Category Archives: Respecting Earth

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Druid Tree Workings: Finding and Working with Grandmother Trees

The Ancient Maple - An Elder of the Land

The Ancient Maple – Grandmother Tree.  This grandmother lives in a middle of a rock pile.  the three branching trunks signify she may have been cut at one time and regrew. Grandmothers can be stubborn!

A grandmother is a really special person. I remember going to my grandmother’s house when I was a little girl–it was literally my favorite place to go. My grandmother and I would go to the thrift store and buy used clothing, then spend the morning sewing doll clothes and repurposing those old clothes for amazing new clothes for me–skirts that swirled out wide and colorfully printed tops.  We’d go out into the garden and pick herbs, and she’d cook up an incredible pot of mushroom soup.  She was full of generosity and love and always fostered my creativity and joy.  My other grandmother was quite different–she was a bit of a firecracker, sassy and short-tempered. A steel mill worker’s wife, she knew how to make do with nothing and taught us the importance of honoring what we had and taking time for family. She nurtured her grandchildren, bringing us plates of crackers with peanut butter and butter, sitting on the porch watching us play, and simply being present.  Perhaps you have your own fond memories of your grandmothers, or you have others who have served a similar role in your life.

I start with a discussion here about human grandmothers because in talking about developing deep tree relationships, associating tree work to things we already understand can be helpful.  Today, we are going to talk about finding and honoring the “grandmother” trees that you may have encountered, those ancient wise trees that nurture and support you in similar ways to a human grandmother.This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

What are “Grandmother” Trees?

Grandmother Beech

Grandmother Beech, a nurturing soul who offered me these teachings.

I first was introduced to the concept of “Grandmother” trees by a group of ancient beech trees I had found in the forest.  I had spent two days before doing some deep and pretty painful spiritual work as part of a spiritual retreat, and the grove of ancient beeches welcomed me in and invited me to stay and rest for a few hours. The photo here is of one of these amazing grandmother beech trees. I put my blanket down in the middle of the grove of ancient grandmothers, and they nurtured me.  I dozed off, and the grandmothers appeared more human in my dream, offering me visions and tending me with their gentle hands.  They gave me the message to recall other grandmother trees and share this concept.

Grandmother trees are special trees that function in many ways similar to a human grandmother. They nurture you and feed your spirit.  They are there, welcoming and wise. These trees are usually some of the oldest trees that you meet–kind, loving trees, full of the weight of wisdom. They have the weight of centuries upon them and in their old age, they have much to share. Like a human grandmother, these trees have their own personalities–some more nurturing, some sharper, some quieter–but they are always there to give and to experience the connection with you.

The nice thing about grandmother trees is that you can have as many of them in your life as you want. Some of these trees may become a long and stabilizing presence for you, and some may come or be in your life only a short while. Either way, they are a blessing and an excellent way to cultivate deeper relationships with trees and the living earth.

Finding Your Grandmother Trees

Now that I’ve shared the concept with you, you can take this idea in a number of different directions.  Here are some options:

Identifying Your grandmother trees. The first thing you could do is think about the really meaningful trees that you’ve had interaction with that might fit this category. Create a list of those “grandmother” trees, those trees that may hold a special place for you. If you don’t yet have any grandmother trees, then skip to some of the later steps.

Interaction in spirit for those that were lost. Some of your grandmother trees may be left only in your memory.  An ancient crab apple tree was my first grandmother tree.  She was, ironically, located behind my grandmother’s house on an adjacent property that was delightfully overgrown with weeds and that was an old cider apple orchard.  When I was small, my cousins and I spent a lot of time with this tree–she had amazing branches with different “rooms” that you could climb into and it was so enjoyable to play in this tree.  We would eat her sour apples and gather them up in quantity to take to our grandmother, who would turn them into pies.  Sadly, this incredible tree was cut when I was still a child, where a neighbor decided to turn this abandoned wild orchard into a lawn. Even though this grandmother tree is gone, her memory is with me, and I return to the spot where she once grew.  I remember her, and I honor her, and the nutrients that she shared with me I carry in my bones.  Thus, it is easy to do a spirit journey to reconnect with grandmother apple and still sit at her feet and hear her wisdom.

Seek out new grandmother trees.  A grandmother tree is usually easy to spot–she’s the largest and oldest tree.  If she’s in a park, you’ll often find people congregating around her simply because they seem to want to be near her.  Or you might find one of the more remote grandmother trees, those trees that are found hidden away in forests. Here where I live in Western PA, nearly all of our forests were logged repeatedly, and thus, the oldest grandmother trees are almost always found along what was abandoned fence rows or in the middle of a rock pile (which at one time, would have been a field).  It might be that your own landscape has its own ways of finding grandmother trees.  In truth, they are not hard to find, at least not in areas with natural wood cover–just go hiking or to a nearby park and you will find them.

Working with Your Grandmother Trees

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Another amazing grandmother tree I know–a white pine! She reaches to the sky and brightens everything around her.

Find the face of the grandmother tree. Many grandmother trees, being the oldest and wisest of trees, have faces (more on face of the tree here).  If you look, you can see their amazing faces. These faces may lend you insight into the personality of this particular grandmother.  Speak to the grandmother, looking at her faces and different expressions.  Look also at her bark patterns, root patterns, and how the branches in her crown branch out.  You can learn quite a bit about this grandmother tree from these simple observations.

Build a relationship.  Like all relationships with nature, you should focus first on reciprocation and gratitude.  See if the tree is willing to communicate (these trees nearly always are, and welcome communication).  Offer gratitude and offerings.  Sit beneath your tree and look at how she grows, how her branches come in different directions.  If she is willing, sit against your tree and exchange energy, allowing her energy to flow into you and yours into her.  Play music or sing for your tree, and listen to her own song in the wind.  As you cultivate this sacred relationship, your tree may have gifts for you–a branch, a leaf, or her nuts/seeds.  She may ask you to do things or bring her things.  She may have words of wisdom for you.

Not all grandmother trees are enormous--this ancient hawthorn may grow in the understory, but she has much to teach.

Not all grandmother trees are enormous–this ancient hawthorn may grow in the understory, but she has much to teach.

And like all things, consider how your relationship is reciprocalDon’t only come when you need something–come just to spend time.  When you do, consider bringing gifts for your tree–a song, a poem, a story.  These ancient trees may be so old that they once had other such friendships over time, and they will certainly value yours.

I can’t underestimate this kind of regular interaction. Every time that I visit one of my own grandmother trees, even if it has been years (say, from a place that I moved away), I feel that both the grandmother tree and I are enriched by the experience.  And even when I can’t visit them physically, I visit them in spirit!

Learn. The most important thing you can do with these grandmother trees is open yourself up to their wisdom. Some of the oldest grandmother trees remember times before, times before colocalization and cultural genocide destroyed the land’s native peoples; times before the land was stripped bare for greed and industrialization. In their quiet voices, they will teach you: of their medicine, of their magic, and of how to relearn how to be connected to the wisdom of the landscape and tend the land.  They have more to teach you than any human possibly could, just take the time to listen.

Closing Thoughts

While the grandmother tree idea seems like a simple thing, it is an amazing way to help you cultivate deeper relationships with trees all over your landscape.  I have several trees that I am as close to as my own human friends, that I visit often, and that we share much together.  I would love to hear from you and perhaps you can share some of your own experiences with these grandmother trees and the blessings they offer!

News – The New Druidry Handbook!

