that they forget the journey itself!  I have the opposite approach; much to the frustration of some speedy folks with me, I like to take the time to wander, get lost, explore the woods, and more.

Things you see when you slow down!

Things you see when you slow down!

Even here in town, I budget a little extra time for my walk anywhere I am going so I can literally stop and smell the roses, visit the bramble bush each day to observe how it is changing and growing through the seasons, watch the flight of birds overhead, and so on.  Even that extra 5 minutes that I take on my walk to work or to the bank really gives me peace of mind.

 

I think in our travel, there are times we do really need to get somewhere, and there are times when we do not.  Finding a balance is one of the keys to this part of “slowing down.”

 

Slow Food

It is no surprise that the slow movement started as a resistance to fast food.  Fast food and industrialized food processes embrace the current ideas of efficiency and profit at the expense of all else, perhaps in some of the most egregious ways possible. But, as Wendell Berry points out in the Unsettling of America, industrialized farm systems’ emphasis on efficiency ends up exploiting the land for profit. Industrialized food treats nature, animals, plants, and humans all as machines, trying to get the most out of it in the fastest amount of time possible. In other words, if efficiency is the only metric by which we measure our food production and cheapness is the only metric that we use to measure its consumption, we lose much.

 

The slow food movement was born from a rejection of these industrialized food values: we should know where our food comes from, have relationships with our farmers or our own land, and grow food that is healthful and that is grown in a way that is healthful to the land. Wendell Berry writes that small family farmers aren’t concerned with efficiency as much as they are concerned with the long-term health of the land, the idea of doing things well, and building in nurturing practices. When we purchase their food at farmer’s markets, directly from them, or even in grocery stores (which are increasingly carrying more of these kinds of options), you are not only purchasing something better for you but also better for the land.

 

In addition to the rejection of fast food and other convenience foods, slow food focuses on cooking one’s own food from whole ingredients, growing food, knowing one’s farmers, and supporting businesses who are engaged in nurturing and healthful practices.  Those in this movement often have potlucks to break bread and share.

 

One of the things I like to do is a “slow food” metric and ask myself: how long would this take to produce at home? Can it be produced at home? That helps me stay away from too much processed stuff. Since I cook a lot from scratch, I’ve been learning how to make foods I like to eat from their base ingredients–this teaches me a lot about how processes something might be.  For example, I like to eat tortilla chips and hummus. Making my own tortilla chips was an incredibly gratifying, but intense, experience (I will be working on this again, hopefully, this year with better equipment!)  Even if I don’t want to make my own tortilla chips all the time, making them once has me much better appreciating what went into it.

 

Another aspect I see connected to slow food (although others might disagree) is fermentation of various kinds.  Most often, I make homemade sodas (using a ginger bug), dandelion wine, or saurkraut.  These foods simply take time and it is really exciting to see how they transform as they go through the stages of fermentation.  Slow food at its best!

 

A final aspect of slow food, in my opinion, is the act of eating itself. I have a number of friends who are mindfulness practitioners, and they have taught me much about enjoying a good meal. I think we are so accustomed to rushing through everything that meals aren’t an exception. Learning how to slow down, pay attention to the meal, chew your food well, and enjoy the company is a part of this slow food process–and a powerful one!

 

Slow Money

Slow money is a recent offshoot of the other slow movements–it is focused on slowing down the current derivative/investment banking and creating alternative systems of cash flow that are based on ecological and nature-honoring principles.  An organization tied to Slow Money is working to line up a variety of people to invest in ways that “bring funds back to earth.”  This movement is focused on investing locally, avoiding “too big to fail” banks and businesses, and investing in the health and fertility of our land (so you can see clear ties to the slow food movement above).  Groups connected to slow money are popping up all over the world! In fact, a whole range of alternative structures, particularly for financing, exist: land contracts arranged between buyers and sellers (so we don’t have to deal with big banks), micro-investments and loans, and so much more.  I’ve been happy to pursue some of these options in my own life and they have worked out really well!

 

Slow Living

A lot of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog over the years can be classified as slow living.  For example, living by candlelight naturally allows you to slow down and changes your life rhythms in subtle–yet powerful–ways. Using a compost toilet helps bring your own waste back into the cycle of life, as does various forms of composting. These are simple techniques, yet allow us to slow down and cycle nutrients.  Hiking and foraging, especially when you aren’t in a hurry and are willing to get lost in the woods, is a wonderful way just to slow down and take it easy.  There are so many options here–and each of us may find our way into slower living differently.  When we combine these physical things with the spiritual practices of meditation, regular ritual, honoring the seasons, and so forth–we can really bring our life more into a healthy balance.  One small step at a time helps you slow down and bring you more fully into the present moment.

 

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

A Slower Mindset

As I work to shift into “slower” ways of living and doing, the most important thing I’ve found to remember is that I need to shift my expectations. I can’t get a giant “to do” list done on my only day off from work. If I did that, I’d not have enough time to just sit in nature or spend time in my sacred garden. And so, a re-focusing of my own expectations helps me slow down and realize that there are things I just don’t have to do at this moment (and learn to put less of them on my plate to begin with). Once we begin to mentally adjust our schedules, plan not 100% of our waking hours but less of them, then we have an opportunity to slow down and enjoy what nature brings. Now, I schedule “open” weekends where I have nothing on my agenda, nowhere to go, and see what happens (usually, I end up in the woods and in the art studio–and these are amazing days!)

 
A second part of a slower mindset is recognizing the difference between doing something efficiently and doing something well.  Do we need to get all those things done, or can we just get one thing done well?  This is a question I am always asking myself: how can I do this one thing well?

 
A third part of a slower mindset has to do with cultivating patience. Impatience is widespread these days (try driving the speed limit around town, lol!)  One of the big shifts I’ve worked to make in the last few years is calm down and silence my inner “impatient” dialogue when I found myself waiting for people, waiting for things, etc.  It was a big issue for me, but I’m happy to say some progress has been made!

