Category Archives: Ovate Knowldge

Wildcrafting Your Druidry: A Local Materia Medica and Herbalism Practice

As we continue to explore the concept of wildcrafting druidry and sacred action that is, developing a spiritual practice and daily life that is fully localized and aligned with nature right outside your door, it is a useful time to consider the role of herbalism and developing a local materia medica.  In herbalism terms, a materia medica is a body of herbal and plant knowledge for the curing of diseases and the promotion of good health.  For example, any book on herbalism that includes entries on herbs and their healing properties is a materia medica.  By starting to develop a local materia medica for your area, you can learn more about the incredible healing properties of plants in your area and develop a sacred connection with them.  You can start entering into a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with the land and support your own health–this is because not only are plants able to treat illnesses, but they also support our long-term health!  So let’s talk through the steps that you might do this:

Step 1: Identify your site and needs and spiral outward.

Grandpa's field

Learning about the medicines outside your door!

I think it’s helpful to consider what you might include in your materia medica. It should be locations that you have easy and regular access to and with the ability to do at least some harvesting.  What I suggest you do is use a spiraling outward approach.  Start with right where you live–e.g. the plants in the lawn right outside your door, the trees on your street, the plants in the park at the end of the block.  Learn the plants that are closest to your home first.  Then, as you grow your knowledge, start spiraling outward: the local state park, the homes of friends and neighbors, etc.  You can do this work regardless of whether you live in the city, suburbs or country.

The other option for you to start is to consider finding or growing a local herbal equivalent of one or more medicines you currently take or needs you currently have.  Perhaps you want a first aid salve–there’s a whole backyard of healing plants for that! Perhaps you want to increase your overall vitality and health–there’s a dandelion and burdock root for that!  Perhaps you want to strengthen your heart–there’s a hawthorn tree for that! For my own path into herbalism, you can hear about my own journey in managing asthma with New England Aster!  The point here is that you can identify some basic needs and then use that as a basis.

I actually prefer the first approach I’ve listed, as it puts you in touch with plants right outside your door.  If you start working with these plants, you will find uses for them in your life!

Step 2: Build a Reciprocal Practice on this Landscape

Before you even begin to think about harvesting and using the plants where you are, you will want to think about how you can build a practice of reciprocation, honoring, and respect to the living earth.  I recommend you think not only in terms of an offering for any individual plant that is harvested but also the larger landscape that you are working on.  For individual plants, this might include things like:

  • Asking permission to harvest
  • Offering gratitude with an offering and saying thanks
  • Working with the plant to help ensure its genetic legacy (saving and spreading seeds, translating roots and seedlings)
  • Visiting the plant at other times, not only when you want something or want to harvest (e.g. showing friendship and respect)
  • Building the cycles of the plant into your own seasonal celebrations
Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

In terms of a larger reciprocation practice, it is useful to consider what the land there might need and how you can be in service to the land.  This is often very different in different ecosystems, but might include any of the following:

  • Metaphysical support through rituals and energy work
  • Land healing practices, such as converting lawns to gardens, cleanups, replantings, and more
  • Social action, community organizing, or political action to protect and preserve nature
  • Other activities as is appropriate for the local ecosystem

The reason this step is so important is that for much of the Western world, longstanding colonialism has put many people in a mindset where nature is theirs to take from, to use, and to harvest at will.  This exact mindset is one of the roots as to why we are facing a planetary crisis: because we must learn to balance what we take from nature from what we give and the reciprocation practices are key to that.  I’ve been teaching wild food foraging for a long time, and there are extreme problems with the overharvest/take what I want mentality with many people in those communities.  By building reciprocation first and foremost into your practice, you can sidestep these extremely problematic relationships with nature and build one on mutuality and respect.

Step 3: Observe, Interact and Identify Plants, Mushrooms, and Trees

Medicine making with hawthorn - here's my masher!

Medicine making with hawthorn at Samhain!

Now that you have a sense of where to look, you will want to start identifying the plants, mushrooms, and trees that grow most immediately to you.  It is extremely helpful if you can keep track of not only the common name (Pennsylvania Hawthorn) but also the Latin name (Crataegus tatnalliana / Crataegus pennsylvanica.)   Many common or folk names may actually refer to multiple plants (Boneset is a good example here–in my region it refers to at least three different plants, two of which are medicinal and one of which is poisonous) so having the Latin name ensures that you have the right plant.  Even if you can’t identify the specific species, work to at least identify the plant family as a start. I have found it helpful in my own work in this regard to create a digital file of plant names and features as a first step.  Here’s one of my early files that I can share that I started creating when I first moved to this new land (I’ve since moved this into a more comprehensive digital file, but this is where I started).

Identification skill is excellent to learn.  While there are apps and groups that can help you with plant identification, I also recommend that you check out Botany in a Day by Thomas Epel and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to start learning how to identify different parts of plants.  If you build your knowledge using these books, eventually, you will be able to identify plants by plant family without looking them up.

One of the things that is really helpful to do during this stage is to pay attention to how abundant the various plants, trees, and mushrooms are.  Pay attention to how much is growing and where it is growing.  Just because something appears abundant doesn’t necessarily mean it wouldn’t be harmed from harvesting–the key is to cultivate a relationship on this land so that you can monitor not only the plants but also how much of everything there is.  This will allow you to decide what you might use and in what ways!

Step 4: Build Your Materia Medica and Start Making Plant Medicine

Flower essence

Goldenrod Flower Essence

Now you are finally there–the opportunity to build your own materia medica over time and learn how to make plant medicine. Herbalism can be a lifelong study, and one of the things I want to stress here is that doing this work takes a lot of time.  I have found for my own learning that I like to learn a few plants at a time: how to make medicine from them, how to do different preparations, and then actually use those plants in my life.  Even if you learn only a few plants across the course of a year, as you progress, soon you will know many plants.  This is a better approach than harvesting a ton of stuff, preparing it, and then not using it.  An intensive study of a few plants will lead to rich rewards!   For example, right now I am learning the various uses of the Spruce tree–this includes various recipes for spruce tips, preparing and use of a spruce tip salve, working with the wood, and much more!

For medicine making, I would highly suggest Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook as he covers a ton of useful information on the different kinds of plant preparations (his herbal information is good also, but insufficient for many local plants).  Richo Czech’s Making Plant Medicine offers key information on ratios for tinctures and other plants and is a very useful supplement to Green’s work (I use the two in conjunction and don’t need anything else!). These two books can help you know all of the basics for how to do different plant preparations. I also have some medicine-making posts you can check out: A Druid’s Guide to Preparing Plant Medicine; Flower essence preparation;  and harvesting guidelines.

Part of the materia medica is taking notes–take notes on everything that you do (e.g. the salve recipe, when you harvest) and also test the effects of your herbal preparations on yourself–note how it feels, if it works for your purposes, and so on.  You can certainly supplement your own knowledge with published research on herbs: for a comprehensive guide to many herbal plants in North America, you can see Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbal books.  But remember–your own body and experiences should be very central to developing your materia medica.

Once you’ve had some success and good recipes, preserve them in some way that is appealing to you.  This could be a handwritten journal, a digital file, or anything else.  The important thing is that you create this knowledge for yourself and presented in a way that you will resonate with.   My current materia medica sits in two places: I have a very extensive digital file that I update regularly.  I also have a handwritten materia medica that explores more of the spiritual aspects of each of the plants I work with regularly.

Conclusion

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

Developing an herbalism practice–even with a few key plants in your ecosystem is an excellent way to build a core Ovate practice, learn how to live in a reciprocal relationship with nature, and align yourself with the living earth.  This is a practice that centers nature in your life.  It is completely different than going and buying some bulk herbs and mixing them up into medicine–while there is nothing wrong with doing this, it doesn’t really give you the deep spiritual practice that identifying plants, engaging in reciprocation, and turning them into medicine does.

Another thing you can do with this practice is to tie it to your yearly seasonal celebrations: for example, for me, Beltane, the Summer solstice, Lughnasadh, the Fall Equinox, and Samhain are all medicine making holidays–meaning that in addition to my rituals, I also make certain medicines, spiritual tools like smoke clearing sticks, and align my work with the current harvest.  This gives me a richness and layered approach to my spirituality and makes the medicines I make even more meaningful.

I hope that many of you will try this–if you haven’t already started or traveled some way on this path.  I would love to hear your stories and experiences with local materia medicas and herbalism!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Tamarak / Larch – Larix laricina – Magic, Mecicine, and Mythology

A tamarak tree growing in a wetland

I remember when I first saw a Tamarack tree.  It was growing in a bog where I was hiking in late fall.  I looked at the Tamarack tree in its golden splendor and wondered if the tree was sick or had gotten too wet–was this confier dying?  It had knobby cones and branches, sitting there looking like it was in its death throes.  When I commented on it to my friend, she responded, No, that’s just the tamarack tree, a friend of mine said, and we examined the tree growing on the edge of a beautiful wetland.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, the tree was bare for the winter and only grew back in the spring. The Tamarack tree has a special place in the ecology in North America, especially as a mid-succession tree in very wet and swampy areas.