Druidry Handbook – Classic Edition

As a final note, I’m excited to announce that I’ve written the new forward to Weiser Classics edition of The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer.  I am honored to be asked to write the introduction and share how much The Druidry Handbook and Greer’s work have shaped my own druid practice.  It is now available so I hope that you’ll check it out!

Druid Tree Workings: Principles for Establishing Deep Relationships with the Trees, Part I

Trees provide an abundant amount of resources…shelter, food, fire, friendship–but they also as this blog has shown, can work various forms of magic through their energetics, through their lore, through their divinatory meanings.  They are some of the most kind, giving, and accessible beings on the landscape, and certainly a place to not only begin a nature spiritual practice but deepen it over time. As I’ve written on this blog, working with the trees must be a matter of exchange–honoring them, treating them as elders, listening to their stories and songs–and if you want to work tree magic, this magic requires us to be in a sacred relationship with the trees.  I’ll be doing a short series on how to establish, maintain, and grow relationships with plants and trees.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

In this first post of this new series, we are going to focus on the concept of establishing a relationship with trees.  I start here, with the concept of relationship, as the cultural traditions of the Western World, especially for those here in the US, come out of a cultural tradition of colonialization and exploitation.  In the US at present, for example, there is no concept of the inherent sanctity of life, nor the idea of having any kind of inner life, but rather, the basic assumption is that trees–and all of nature–exist as a resource to extract and use as humans see fit.  In a rural area where I live in the US, it is very upsetting to see how people interact with nature: the assumptions surrounding the rights of people to do what they want to private land, the assumptions surrounding how best to manage land, and the lack of respect for all life.  Even for those of us walking a druid path, if we grew up in the West, we probably have a host of subconscious assumptions that will take years to recognize, interrogate, and eventually move past.  I’ve written about this before, so I’ll not belabor the point, but this challenge is why everything must be rooted in relationship and respect and why any conversations about tree magic or working with trees begin here.

I also will mention to new readers that I’ve written a lot on trees on this blog!  Other trees in this series including my entire Sacred Trees of the East Coast Series, which explores the magic, mythology, and uses of a variety of trees: Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, Oak, Devil’s Walking Stick, Rhododendron, Ironwood, and Wild Grape.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, helping tree spirits pass,  and the magic of the understory.

Four Foundational Principles for Tree Relationships

So let us begin by thinking about what we know about relationships already. We can see that the best relationships are built on a foundation of four principles: reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Reciprocity. Relationships that work are mutually beneficial to both parties, in that both parties gain something from the exchange.  Relationships with trees should be no less so.  In cultivating a relationship with the trees, it’s important to recognize that nature is not there to serve you, at your own whim, or when you want it.  Both parties can enter into a mutually, reciprocal beneficial relationship. Trees are often friendly; they want to talk and interact, but they also can be wary, particularly in regions of the world that have seen them exploited over the centuries.  Part of mutuality is recognizing and respecting the agency of a tree. Always ask permission, recognizing the agency of trees.  Trees have a right to say “no” just as people do.  Respect them with your words and your actions. Mutuality must form the foundation of any relationship with the trees.

Gratitude. A final core practice to working with trees is always working from a place of gratitude.  Be thankful and offer gratitude for every interaction.  I have a lot written on gratitude practices that I see as central to any nature spirituality work, and these practices likely can be central to your work with trees.  You might leave physical offerings (a small pinch of herbs that you prepared, a small cake, or a little homebrew) or you might do something directly benefiting the tree (like picking up garbage, offering your own liquid gold, bringing some compost for the roots, etc).  You can also offer your thanks, and send thanks from the heart, during each encounter you have with the trees.  Gratitude should always be a part of your practice.

Care. Care is a fundamental part of any nature-centered practice, and I truly believe that an ethic of care is at the heart of transforming our world. IIn his preface to Sacred Plant Medicine, Stephen Harrod Bhuhner describes new research on heart EM fields that demonstrate that our hearts project a measurable field–and this field can be sensed by others.  This means we project as much from our hearts as we do from minds and mouths.  Trees are unsurprisingly good at picking up our emotions–we project these just as loudly as words.  Further, on a broader scale, it is the lack of care (and the maximization of greed) that has gotten us into the Anthropocene, and I believe it is coming back to a place of deep care that can get us beyond it into a better balance with nature.

Right actions.  Actions in the world matter. There are two aspects to this: both our immediate actions and our broader lives in the world.  On the immediate action side, it is important to always act in a way that is reverent and respectful of nature–and in particular, the trees you are working with. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.  On the issue of broader actions, cultivating relationships with nature also are rooted in how we live, how much we take from the earth, and how we interact with all life creates an energetic resonance that can be read by the nature spirits.  Remember that it is not just when we walk in the woods or engage in ritual–this resonance happens all the time. For my personal path, I have found that it wasn’t enough for me to seek the trees–I also had to shift myself and my life to more sustainable practices.  But the shifts weren’t forced–as I went deeper into my spiritual work with trees, the things in my culture that energetically bound me grew less and less important.  While these shifts took work, each one brought me closer to my true self, further along, the path of sustainable living, and also cultivated a deeper relationship with the natural world and the trees.

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

All four of these principles are obviously connected, with the goal of them being to help you cultivate a relationship that is respectful and honors the tree that you want to grow a deeper relationship with. These four principles also help you take further steps in moving away from issues of exploitation, colonization, and destruction of the natural world that so many humans are now engaged in.

Meditating on the Four Principles: So now that we’ve covered the four key principles to keep in mind, I would suggest spending some time thinking about these principles and meditating on them.  Consider each of them in turn with your current spiritual work with nature and the future work with trees you are hoping to engage in.  Consider what reciprocity, gratitude, care, and right action mean for you in general, and in cultivating a relationship with trees.  This foundational work will help you quite a bit and will provide you with ethics to guide your path as you move forward.

Key Aspects about Tree Relationships

In this second part of the post, I wanted to share some additional information on cultivating tree relationships.  These are things to keep in mind as you start and/or deepen your work.

All relationships are different.  Each person is going to have a different relationship with trees.  You can think about this in parallel to your relationships with humans: you have those of close friends who are equals, those of various kinds of mentorship, those between parents and children.  I have found that the same is often true of trees.  One kind is based on mutual respect and equality, such as when I meet a mature tree in the forest.  One is based on care–such as when I’m establishing new trees.  Yet another is based on mentorship–when I am seeking guidance from a wisened elder tree, one who has seen many more years than I have. A good mindset to approach such a situation is simply to be open to learning, to give, to receive, and to see how the relationship develops.

You might think about relationships you have with a few close friends. It is likely that each of them knows you in a slightly different way based on how long you’ve known each other and what you might have in common.  Given this, it’s possible that you will learn a certain side of a tree, and someone else might have a very different relationship.  This is why regardless of how many books or materials you read about others’ interpretations of trees (including stuff I post here on this blog!) it is critical to developing your own relationship.  Trust what you experience firsthand, realizing that the same oak tree might work with you much differently than me :).

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

As you grow in sensitivity and awareness, your work with trees will deepen.  If you are new to this path, give yourself time and space to learn and cultivate the sensitivity, awareness, and inner senses necessary to learn how to communicate with trees.  There is a whole set of skills that you have to cultivate in order to hear what a tree may want to communicate to you.  These include learning to listen with your inner senses, learning to focus, learning to clear your mind of your own thoughts, and learning to trust yourself that what you are experiencing is legitimate and not “all in your head.”  All of these skills take time and almost no one is good at them when they start.  For example, for me, it was almost a year before I had quieted my mind enough through meditation to let the voices of any spirits come through.  After 15 years, I can talk to pretty much any plant or tree just like I was having a conversation with a person.  But that didn’t come overnight–it was a skill to cultivate.  I shared some basic information on how to start this process here.