 

The Return of Creativity

I have a number of friends that practice “unschooling” with their children.  The stories they have shared with me all have many features in common.  Unschooling is self-directed learning–children decide what and how they want to learn and go about learning it. What my friends report happening in the transition to unschooling (especially out of public school, where children get no self-directed learning at all), is that the children, when given freedom, begin with a variety of electronic binging behaviors: excessive watching of TV, playing 12 and 14 hours of video games, and so on. But soon enough, usually within a few weeks, they get bored of playing video games and watching TV all day and their natural curiosity returns. Suddenly, they are inquisitive, questioning, and active in the world around them. Some of them begin to undertake considerable projects–building and launching weather balloons, understanding how to grow crystals, learning how to grow vegetables and learning about the biology of soil, making baskets, and so much more. I think this is a nice example here about the nature of unstructured leisure or play time, and how humans, when given the opportunity, naturally will find useful things in which to pursue if they have the time and energy to do so.

 

What unschooling does for children, leisure time can do for adults.  We once were those naturally curious and wonder-filled children, asking questions, being curious, being constantly at play, being able to move from playing music to making mud pies to building forts in the woods.  And then, modern life crushed our creativity with bells and demands and suddenly time wasn’t ours and our work consumed our lives and…yeah. The loss of our creative spirits and the loss of our creative selves happens as more and more demands are placed upon us. I believe this wonder-filled, creative, and curiosity-filled place to be one of our natural states of being.  One of the reasons retired people are often so interesting is that they find a hobby and pursue it with relentless passion–because they can.  I believe that slowing down and cultivating more unstructured/leisure time can allow us to get back to that place of creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had as children.

Here is just a small list of the things that leisure can get us:

  • A rest from daily stress (family, workplace, health-related, political, environmental); the ability to rebuild, nourish, support and heal the physical body
  • Time to think carefully and with a sound mind
  • Time to think about opposing ideas and carefully wrestle with the ideas they contain
  • Time to explore the wilds
  • Time to travel to other places
  • The ability to build and enjoy community and friends
  • Time to explore and experiment with options for sustainable living
  • Time to plant a garden (annual and perennial)
  • Time to gaze at the stars and clouds
  • Time to engage in spiritual practices of all sorts (meditation, outdoor activity)
  • Time to develop relationships and connections: with other humans, with plants/trees, with bodies of water, with the living earth
  • Time to get lost in the woods
  • Time to pick through trash to find treasures
  • Time to go foraging
  • Time to heal the land and scatter seeds
  • Time and energy to do all the things we say we “wish we had time” or “wish we had energy to do”
  • The time to engage in various bardic arts and learn new bardic arts / time to dedicate oneself to a craft or skill in seriousness
  • Time to read books and to ponder, meander, and think about them
  • Time to pick berries and can them
  • Time to do some home food preservation
  • Time to brew up some good ferments and good wine
  • Time to do all the things.  All the things.

 

I believe that we can fully embrace our human gifts if, and only if, we make the time and build in more unstructured time in our lives to do so.  This is about all I have to say at the moment on slowing down and thus, this concludes this post series at present.  Thank you to everyone who had such wonderful things to share as we worked through these issues–I gained much from reading your stories and from our conversations.

 

Urban Homesteading in a Rental House: Late Winter/Spring Updates! March 5, 2017

Last year, I explored the idea of “growing where you are planted.” At this stage in my journey, I am working towards living my spiritual principles through permaculture practice within the bounds of a rental house within walkable distance to my workplace. Last year, I shared some general tips for how to do this kind of work, as it is a situation that so many of us find ourselves in at the present time. Even with seemingly “limited” options as befitting a renter, much opportunity abounds! I thought I’d share a few of the projects I’ve been working on in the last few months and give a general “update” about where things are. (Note: next week I’ll return to the conclusion of the “Slowing down” series!)

 

Food Forest Project: Planning and Soil Preparation

This year, I’m undertaking a new gardening adventure with a good friend of mine to start a food forest using permaculture principles on some land she has access to. This land is about 5 minutes out of our town and is on old pasture land. We expect this to be an “incubator” project for a larger project we are starting to plan for the coming months and years. But for now, we are engaging in some serious work to grow plants and design a welcoming and sacred space.

Some of our plans for the space...

Some of our plans for the space…

We are using permaculture design principles for the entire project, and we are designing not for the short term, but to bring healthy soil fertility and to engage in people care, earth care, and fair share. At this point, we’ve done our basemapping and planning the food forest over the last few months, and now we are in the process of starting seeds and preparing the soil. I hope to share some of that garden planning/basemapping work on the blog as we work to develop this site further.

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil...

Animals in the pasture space preparing soil…

On the matter of soil preparation, we are incredibly lucky to have access to animals at the farm, specifically, a pig. We put Saavik, the pig, along with her goat and chicken friends in the area where we will be planting. Saavik is doing an incredible job in turning the soil and digging up the roots. This is a very large area, and we weren’t sure how we were going to get the whole thing done in time to plant (we have a grand vision!) But giving the animals a go at the land over the last part of winter and early spring means that they will have done most of the work for us, tilling it up, eating the grasses and roots and grubs, and creating beautiful manure. I have never seen a pig at work before–she is absolutely incredible.  The entire pasture will have no grass and we will have the opportunity to rake up whatever is left, put in our paths, use a garden fork to address any soil compaction, and plant.

Go pig, go!

Go Saavik, go!

Seed Starting for Gardens

This past weekend, my friend and I recently started the first of the annual seeds for the food forest. We are up splitting the seeds that we need to start–I’m working on all of the herbs and she’s working on the veggies; most of the perennials will need to be purchased or sourced some other way. We are using my light system, and my friend also is working to setup her own light system modeled after mine.  We hope the two light systems will allow us to have enough plants both for my refugia garden as well as for our project here. I can’t tell you how much I love starting and caring for seeds! Already, the little sprouts are beginning to show. You can start seeds in just about any space if you have soil and light. The key is figuring out where to plant them afterward!