The Tamarack tree is known by many names: the Larch Tree, Eastern Larch, American Larch, Black larch, Red Larch, Hackmatack, Juniper cypress, Larch Tamarack. The term “larch” is an old German word like Hackmatack is the Abnaki word for “snowshoes”, suggesting one clear use of this tree.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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

Tamarack is particularly interesting from an ecological perspective for a number of reasons.  First, while Tamarack is in the pine family, it is quite distinct because it is deciduous (and is the only conifer that is deciduous in much of its range). Thus, it drops its needles in the fall and follows the maples and oaks rather than its pine brethren. It literally serenades the sun with a brilliant yellow-orange color before it drops its needles for the cold months of the year. Tamarack also is a mid-succession tree, growing in bogs and marshy areas, providing food and habitat, and eventually making way to the Eastern White Cedar tree, the pinnacle species.

Tamarak Needles

Tamarak Needles

As John Eastman notes in The Book of Swamp and Bog, Tamarack has early rapid growth for the first 40 years of its life—it puts on growth very early in the season (around Beltane) and slows down by Midsummer. It produces small oval-shaped cones that usually appear on branches that are between two and four years old. These cones will be wind-pollinated in the spring by pollen cones that appear yellow on the same tree, and eventually mature, open, and drop seeds in the fall.  As the tree loses its needles in the fall, these cones and branches look a little wicked and nobby, like an old woman! Like many other trees (Oaks) the Tamarack is strategic about seed production, producing bountiful seed only every 3-6 years. In the northernmost parts of its range, Tamarack may reproduce by way of the layering of lower branches on the ground and sending up a shoot.

As a mid-succession tree, Tamarack prefers nutrient-poor sites, including bogs, and its presence in a wetland may suggest it is growing at what Eastman notes is a “hinge line” or “transitional zone” between floating fen-mats in a bog and more grounded acidic bogs where plants like sundew grow. However, growing in such a wet environment does mean it develops shallow root systems and thus may be easily blown over by the wind. This bog environment also supports the germination of new Tamarack seeds—they often germinate on sphagnum moss. It also is frequently found with leatherleaf (promoting its germination through its ‘nurse tree’ status), and can be found with poison sumac, eastern white cedar (which succeeds it ecologically), shrub willow, and bog birch. Here in Western Pennsylvania, we often see the Tamaracks on the edge of acidic bogs that grow such wonderful and carnivorous plants like sundew and pitcher plants.

John Eastman also notes that in boggy environments, Tamarack is a “nurse tree” which allows it to produce shelter and biomass to allow other shrubs and smaller plants to grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions, particularly leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne Calyculata). Tamarack is also a favorite nesting site for Great gray owls as well as habitat for black-backed woodpecker, common snipe, common yellowthroats, and song sparrows.

Tamarak needles - underside

Tamarak needles – underside

A destructive pest—the larch sawfly (Pristiphoera Erichsonii) eats the Tamarack needles and has been responsible for destroying nearly all of the old-growth Tamarack trees in the Eastern US and Canada in the early 20th century.  Tamarack has slowly rebounded from this destruction and you can once again find healthy stands of Tamarack in many parts of its range. This sawfly is an excellent food source for blue ays, sparrows, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks, and sparrows. At least half of the seeds dropped are consumed by ruffed grouse, wild hare, red squirrel, gray squirrel, porcupine, and white-tail deer. These animals also consume the inner bark, which is nutritious (and also an emergency food for humans).

Human Uses

Tamarack is not a very sought-after wood these days, which is somewhat surprising, given its many uses–this is likely due to the historical loss of much of the Tamarack wood due to the larch sawfly and its inconvenient growth location in swamps and bogs.  Still, the wood is heavy, hard, strong, coarse-grained, and has excellent rot resistance, particularly in wet conditions or when exposed to water. It has been traditionally used for many applications where rot resistance matters: fence posts, telegraph poles, railway ties, building materials, ladders, floorboards, and various kinds of poles. In 1938, it was noted that it has been used extensively for building ships, especially for parts of ships that are directly exposed to water.

Tamarak Branch

Tamarak Branch

According to Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants, the Tamarack had a wide range of uses for the Native American people and early white Colonists of North America. The Ojibwe used Tamarack resin to seal boats (similar to white pine) and the bark to cover their wigwams. The roots were used to weave bags and sew the edges of canoes as the Tamarack root fiber is particularly durable compared with other materials. The inner bark was used as an emergency food by many, as nearly all conifers have nutritious inner bark. One of the things that Native Peoples often used tamarack wood for was boiling maple sap—it is a hot, fierce wood that burns brightly—exactly what you need for a good sap boil!

Turpentine can also be made from Tamarack trees. The trees were tapped, in a very similar method to maple tapping, and the sap collected–this is the process of making a “gum” turpentine as opposed to a “wood” turpentine (which is done with the stripped bark). After the trees were tapped, the gum is distilled to produce a volatile oil that was strong and mixed with paints and varnishes for lasting quality. This same sap was also used for all manner of wound healing in earlier times in North America.

Medicine and Herbal Qualities

Unfortunately, while Tamarack had a range of traditional colonial uses, it has limited coverage and uses in present-day herbals.

The best references to the medicinal qualities of the tree can be found in ethnobotanical sources. Erichsen-Brown notes that that the Ojibwe used the crushed needles and bark similar to how they would use white pine.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used the roots and bark from the trunk.  The fresh inner bark is used for poulticing wounds/inflammation; seeped bark as a tea.  It was used also as horse medicine; the inner bark was shredded and mixed with other feed grains to create a soft and supple hide.

Another shot of the tamarak tree

Another shot of the tamarak tree

The only coverage of the plant I could find in modern herbal sources was through M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, which offers insight on the bark, which she notes is used as a laxative, tonic, diuretic, and alternative.  She notes that it has widely been used for treating issues with the liver, rheumatism, jaundice, or dysentery.  Her dosage indicates that 2 tablespoons of the decoction of the bark are necessary.

I have been experimenting with some of the Tamarack’s medicine in the form of salves for bruises (one traditional use) and they seem pretty effective.  I’ll keep updating this post as I try some of the other traditional uses and if I find more information.

Magical Uses in the Western Tradition

Part of the reason I spent so much time in this post on ecology and human uses is that–unsprisingly –there is no real tradition of the magical use of the Tamarack tree.  While this isn’t surprising (as many of the trees I am covering in this series lack such coverage), it does mean that we have to use the tree’s ecological functions to ascertain its magical meaning.  It is not found in the Hoodoo traditions, nor in the traditional western occult texts, nor in the PA dutch and other folk magic traditions. (It you have info I don’t about this, please share!)

Magical and Divination Qualities of Tamarack

Addressing Stagnation. Tamarak’s medicinal and ecological function includes it growing and addressing a range of stagnant, watery conditions. In the body, stagnation leads to all kinds of illness and atrophy; in the wild, stagnation can lead to anaerobic bacteria formation (stinky, nasty piles of compost for example).  One of Tamarak’s key magical and divination qualities, then, is being able to address this stagnation and help get it flowing again.

Standing up to emotional challenges. Flowing from the first meaning, the second key meaning of Tamarack is helping you endure a stagnant emotional condition.  For example, perhaps you are in a difficult family circumstance that seems to keep repeating itself, you are dealing with cycles of abuse, PTSD, or other draining and long-standing emotional conditions.  Tamarack will help you stay the course during this time and offer you strength to endure (and not rot away in the mire!)

Surprise. A final divination and magical meaning this tree suggests is that while it is in the pine family and is a conifer, the tree does not follow the same pattern as most other pines–rather, in a surprising twist, it drops its needles after serenading the sun.  Seeing Tamarack in a reading may suggest to you that things are the opposite of what you expect and to be surprised with the outcome.

I hope that this post brought you happiness and joy as spring turns to summer. And perhaps you will have an opportunity to meet the wonderful Tamarack tree and share in her magic.  Blessings!

Land Healing at the Druid’s Garden: Replanting, Forest Healing, and Refugia Update

Ramps planted in my Grove of Renewal

Today I wanted to take some time to share some of the updates on the land healing and permaculture practices we are enacting at the Druid’s Garden Homestead.  As I’ve shared in earlier posts, when we purchased this land four years ago, the family who owned it just before us selectively logged about 3 acres, leaving the forest an absolute mess.  The land otherwise was perfect–we have our own spring, a nice sunny area for gardens….and three acres of land in desperate need of healing.  Since land healing is one of my primary forms of spiritual practice, I rolled up my sleeves and purchased the land! As this ongoing land healing project takes shape, I try to check in on the blog every once in a while to share new insights, techniques, and experiences.  Today I want to spend some time offering updates on our refugia gardens and some of the clearing and replanting work that is necessary when you are dealing with these kinds of conditions.

Why Engage in Land Healing work?

As I’ve shared before, in order to do effective land healing work, you need to know a few things: first, you need to have a sense of what a healthy ecosystem looks like so that you know what your goal is and what to do.  While book knowledge is useful, what is really ideal is if you can spend a lot of time in the same ecosystem in a place that hasn’t suffered logging, clear-cutting, or whatever other damage you are trying to heal it from. So since we live on a north-east facing slope that is wet and mostly deciduous, ideally, to help heal this land and know what I am aiming for, I need to study north-east facing slopes with wet, rich soil and mostly deciduous cover within 1-2 hours of where I live.  Lucky for me, I grew up on such a slope, and I can return to my family’s land often to study and gather seeds.  Because of this deep knowledge, I know exactly what ideally should be growing here both in terms of the forest and on the forest floor.  Because I’ve lived in Western Pennsylvania most of my life, I’m also aware of what is no longer present: the American Ginseng roots, in particular, have been badly stripped from our land by poachers and foragers who sell them at a profit. I’m leveraging this knowledge to create a set of practices that allow me to help this forest heal.