Relationships require time and will change over time. Just like with any other relationship, the more that you put in, the more that you will gain from a relationship.  I have found that most trees are always excited and willing to work with you.  Try to spend time with them frequently, and maintain your relationship, just as you would any other.  Further, as you continue to work with them, you will find that your relationships with trees will deepen particularly over time (just as your relationship will with any human).  More shared experiences, more conversations = more connections.  If you think about the relationships you have with old friends or people with whom you shared a tremendous experience–those relationships are different.  They are different because you share a history, a built-up trust over time.  Trees are very much the same way– you must build trust, you must put in the work of the relationship…you must do what you say you are going to do.  With this, incredibly deep relationships can be built.

Many trees have differing energy levels based on the season. Most areas have multiple seasons, and those seasons will determine how “active” trees may be and if they are able to talk.  Here in Western PA, we have four seasons, with the bulk of our deciduous trees going into hibernation for the winter.  I have found that when it is winter and the trees are bare, you aren’t going to get a lot from them–if anything.  Maybe you can wake one up, but I think that would be pretty rude.  Trees that are evergreen (like conifers) usually are always awake and you can work with them.  In our area, I have also found that the trees get very active in late winter once it starts to warm up and the sap begins to flow.  I have written more about considering the role of the seasons here.

In all of these things, it is easiest to think about extending what you know about cultivating any kind of relationship to that of trees and other aspects of nature.

I think that’s enough for this post!  In the next post, I’ll move away from thinking and into action, and we’ll start to cover a range of specific activities that you can do to deepen your relationship with the trees.  Blessings!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022). For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Beyond the Anthropocene: Druidry into the Future

Druidry into the future

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots, and there have been several distinct “phases” of druid practice historically. While it’s not critical that the practitioner of the modern druid traditions know what I share, it is helpful to have a sense of where the tradition comes from and the forces that shaped it–particularly so that we can think about where we are going.  I want to talk today about both the past of druidry in order that we might talk about its future.  How do we shape our tradition today so that we become the honored ancestors of tomorrow? What is the work that we might consider doing now, as druids, to create a tradition that endures?

Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids, a group of wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The Ancient Druids lived in areas of Britain and Gaul (modern-day France) as well as in other parts of Europe; the earliest records of the Ancient Druids start around 300 BCE and go about the second century CE, when they were wiped out by the Romans. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors. The druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments of what their tradition looked like. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

Centuries later, at a time when industrialization began to rise in the in the British Isles in 18th century, a new group of people in the British Isles became interested in the Ancient Druids. Modern Druidry’s spiritual ancestors watched as the wheels of industrialization radically and irrevocably changed the landscape: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; deforestation and pollution becoming commonplace; and the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. Modern druidry’s spiritual ancestors began to shape a new druid tradition, inspired by the ancient druids, and beginning with the fragments that had been left behind by the ancients: texts and stone circles alike. The Druid Revivalists reached deeply and creatively into history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The Druid Revival movement, therefore, sought to reconnect with nature through ancient and ancestral roots in a time where the broader wheels of industrialization was pushing humans into a very different kind—and ultimately destructive—relationship with nature. It is for this same reason that people today are drawn to the modern druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and what is missing is often rooted in that lack of connection with the living earth. (Note: This discussion of the rise of modern druidry is heavily influenced by the work of John Michael Greer in the Druidry Handbook.

It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world. Despite the early promise of industrialization and, later, consumerism, we are now living in a world on the brink of ecological collapse. Many of us recognize that we must make a different way forward, and druidry offers one such way. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered modern people sources of inspiration and reconnection. The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry, then, is helping us find our way “home.”

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage--rebuilding sacred landscape features

Stone Circles – Honoring the ways of our ancestors and creating the sacred spaces for the future

Sharing historically where the druid tradition came from helps us get to what I see as the core of druidry today: focusing on what an ecologically-centered, wildcrafted, localized and living druidry today can look like, how it can help us reconnect, and how it offers us spiritual and practical tools for responding—and taking care of ourselves and the living earth—during the ecological crisis of our age. 

Descending in spirit from the Ancient Druids and descending in principle from the druid revival several centuries ago, the Druid tradition in the 21st century is shaping up to be a vibrant one that focuses both on drawing deeply from the past but also creating a living tradition, and evolving tradition, that meets the needs of both druids and the earth today. I really want to push us to deepen and extend druid practices and the druid tradition—not by eliminating or removing pieces from the existing tradition, but building upon it.

Druidry, as a tradition in its current form (that is, as a path of nature spirituality) has been around less than two centuries. Many druids are scattered around the world, being in small groups or always as solo practitioners. Communities of druids are formalizing, expanding, and establishing their own traditions and paths, rooted in the frameworks of the druid revival tradition.

Druidry is a language that we are starting—only now—to learn how to speak. The metaphor of how a new language is formed is a helpful metaphor in terms of the druid tradition. New languages often form from what is known as a “contact zone.” This is when two established languages come into contact (say, through trade, resettlement, or colonialization) and speakers of each language intermingle and have to figure out how to communicate. What initially forms is what linguists call a “pidgin” language, a language with limited vocabulary from both languages, simplified grammar (usually borrowed from one of the languages, often the dominant one), and limited ways of communicating. This is not anyone’s native language, but something created out of a basic need to communicate. In time, typically a generation or two, the pidgin language becomes a creole language. This happens when children are born hearing the language and acquire it as native speakers. These new native speakers help shape the pidgin language beyond its initial simplified form with more elaborate grammatical structures that can allow for more complex meaning, a richer vocabulary, and so on. Eventually, given enough time, the creole language becomes its own language that is distinct and fully independent from either the parent languages.

Learning how to speak a new language of connection

Many of us are speaking druidry as a pidgin language—we began to walk this path within a contact zone of other dominant religions and childhood religions that have shaped our thinking, reactions, and beliefs. And the basic forms of druidry, like those published in many pioneering books and early curricula from this tradition, helped us get the job done as we developed our unique nature spirituality.  These included basic practices like connecting with nature, celebrating the seasons, practicing the bardic arts, working with spirit. But as we grow into our own druidry, both as individuals and as communities, the kinds of material and practices becoming part of this tradition are expanding considerably.

I believe that druidry as a community is in the place of transitioning from a pidgin to a creole language. As more and more people find our tradition and practice it seriously, and as children begin to be born into and grow up in this tradition, as we are increasingly surrounded by groves and communities, we are able to fully develop and expand various parts of the druid tradition to fit these expanded needs. I’ve witnessed this here in the United States on the East Coast, for example, with tremendous growth not only in the number of druid gatherings per year and number of people wanting to attend, but also the kinds of activities we now do at gatherings: community building, coming of age ceremonies, bardic competitions, croning, and saging rituals, the development of permanent sacred spaces and the creation of widespread energetic networks, and more. Our language of druidry is expanding, and each new voice and perspective has much to offer.