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Early seed starting of key medicinal herbs

Maple / Hickory / Walnut Trees and Syrup

There is something about the magic of the early spring that is truly unlike any other period of time. One of my favorite activities has been, for years, to tap maple trees and make maple syrup. The problem was that I didn’t have the evaporating system like the group of us had in Michigan nor did I have access to abundant trees. But, in permaculture design, the problem is the solution, and I started looking around to see what I could do…and so I decided to pursue “urban” maple sugaring.

A tree tapped in my backyard!

A tree tapped in my backyard!

It began with a single maple tree in my backyard, which I tapped a few weeks ago in early February. I wanted to drink the sap from the tree, which is nutritious, delicious, and very rejuvenating. A careful review of my lease showed no violation if I tapped them (I mean, do landlords really think about whether or not you can tap a tree? Likely not!) I tapped one of the trees and made an offering and the sap just started dripping out! All that wassailing we did is already paying off!

 

I inquired about tapping a few walnut and hickory trees at the garden site and we decided to do so. Then I tapped a second maple in the yard and the tree offered a half gallon or more of sap most days….this was getting to be a little too much to drink!

 

I realized that doing a “mini” sugaring setup would not be too difficult on my porch (you can’t evaporate that much maple sap indoors or everything will get sticky). I had purchased a very high-quality burner for a different project at a yard sale last summer for $3. I poured the sap into a large stainless steel pot and checked it every hour.  In one weekend, I manged to boil down 4 gallons of maple sap, adding more as the pot began getting down further until all four gallons were reduced in the pot.  Yes, it is true.  You can make small amounts of maple syrup in a rental house!

Turning sap into sugar!

Turning sap into sugar!

What I found is that with this small of a scale, I really needed to pay close attention to the syrup as it gets near finishing.  I burned the first batch (so sad) but the 2nd batch came out just beautifully!

Finishing off Maple Syrup

Finishing off Maple Syrup

A Triad of Composting

I am delighted to have a triad of composting activity happening at my rental house, which is allowing me to re-use a good deal of the waste I would otherwise produce. The first thing I have, where the bulk of my food scraps go, is my outdoor compost tumbler. I brought the tumbler with me from my homestead. For brown matter, I typically add fall leaves or shredded up newspaper–it works like a charm, even if it gets only afternoon light. At this point, I’ve produced about 20 or so gallons of finished compost that has mostly gone to my refugia garden and to my friend’s land.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.

Compost tumbler with two chambers = awesome.  One composts down while one is filled.

The second method I’m using to compost is my vermicompost bin. After messing around with a prototype five-gallon bucket vermicompost system for about 9 months now (which went through several iterations), I am back to the tried and true bin system. I had hoped the bucket system would take up less space, but what I found is that the five-gallon buckets couldn’t handle much compost at all,  because the worm population was small, it took longer, and the worms didn’t seem as happy.

Vermicompost bin system

Vermicompost bin system

The third method, which I shared a few months ago, is the compost toilet. that is, composting my own human waste and urine. This is working out splendidly, and I’m delighted to no longer need to flush the toilet (it has become a nice book stand!).  I’ve really started to enjoy “making deposits” and cycling my nutrients.  I’ve been experimenting with different materials, and am finding that a combination of sawdust, mulch (free from tree work), and shredded office paper and/or leaves are the perfect combination to hold in liquids and cover up solid waste. All of these materials are fairly easy to come by and are yet another way to turn waste into a resource!

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Growing Community

My friend and I are also starting to bring permaculture into the community by starting the Indiana PA Permaculture Guild.  I’m very excited to see how this new endeavor goes, and if it has anything like the success of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup, we will be able to do a lot of good in our community. Our first meeting is just around the Spring Equinox–a good time to begin anew. The goal of this project is to bring people together to learn about permaculture, teach each other new skills, and grow as a community.  I’ll share more as this initiative gets further underway 🙂

 

Refugia Garden and Seed Scattering

I started a refugia garden a year ago on my parents’ land and shared some of my earlier plans and results. Last year, this garden allowed me to grow some herbs for healing purposes as well as start a “seed bank” for healing the wild lands and bringing back key native medicinals to our ecosystem here. I’ve delighted in doing this work, and have created seed balls from a number of the seeds in this garden and have given them to many friends to help spread.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

One of the kind of humorous challenges of last year was that the refugia garden was “squashed”; my parents had thrown compost in the spot the year before, and the squash seeds sprouted at some point in June. I live about an hour from my parents, and I was travelling for a few weeks and didn’t make it out to check on the garden. I came back to find my garden literally covered in squash I hadn’t planted! The squash were doing well, so I tried cutting back the leaves to make sure the other plants had gotten light, and then I just let them be. Most of my medicinal plants did fine, but I lost a few key ones as part of the garden being squashed.  And so I am starting those plants from seed again this year (and enjoying a number of squash dishes this winter!)

Squash happens...

Squash happens…

A few weekends ago, my parents and I were driving past many of the abandoned strip mines and boney dumps in this area. As we drove and stopped in various places, I threw out a number of seed balls and spread other kinds of native wildflower seeds to help those lands heal. The mining companies are required to replant the landscape, but their idea of replanting is some basic grasses, vetches, and red pines.  And there is very little actual soil–most of it is slate and refuse from the dumps. I hope the seed balls themselves will allow for some new plants to take root and the compost and clay help build topsoil. We’ll see!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Magic seed balls ready for tossing!

The Walking Commute

I must say that I really enjoy walking everywhere–especially when my car is recently giving me trouble or during the big snowstorms.  Walking allows me to slow down, to take in nature on my walk.  For example, there is a bramble patch, several wild hedges, and a small stream on my walk to campus. It also allows me time for slowing down and decompressing at the end of the day on campus. This is one of the main benefits to living in town–the ability to walk to the bank, to get some tea, to hang out or see a jazz band, to visit friends, and more.  I didn’t realize how much I depended on my car until I could set it aside!

Campus after my "birthday" snow :)

Campus after my “birthday” snow 🙂

So these are some of the current practices I’ve got going on and some of the plans for this year.  I’m hoping to hear from some of you–tell me what you are planning, dreaming, and working to bring forth this year!