When I’ve shared this ongoing healing work with others, sometimes people will say things like, “Yeah, but the forest will heal without you.” Yes, it will physically heal, given enough time. The trees will regrow, you will see the old wood rot down and the forest will return.  However, and this is really important–a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th growth forest is not the same as what was originally here before white people came and stripped it bare. This is especially true if it is regrowing from something like old farmland.  On a physical level, one of the things that the forest can’t do is replace ecological material that once grew here and that has since vanished–like the trillium, black cohosh, blue cohosh, ramps, ginseng, trout lily, mayapples, and more.  These woodland species don’t survive logging or greedy humans, and they are very slow to spread (and are absent in many other places due to human overharvesting).  So, even if I were to let this forest stand here and grow for the next 150 years, I doubt you’d find a ramp or blue cohosh growing.  Ecological succession in this area takes about 300 years–and even after 300 years, we don’t always find what was once so prevalent.

Trout Lily (another native flower that has suffered overharvest)

But there’s another side to this, the metaphysical side.  Humans are currently destroying our planet–there is not an ecosystem on this planet that isn’t tremendously threatened.  It is the responsibility of those who are not brainwashed by capitalist and colonialist mindsets to do something to heal and turn this tide. Yes, I might primarily be focusing on 5 acres that I own–but for those 5 acres, and for the miles and miles around me, the spirits of the land take note. I do this as a way to bridge to the land, to remind the land that there are humans who are here to be in service and to heal.  That’s part of what we have to realize about land healing:  if people have intervened in the path of a forest, cutting it, stripping it bare, changing the basic ecology of the place–people need to be part of that healing and regrowth.  That offers reparation work, and that certainly is the most ethical thing to do and, as I’ve argued before, should be part of the path of those of us who practice nature spirituality.

Goals for the Druid’s Garden Homestead

With all of this said, I had a pretty good idea going into this work what I was setting out to accomplish: first, the goal of replanting and healing this land, through physical and metaphysical land healing. This includes planting trees, shrubs, roots, seeds, and tending those plants till they grow. But it also includes regular rituals, offerings to the spirits of the land, and simply being in deep service to the land.  The second goal was to establish what I call ‘refugia gardens”, or places that generate an abundance of seed/plant matter that can then be moved to other places that need healing.  Refugia are as the name says: they are refuges for life, where life can grow and when there is abundance (seeds, roots, extra plants to split) I can share these with others doing this work or work to replant forests nearby.  As part of this work, I am really careful about obtaining seeds and plants from ethical sources as I do this work.  For example, all of the black cohosh and black elder we have growing here I dug up on my parents’ property because we had an awful septic line come through–so we saved those plants and I replanted them here.  All of my ginseng seed I am planting comes from a certified forest-grown verified program through the United Plant Savers.

Trillium roots ready to go in the ground!

The first refugia garden we created, a full sun meditation garden, is doing great.  We have healthy populations of New England Aster, Echinacea, Saint Johns Wort, Milkweed, Pleurisy root, Hyssop, and a range of other native medicinal plants that are increasingly rare on our landscape.  I chose plants for this garden based on my local ecosystem–plants that are native here, plants I used to see a lot of, and are growing increasingly rare for a variety of reasons (spraying, farming, foraging, etc).  The refugia garden plants are now producing boatloads of seeds each year–most recently, I gave my parents four giant bags of seed to replant the septic line that came through and we scattered them far and wide. Before the pandemic, I also taught some local kids at the UU how to make seed balls with the seeds and they spread them!  I’ve shared these seeds with friends in this region. It is exciting to see how, in only a few short years, these plants produce such abundance.

Replanting and Refugia at the Druid’s Garden Homestead

Last year, after two years of getting our homestead gardens, greenhouse, and animal housing done and establishing the first refugia garden, I knew it was time to turn my attention to the forested areas that had been logged.  This logging was not clean, and it was not kind.  It viciously ripped through the forest, leaving massive amounts of severely damaged trees, debris, and damage to the landscape.  In order to even formulate a plan,  I had spent the first two years on the land prior to engaging in permaculture practice of observing and interacting, taking notes, and simply listening to the spirits of the land.  I tried to identify every plant and tree, see how the birds and wildlife behaved, and identify areas that I could target for healing. In 2019-2020,  I had worked to establish my first few forest hugels to help an area of the forest regrow.  And so, in the spring of 2020, I invested a considerable amount in seeds, various roots, and planted so much (and THANK YOU to anyone who bought the Plant Spirit Oracle or Tarot of Trees–they help fund this work!).  Feeling quite good about the hard labor I had achieved, I waited for my small plants to come up and my first to regenerate.

And then we had one of the worst droughts in the last 50 years; our region was in a severe drought for almost 3 months (and a moderate drought for 5 months).  The land grew so cracked, parched, and dried.  Since I was planting over a 3-acre area and didn’t mark all of the plant matter I planted, I wasn’t able to water everything.  Many things never came up. The ones that did, I worked to water diligently (using the water from our goose and duck pools). But I lost so much due to the drought–hundreds of plants.  Setbacks are, of course, an important part of any healing and regrowth.  We grow through adversity and struggle. So I ordered more plants and waited for spring.

An area of the forest cleared of debris and multiflora, now ready for replanting!

This winter, I also worked to start clearing some of the invasive species from the forested areas that quickly took hold after the logging.  This will take some serious time. Thankfully, most of the areas are growing the native blackberry (rubus allegheniensis). These blackberries form thick mats but also allow for other things to grow. The bigger problem I’m facing now is the increasing amount of multiflora rose, which crowds out other pants. Clearing Multiflora rose is really difficult–she demands a blood sacrifice for every root you pull out.  The work is slow going, but I absolutely refuse to do this by any other means–no chemicals (this land has seen enough trauma). Just sweat equity and a very good thick pair of leather gloves!

A Movement Meditation (or Sweat Equity)

In the last two months, I’ve planted several hundred roots: black cohosh root, red trillium, blue cohosh, and more.  These supplement roots planted in the previous fall after the rains returned: American Ginseng and ramps, among others.  These roots are very special to me–they represent the forest medicinals that are quickly pillaged from the landscape by those seeking a profit and they represent slow-growing roots that may never return without human intervention. These were the plants that graced the forest in my ancestors’ time, in my grandfather’s time. They have a right to live and not be pillaged. They represent, to me, a promise of healing to this land.

Plant and honor the root

Now to be clear, planting a hundred roots or more in rocky, clay, compacted soil is tough work.   But I see this as part of the service–I don’t mind offering my energy to the land.  Once you recognize that this replanting practice will take a long time, you give yourself permission to not be in a hurry. You simply move into the practice. It might be more work than you ever thought it was going to be, but that’s ok.  It becomes a movement meditation, an offering of your own energy and spirit to the land, to bring healing and life.

And I also take my time with each root I plant. I use my intuition and the voices of spirit to find the right spot to dig a hole on the forest floor. I dig, often hitting rocks, pulling them gently aside. I prepare the root (dipping the root in a bucket of water that I have blessed).  I take the root and more water with me. I welcome the root, telling the root that I am looking forward to getting to know them, that this is a good place for them to grow, where they will not be harmed.  I tell the root that when they produce seeds or offspring, I will make sure to spread their offspring far and wide.  I gently cover the roots with soil, watering the spot, and offering my gratitude.  This is a meditation and a magical practice.  Each root gets a slightly different prayer.  And then I move on to the next place in need of planting.

An art offering in the forest I created for the plants

This is a way of serving the land in joy.  It is simple, yet powerful.  As I stand there, with my water buckets, fresh roots, and shovel, I am filled with gratitude to be in a position to help nourish this land.  To me, this is the best kind of spiritual practice that I can think to do–the direct healing of the land.  To supplement this physical work, I engage in extensive rituals and ceremonies to metaphysically bless and protect all of the new life on this land.

Perhaps, if you are willing, say a prayer for all of my new rootlets and plants.  That the rains will come this year, that they will grow bountiful, and that their offspring will be able to live to old age and see the coming of days when they are honored, revered, and left to grow and die naturally.

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!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Hazel (Corylus americana) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

American Hazelnuts in a cluster getting ready to ripen

For three years, I have had my eye on our American hazel bushes here at the homestead. When we first moved to the property, much of the understory was damaged with the logging the previous owners did and it took time for the hazels to recover.  Thus, for the last few years, I’ve watched the hazels grow taller and larger each year and kept looking excitedly for any signs of nuts setting. This past fall, I was delighted to find handfuls of delicious wild American hazelnuts and connect with the incredible wisdom that they offer.

While Hazel is a critically important tree in the mythology and magical tradition of Druidry and in Europe more broadly, The Hazel is one of the sacred trees identified by the druids as a tree tied to wisdom and the flow of Awen, and it is one of the sacred trees found in the Ogham.  But here in North America, despite having our own native hazels (American Hazelnut and Beaked Hazelnut), we often turn our eyes towards Europe’s mythology and understandings. Thus, in this post, I’d like to share more about the American Hazelnut, and the ecology, uses, herbalism, magic, and myths of this most sacred tree.

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.

Ecology

The American Hazel is an understory tree that is native to the eastern half of the United States and into the Eastern half of Canada. The second native Hazel we have is the Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), which has an even wider range in North America–both have fairly similar growth habits.