So then, how might we “expand” the language of druidry?  I think every single person on this path, from those new to those who have been walking it for a long time has the opportunity to do so.  Here are some of the ways we might engage in this practice:

1. Develop and Share Wildcrafted and Localized Druidries. While druidry originated in the British Isles, there are more people who practice druidry worldwide and here in North America than ever before.  While I think we should see the British Isles as part of the wisdom and background, it is part of that original contact zone language for those of us who are not in the British Isles.  We will certainly be inspired by the mythology, sacred sites, and spiritual practices–but we must embrace the idea of creating something new that is specifically adapted to where we are rooted today.  For those who don’t live in the British Isles, it is very important to develop locally-based and wildcrafted practices.  The Ancient Order of Druids in America is very committed to a wildcrafted druidry path and has an entire curriculum built around wildcrafted druidry as a core principle. Through learning about ecology, planting trees, spending time in nature, and exploring nature through the bardic, ovate, and druid arts, druids get a deeper sense of place and are able to thus, create a wildcrafted druidry that fits their own immediate ecosystem.

Once you have developed these approaches to druidry, I really want to encourage you to share them.  Put that information out there in the world so that others who live in similar bioregions can learn localized practices.  If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that’s a lot of what I’m doing here–my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, the Allegheny Ogham, how to make Tree Incenses, Acorn Flour, Tree Wassailing, so many more pieces–these are all pieces of localized druidry that I have developed while living in both the US Midwest and the US Mid-Atlantic regions.  If these pieces help others, the tradition becomes richer and more robust. 

2. Put tired debates of authenticity behind us and instead focus on today and tomorrow. Perhaps this is my revival druid path bias showing, but I am growing very tired of talking about authenticity. I don’t think it moves our tradition forward in any meaningful way, and I think it is disrespectful to our direct spiritual ancestors. Yes, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for taking liberties and creating texts; I find these attempts to discredit them problematic for several reasons, particularly for those who practice druidry.  First, they were working within the bounds of acceptable practice within their own age, not ours. This was an age where forgery and plagiarism of texts were common. Second, the practices of the druid revival tradition work—as attested by tens of thousands of druids worldwide.  If it works, obviously, it was inspired. Third, at this point, some druid revival texts, such as Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas, have considerably shaped our tradition for several centuries. And finally, regardless of some of their practices, the Druid Revivalists as a group had an enormous impact in a wide range of fields including modern archeology, poetry, culture, and certainly, nature spirituality.  We have fragments from the ancients, and we have a rich history from the revival–both of those shape who we are today.  But it is modern practitioners–you and I–shape who we are tomorrow. So I suggest we set aside these discussions, acknowledge that the practices work, and think about what we are doing today–and how we can move into a better tomorrow.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

4.  Focus on being a good ancestor. It strikes me that in the age of the present predicament we face, one of the most important things we can do is live today in a way that makes us good ancestors. What can we do today–spiritually, physically, socially, creatively–to create a better world than the one we live in? That preserves the diversity of life on this planet? That helps humans reconnect with the living earth?  These are the kinds of questions that I find really important now, both for my own practice and in the mentoring and support that I offer those in the AODA and broader druid community.  Druidry offers an alternative perspective to the dominant narratives that are currently killing our planet.  It is important that concepts like nature spirituality are rooted firmly now so that these ideas may flourish beyond our own lives. 

5. Create refugia and regenerate ecosystems. As I’ve discussed before on this blog, there are physical and metaphysical practices we can do now, given the challenges we face as a world.  One of the most powerful we can do is preserve small pockets of life and foster ecosystems in any way we can.  Refugia are how so many species–including humans–survived the last ice age.  Small pockets of abundant life not only support the many species on this planet (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, etc) but also offer humans places to deepen their connection to nature.  You can learn more about how to create a refugia or one example of a refugia here.  Another method that is extremely empowering is learning and practicing permaculture design.  These approaches allow us to do more than honor nature or work with it metaphysically, but be a force of good right now, today, and a champion of all life.

6.  Practice resilience.  If events of the last year have taught us anything, it is that the concept of resilience is going to be a critical skill in the years and decades to come.  Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems were those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure.  This same concept, I believe, is central to any spiritual work we do.  We need to become both physically and spiritually resilient so that we can continue to face the difficulties that will only grow in seriousness as we live our lives and continue to walk our spiritual paths.

But resilience isn’t easy–it is a process.  I would argue that it requires both inner and outer work. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave. Practicing resilience requires us to privilege our own self-care, put things in perspective, and continue to work through our own feelings. It requires us to understand our own fears, weaknesses, and shadow selves.  Resilence in our physical lives is something that, thankfully, many more people are attending to now than they were a year ago.  It means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented (like global pandemics or food shortages).  Physical resilience is about having your basic hierarchy of needs met, even in a time of disruption. It is a good time to start growing some of your own food, look into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and make sure that you have a monthm at a minimum, of stores to meet your needs. Physical resilience is also about being flexible and opportunistic, almost like the understory trees I wrote about several weeks ago–learning how to be resourceful and adaptable.  I would argue that resilience is a mindset that you can learn.  Resilience is the great challenge of our age, and will allow us to face any other challenges with strength, wisdom, and peace.  It will certainly help facilitate our work in other areas, and will allow us to thrive even in difficult conditions.

I think these are only some of the things we might do now to help us shape a better future for tomorrow.  But I like to think along these lines, in a positive way, because that allows all of us to do good in the world and keep moving in peace, joy, and hope.

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Ironwood or Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Carpinus caroliniana)

Ironwood tree ecoprint from my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle!

There are actually two tree species that are known as both “hornbeam” and “Ironwood” along the US East Coast and into the midwest: The American Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  After doing a lot of research and interaction with both of these trees, I see them as interchangeable.  First, they are both in the Beech family (Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae). They actually have a very similar growth habit and look to their bark (like muscles), their wood is quite similar, and the hop-looking fruits are similar on both trees.  Thus, if you can find either of these trees, you can apply the information I’m sharing.  I have primarily focused on Ostrya Virginiana (Ironwood/Hop Hornbeam) in my comments here as it is the more dominant tree in my specific ecosystem.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

The Ironwood (Ostrya Virginia) has many names in the US, including leverwood, ironwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  These names can teach us quite a bit about the uses of this tree.

Ecology

Ironwood is a small, native tree to the Eastern and Midwest in the United States.  It is an understory tree, and thus, even the largest specimens are typically under 40 feet tall (I have yet to see one even that tall).  These trees are widely dispersed in the US, spanning from Minnesota and down to parts of Louisana and the whole way up the eastern seaboard to Maine–and everywhere in between.

The most distinct feature of this tree is the muscle-like quality of the wood–the wood is a smooth gray and as it grows, it twists and turns, looking almost like biceps or muscles–this tree has clearly been working out!  The tree has leaves like beech and can be mistaken for the American beech upon first glance.  The trees often lean and grow crooked; the largest specimen here on our property is growing in a haphazard way over the stream and into the bank!  The crown is often flat-topped and open, partially because it is a fully shade/understory tree.

I have always seen Ironwoods in forests or along streams, although their growth habit may be different outside of the Allegheny Mountains in Western PA.  I typically see these trees 15-20 feet tall, often thriving in deciduous forests in large thickets.  Most often, you can find them in deciduous forests growing alongside sugar maple, beech, oak, hickory, and birch. They are typically found in shady forests, on damp hillsides, and especially along the edges of streams, where they can handle occasional seasonal flooding and prevent erosion.