 

I hope this demonstrates that you really can “grow where you are planted” and even if that growth doesn’t include land of your own, there are still a lot of wonderful things you can do to live in line with the earth.  The best thing of all is that everything I’ve outlined above is manageable and enjoyable!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

A happy goat who tills the soil!

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The Way of Wood January 22, 2017

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Imagine sitting down to your holiday meal with loved ones and family. There is a feast before you–ham, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, gravy, and various other family favorites. The table is decorated with colorful red tablecloths, the lights are low, the lights on the tree are twinkling….and you are given a Styrofoam plate! I’m sure this has happened to all of us over the years–and to me as well! What if, instead, you were given a beautiful hand-carved wooden bowl or plate to eat from? How would that change the experience of eating your meal? What if the meal was by candlelight, with engaging conversation, and took my time with the meal?  In fact, if you had lived in an earlier time, you likely would have had this experience, and it would have been the “norm.”

 

In fact, Eric Sloane describes the shifts in our relationship with lovingly crafted, wooden things in his On Reverence for Wood. In this passage, he describes America before the Civil War: “Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘A substance with a soul’. It spanned rivers for man, it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” (Pg. 72)  I think this quote beautifully expresses humans’ relationship with wood in previous generations, and to me, helps fill a gap that I didn’t know was missing.

 

A lot of things I talk about on this blog are what I might frame as “big” things: working on land regeneration, sustainable living and permaculture, growing food, natural building, beekeeping and more…these big things seem important and relevant. But there are also the more subtle ways of shifting living and communing with nature that may be less obvious, but no less profound. I think that there is value in exploring alternatives to the everyday objects that fill our lives and that we interact with. How many times, for example, do I encounter plates, bowls, cups, and silverware each day?  How many times do I put my feet in a pair of shoes, or put a pair of pants on, or put my head on a pillow in a typical week?  How many times do I sit down to enjoy a simple meal? How do those simple, daily patterns, unfold?  And so, today, I’m going to explore a rather simple concept, in honor of the many feasts most of us attended as part of the holiday season over the last few months. I call this concept the way of wood.

 

The Way of Wood

What I’m calling “the way of wood” refers to, in a literal sense, spending more time and contact with wood that has been lovingly shaped by careful hands.  Wood that has a soul.  The wood’s origins are important–ethical resourcing of the wood is critical. These wooden objects come into your life either by trading/purchasing/commissioning it from those who work with wood or by honing your own skill in carving/woodworking/turning, etc.  So far, I am in the first category, having found woodworkers whose talents I wish to support, although I hope to turn my artistic sights on this beautiful art form quite soon!

 

The way of wood, in a broader sense, asks us to consider the nature and origins of the objects that we engage with in everyday life–and bring those objects more carefully and consciously into our daily living experiences. This, again, means considering relationships between the object, how it was made, where it was sourced, as part of an energetic relationship.  The way of wood also encourages us to seek deeper connection with nature through the creation (and supporting the creation) of homemade items from local sources over industrial ones.  In other words, we are looking for items that have “soul” and that are, likely created outside of the industrial/consumption/stuff-making system.  Of course, this “way of wood” doesn’t happen overnight, but as things wear out, we might seek to replace them with things of a different nature, a careful nature, a slower nature.

 

The curved spoon and others...

The curved spoon and others…

Why does the way of wood matter? Some history here has really helped my thinking–I hope it helps you too.

 

The Loss of Reverence for Wood

At one time, wood was the most important thing we had: we made everything from it.  It was, as the quote above suggests, “a substance with a soul.” Eric Sloane’s masterpiece, Reverence for Wood, is well worth reading on this subject. I’m going to briefly summarize some of what he shares in that book here to help us understand historically, humans’ changing relationship with wood and its connection to industrialization here in the US–but I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to read his work.  Its a short book (about 100 pages) and filled with his incredible illustrations–a gem well worth your time.

 

Sloane’s book explores, century by century, in reverse chronological order, human’s changing relationship with wood. Of key importance to Sloane was the drastic shifts between the 18th century, when everything was made of wood (as described in the quote above), and the 19th century, with the rise of the age of iron and industrialization, where wood became used as the fuel of progress.  Much of this shift was firmly settled with outcome of Civil War in the United States, the war not only of slavery, but of an agrarian society vs. an industrial one. With the triumph of the Northern industrialized states, industry quickly transitioned the entire nation (as it was already doing in England and many other former colonies).

 

It was during this transition that wood, according to Sloane, ceased to have its value as something to be lovingly crafted for daily living rather than as a resource to fuel industry.  In fact, it is during this age that we see billions of acres of forests, cut to be “coaled off” to make charcoal for iron furnaces, cut to run locomotives, and cut to literally pave streets for higher volume traffic among many other things. This is certainly what happened to “Penn’s woods” in Pennsylvania, where, by the start of the century, less than 5% of the forests remained in many of the Western counties surrounding the big steel factories. Sloane reports that one English paper during this time wrote, “The English criticized us, saying that the Americans ‘seem to hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down” because the land was literally being stripped bare.

 

But the shift in consumer goods and industry weren’t the only shifts away from this primary wood-filled economy. In the late 1800s, American farmers had walled up their hearths and instead added an iron kitchen stove. Wood was added to this stove as Sloan writes “without ceremony,” shutting it up inside the iron box that didn’t need much tending. This, of course, eventually led to our modern furnaces and use of fossil fuels for warmth. Sloane gives many other examples as well–how the incredible array of objects once made from wood (pails and spiles for maple sugar, meat pounders, churns, knives, sleds, mallets, forks, shovels, spoons, and much more–were turned into iron instead and sold to folks). Wood became quite unfashionable and quaint, something for an older generation and day and iron was now on the rise.