As a deciduous tree, the American Haze produces brownish-yellow foliage in the fall and is in the birch (Betulae) family. It can tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, including acidic or alkali soil and full sun to part shade.  I’ve primarily seen it in the Allegheny mountain region of Western PA either as a full shade understory tree or along part-shade edges of damp deciduous forests.  It has simple, alternate leaves that are shaped like a heart or oblong (which have some variation from region to region) and tiny little hairs running up the branches.  The leaves are toothed and soft to the touch.

Hollie and Ivy Goose help me with this year’s hazelnut harvest!

The Hazel only reaches a height of about 12-15 feet at maturity and spreads in a thick cluster where many smaller hazel trunks will grow out of a single root structure and span 10 feet or more.  Thus, when you find one American Hazel tree cluster, you will often find many more  Hazel grows quickly once planted; it can grow 12-24″ in a single season.  Within seven years (planting from seed), it can produce its first crop of hazelnuts and most of these trees can produce nuts for over 40 years.

While hazels will produce both male catkins and female flowers on the same plant, they are not self-fertile, and thus, require several in order to properly reproduce.  Thus, if you are planning on planting some, keep this in mind.  The male catkins are visible all winter.  In early spring, like spicebush, tiny red clusters (the female flowers) burst forth.  After pollination, the male catkins dry and drop off leaving the female flowers to transition into nut pods that feature two large green bracts (one of the characteristic looks of the hazel).  When the nuts are ripe in the fall (here, this is sometime in September), the green bracts start to go yellow and then brown. An easy way to spot these in the fall as just as the leaves are beginning to come down, you can

Not only are the nuts delicious for humans, they are also highly sought by wildlife including squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, grouse, pheasants, beavers, fox, quail, and even blue jays.  The male catkins, which stay on the trees all winter, are foraged by ruffed grouse during the lean winter months.  Of course, like all other nuts in the region, nut weevils may be present (in this case, hazelnut weevils, curculio neocorylus).  When you harvest hazels, its a good idea to let them sit for about 7-12 days and let the weevils come out.  I return those to the land and enjoy the rest!

Food Uses

Most obviously, American Hazel produces delicious nuts and they are well worth seeking out if you do any foraging.  Here is a great blog post on foraging for either variety of hazelnut that grows wild in the Americas: beaked hazel or American hazel.   It is important to realize that the wild American Hazelnut is going to be smaller and more flavor intensive than the domestic counterpart; this is because most commercial hazelnuts sold are either European Hazels (about twice the size of American Hazel) or are hybrids.  This is a very common thing among wild foods: the domestic varieties have been bred for size or hybridized, but often at the expense of flavor.  A wild hazelnut will be so rich and flavorful compared to what you will find in the store (also true of wild strawberry, wild raspberry, etc).

Hollie and Ivy can’t wait to try the hazelnuts!

Hazelnuts are able to be enjoyed directly from the tree.  When you harvest them, simply peel off the catkins and you will be left with a nut surrounded by a thin (and easy to crack) shell.  This is for American hazel specifically; the beaked hazels are much harder to shell and you usually have to rot the catkins away (Sam Thayer discusses this technique more in his  You can eat them like this and store the nuts for up to 18 months in a cool place.  If you want to take it a step further, you can  I prefer to roast them slightly in the oven.  To do this, you can crack the nuts and then roast them at 275 for 15 or so minutes–you want them slightly brown but not scorched.  Or, if you have a wood-burning stove, you can just put your nuts on the top of the stove for 10 -15 minutes in their cracked shell and roast that way.  If you have enough, you can grind up your roasted nuts and make incredible nut butter. Beyond roasting, you can use American Hazelnuts in any recipe that would call for commercial hazelnut:  cookies, ice cream, sprinkled over salads, etc.

In Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1943), Fernald and Kinsey note that American Hazels were harvested extensively in the country and ground into a meal, which was then baked into a cake-like bread.

John Eastman in Forest and Thicket notes that the hazelnut oil, when pressed, can be used for perfumes and that the wood has traditionally been made into charcoals for drawing.

Other Uses

Within the permaculture community, Hazelnuts are an important crop for food forests and to support perennial agriculture.  The entire idea behind perennial agriculture is that we can plant trees or other crops once and then gain many harvests, and cultivate a food forest rather than an annual vegetable garden.  This has made nut crops, like chestnut and hazelnut, important symbols in that movement.

Beautiful Hazels

American Hazel, like all other hazels, has the ability to be coppiced.  This means that once established, you can cut the tree back to the roots and harvest the thin trunks. There are coppiced hazels in parts of Europe that have been a continual source of raw material for centuries; this is a very sustainable and regenerative practice. Within a few years, the hazel will send up new wood and regrow.

Because Hazels are understory trees without thick trunks, most of the wood applications in Hazel have to do with their ability to produce lots of small, flexible branches and be coppiced. Hazelwood has been traditionally used for building small structures like fences, in wattle and daub natural construction, in building the traditional coracle boat, or for creating supports in a garden.

Native American Uses

American Hazel in Winter with large Catkins

Erichsen-Brown notes in Medicinal and other uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes the extensive uses of Hazelnut among Native Americans in North America. Archeological evidence demonstrates Hazelnuts at an Iroquan site and in caves in what is now Ohio in Pennsylvania; this evidence dates from 800-1400 AD that large amounts of nuts were consumed by the tribes living here.  Hazelnuts were dried, ground up, made into meals and gravies, and used to create mush.  The oil was also used for hair and mixed with bear grease by the Iroquis.  

Medicinally, the Hurons used a bark poultice of the hazelnut tree for ulcers and tumors.  The Chippewa used hazel and white oak roots combined with the inner bark of chokecherry and the heart of ironwood for hemorrhages or serious lung conditions.  Similarly, the Ojibwa used the bark poultice on cuts.

The inner bark was used by the Chippewa (along with butternut or inner bark of white oak) as a dye for blankets, rushes, and more.  A recipe given in Erichson-brown is to use the hulls from the nuts to set the black dye of butternut when boiled with tannic acid.  The Chippewa and the Ojibwe also made drumsticks of hazel along with brooms and twig baskets.  The bark was also used to expel worms, in a similar fashion to walnut.

Hazel does not appear to feature much in the legends that I have read of Native American traditions. Since so much was lost due to the cultural and physical genocide of many tribes, however, it is hard to say what magic the Hazel may have had to these amazing peoples.

Hazel in the Western Magical Traditions

Simple Hazel wand

In Celtic mythology, Hazel was an extremely important tree and tied directly to the mythology of the druid tradition. In Irish mythology in the Finnean cycle, it is written that the Hazel tree is the very first tree to come into creation and that all of the knowledge of the world was contained in the Hazel tree.  The Salmon of Wisdom (An Bradán Feasa) lived in the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) which was surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees with their wisdom-containing nuts. The nuts of the trees dropped into the water and eaten by the Salmon. The first person to catch and eat the Salmon would gain this knowledge.  While many tried and failed, Finnegas spent seven years fishing and finally caught it. Finnegas sets his apprentice, the young Deimne Maol, to prepare the fish but not to eat it.  Deimne sets the fish upon a spit and begins to cook it. In the process of cooking when the fish is nearly prepared, Deimne burns his thumb and puts his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain–and, of course, acquires all of the knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. Deimne becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fin McCool), the leader of the fabled Fianna and hero of many Irish tales. Those students of Welsh druidry will note the similarities between this story and the one describing how Gwion became Taliesin.  In modern revival Druidry, the wisdom of the hazel and the Salmon of Wisdom in the sacred pool remains very important symbols of our tradition.

Greer notes in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic that Hazel has been used by magicians extensively throughout the West.  Hazel is best used for wands and various kinds of divination rods and sticks (including dowsing).  Cut the hazel with a single stroke with a consecrated knife at sunrise on a Wednesday for the best effect.  Hazelwood makes an excellent wand and transmits energy effectively. Greer also notes that the nuts are excellent for communing with Mercury or connecting with Mercurial energies.   One area that I disagree with Greer about, however, is that he says that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and American Hazel are interchangeable. In my own experience, while witch hazel became the traditional wood for dowsing rods, I do not believe these woods serve similar functions on the landscape, and thus, I have found them to have different magical qualities.

In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the wood was used for dowsers extensively in the British Isles.  In the Ogham, hazel is noted as the “fairest of the trees” and is tied to the flow of Awen, divine inspiration, particularly for the crafting of poetry.  The other thing Blamires notes, which I have not been able to find an original source for, is that there is a ritual by the druids called “Diechetel Do Chenaid” where chewing hazelnuts were used for inspiration or to learn of something lost.  I’m not sure if this ritual comes from myth or is speculation, so if anyone knows more about it, I would appreciate them sharing!  Finally, Hazel wands (probably due to their Mercurial connections) were used as a symbol for a herald.

Hazelnut does not appear to have any uses within other folk traditions in the Americas, such as Hoodoo.

The Divination and Magic of the Hazel

American Hazel Harvest

Given everything above: the ecology, food uses, and mythology surrounding hazel, I’d like to propose the following three divination and magical uses for American Hazel.

Wisdom.  While the mythology surrounding wisdom and creative inspiration comes from the British Isles, I think that mythology is strong for those of us practicing druidry in the US today.  Thus, the American hazel is associated with Wisdom and knowledge, just as the British counterpart.