John Eastman writes about this tree in his Book of Forest and Thicket.  He notes that the tree is important to wildlife.  Birds, including pheasant, ruffed grouse, and northern bobwhites eat the catkins.  In the winter months, warblers, foxes, the game birds above, and squirrels eat the nutlets.  Beavers also use them in their building and white-tailed deer can eat the foliage, particularly in the winter.

Historical and Herbal Uses

The strength of these trees is incredible–the wood is very tight-grained, white, and quite dense.  I cut some rounds a while ago for woodburning and had to significantly turn up the heat on my burner to make any mark (usually the highest is reserved for ash, hickory, or oak, but it had to go higher than those three!)  Historically, it was used for handles and fence posts for this reason and while it has a small circumference, it is a mighty tree. As I described above, there is some historical record of this tree being used for handles and smaller wooden objects.  However, primarily due to its size, it is not a tree that is part of the lumber industry.  John Eastman notes that if you attempt to chop down this tree, the axe will literally bounce back at you–hence the well-earned name of “Ironwood.”  Finally, Eastman notes that because of its density, its charcoal was once used in making gunpowder.

Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants describes a range of uses that Ironwood had in historical times in North America.  Of the physical uses, the heartwood of the trees (the strongest part) were used for things requiring strength such as ox goads, cogwheels, handles, sleigh runners, and finishing poles.  Erichsen-Brown notes that the Chippewa used the wood for the frames of their dwellings and as poles in wigwams.

Erichsen-Brown also notes some of the traditional Native American uses of the tree as medicine.  The strong decoction of the heartwood of branches was used for a general tonic, having actions on the liver, kidneys, and muscles.  A strong heartwood decoction was used for “auge” (general sickness), particularly with intermittent fever.  It was considered an alterative, supportive of the liver function and for dyspepsia.  The Chippewa specifically used the heart of the Ironwood along with the inner bark of chokecherry and roots of the hazel and white oak to address lung hemorrhages and other lung conditions.  Again, the heartwood was used as a strong tea to support kidney function and those dealing with stiff joints or rheumatism.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used it as one of several “cramp barks” and to treat the flux.

Despite these sources being detailed in Erichsen-Brown, a thorough read of my herbal books comes up empty–suggesting that this tree is not well used, if at all, in the herbal community here in the US or beyond.

Magical Uses

Despite a range of uses physically and herbally, I was unable to find any reference to this tree in any magical sources, including in the American Hoodoo tradition, within traditional Western occultism, or in folk practices.  This isn’t surprising to me–many of the trees that are dominant in North America and that do not grow in the old world do not get any treatment in typical magical texts.

Divination Meanings

Since there is not a magical or mythological tradition associated with this tree, I’d like to propose three things that are tied to the ecology, history, and herbal uses of this tree.

Strength. The first and obvious choice for a  tree called “Ironwood” is unyielding strength.  The wood is beyond strong, toughest in the face of floods, axes, and anything else.  Thus, we can gain tremendous strength from this tree.  I also think that we can tie this to traditional Native American herbal uses of this tree–the heartwood of this tree, the very core of the tree, offers relief from a variety of ailments.  I plan on making a decoction of Ironwood heartwood and using it to strengthen and endure.

Endurance and Stamina. The second obvious choice for Ironwood is stamina and endurance.  I learned this by observing the Ironwoods that grow along the creek behind my house.  We had several 100-year floods in 2019.  These are floods that are supposed to happen once in a hundred years, but with the extreme weather events that are too common in the 21st century, we had three of them in a month.  The mighty Ironwoods by the stream were 3 feet under the flood waters…when the waters receded, the ironwoods were still there–leaves and all!  These trees endured countless floods that year–and held the riverbank firm.

Small but Mighty. The final meaning that we can derive from the Ironwood is that one can be small, even underwhelming, but still mighty.  The ironwood is one of the smaller, less noticeable, and less known trees of the Eastern US–and yet, it is one of the most mighty.  Stronger even than oak, hickory, or ash, the Ironwood teaches us that you don’t have to be flashy or large to carr ya quiet strength.  As someone who is routinely underestimated because of how I look, I really appreciate this energy present in Ironwood.

Well, dear readers, those are my thoughts, experience, and research on the amazing Ironwood tree.  I would love to hear from you–do you have stories or experiences to share that can help us develop sacred uses and divination meanings for this tree?  Blessings!

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow) Tradition at Imbolc and through the Light Half of the Year

Last year’s butzemann, dressed in her finery (Technically, she was a Butzefrau!)

For the last three years, I’ve spent part of my Imbolc celebration making a Butzemann for our land.  The Butzemann is a really interesting tradition from PA Dutch (German) culture called the Butzemann (literally, Boogieman).  In a nutshell, the Butzemann is a magical scarecrow that protects the land for a season.  He is created at Imbolc from natural materials and given clothes and a heart. At the Spring Equinox, the Butzemann is shown the property and the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann, naming him/her for the season.  Then the Butzemann is displayed prominently throughout the season to protect the and.  Before or on Samhain, the Butzemann is burned and the protective spirit is released and then at Imbolc, a new tradition begins. Today I thought I’d share this tradition with my readers, in case they also wanted to build this tradition into their celebrations.  The time is right to start thinking about creating your Butzeman for the coming season!

As I mentioned, this tradition comes to me from a few sources: the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage that is part of my ancestry, talking with local people about how they construct scarecrows in my region, and also some of the fabulous research of the Urglaawe community, who have been working tirelessly to develop a PA Dutch heathenry and who have done much research on the folk traditions surviving in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a very magical land. With the founding of Pennsylvania, William Penn offered more religious tolerance than could be found in most parts of Europe during the colonial era.  Thus, we had large groups of Germans (PA Dutch or PA Deutsch) among other radicals like Quakers and Shakers settle in Pennsylvania. As you drive through Pennsylvania, it is not uncommon to see pentacles and pentagrams protecting houses or hex signs on barns.  Even as you drive through the countryside, you can often see the scarecrows (Butzemann) in the fields, homemade and protecting the crops. And of course, we have the most famous weather prognosticator in the land: Punxatawney Phil, the magical groundhog!  These traditions were passed on in small ways through my grandmother to me, and I’m proud to continue them as part of my own spiritual path.

When the Butzemann tradition was taking root in Pennsylvania and being adapted from the old world, most of the people living here were farmers or depended in part on raising their own animals and growing their own food to feed themselves.  Having a blight strike the crops, having animals sicken and die, or having a drought could be the difference between thriving and starvation during the long winter months.  Given this, doing magical work to protect the home, the land, the crops, and the animals was central.  Even if you don’t have crops or farm animals to protect, you can certainly create a Butzemann to protect your home or place of dwelling.  As a homesteader with many bird flocks and gardens, this tradition is an extremely important one to my own practice and something I do every year.

In my own research, I have found that the Butzemann tradition has many different varieties here in Pennsylvania. In speaking with several of my German friends from Germany, I have also been told that this tradition has a number of approaches in Germany.  One of my German friends told me that I could certainly make a “Butzefrau” (a female Butz) if I preferred!

Imbolc: Constructing your Butzemann

The Back of the Garden Butzemann!

The first step is to construct your Butzemann at Imbolc. I like to go through the woods and our fields and glean dried grasses, corn cobs, gourds, and so forth to make my Butzemann. Sometimes, I gather these in the period between Samhain and the Winter solstice if I feel led, or sometimes I just gather them in the week or so leading up to Imbolc. This includes anything leftover from the garden, straw, etc. You can also create a lifesize Butzemann by sewing old clothing shut and then stuffing your entire Butzemann with straw.  This kind of Butzemann looks great watching over a garden!  Really, there is no right or wrong way to construct your Butzemann except you want to explicitly use materials from the land where the Butzemann will be protected if at all possible and everything should be natural so that it can burn.