 

To me, the shift from wood to iron represents a profound shift in humans’ relationships with nature as a whole and with trees specifically. In the earlier economical model, wood was a primary resource whereby humans interacted with trees, managed them carefully, cut trees and shaped them for their immediate needs (shelter, warmth, tools), and understood those trees as a resource upon which we clearly depended. Damage to the forest resource would result in direct damage to the ability of those humans to continue to provide warmth, shelter, and tools–and so, wood was deeply respected, coppiced, and managed. Also in this earlier economical model, wood was known deeply and intimately. In the 17th century, Sloane describes how a chair might be made out of as many as 15 different woods, each having their own unique characters and properties. People could tell what kind of tree was being cut by the sound the axe made in the wood.  Each wood has its own unique personality; likewise, people were often tied to tree personalities.

 

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

With the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, wood became a secondary resource, cut and shipped “away” for use in some other location and the resulting goods coming back to humans in a new form (iron). Wood was no longer a resource upon which people primarily depended upon for survival–the invisible industrial processes and consumer economy masked its use.  If a forest is cut and shipped to an industry far away, it is of no real consequence to those who live nearby, for they have ceased depending on that forest for their needs. Rather, they depend upon, primarily, that far away industry. This is true of the many things for which wood was used: wood is purchased from a store (who get it from logging and a sawmill); heat is purchased from several sources (with a small amount of people still chopping wood); tools are purchased with handles, sometimes wood, from an unknown source; chairs are purchased of wood from a store, again, from an unknown source.  There is no reason to preserve and protect the local forest because all of your needs come from the store, who gets it from a factory, who gets the raw resources from all over (including that local forest).  This disconnection does much harm, in my opinion. And so, it was during this time of rising industrialization that humans’ rich understanding of wood and knowledge was lost and largely replaced by iron and industry.

 

Over 150 years now, we have a profound loss of understanding of the nature of wood and connection with that part of nature. Most people can’t identify more trees than they have fingers on one hand, much less understand intimately wood and its qualities.  I’ve seen this over and over again when I’m teaching herbalism or wild food foraging classes–identification skills are quite poor for most folks.  The bad news is that some of this knowledge may have been lost–but the good news is that the new movements in sustainable living, woodworking, permaculture, and bushcraft are encouraging folks to begin to learn the way of wood once more.

 

(I’ll mention here wonderful song by fellow OBOD Druid, Damh the Bard, from his 2015 album Sabbat. Its called “Iron from Stone” and it tells this same story of the changes in the landscape and the shift into iron (and the human cost of such a shift.))

Finding our Way back to Wood Again

 

For me, it started with a single, lovingly crafted wooden spoon, a spoon with soul.  A number of years ago, a druid friend of mine had gotten into carving and I decided to commission him to make me a magical serving spoon. This spoon was no ordinary spoon–it was harvested from cherry right off of his land only several miles from where I lived, carved with a spiral handle, and carved with an Awen in the center of the spoon. It was amazing, and after cooking with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed a lot more wooden things in my life.  This, of course, was many years before I had read Sloane’s work or really understood the historical aspects of the loss of knowledge of wood.

 

Instead, that first spoon offered an emotional connection, a soul connection: I loved the way the spoon felt, I loved the way my food tasted when I cooked with it, and I wanted more.  Soon after, he offered me a regular eating spoon for my birthday. After that, I found some really nice old carved bowls at a yard sale, carved by the woman’s grandfather. Then, I met a local wood turner at our farmer’s market with beautiful live edge bowls…over time, I replaced nearly all of my everyday eating bowls and such with beautiful wood–wood that requires care, love, and that brings connection.

 

I’ve watched friends’ delighted reactions as they come to my home and eat from my wooden bowls lovingly prepared food–it makes the meal so much more magical, meaningful, and connected.  Maybe, they, too, are connecting to the soul of the trees that are still very much alive within those bowls.

 

What I have come to fundamentally understand through this process is that the energy that goes into an object infuses that object. And it infuses us.  There’s just something different and sacred about the wooden objects that you don’t get from the standard stuff of unknown origin and manufacturing. Taking up the way of wood is a very simple thing to do–pickup some books on woodworking or take a class and start learning to carve or turn wood yourself.  Or, start keeping your eyes out for woodworkers and wooden objects as you go about life–farmer’s markets are a good place to find some of them!  If you want the wood in your life, the spirit of the wood will find you.

 

Caring for wood

An assortment of spoons and knives

An assortment of spoons and knives

Part of the reason I think that the wooden bowls are wonderful is that they require attention and care. The wood was once a living being, and the wooden spoons and bowls, in their own way, still have spirit within them. The more we interact with them, the more we can understand the wood and connect with that spirit.  The physical aspects of the wood and the spirit of the wood both need our interaction and care.

 

In terms of daily cleaning of wooden objects: you don’t just throw them in the dishwasher–the dishwasher would quickly ruin them. Instead, you wash them lovingly by hand, making sure water/liquid doesn’t sit in them for long and making sure that you dry them carefully once you are done washing them. It is no trouble to quickly wash your favorite wooden bowl after a nice meal!

 

Every three or so months, you’ll also want to re-seal them. I seal my wooden items with walnut oil or of a combination of warmed beeswax and walnut oil. I get a clean rag (that you can re-use) or paper towel (the paper towel can be used to start a fire after you are finished oiling your wood). Add a liberal helping of oil to all your wooden objects and let them sit for about 30 min. You’ll see which of them are thirsty and which are saturated. Give them a second liberal helping of oil.  If there is excess, it is no problem, as you’ll wipe it off. I usually let this sit a minimum of a few hours–even overnight. I check them again, and see who among the wooden things is still thirsty, adding a third layer. At this point, I let them sit, shine/buff them to take off the excess oil, and begin using them again.

 

I remember to tend my wood based on the solstices and equinoxes–as each grows near, I know it is time to lovingly oil my wooden items again.

 

I’ll also mention here that wood, over time, moves and shifts as the seasons change and as time passes (no wonder wood has “a soul”!)  Sloane talks about this as well–how old barns move (even if the stone foundations under them do not, meaning that over a period of years, the barn grows less stable).  The same thing happens to wooden bowls and other wooden objects.  For a bowl, for example, if you had wood with a grain facing East to West, the bowl would slowly shrink on the North-South axis making the bowl more oblong than round as time passed.  In the summer, wood absorbs moisture and may swell and in the winter, it will shrink. Understanding this is all part of the character, and care, of wood.