Creative Inspiration and the flow of Awen. Flowing inspiration of all kinds comes from working with the Hazel tree.  Be inspired by the joy and connection this tree offers.  Eat of the hazelnuts and find your inspiration!  Bring hazel into your life through the crafting of wands, amulets, and more to encourage that flow.

Renewable tools.  Hazel offers many tools and gifts for those seeking a sustainable lifestyle and to transition to more sustainable practices.  Thus, Hazel offers the knowledge and uses of its many tools and the idea of sharing these practices widely.  Hazel offers much hope for us to think about how to transition from mono-crop agriculture that is destroying the land to instead, work with the energy of the hazel, a tree that can be infinitely renewable and incredibly generous.

Friends, readers, I would love to hear your experiences with the Hazels where you live!  What have you experienced or discovered about them?

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Herbs for Visionary Work at the Winter Solstice

Plants are our medicine, our teachers, our friends, and help us connect deeply to spirit in a wide variety of ways including through spiritual work. Long before recorded history, our ancient ancestors used plants of all kinds. Ötzi, the ancient ancestor who was preserved in ice and who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with multiple kinds of plants and mushrooms, including birch polypore (a medicinal mushroom) and the tinder fungus, a mushroom often used for transporting coals starting fires.  I love plants, and I love the ancestral connections and assistance that they can provide. In more recent history, we can look to a variety of cultures that use plants in ways that help alter or expand consciousness.

What better time to do some deep visionary work than at the winter solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness? It is in these dark times that we can look deeply within, work with the spirits that guide us, and have insights that help us more deeply understand the world and our place in it.  It is in this darkness that we can go for visionary walks (including in the long and dark nights), do spirit journeying, and engage in other forms of divination or communion with the living earth.

What are visionary herbs?

Visionary herbs are those that can help us with deep spirit journeying, deep meditations, and the kinds of self-expression that lead to deeper awareness. There are at least two categories of visionary herbs.  One category is what are traditionally called the teacher plants, the ones that cause radical shifts in consciousness and awareness.  These are the plants with the strongest effects and include a variety of psychedelic substances including strong herbs and mushrooms. While these plants were once quite illegal (at least here in the states), laws in the last few years have really become laxer and allowed these plants to be more accessible. I’m not writing about this group of plants today, but there are certainly books and resources out there about them if you want to learn more.

The visionary herbs I’m talking about today are milder, legal herbs that can help us shift our consciousness and vision, but that are less potent. To me, the difference between the two is that the teacher plants will take you on a journey whether or not you want it and requires pretty much nothing on your part–once you take teacher plants, you are on the journey of whatever kind it is for the duration. The visionary herbs I’m discussing today are milder and are more like aids or companions. Many of these visionary herbs have spiritual and mental effects that may make you more open, aware, or attuned at the moment, and are tied to helping bring the subconscious and intuitive sides forward.

The herbs I will share about today come from both teachings given to me as well as from my own experiences and connections with nature. Some of these herbs require you to build a relationship with them, while others will simply open the doors for you regardless of how long you have been acquainted. All herbs for any spiritual purpose work better when you have a relationship with that herb. Think about it like this–you meet someone, and you have a great conversation over a cup of tea. You think to yourself, wow, this person could be a great friend to me! That initial experience is wonderful. Ten years later,  you are sitting with your long-term friend and have that same cup of tea. The nuance and interaction is much richer–you can give each other just a look, or say a single word, and there is much more meaning. You’ve created a shared history together, and that history connects you on a much deeper level. This is why we build relationships with these visionary plants over time–the longer you have a relationship with a plant species (or even more ideally, the same lineage of plant or same plant), the depth of what you can do together grows.  When I say the same lineage of plant, what I mean by that is either the same plant from season to season (perennial plants) or the daughter and grandaughter plants born from the seed of your first plant.  These don’t have to just be plants you grow, but can be plants that you visit regularly.  Building plant relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.

Visionary Herbs for Awareness, True Sight, Memory, and Relaxation

So many different plants can go on this list, but for our purposes today, I’m going to share two plants from four different categories that I find are useful for visionary work.  You can agree or disagree, and in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions for plants that you have used.  I will also say that there are a lot of plants that *could* go on this list, but I’m only offering those that I have direct experience with over a period of years.

Herbs that Open up Awareness: Mugwort and Ghost Pipe

Our first set of herbs are those that open up our awareness and give us new perspectives and vision. Perhaps we need to see things from a new angle, rethink patterns of behavior and belief that have caused us difficulty, or do shadow work within ourselves. My favorite two herbs in this category are mugwort and Indian ghost pipe.

Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris

Mugwort from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Long used as a dreaming herb and smoke cleansing herb, mugwort helps with any kind of meditative or subconscious work.  Within both psychology and the occult traditions, there is an acknowledgment of the multiple selves within us.  One interpretation is that we have a rational self, that self that is “in our heads” and that typically we are projecting when we are out and about in the world.  This is the thinker, the doubter, the one that can hold a career or do math. The second self we have is our intuitive self, the self beneath the layers of rationality (and there are many of those layers), perhaps the one that comes out during meditation, spiritual work, and other deep practices.  This is the self that is where our intuition resides and is a bridge to the many subconscious and unconscious realms within us. The third self is the spirit self, the piece of us that transcends death and that reincarnates, the self that is connected to everything else. Connecting with this self and other spiritual powers is one of the goals of most spiritual traditions and practices. I believe that channeling the awen through bardic arts or doing journey work are ways to help the intuitive self bridge to the spirit.  This long explanation is to say that mugwort is very, very good at helping us with this kind of work. Mugwort not only helps us have more vivid, intense, and lucid dreaming but also connects with those deeper selves, which leads to a more fruitful understanding of ourselves, our world, and our connections to all living things.

Indian Ghost Pipe: Monotropa uniflora

Ghost Pipe from the Plant Spirit Oracle

While mugwort helps bridge to the deeper selves, Ghost Pipe is particularly good for working with the rational self. The rational self is the product of a lot of outside influences: people’s external pressures about how we should behave, what we should do, what we should say, etc.  Sometimes, we end up living to the expectations of others rather than following our true path. Ghost pipe is very good at helping us slog through those layers and get to the heart of the issues at hand. Thus, ghost pipe offers us distance, perspective, and new understandings.  The best way I can describe this is with a metaphor of the forest and the trees. We live our lives on the ground, in the middle of the forest. Some of us might be walking a clear path in that forest, and others might be wandering (by choice or not). Ghost pipe helps temporarily lift us out of the forest and let’s us see the broader picture–it helps us expand our perspective.  I will note that due to overharvesting, Indian Ghost Pipe should be used *ONLY* as a floral essence.

Herbs that Aid with Seeing Clearly: Eyebright and Blue Vervain

Another thing that we need to do is see clearly.  Perhaps our own past experiences cloud our judgment.  Perhaps our past traumas and experiences prevent us from being able to clearly see what is before us.  Perhaps ongoing things in the world have put us in an emotional place and we need to break free.

Eyebright. Euphraise Officinale, Euphrasia spp.

Sometimes, the magic is in the name of the plant itself, and that is certainly the case with Eyebright.  On the physical level, eyebright helps strengthen the sight and the eyes, and many people take it as a healing herb for this reason.  But this same medicinal action happens on the level of our spirit, where work with eyebright helps us to see true.  We can see to the heart of things, to the heart of issues, and that true sight offers us new ways of being, healing, and inhabiting the world.

Blue Vervain. Verbena Hastada

Blue Vervain from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Blue vervain is a visionary herb that does essentially two things.  The first thing it does is allow us to let go of those things we cling to too tightly (e.g. things have to be a certain way, maybe a bit of OCD we are harboring) and instead, it allows us to go with the flow.  It thus connects us with that deeper, intuitive self by giving the rational self a bit of ease and relaxation.  Blue vervain works over time, so it’s particularly good to start taking it in some form and keep taking it for a while to get it to work for you in this way.  Once we are able to let go of the things we cling to, we are offered new visions and ways forward.  The second way Blue Vervain works is by putting us more in touch with our emotional side.  Blue vervain always lives by water–it understands how to help us navigate our difficult emotions and offers vision beyond them.

Herbs that Sharpen the Mind and bring Focus: Lavender and Rosemary

Sharpening our mind and our focus is something that we can all benefit from.  These herbs seem even more critical after nearly a year of long-term trauma from the global pandemic when many are now suffering the effects of overload, burnout, and more.

Lavender. Lavendula Spp.

Lavender is a herb that helps bring focus and clarity. It has a very gentle action that promotes the body to relax while the mind focuses.  This is an excellent combination for meditation and spirit journeying–bringing the mind into a place where it’s not going to wander while you are attempting your visioning work, while also bringing the body into a place of calm and tranquility.  Other herbs do this well too  (Lemon balm is another solid choice), but I think lavender is particularly good at bridging that mind-body connection that is necessary for powerful spirit work to take place.

Rosemary. Rosmarinus Officinalis.

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance.  If you are doing memory work of any kind, Rosemary is an excellent ally (including ancestor work, as linked above). Rosemary strengthens our memory and encourages us to use our memories in new ways, shaping them, and storing them.  Rosemary is particularly good for memory mansion work, using method of loci techniques that have been handed down by masters from the ages.  If there is a memory you want strongly to retain or a memory you want to bring back, rosemary is your guide.