Here are some of the features of a traditional Butzemann as you are constructing yours at Imbolc:

  • The Butzemann is constructed or filled with herbs, leaves, straw, sticks, and other natural materials from the land over which he will protect.  This is very important–he must be physically connected and constructed from the and.
  • The Butzemann is given clothing (regular size or smaller that you sew) out of natural materials that can burn.  You can also give him a hat.  Remember that all of the clothes on the Butzemann are burned at Samhain, so keep this in mind. The clothing is the first “gift” to the spirit who will reside in the Butzemann.
  • The Butzemann is given a heart  (I like to use a dried nut or acorn for this) to help bring the Butzemann to life.  You can put additional symbols, sigils, or words on the heart to assist the Butzemann.
  • If you want, you can put other things in the Butzemann (runes, ogham, prayers, slips of paper, and so forth) to help with protective magic and enchantment
  • The Butzemann should have some representation of eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth.  This helps him have all of his senses, which is necessary for protecting the flocks, home, or land that he is placed on to guard.

As you are creating your Butzemann, a name may come to you.  Or, it may come later as we approach the Spring Equinox.  At this point, the Butzemann is not yet a magical creation–it is just the shell.

Spring Equinox: The Breath of Life and Protecting the Land

So much harvest thanks to the protection of the Butzemann!

The Spring Equinox is the time where the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann and where he goes from being a simple shell to a house for a protective spirit that will guard your land for the coming season.

The first thing that is done is that the Butzemann is ritually named and a good, protective spirit is welcomed in.  You can create your own ritual for this or you can use this one from the Urglaawe community.  The steps of the ritual are:

  • Open up a sacred space (being aware you will be moving through your property)
  • Breathe life into the Butzemann (literally breathe or blow on the Butzemann); this invites a good spirit to enter and stay for the season
  • Give the Butzemann a name (see naming, below)
  • Close the space.

As the second part of your ritual, you should walk your Butzemann around the property he is to guard.  Then, place him somewhere prominently so that he can see the area he is to guard clearly.  It is good to make regular offerings to your Butzemann, speak to him by name, and visit him as the season progresses.  This helps establish reciprocation between you and the guardian spirit of the Butzemann.

Naming conventions: The Butzemann tradition has some very specific naming conventions.  Each generation of Butzemann you create takes not only his own name, but the names of his predecessors.  The naming conventions are a bit tricky, so I suggest looking at this link  for more detailed information.  In a nutshell, the first generation will have a name with “der Nei” indicating the first. Everything after the first generation (each year you create a Butzemann) will have additional names and the first generation name with “san” (the family name).  Example:

  • Year 1: Gerania der Nei
  • Year 2: Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 3: Sage Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 4: Parsley Thyme Gerania Geraniasan

Samhain: The Burning

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At or before Samhain, your Butzemann must be burned.  At Samhain, the Butzemann’s spirit will leave and if you do not burn it, a bad spirit may take up residence.  Thus, you should burn your Butzemann before the end of Astrological Samhain.  I like to build a sacred fire as part of my Samhain festivities.  When it is time to burn the Butzemann, I begin by scattering some of the season’s herbs into the fire as an offering, also sharing my gratitude and thanks.  I carefully place the Butzemann on the fire and watch the Butzemann burn.  I put the ashes in the garden, and wait for Imbolc to return.

The Cycle Begins Again

After Samhain, we reach the full cycle of the Butzmann tradition.  The flocks are snug in their coops while the snows fall, and the land once again falls asleep.  But as soon as the sugar maples start running, the Butzmann tradition can be born.  Since we started doing a Butzemann here on our homestead, we have noticed a difference: less challenges with predators, abundant harvests even through a drought, and a general presence on the land that supports everything we do.  I think this is a wonderful tradition to start and continue, and I hope some of you will consider it!

Another Butzefrau! This is a design I like a lot 🙂

Visioning the Future through the Bardic Arts: Creating Vision, Creating Hope

Reishi mushroom from the Plant Spirit Oracle offers a vision of healing, growth, and regeneration

I used to be a big fan of reading dystopian fiction when I was younger. It seemed like a distant world, a reality far from our own. But perhaps now, those books resonate too close to reality. As someone who practices magic, I have to wonder, would the concepts present 1984 be as present if the book hadn’t been so well-read? Did George Orwell manifest these concepts as a magical act, or were these already present and he simply channeled what was already coming into focus? The same can be true of many such influential works: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, Bladerunner, and more. We also have things like robots, invented by Issac Asimov as science fiction in the 1940s and 60 years or more later, became a reality.  One might argue that despite the fantastical nature of these works, works like these have had an influence on present human culture.  Perhaps, it is a sign of the times that most of what has been produced from a mass media standpoint in the 20th-21st century is rather dystopian and chilling, with some notable exceptions. As we have recently seen here in the US, words have power.  Words can shape reality and incite people to action. Is this the world we want to create?

As someone who practices magic, I certainly accept that our intentions and the directing of our will can help shape our realities. I also accept that for many things, we have to have a spark or vision before we can see it come to reality.  It is hard to bring something to life if we first can’t envision that it could exist. If we accept this to be true, then, in turn, we can consciously harness intentions and that bring visions to life that help create a better future. I think that one of the powerful things that art of all forms can do is help envision the future.

 

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

At this point, we are facing both ecological disaster and many human challenges that grow more serious by the year as our society continues the “slow crash”.  This era of human civilization will decline and end–but the question is–what comes after?   How can we be good ancestors for the future?  Thus, I am always looking for ways to do more. I want to take responsibility for my own behaviors physically and metaphysically. Physically, this might include being careful with my purchases, working to heal and regenerate landscapes, and engaging in other kinds of sacred action. Metaphysically, it can be bringing forth visions of a better future–we can create the visions now so that they can enter circulation and become something that helps seed a brighter world.

I also share the rest of this post with a caveat. People create art for a lot of different reasons, both external and internal. You might consider visioning arts as one of many reasons to create, a bonus reason, a reason that offers your art additional purpose.  Not all art has to have this kind of vision either, but some art forms and works may be very well suited to it.

Creating a Sacred Vision

If you buy into this idea and you practice the bardic arts of any kind (poetry, music, dance, writing, visual art, fine crafts, etc) you might want to give this idea some thought.  What vision are you putting into the world? What is the world you want to create?  Towards that end, I have a few suggestions for helping you hone and refine some ideas.  The most important thing you can do is spend some time in meditation and reflection about what vision of the world, what ideas and concepts, you want to bring forth.   So here are a few things to consider:

  1. Start by thinking about the specific kind of art (bardic work) you produce and what kinds of messages you can share. Certain art forms are easier to convey messages than others.  When you convey messages in your work, can the work stand on its own, or, do you want to share some information about the work in addition to the work itself?
  2. Consider presenting general philosophy about your work.  Messaging can come in a lot of forms: these sometimes come in the form of “artist statements” that talks about what you do and why you do it.  This is especially helpful for work that can be interpreted in many ways, or whose interpretation is not immediately clear upon examination (e.g. woodcarving).  You can share these messages on social media, on your website, even with the physical art that someone receives.
  3. Consider your specific messages or themes you want to convey.   Perhaps you have a very specific message or a general one. Think about the thing you most would like to see in the world–write it down, and keep it in mind when you create.
  4. Consider the symbols you use. Symbols, whether they are intentional magical sigils or just broader symbols, also carry tremendous power. If you have specific symbols or symbolism you want to use in your work, this should also be considered!