 

Closing Thoughts

I believe that the small details matter–building these small, sacred, and simple acts into our everyday living can help us engage in more sustainable, sacred actions throughout our lives and reconnect with ourselves and the land around us. I think this kind of thing is like momentum forward–each small thing adds to the whole experience and moves us from a kind of “average” living that is given to us by corporations and industrialization to living to sacred living. Even small shifts, like the shift from using conventional tableware to something handcrafted, creates an energetic shift that reverberates. And when you think about how many times you encounter these simple objects each day, and the energies and spirits of those objects, this small shift really has profound implications.

 

Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth January 15, 2017

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snow fall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

 

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

 

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

 

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)

Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

 

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world, also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

 

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

 

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter, after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think its not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

 

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typically, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

 

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

 

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks its a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

 

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of his leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, this certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

 

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–who also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” which which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months, when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA) and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

 

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

 

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, that Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

 

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, who is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.

 

Moss at the winter solstice!

Moss at the winter solstice!

Conclusion

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teaches me much about trees in my biogreion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

 

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

 

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons are simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

 

Druid Tree Workings: January Tree Blessings and Wassail for Abundance January 6, 2017

Deep, in the darkest months of winter, a variety of cultures offered blessings to the trees for abundant harvests. A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about Wassailing at a friend’s orchard; since then, I’ve done wassailings each year and have built this as an important part of my yearly cycle as a druid.

 

Abundant harvests of apples!

Abundant harvests of apples!

Since learning about wassailing, I’ve grown interested in tracking down other kinds of tree and land blessings for abundant harvests, especially those taking place in January. I have uncovered some small tidbits that suggested that Native American tribes here in the the Northeastern USA offered maple blessings to ensure a long maple sap flow for the coming year in the dark winter months, however, I haven’t found any of the details of these ceremonies or when exactly they were held.  Also, I have recently gotten word of a few other ceremonies. One of my blog readers, John Wilmott, reports that in Scotland up into the 1980’s, January 6th was “herring and tattles” day, where the nets of the fishing communities are smeared with gravy and mashed potatoes and herring are flung into the sea; afterwards, people bless themselves through dancing. This isn’t a tree blessing per say, but is a sea blessing for those who depend on the sea for their sustenance (in the same way an oak tree blessing would be used by an acorn-dependent culture).

 

Today’s post looks at tree blessings from this broad perspective. Given the importance of treecrops and harvests of all kinds, I suspect that these tree blessings were once very common in many cultures, but obviously, many haven’t survived till the present day. However, the druid tradition offers some insights for those of us wanting to reconnect with our trees and do tree blessings. I thought that given the time of the year, I’d share a few ways that we can go about blessing trees this January!  So in this post I’ll cover both how to do a traditional wassail for apple trees, and also share a general blessing that can be adapted for nut-bearing trees, sap-bearing trees, fruit-bearing trees or general trees upon the landscape. But first, we’ll delve into a bit of why tree blessings are so important through exploring perennial agriculture and history.

 

Treecrops and Tree Blessings

Why we bless the trees is the same reason we bless many other things–to ensure prosperity, health, and abundant harvests.  While these blessings many seem like quaint celebrations now, simply nostalgic remembering and honoring of an old tradition, it is important to understand just how critical trees–and treecrops–were for human survival. In the time before factory farms and supermarkets, humans depended intimately on trees for clean beverages, nutrient and calorie dense foods, and foods that stored well for the winter months.

 

Treecrops offer humans enormous harvests for very little input; they can support both hunter/gatherer types societies as well as supplement agriculturally-based ones. Treecrops are simple to grow–you plant and tend the tree, or, better yet, you find the tree in the wild and honor it and harvest from it. Compare this to traditional agriculture, which requires a tremendous amount of input: hoeing/tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending young seedlings, watering and ensuring adequate soil, dealing with pests, harvesting, putting the food by for darker months, and saving the seeds, all to do it again at the start of the next season. Treecrops and other perennial crops don’t require all of this input; they don’t require us to till up the ground each year (disrupting the soil web); they don’t require us to water or fertilize (as long as we maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem). This is part of why permaculture design focuses so much on perennial agriculture (nuts, berries, perennial greens) as opposed to annual crops. Some fruit trees do benefit from pruning of course, but any visit to a wild or abandoned orchard will tell you that apples have no problems producing without our tending!  This is all to say that trees give of themselves freely, without asking much in return. It is no wonder that so many ancient peoples, from all around the world, have honored them.

 

Many cultures survived on treecrops as staple foods or supplemented their diets heavily with them: here in Pennsylvania,  for example, according to an old manual from the PA Forestry Department from 1898, a full 25% of our forests were chestnut before the blight, with another 25% in oak and 10% in walnut. That’s 60% of our forests in perennial nut crops that offered high calorie, abundant, starch and protein. This is not by accident, but rather, by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans, who used these nuts as their staple food crops.

 

In fact, many “acorn eating” and “acorn dependent” cultures were slowly driven out by colonization here in the US; however, acorns and other nut crops remain a critical food source for wildlife (and wild food foragers, like yours truly).  As a wild food forager, I can’t speak highly enough of the abundance of these treecrops.  Once you start harvesting nuts as part of your food stuffs, you grow to quickly appreciate how crazy abundant trees are in certain years–even with harvesting only once a week and leaving most for wildlife, I was able to harvest sacks of apples, hickories, walnuts, and acorns and enjoy them all winter long.

 

Acorns

Acorns

Two other tidbits about these treecrops. Sugar maple, and other sugary trees (birch, even walnut) also offered a fresh source of drinkable and pure liquid and also offer one of the only sweeteners available (other than robbing a beehive, which is not exactly a pleasant encounter!). So they, too, were blessed by native peoples. Finally, apple was introduced by colonizers from Europe, and in that culture, represented opportunity both for fermentation into alcohol and for fresh eating for winter storage. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t just spreading those apples across the US for fresh eating–rather, hard cider was what was on the mind of him and many others as the apple took root here in the US.  And with the apple came, of course, the apple orchard blessing.