Herbs that relax the Body and Release Tension: Kava Kava and Passionflower

Our final set of herbs can help foster a deeper sense of relaxation and allow us to go more deeply into sacred dreaming, meditation, or simply relax more fully.

Kava Kava: Piper methysticum.

Kava Kava is the only herb on my list that doesn’t grow in the US East coast, but I wanted to include it because there is nothing else like it–and because you can ethically source it from small farms effectively in Hawaii, thus supporting sustainable farming practices.  Kava Kava is a deeply relaxing herb, working on both the mind and the body. When you take kava in either tincture or tea form, it somewhat numbs the lips briefly. That same effect is later passed onto the body–not so much numbing, but taking away pains, deeply relaxing the muscles, and putting you into a relaxed state.  I like to use Kava Kava as part of my spiritual practice when I’ve had a long day and that day has really gotten into my body–I am carrying the worries of my day or my life in my physical body.  This means that I get literal aches and heaviness, and that makes it difficult to do spiritual work.  Kava helps me relax into myself and allows the spiritual work to flow.  (If you take a lot of kava, you will be impaired at driving, so please keep this in mind).

Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower is an outstanding nervine plant that helps our nervous system relax and thus, our bodies relax.  Passionflower is one of many nervines, but I find it particularly good for relaxation when the goal is spiritual work.  Part of it, perhaps, is that it is such an otherwordly flower–looking like the full moon on an enchanted evening.  But also, each different nervine has their own unique qualities–and passionflower helps one get into that place of calm so that the world of spirit can flow.  In a temperate climate, you can grow it yourself by keeping it as a vine in your home during the winter and then letting it grow wildly during the summer, offering it trellising.  Cut it back when the frost comes and bring it in for the winter months.  After a few years, your vine will produce many flowers and later fruits each year–which are an absolute delight!

Obtaining visionary herbs

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these herbs, you have to figure out the best way to obtain them. If you can grow them or harvest them yourself, this is probably the best thing you can do because it helps establish a deep relationship. I would pick one or two herbs that you really want to work with and cultivate them–even a pot on a windowsill can produce a beautiful rosemary or lavender plant! The alternative is to try to get them from an ethical, organic grower.  You don’t want conventional (read – chemically sprayed) herbs for any of your visionary work. The chemicals themselves can harm the spirit of the plant.  These plants are used to working with humans as friends and guides, and the spraying of poison on them really damages that relationship. So please, please be careful about ethical sourcing and chemical-free plants when you are sourcing herbs.  I would also be very careful of the “wild harvest” label, particularly for at-risk plants like kava or ghost pipe.  Wildharvested is often not sustainably harvested, so you want to be careful.  Places that are good for sourcing herbs are small farms like Black Locust Gardens or larger, ethical companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.

Taking visionary Herbs

You have a number of options for working with and taking visionary herbs. I’ll list the options, and which herbs might be best for each option.  All of the herbs I’ve listed are safe and non-toxic, so you can do a lot with them.

Rosemary smudge

Smudges and smoking blends: Mugwort is commonly used in smoking blends and smoke clearing sticks (smudge sticks).  Lavender and rosemary also work great in smudge sticks or incense blends.  Here, the idea is that you burn the plants and inhale the smoke–either in the air around you (with incense/smudges) or by smoking it in a sacred way.  For smoking, a little bit goes a long way!

Teas. Many of the plants on this list make excellent teas: mugwort (brewed briefly, too long and it gets bitter), rosemary, lavender, kava kava, and passionflower are all good choices.  Blue vervain is a very bitter herb, so I suggest using it as a tincture instead.

Infused oils. Any of these herbs are great as an infused oil, which you can then rub on your body or temples for spiritual work.  See my instructions for how to create an infused oil here.

Tinctures. Any of the herbs can be made into a tincture with a long shelf life. Alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine make good menstrua for making a spiritual tincture.  Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life while glycerin lasts about a year. The tincture is easy to make and I have instructions here.

Flower Essence. This is the only way I recommend using Indian Ghost pipe because of serious challenges with overharvesting this plant in recent years.  To make a flower essence, you’ll have to seek out the plant when it is in bloom (in my region, that’s usually late June to late August) and do a simple flower essence.  Here are instructions.

Conclusion

I hope this post has offered you some new tools for working–and embracing–the darkness during the period of weeks before and after the Winter Solstice.  There is something extremely magical about this time that allows us to dig in deeply with ourselves and do important work.  Blessings of the Winter Solstice!

Sacred Tree Profile: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)’s Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

 

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

As we move into the dark half of the year and move closer to Samhain, the temperatures drop, the killing frosts come and the plants die back. The leaves grow brilliant and then fall.  Brown and tan dominate the land as the earth falls asleep. But there in the waning light is the brilliant, beautiful golden yellow of the  Witch hazel!  Around here, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginia) begins a magnificent display of tiny yellow flowers, appearing to explode outward with many delicate yellow petals.  As the last of the leaves fall, if you walk through a forest with Witch Hazel, you are struck by the beauty of these wild and warm yellow flowers. everything else may look dead, but Witch Hazel is alive and thriving. The time of Witch Hazel is the time of late fall and early winter, and it is a powerful and magical tree indeed.

Witch Hazel is also known as winterbloom (for fairly obvious reasons), snapping alder, spotted alder, tobacco wood, pistachio or wych elm.  John Eastman describes that the name “witch hazel” may be derived from the Anglo-saxon wych (which is related to the word “whicker”) which means “bending.” Because the leaves have an elm-like quality, it was sometimes called wych elm.

Growth and Ecology

Witch Hazel is often found as an understory tree in both evergreen and deciduous forests.  Here in Western Pennslyvania, you can often find it as part of the understory of the Eastern Hemlock/Beech forest or even the Oak-hickory forest.

Witch hazel just as it emerges….

Witch Hazel loves a part-shade or full shade damp place to grow, so you can also often find them along forest streams.  Witch hazels are shade tolerant, slow-growing, and often have a growth form with several smaller trunks coming up from a central stem; the trunks often grow crooked and at odd angles.  When the flowers open up in the fall, they also open up their seed pods, shooting out two black seeds from each pod.  While this has not happened to me, in John Eastman’s Forest and Thicket book (a fantastic book), he mentions getting hit by the flying seeds at distance up to 10-20 feet!  The lovely flowers are insect-pollinated by gnats and late flies.

I want to speak a little about the flowers of the Witch Hazel since they are so magical and unique. The flowers emerge just as the leaves of the tree begin to turn yellow in the fall and even after the leaves drop and freezing temperatures set in, the flowers continue to persist for some time.  Here, in Western PA, you can find them sometimes into late December, depending on the year. The flowers themselves look like a little yellow firework or sparkler–the bud opens up and over two dozen very thin, long flower petals unroll and twist around. From a distance, they almost look like little pompoms popping out from the branch.  They are quite special, with a warm sunny yellow that is just bursting with hope, life, and possibility.

The Medicine of Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is in common use today. What you purchase in the store called witch hazel is actually a steam distillation of the branches of the witch hazel. Witch Hazel branches are best distilled in the spring (for this you can use an alembic, similar to making an essential oil).   Witch hazel is easily found in the distilled form in drug stores, where it is used for mouthwashes, reducing inflammation, addressing skin irritation, addressing sore throats (especially inflamed), hemorrhoids, acne, wards of certain viral infections, and much more.  You can also make a tincture of it (1 part alcohol to 5 parts fresh bark and leaves) and you can create a very astringent rub that can relieve pain.

Witch Hazel Ecoprint (part of my in-progress Tree Alchemy oracle!)

Native peoples of North America saw Witch Hazel as a critically important medicinal plant. As described by Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes,  Native Americans used decoctions of leaves and twigs as liniments and mashed up inner bark as poultices for boils, tumors, and other external inflammatory items.  The Iroquois made a tea of the leaves, sweetened with maple syrup.  They drank the leaves unsweetened for diarrhea and other internal inflammation. Today, many of the same uses found traditionally can still be used.

Other Uses

If you are interested in creating sacred smoking blends, witch hazel (the leaf and inner bark) can be a nice addition.  One of the names for the tree was “tobacco wood” and I am guessing that witch hazel can be a good base for a smoking blend (as all astringent woods and plants make a nice smoke).  I’ve only briefly experimented with this, but I think it is well worth considering. Several foraging books, including Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, suggest that Witch Hazel seeds can be eaten but that they are rather oily and bitter. I haven’t tried them yet (I can rarely find them after they pop off of the tree). Although I do not know if it is done in the present day, Native Americans used to make bows from the branches as the wood is quite flexible (Erichsen-Brown, 177). I am unaware of any other uses of Witch Hazel.

Magic of the Witch Hazel: Dowsing, Water Witching, and Wayfinding

Virgula divina. (Diving Rods)
“Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice,
And (borne about) will strangely nod
To hidden Treasure where it lies;
Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”

From Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick by Samuel Shepard (1651)

As the poem by Samuel Shepard above suggests, one of the most powerful uses of witch hazel is the virgula divina, or the witch hazel divining rod, which can be used to find all manner of buried treasure or other hidden things.  European Hazels were used in Europe for this purpose, and when colonists arrived in the Americas, the Witch Hazel became the quintessential dowsing rod and was seen as a most magical of woods.