Now, I’ll present three core visioning goals for my own work as an artist–I  am sharing them both to demonstrate an example of the kinds of visions you can create but also to spark your own creativity about how your bardic arts of all kinds (poetry, visual art, music, dance, fine crafts, writing) might support your own unique vision.

Messaging and Visioning: An Example

As a visual artist and a writer, I am always thinking about how I can bring this aspect of magical visioning into my work. It is one of the reasons I create, but certainly, not the only one! These are my three goals.

Presenting an alternative perspective and value of nature.

One of the first ways I see us using art, writing, poetry, music, and other bardic arts is to present alternatives or ways of reseeing our present reality.  We can show a different perspective on something, offer a new angle, or provide new insight through our work.  I think you can do this with anything, but as a druid who has her heart set on preserving the natural world, my focus s on nature and on providing alternative messaging and visions.

The art show!

I’ll give you a good example of this. As I’ve shared before on this blog, I live in a region of the USA that is an extraction zone: we have fracking wells, 1000’s of miles of streams full of acid and iron from mine runoff, mountaintop removal, boney dumps, logging, and coal-fired power plants–to name just a few.  Around here, most people view nature as something to extract; a resource to be profited from, and a way to keep jobs in the region. Hunting and fishing are also big around our rural area; while I’ve met some hunters who have reverence, unfortunately, many shoot animals, birds, and rodents for sport.  Thus, there is very little respect or love for nature and in my art, I work to offer a different message. 

A few years ago, I was invited to hang some work through our local art association at the regional hospital. It was a nice opportunity to have my work seen by a lot of people.  I thought really carefully about the content of my art and decided to work to present an alternative view of resource extraction.  I painted trees with hearts in the ground, I painted the telluric currents of earth energy flowing, I painted regenerated landscapes.  It’s hard to say how these pieces of art touched those who saw them, but I hope they did some good. The more these kinds of alternative messages and perspectives can get into circulation, the more “normalized” they become and the more power they hold.

Staghorn Sumac ornaments from reclaimed wood

Another way of thinking about this is in the tools and materials I use–there’s a message about valuing nature inherent in this work.  For example, my neighbor plowed over a beautiful stand of staghorn sumac last summer without even knowing what it was or how it could be used.  This beautiful stand was one I got to know well and I was really distraught at how it happened.  This really saddened me, but he did allow me to come in and harvest as much as I wanted of the wood and roots.  I did so, and at the holidays, I made him an ornament from the beautiful root wood and put a note on there that it was from the wood he let me harvest.  Perhaps this beautiful wood will have him think twice about cutting down the trees and seeing some inherent value in them.

Re-enchanting the world

After someone is willing to see nature, to value it more, to understand it in a new light, then I can shift to the more magical and potent part of the message–the message of the world being an enchanted place helping re-enchant humanity’s perspective of the living earth. If a new vision is step 1, then re-enchantment is step 2.  In other posts, I’ve written about what I see as the disenchantment of the world, the philosophical and literal stripping of all magic and wonder from the world, which I believe has paved the way for some of the more egregious abuses of nature in the 18th- 21st centuries. 

Ultimately, if we see nature as sacred, enchanted, and having a spirit of its own, it is much more likely that humans of all kinds will behave in ways of reverence and respect. I think a lot of authors and artists have done a great job in showing that the world has an enchanted side. 

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways

I think one of my own projects that most closely aligns with this goal is the Plant Spirit Oracle.  The goal of this deck was to take common medicinal plants and offer them in an enchanted and personified way.  I also paid special attention to plants that were maligned like Poison Ivy and Japanese Knotweed as part of this work. Thus, Japanese Knotweed, which is widely hated and maligned, is shown in an enchanted light as a guardian of the waterways; the catnip in your garden is shown to have spirit, poison ivy teaching awareness, and so on.  These plants have forms that can be viewed, interacted with, and offer guidance and wisdom. . 

Offering new visions of the future and personal empowerment

Wendell Berry’s Poem as a Woodburning–I made this at Samhain and in the spring, I will leave it as an offering in the forest, a reminder of the vision we can bring forth

A final aspect, and one that has a lot of potency for me right now, is thinking about how works of art of all kinds can shape the future. I’m sick of reading and thinking about things from a dystopian perspective and I’m sick of watching our world go further and further into those dystopian vision.  I’ve firmly committed to creating works of hope.  This was a clear vision for me for the Tarot of Trees– a response to deforestation. I wanted people who used the deck to value trees more, and I wanted a vision of a healed world to come forth. But there’s also a lot of future vision in these works: witch hazel, one of my favorite paintings in the PSO, is all about a pathway towards the future; about becoming a good ancestor. Comfey is about having the tools to bring positive change, while Rosemary reminds us of the powerful cycles and generations that we have to consider.  The messaging is there for those who look!

In another example, this one by one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, his poem, Work Song, Part II: A Vision is a prime example of a message that holds a vision of the future. When I first read this poem, I cried from the beauty of it, the vision Wendell Berry offered and thought about what we might need to get there.

Visioning a Brighter, Nature-centered Future

Providing alternative perspectives, enchantment, and visioning for the future is certainly a magical act and one that many people who practice the bardic arts might build into their work.  When you create something and put it out in the world, you have an opportunity to create so much more than just a piece of art–you have a chance to help build a vision of the world to come.  While simple visioning work is only part of the task before us, however, as Wendell Berry’s poem notes, it is an important part and something that each of us can do. 

Dear readers, I am very interested in hearing from you on this topic: Have you built visionary principles into your art? If so, please share.  If you haven’t yet but would like to, I’d love to hear from you as well!

 

Nature Mandalas for Inner Work, Rituals, and Blessings

A woman comes to a clearing in the recently burned forest with a basket of stones, sticks, nuts, and flowers.  She begins to sing, laugh, and dance as she creates a beautiful circle with the materials. As she weaves her healing magic, the design of the circle grows more complex, spiraling inward and outward.  She finishes her work and sits with it quietly for a time, before leaving it in place to do its own work.  A healing mandala has been made on that spot, to help the forest recover after a fire.

Nature mandalas can be used for a variety of inner work, healings, blessings and rituals and are a wonderful addition to a druid or natural spiritual practice. Nature mandalas are an intuitive magical and bardic arts practice that works with the connection of your own subconscious to the living earth.  You use materials that are local to you, in season, to create beautiful patterns with sacred intent.

On writing about mandalas, C. F. Jung, the esoteric psychologist, spoke of the benefits of creating mandalas as a way of seeing deeply into the psyche and allow for the cyclical process of self-development. Mandalas have been used in a variety of traditions, as he describes, primarily for inner spirit work—as the mandala is constructed, understanding, enlightenment, or healing may come. A mandala can be done in combination with other practices (ritual work, meditation, land healing and/or blessing) or they can be done on its own. Mandalas can also be done by anyone at any point in their practice, regardless of their ability to raise energy, visualize, or engage in any other advanced ritual techniques.

Creating a Nature Mandala

Space Selection. To create a mandala, select a flat space where you are able to lay out a pattern: a flat river bank or shore, a sandbar, a bare spot in the forest, a space in the lawn in your backyard, a dirt patch, a large stone, etc. Mandalas can be large or small and can be done in places where water can wash them away (a beach at low tied, the edge of a stream that will eventually flood, etc.), in the snow that will melt, etc.