 

We can see from some of the above is that treecrops are a critical staple both for Europeans and European settlers living in temperate climates as well as for traditional hunter/gatherer cultures (and for many wild food foragers and homesteaders today). Treecrops offer tremendous staples in any diet and are very worthy of blessing for an abundant harvest.  These dietary blessings are in addition to the trees’ ability provide warmth and shelter in nearly any situation!

 

The Timing of Tree Blessings in January

Like many things shrouded in long-standing tradition, the origin of the timing of these tree blessings, of various sorts, is not entirely clear, although most often, they take place either on January 6th or January 17th.

 

I have a theory from my own experience, however, and I’ll share it here. With exceptions like mulberry, nearly all treecrops have really good storage capacity, some six months or longer, enough to see you through a long and dark winter.  Apples, walnuts, acorns, pears–these all store extremely well, allowing people to make it through the cold dark months.  When these folks are watching their fruit and root cellars grow smaller and smaller, and those blessed apples and nuts are still there, storing well and filling the belly, it is no wonder that the tree blessings emerged in the darkest and coldest months of the year.

 

Another reason (and one commonly given) for the timing of Wassail in January is that this is also the same season in which pruning was done (as trees need to be pruned while they are dormant).  So while you are in your orchard anyways, it is a good time to honor the trees with a little wassail!

 

A final reason might have to do with the timing of cider fermentation–apple cider takes some time, and if you are pressing it and fermenting it around Samhuinn, it is likely ready to bottle and drink by early January; a perfect time to begin the cycle of harvesting again for the upcoming year.

 

The timing of these blessings has a few derivations.  Wassail takes place either on January 5th or 6th (the 12th night from the Winter Solstice) or January 17th (as is the custom in some places in south-western England and here in the USA).  Most of the literature on the surviving custom in the Southern Parts of England talk about this ceremony being done on January 17th specifically.  Both of these dates are called “old 12th night” by various sources. I would suspect, also, that the Native American tradition of blessing the maples comes around this period–as blessings are likely to precede a harvest (and the harvest of maple sap starts in mid-February at the earliest).

 

Given all of this, I’d like to propose that January seems like a very good time for all kinds tree blessings, especially for our fruit, nut, and sugar trees. Now that we’ve got some sense of the treecrops and blessings as well as timing and importance, I’m going to share two different blessings here that you can use on treecrops.

 

Wassail (Waes-Hael) for Apples and Pears

I’m going to share the details of the Waes Hael first, because we will use some of the key features of this surviving tree blessing ritual in the othe ritual I’ll present.

 

A good harvest of wild apples

A good harvest of wild apples

The wassail tradition, coming from Anglo Saxon “waes-hael” means good health.  There are actually a series of related traditions surrounding apples and their beverages that are called wassail. Wassailing, in general, took place on either on New Years or all of the 12 days of Christmas.  A drink was placed in a large “wassail bowl” containing mulled cider, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, sometimes cream, sometimes baked apples, and other things. This drink was brought around to others for their good health during the New Year (its where we get the song, “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen…”).

 

This same drink and bowl made their way into the Apple Orchard for the Apple Wassail (and in some cases, Wassail was also done for pear trees with perry, or fermented pear cider). The tree blessing ceremony, Apple Wassailing, which is centered around apple trees and focuses on blessing the orchard for abundant crops in the coming year. The goals of this ceremony, as passed in the traditional lore, are to awaken the trees, to drink to their health, and to scare away evil spirits which may interfere with a good harvest.  As in many old customs, there are many parts to the ceremony and a lot of derivation depending on what sources or places you are talking about.   Here is one version:

 

Supplies needed: mulled cider (wassail) in a wassail bowl; mugs; toast; noisemakers/drums

 

The Ritual:

1.  One tree is selected to receive the blessing for the orchard.  This is usually a large, old, or otherwise dominant tree with space to move about it, branches that people can reach, and accessible roots.

2.  People gather around the tree with noisemakers (drums, buckets to pound on, etc).   The first wassail song can be sung (we never knew any melodies for them so we made them up!)

3.  Cider is ceremoniously poured from the steaming wassail bowl into each participant’s cup.

4.  Participants pour an offering of cider from each of their cups on the roots of the tree and then drink to the tree’s good health.

5.  Participants bless the tree with an offering of toast, dipping toast in their mugs and then hanging the pieces of toast from the tree’s branches. Alternatively, a King and Queen are chosen, the king offers the queen his mug, she dips the toast in the mug, and then hangs the toast on the branches of the tree.)

6.  More wassail songs are sung.

7.  A lot of noise is made around the trees to scare away the evil spirits that may be lurking there.

In some traditions, the trees are also beat to ensure a good harvest.  I wrote about tree beatings a bit in my post on Walnut (and I will write about them again in my upcoming post about the sacred apple tree). Beating trees (which obviously damages them) can force the tree to bear more fruit as it is damaged and wants to produce more offspring.  Beating apple trees at certain times of the year also forced them to set fruit faster.  As a druid, I absolutely do not advocate the beating of trees (you can see my response below under the tree blessings).

8.  The official ceremony is over, and people may enjoy a potluck with apple-themed ingredients (at least, that’s how we did it in Michigan!)

 

There are a few key aspects of this ritual I’d like to point out, for we’ll see them again in the more general rituals I’m proposing. First is the selection of a single tree that receives–and radiates outward–the blessing to all other trees.  This is important (for, after all, it is hard to bless each tree in the whole forest!) The second is a specially-prepared offering (ideally from its own fruit but lovingly crafted by human hands).  The third is raising energy through sounds around the tree to drive off any evil. Finally, there is this extremely long-standing tradition of beating trees, which I think we should mitigate in any blessing ritual.

 

Druid’s Winter Tree Blessing (With Variants for Oak/Nut Trees and Maple)

This is what we are looking for!

This is what we are looking for!