Witch Hazel branches in bloom

Dowsing is performed by turning the arms up and holding a rod in both hands. By observing subtle movements of the rod, one can sense the direction and location of various buried treasures, which can include buried springs, mineral deposits, gold and silver, salt, and potentially other buried treasures. As Erichsen-Brown describes, as early as 1631, there is a record of Witch Hazel branches being employed as “divining rods” (p. 177)   While water is the most commonly dowsed for, Erichsen-Brown also notes the use of witch hazel in the colonial era for finding gold or silver, salt mines, and more. This tradition was extremely widespread, even in sacred Mormon texts the witch hazel rod often had directions whispered to it, telling it where to help look for gold.

As Witch Hazel is native to North America, this dowsing tradition ties to the larger folk magic of Appalachia and beyond. In fact, I was told when we purchased our current homestead that our drinking spring on the property was found by a local dowser in the 1970s.  He used a witch hazel rods that he cut on the property from local wood.  He dowsed commonly and many springs and wells in our immediate area were found by him.  Although dowsing is not as common now as it used to be, it still has power and influence here in the Appalachian mountains.

One of the ways we can think about dowsing is that you can use it to find physical things but also to help find our way. Some dowsers have been able to use their rods to find anything, and this seems closely tied to the overall magic of the witch hazel.  In my own experience, Witch Hazel certainly fits that approach. It helps us find what we are looking for, in that way, it is a wayfaring or pathwalking plant.

Divination and Meanings of Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel brings light and hope into dark places and dark times. I think Witch hazel is a particularly powerful plant for us here in 2020, given the civil unrest, economic insecurity, climate change, and so many other major challenges that we are facing as a species.  It feels like our civilization is going through a very dark time–and witch hazel reminds us that we can shine in that darkness, that even if everything else is retreating and dying back, there is always room for a little hope and joy.

Witch hazel likes to bloom when the rest of the forest looks like this!

Witch hazel assists with finding hidden things. Witch hazel has the longstanding ability within the Appalachian and American folk magic traditions of finding nearly anything: water, gold, silver, salt, minerals, coal, or other buried treasure.  Thus, Witch hazel more generally can help us do that work both physically in the world and, as in our next point, metaphysically within our selves.

Witch hazel is a wayfaring tree.  The wayfinding properties of Witch Hazel make this an important tree to work with if you are on a journey, if you are seeking a new path, or if you are trying to find your way through uncertain times.

What a blessing the Witch Hazel brings us today, and always.

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing Stones at the Summer Solstice

Ancient peoples set standing stones in various places in the world.  In places, such as in the British Isles or Iceland, you can still often find these standing stones, trilithons, stone circles or stacks of stones.  While their many uses are shrouded in antiquity and subject to some speculation, in the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer describes standing stones can channel the solar current into the earth, which offers blessing and healing to the land.  I think it’s likely that standing stones can do many other things (tell time, point to astronomical features, be places of worship and community). Today, new groups of people and individuals are choosing to set stones. For our purposes, today, setting stones for land blessing and healing is certainly a good thing to do to provide spiritual support for the land.

The Summer Solstice is a fantastic time to raise a standing stone–in your garden, in a natural place you visit, or even in a planter on your windowsill. You can set a standing stone as part of a permanent sacred grove, sacred garden, or other such space of worship and do this as part of your solstice activities.  The full energy of the light of the sun will infuse your standing stone, allowing it to radiate blessing and light to the landscape.

Choosing Your Stone, Location, and Timing

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

A stone circle at Sirius Ecovillage–rebuilding sacred landscape features

As someone who has raised standing stones with many others at ritual events, I know how hard this work is to do, especially on a larger scale. Ancient—and modern—standing stones and stone circles were set by communities of people working together, often over long periods of time. The size of a stone that a single person, or small group of people, could set is nowhere near the massive stones of old, such as those seen at Stonehenge, Avebury, or other ancient sites in the UK.

And yet a smaller stone, set by one or two people, is no less effective at bringing in that healing energy and light, creating a space for ritual, and allowing you to commune with the land.

Begin by looking for a stone that you could manage to carry and set on your own or with a small group of friends.  I usually look for stones that are long and thin. Standing stones are ideal if they are able to be placed 1/3 in the ground and 2/3 out of it, somewhere that gets sun. Thus, the best standing stones are ones that are tall and somewhat long but not necessarily very wide. That’s a general guideline, however, and your stone might end up being something shaped very differently. Stones that contain some quartz are ideal (as quartz is an excellent transmitter of energy). Where I live, we have mostly shale and sandstone, I’d choose sandstone over shale since the sandstone has a higher quartz content.

Take your time looking for your standing stone. Look for it when you are hiking, in your yard, walking along streams, just being out in the world. A standing stone will find you when the time is right. I find a lot of these kinds of stones when I’m hiking and kayaking, but getting them back to where I might set them can prove difficult–so understand your own limits or move a stone slowly over time.

Once you have your stone, find the right place to set it—a place where you feel inspired by spirit to do so. This could be anywhere—an edge of a forest or field, in your backyard, even on your patio set in a pot with flowers (if you use this option, consider then moving your ‘energized’ soil to places in need of healing.  Like all other aspects of land healing, make sure that you engage in appropriate deep listening to make sure A) setting the standing stone is appropriate and wanted and B) that you have the right time and location to do such work.

Raising stones the old fashioned way

Raising stones the old fashioned way…yes that’s uphill!

To set your stone, choose a fortuitous day and time. The most fortuitous day of a year and timing for setting a standing stone is noon at the Summer Solstice, as you are calling upon the energy of the sun, and setting the stone when the solar energy is at its peak in both time of day and year will be powerful. You can choose any other day or time that is fortuitous, however, but I do suggest you set it at noon if at all possible.

Physically, to set a stone, you dig a hole, place it where you want it to go, and fill it back in, checking to make sure the stone stays in the position you want it as you fill.  Most standing stones go about 1/3 into the ground for the sake of stability.  I really recommend keeping it natural–no pouring concrete.  Just fill it in with whatever you dig out, add some gravel or smaller stones if you like for stability, and your stone should do well.

If you want, you can plant something around your stone (flowers or veggies if its in a garden, seeds or acorns you find nearby where you are setting the stone) and leave an offering.

You might like to use the following ritual for setting your standing stone.

Ritual for Setting a Standing Stone

Materials: Assemble all of your supplies prior to beginning your ritual. This should include tools needed to move and place your stone (such as a shovel) as well as blessing materials to bless the hole your stone will be seated in.  The ritual below uses an herbal tea made from fresh healing herbs: rosemary, sage, oregano, and lavender as well as a blessing sigil (a pentagram or other sigil as appropriate).

The Ritual

Open up your sacred grove in the manner you usually do.

Begin by stating your intentions for the healing to take place.  While I highly recommend you use your own words, you can also use the words here: “Land before me. What a journey you have had to get to this place.  And now, your healing is coming forth. As you regrow, as you heal, know that I am with you.  I set this standing stone today to aid you with your healing, that you may grow bountiful and diverse.”

Now, bless your stone. Pour some of the tea over the stone, and bless the stones in your own words.  Or you can say, “Sacred stone, sacred ancestor who has been on this land for millennia, thank you for lending your healing power as a channel for the solar current.”

Prepare to dig the hole. Say, “Spirits of nature, powers of this land, I offer my energy to prepare this earth.”

Standing stone - bringing the solar into the telluric

Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric

Dig the hole.  As you dig, focus your mind on healing for the land.

After you dig the hole, bless the hole with your own words, or say, “Sacred earth, oh cradle for this stone. Hold this stone firm, and be a conduit for healing to radiate forth.” Pour the remainder of the healing waters in the hole.  Place a blessing sigil in the hole as well.

Set the stone, making sure you firmly tamp down the soil all around the hole.

After you finish, say, “From above to below, from the solar to the telluric, may this stone radiate healing energy to all of the lands. Each day as the sun rises until the sun sets, this stone will serve as a conduit to channel nywfre (noo-iv-ruh) throughout this land.”

Visualize the rays of the sun warming the stone, and then envision the stone channeling those rays into the earth, a beautiful golden light emanating from the stone in all directions. Visualize those rays of golden energy helping plants regrow, seeds take root, eggs hatch, and young ones grow.  Imagine the land before you as a healthy, strong, and abundant place for all.

Offer your own vow as a caretaker of the land (optional, if you feel led).  “As I close this ceremony, I offer myself as a force of good and healing in service to this land.  Lead me as to what you need me to do.  Speak, and I will listen.  I honor you and heed your call.”  Bow your head and cross your arms.

Close the ritual space.

Closing

This ritual is most effective if you visit the stone and continue to offer healing and blessing.  After the initial setting of the stone, you might come back every solstice and equinox and do a full season of healing rituals or use it as a focal point for other work.  Or just come by the stone to commune with nature, meditate, and enjoy the energy.  I hope that the long days of summer (or long nights of winter for those in the southern hemisphere) bless you and keep you safe.

PS: If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Tarot of Trees 10th Anniversary Edition Indegogo Campaign, please consider doing so.  We are working to bring the Tarot of Trees in a revised and larger edition.  Thanks for your support!

Pattern Literacy: A Guide to Nature’s Archetypes

The unfolding of the bramble ferns in the spring always feels, to me, like the unfolding of worlds. The tightly packed fronds, formed at the end of last season and dormant all winter, slowly emerge, uncurling so slowly that you can’t see it happen, but if you come back later in the day, you can see clear progress.  I like to meditate with these ferns, as they connect me to the deeper energies of the cosmos.  The unfolding of the fern frond, there in my backyard, is the same pattern as the Milky Way galaxy in which we all reside.  It is in this sacred pattern that I can see the connection to all things and connect with nature deeply.