Ephemeral nature. In fact, I would argue that their very ephemeral nature is part of that magic of the nature mandala: the mandala is created in the moment for a sacred purpose using materials local to the land.  After creation, it is left in the natural world, and nature’s processes will claim it again tomorrow.  As that claiming takes place, the mandala’s magic unfolds.

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Massive ground mandala for ritual work at MAGUS 2018 (yellow and white cornmeal)

Design and Creation. In terms of the design of the mandala, many options are possible, some intentional and some intuitive.  There is no right or wrong way to create a mandala. You can create intuitive designs, setting your intention, putting yourself in a meditative place, and letting your subconscious guide you to create the mandala. If you are going to do this approach, I suggest before you begin, spending time communing with the land. Walking with the land, hearing the voices of the spirits in the wind, in your inner mind, feeling the energies present. Attune with those, and when you feel connected and centered with this place, create. This approach allows you to connect with the land and bring forth a design that is unique to the land, to your interaction, and to the place. This can lead to some really amazing designs and experiences.  I really like creating intuitive mandalas. They don’t have to be circular, they can weave around existing material in the landscape. They can be full of nature’s patterns: spirals, leaves, waves, circles, and more.  You can make mandalas to fit a landscape and space of any size or composition. Go in without a plan.  Connect to the world around you.  Just start laying things in a pattern. See what unfolds.  Smile, dance, and be happy.  Breathe.

On the intentional side,  Jung noted that many mandalas in other cultures unfolded in a circular four-fold pattern, tying to the four elements and other four-fold patterns in the universe. While we see a four-fold pattern in nature (in the flowers of a dogwood tree or in the small flowers in the arugula plant), this is only one possible pattern nature provides. The flowers of apples and hawthorns show us a five-fold pattern, the shell of a snail shows us a spiral pattern, and the flower of a trillium shows us a three-fold pattern. These and many other patterns can be used for inspiration. For more on nature’s patterns, see this post.

The alternative is to plan it out. I would suggest planning only if you are doing it with a group as part of a larger ritual or practice and/or if you are creating mandalas that will be of a more permanent nature. Planning your mandala can include sketching it in advance, planning out and gathering your materials, and preparing the space. The photo here is of a magical mandala that we created for a ley line ritual at the MAGUS Gathering in 2018. This was obviously intentionally planned in advance so that we could have it at the start of our ritual.

Mandalas and other Spiritual Work.  The act of mandala creation is a ritual in and of itself–but you also might want to use it in combination with other practices.  For example, you can use it as an anchor point for other ritual activity in this chapter, creating a mandala around a sacred space that you can sit in, meditate in, do other kinds of ritual in, or even, leave magical tools for further empowerment in.  I like to create mandalas as part of rituals; I use the mandala creation as a way of beginning my ritual work before moving into a formal ritual.  Or, you can simply be present with it for a time, spend a quiet moment in meditation, and then let it be, knowing that work continues on nature’s time.

Possibilities for Nature Mandalas

There are so many possibilities for working with Nature Mandalas.  I offer some suggestions for different ways you can create mandalas.

Nature Mandala with sticks, shells, stones, and other things. Begin gathering the materials for the mandala, using your intuition. A basket here also helps! As you gather, be careful not to disrupt the ecosystem (e.g. use fallen sticks, leaves, small stones, leave big stones where they are). When you have gathered your materials, begin to organize them in some circular or spiral fashion. There is no right or wrong way, just flow with the spirits of the land.  With each piece of the mandala, you can set intentions for the healing of the land (e.g. “this leaf represents the new growth of spring. This stone represents the health of the insect life” and so forth).

Fall Leaf Mandala. A very beautiful mandala can be created using fall leaves.  Just as they fall, gather them, and weave them into patterns to celebrate the autumn and the sacredness of this time.

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Snow mandala in a sacred grove

Nature mandala with snow. If you are in an area with snowfall and laying snow, the better approach is to weave your mandala into the snow itself. To do this, simply close your eyes and visualize the shape you want your mandala to take—or just start walking. You can use a big open area or you can use a wooded area where you work the trees, stones, and other natural features into your design. Walk your mandala each day the snow is present, if possible, to leave lasting healing on the landscape.

Nature mandala with sand or soil. Another option for a nature mandala is in the sand or bare soil. You might use a stick to trace patterns, adding stones or shells. You might use your feet to trace to walk a larger path of the mandala. Mandalas on the shore, placed at the low tide line, will be taken by the sea, and thus, can be used as a blessing for the oceans. Mandalas placed higher on the shore can bless the land around them. Mandalas on the edges of river banks can be done in a similar manner, as rivers flood.

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Flour or Cornmeal Mandala. You can create a mandala by using flour or cornmeal (and cornmeal comes in several colors). To do this, you will want some kind of vessel that makes it easy to pour a little bit out at once–a commercial dressing container with a larger opening, a gallon jug (use a funnel to get it in there) or even a water pitcher can all work as a basic tool. For this kind of mandala, it is best to have a sand or dirt surface. I often make these in our sacred grove; in the fall months, I rake up the leaves and then work with the bare surface to weave patterns of cornmeal, leaves, and patterns. As fall turns to winter and the snows come, I work with the snow in the grove instead, continuing to layer energies in that sacred space.

Stone mandala. A more permanent option is to create a mandala with stones, leaving it somewhere to simply “be”. I would suggest this only at sites that have already had major disruption, as you do not want to disrupt the ecosystem itself by moving stones.

One last point about the different kinds of mandalas—make sure that in your mandala creating, you don’t disrupt the natural world.  Stones of any size are often home to insects and other life and removing them can disrupt the ecosystem. Don’t remove large stones or remove them from rivers, etc. Pick up and use things that are already ephemeral: small stones that are moved by the river or waves, nuts, sticks, leaves.

Some examples

I’ll offer a few examples of the different ways I’ve used mandalas in my practice recently.  These examples are meant to help spark your own creativity and ideas!

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

Acorn Mandala to Honor the Oak

The first example is an offering mandala. I made this mandala after creating acorn pancakes on the fall equinox from the acorns being dropped from our ancient oak tree. It is this tree that  I have been working with my Tree for a Year practice, and it’s this tree that I’ve made acorn ink from, and now, the acorn pancakes. As part of an offering practice, I wanted to offer gratitude to this oak.

Grove Mandala

Grove Mandala

The second example was another recent mandala, this one with the purpose of preparing a magical space.  I have been drawn to a particular section of our sacred grove for a while (a Norway spruce tree with a large stone underneath, and a hickory nearby) and had a vision of some visionary and magical work to do there in the coming months.  As part of this, I raked and cleared a small section and made a flour and leaf mandala as saying “hello” to the space and honoring it.  I decided on a flour mandala because I had found some flour infested by flour moths, so I wanted to make good use of it but get it out of the kitchen! Plus, flour mandalas look great against bare earth! The purpose of this mandala was honoring this sacred space and beginning to lay energetic patterns for future ritual work.

Grimalkin cat walks through the leaf mandala!

The final example is one I did simply to bring peace and calm. As the leaves were falling, I simply went out and worked with them, making patterns, and working to provide calm and healing.  And it worked!

I hope that this post has offered you some inspiration.  I would love to see any mandalas that you create!  Please consider sharing them here and/or tagging me on Instagram (@druidsgardenart).  Blessings upon your journey!