I think we can adapt the Wassail to bless many other kinds of trees in much the same way, also drawing from the druid tradition.  Here is an alternative blessing ritual that could be used for a variety of crops (I’m offering some variants here for those of you who would like to bless other fruit trees, other nut trees, sap-offering trees, or any trees).

 

Opening. Open a sacred space (I would use the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening or the OBOD’s Grove Opening for this).  This helps establish the energies for the ritual and really should be included.  If you are including the Energetic Blessing, including the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (as part of the Solitary Grove opening)  or some other way of invoking the three currents at the start of this ritual is a wise idea (you can learn the AODA”s SOP from John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook).

 

Honoring. After the space is opened, honor the trees with a simple blessing that establishes the intentions of the ceremony.  If you have poetry that is specific to those trees, it would be well to use it.  If not, a simple blessing like this one would work:

“Trees of life, of bounty, of peace, and of wisdom
Strong in your growth, your branches shelter us
Deep in your roots, you hold fast the soil of life
Many are your leaves, to share breath with us
Abundant are your [fruits, sap, nuts], that remove our hunger
Wise in your knowledge,  your teachings guide us
Quiet in your growth, you bring us the sun
Today, we are here to honor you
Today, we offer you blessings for the coming year
Today, we wish you long life, health, and abundance!”

For maples: You might add the following line:
“Oh maple tree, may your sap flow strong and sweet!”

For Oaks, you might add the following:
“Oh mighty oak, may your nuts rain down upon us!”

Make Offerings of Bread and Wine.  Offer the trees bread and some kind of fermented beverage. In the tradition of the Wassail, if these are home baked and home brewed, I believe it would be most effective. For fruit trees, offer toast with some fruit preparation (fruit fermented into wine or fruit jam); for nut trees, consider an acorn-nut bread (see Sam Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for more on harvesting and preparation). For maples, consider offering toast with maple syrup on it.

 

Make your offerings to the tree, much like the wassail ritual (pouring offerings into each participants’ cup and then letting them offer them at the roots) and offer the bread to the tree’s branches.

 

Radiate an Energetic Blessing. In one of my earlier posts on land healing, I described “energy” from the druid revival tradition, explaining the three currents (Solar, Telluric, and Lunar).  Here, I would suggest using words, movement, and visualzation to invoke these currents and radiate this blessing out to the land (those AODA members practicing the SOP should find this quite familiar):

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s trunk above you in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in orange light. Say, “We call upon the solar current and the radiant energy of the celestial heavens. May a ray of the solar current descend and bless these trees with the fire of the sun!”  All participants should envision a golden ray coming down from the celestial heavens, through the tree, into its roots.

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s roots in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in purple light.  Say, “We call upon the telluric current and the healing energy of the deep earth.  May a ray of the telluric current rise and bless these trees with the blessing of the heart of the earth!”  All participants should envision a green/gold ray arising from the heart of the earth and filling the tree with green/gold light.

 

All participants should visualizing the solar and telluric currents mingling within the tree.  Say, “We call upon the lunar current, the Awen, to radiate outward and bless this [forest/orchard].  With our blessing, may these trees grow heavy with [fruits/nuts] and be healthy this year!”  All participants should touch the tree and envision a glowing sphere of white light radiating outward from the tree to the whole forest.

 

End in Music, Drumming, or Song. You might end your ceremony with additional music, drumming, or singing for the benefit of the trees.

 

Close Your Space. Close out your ritual space.

 

Hug the tree. To mitigate the many tree beatings over the years, I would suggest ending the ritual after you’ve closed the space by giving the tree a hug.  Such a fitting ending to mitigate the many beatings that walnut, apple, and likely others faced to offer humans fruit.

 

Closing

I hope that this post was helpful for those of you considering doing a January tree blessing of some sort or another!  If you do these ceremonies, please write in and let me know how they go for you. Also, if anyone has any more information on tree blessings from other cultures (especially for abundance), I would love for you to share them here in the comments.  Finally, this year, a number of AODA members are wassailing all over the Americas on January 17th–we would love to have you join us.   Find out more in the AODA Forums on this thread. Blessings of January upon each of you!

 

Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil December 17, 2016

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences.  I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to underpreparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences.  This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all night vigil.  At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!

 

In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). Its a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun.  While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all night vigil.

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work.  The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on.  The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history.  The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons.  The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world.  And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old.  New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires.  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd.  Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice  (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.

 

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions.  So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.

 

All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil.  The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun.  Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe.  Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful.  Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay.  Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed.  Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!

 

The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.

 

Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense.  A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil.  Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry.  This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil.  I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire.  There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.

 

Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived).  What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably of natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets).  Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag.  All of these things can help you get through the cold night.  Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

Outer Preparation: A Good Fire.  There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night.  Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions.  If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK.  But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness!  If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above).  The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind.  This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer.  If I had had this kind of setup during my first  vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks.  The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available.  I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay.  A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks:Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year.  I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12 quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.

 

Outer Preparation: First Aid. Its not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization.  Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.

 

Outer Preparation: Seating.  If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind.  Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year.  To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp.  I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp.  Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.

 

Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil.  A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought.  It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump.  The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition.  Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider.  In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire.  The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.

 

Inner Preparation: The Mindset:  In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil.  If you fall asleep, is that ok?  What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.

 

Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to its limits.   Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours.  Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important.  Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time.  You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness.  The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn.  I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment.  My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun.  I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.

 

We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5pm on the night of the Solstice.  Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.

  1.  Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space.  In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
  2. The Vigil Opening Ceremony.  There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
    1. We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
    2. We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
    3. We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
    4. Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
    5. In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
    6. We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.

It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons.  These choices should be honored.  Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night.  There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony.  A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case.  This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

In my experience, there  are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of fesating and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark.  The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest.  I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the ewvening.  Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.

 

Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:

 

Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy.  Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm.  Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm. 

 

Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night.  The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song.  People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.

 

Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths.  As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.

 

Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.

 

Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep.  One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated.  So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others.  This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world.  There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.

  1. A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land.  They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
  2. Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
  3. Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
  4. Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns.  Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
  5. Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
  6. Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land.  I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land.  So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.

 

Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space.  Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!