 

Sacred Spiral in the Spring Ferns

This post is a follow-up to a great conversation about wildcrafting one’s own druidry that members of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) had in April 2020.  In this conversation, one of the topics that we briefly we discussed was how people who were new to an ecosystem or transient might benefit from understanding nature’s patterns.  In this AODA-themed post, I would like to offer some deeper discussion of this concept of pattern literacy and share a few of these “universal” patterns that we can use in our druid practice.  Patterns can be used as themes for ovate work and understanding nature deeply, but also for bardic practices (such as incorporating them in the visual arts) or druid work (using them for magic, sigils, meditations, and more).

 

What are nature’s patterns?

Within the human realm, we are surrounded by patterns. Writers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have helped us identify some of the archetypes within human life (the hero, the warrior, the mother, the hermit). Many cultures, including Native American cultures here in the US, have identified the archetypes present in animals (e.g. bear, wolf, eagle) and their broader representation. These archetypes are fairly accessible–many of us know someone who fits the mother, hero, or warrior role, and it’s clear to see how a bear might embody strength and protection. Thes archetypes help us make meaning of the world and to map our specific experience onto more general principles that are consistent across the human experience.  Of course these, too, are archetypes ultimately deriving from nature.  But today, we are focusing on another kind of natural archetype in the form of nature’s patterns.

 

Although it’s not always as apparent, the rest of nature also has its own archetypes, patterns that repeat over and over again; these are often explored in the practice of sacred geometry as well as in plant identification. Understanding some of nature’s broader patterns can help us connect deeply with nature, hone our observation skills, and engage more deeply with our own spiritual practice.   Nature is literally full of these patterns–patterns in weather, migration, blooming, wind, plant life, animal life, insect life, and more.

 

The other thing here that’s useful to remember is that ancient people knew, understood, and worked with these patterns in nature extensively.  We see them reflected among our most ancient sacred symbols.  We see them woven into spiritual and religious iconography, such as the spiral patterns present in Celtic knotwork designs.  Connecting with these ancient patterns helps us connect with our ancient spiritual ancestors, which I always feel has great benefit.  So now let’s look at a few of these big picture archetypes that nature offers:

The Spiral

After a cold and wet spring, the land is finally waking up and growing green here on the Druid’s Garden homestead. One of the characteristic patterns that can be found now is the spiral, as I shared above, reflected in the fern fronds. I also see this same unfolding patterns in the petals of Witch Hazel as they open in the fall, or in the petals of the New England Aster blooms as they die back and go to seed.  While we have a number of different spirals in the world, many of the spiral patterns found on the planet emerge from the sacred geometry of a number of spirals, including the Golden Spiral.

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

The Golden Spiral, and its associated golden angle and golden ratio, were well honored by many ancient peoples, and were worked with extensively by the Ancient Greeks. The Golden Spiral is a logarithmic spiral, derived from the golden mean equation, which has a value of 1.6180339877… (I can’t put the actual formula in here, but you can see it here if you are interested). The Golden Spiral is also known as the Fibonacci spiral because it is derived when you continue to add up the two numbers to derive a third.   0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on.

 

Ancient peoples were particularly fond of the Golden Spiral, Golden Mean, and associated principles. These found their way into many other disciplines, like Ancient Greek architecture or DaVinci’s Last Supper painting.  The use of the Golden spiral in this way was another way that humanity could honor and connect with one of the great principles of the universe.  Speaking of the universe, the spiral pattern found in galaxies is–you guessed it–a Golden Spiral.  As above, so below indeed!

 

Major themes of the spiral:

  • The Microcosm and Macrocosm are present within the spiral.  When you look at the formula and the numbers, what really unfolds from it is like the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm: the small is in harmony with the large, and the large is in harmony with the whole.
  • Harmony is one major theme of the spiral–all things are in balance and all things have their place within the great spiral of the universe.
  • Paths to growth and wisdom. The spiral reminds us that things ever-unfold and ever-deepen.  This is the path from innocence and childhood to old age and wisdom.  This is the path that every living being walks, their own spiral path, the spiral of life, and living.  The spiral reminds us that while this path deepens over time, we can also learn a great deal

 

The Branch

The branching pattern is another very common pattern found all through nature.  As I look outside my window as I write these words, I am struck by the massive, 250+-year-old grandmother black oak that stands tall, reaching into the heavens.  Her branching pattern isn’t random; the branching pattern is 2:5, representing yet again, the golden mean. (This was discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 2011, which shows the power of citizen science and gives us hope that there is so much left to discover about the world around us!)  I see this same branching pattern when I kayak at a river delta, or when I look at the larger pattern of rivers flowing into a larger water basin.  When lightning strikes during a particularly bad storm, the branching pattern is also present.  When we trace evolutionary histories or even our own family histories, they branch out from us like a tree.

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

While branching may not have the ancient esoteric connections of some of the other archetypes presented here, I think that we can come to some conclusions about it simply based on how it functions in nature.  Here’s my own take:

  • Flowing from the source. Branches are inherently connecting while also expansive.  When I look at the branching pattern of the watershed that I belong to, each of those tiny branches becomes a larger branch, and all of those eventually flow into the same source–the ocean.  It reminds me that even though I might be a small branch, I am connected to the greater whole.
  • Collective thought and action. It reminds me too, of the power of collective thought and action–how a million small branches of a river can add up to a very strong current. We can be the river–each small stream can combine to a larger force!
  • Paths and choices: the branch also can remind us of the many choices that have led to the present moment, and ever-branching before us, the choices in the present and yet unrealized future

As you find this pattern in nature and meditate on it, I hope you discover your own meanings.

 

The Pentacle / Pentagram

As spring is unfolding on our landscape here, I look to the blossoms of the fruit trees: apples, blackberry, raspberry, and hawthorn. These blossoms all reflect another sacred archetype in nature, one that has at least a 5000-year-old human history: the pentacle or pentagram (they are the same symbol, the pentacle is simply surrounded by a circle while the pentagram is not).

The first recorded human use of the pentagram was by the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, who lived between the 10th and 6th centuries BC.  Chaldeans were a nomadic people who were known for their skill in magic, astrology, writing, and the arts.  They often inscribed the pentagram into their pottery (for more on the fascinating Chaldeans, check out Chaldean Magic: Its Origin and Development by François Lenormant). The ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who lived in the 5th century BC, likely assigned the five elements to the pentacle: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit/psyche.  We see similar uses of the pentacle in antiquity in China and Japan.  Again, as with the golden spiral, the ancient peoples understood and worked with this symbol as one of nature’s archetypes–long associated with the elements and protection.

I find it ironic that, even in my own mundane landscape here in Western PA, people choose to adorn their houses with 5000 year old magical symbols in the form of “barn stars” or “country stars” or the more elaborate cut-out wooden pentacles that can still be seen on old barns dating to the 18th century.  Most modern folks just see them as a “country symbol” but a quick dive into history tells a very different tale!

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

In nature, you can find the pentacle not only in the blooms of the apple, but later, in the seed pattern.  Cutting an apple lengthwise allows you to see the pentacle pattern reflected there in the seeds.  Once you start seeing the pentacle and other five-fold patterns, you’ll see how abundant and rich they are.  Another cool tidbit–Rubus allegheniensis, the Common Blackberry, reflects this pattern in multiple ways.  You can see it in the spring in the petals, but also in the mature largest leaves (a 5-fold pattern), and, if you cut the stem straight across, the stem itself has a five-pointed pattern.  (And, you can see a Golden Spiral reflected both in the distribution of fruit clusters, leaves and thorns!)  Here are a few interpretations of this incredible sign:

  • Protection. The pentacle and pentagram are all about protection.  They don’t end up on barns in Western PA (or houses or anything else for that matter) without the desire to protect what is inside the barn.  For many early settlers, barns represented their survival: their animals and crops were their life.  Protecting that with the pentacle allowed them to thrive.
  • Unification of the Elements.  For millennia, the pentacle has also represented the union of the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.

The Wave

A final common pattern is the wave.  This pattern is often on the level of the landscape: we see the wave pattern as waves in the ocean or sea, sand on the ocean floor, the pattern of sand from the wind in the desert.  We can see the same wave pattern in water flowing on a river or in blowing tall grasses in the wind. If we look into the sky, at times, the same pattern is sometimes reflected in the dispersion of clouds.  Waves reflect movement and the intersection of the elements: the sea with the shore (ocean waves, waves in sand under surface), the sand (earth) with the wind; the water in the clouds with the air.  Waves are all around us, showing us that change is constant.

  • Movement and energy. I think of the wave a lot like “The Chariot” card from the tarot—waves signify patterns of movement.
  • Variety–While the movement and energy are constant, the changes present in the wave pattern also teaches us the power of repetition, of pattern, and of predictability of change.  Each wave that crashes on the shore is unique and yet, consistent with other waves. waves remind us that change is all around us, the wind and waves are constantly changing and yet, also, repeating their unique patterns over time.  In the same way that humans have certain characteristics (e.g. two eyes, two hands, two feet) but infinite variation.

Key Plant Patterns

While I’ve just offered four major patterns in nature, I also want to talk briefly about other kinds of patterns, those we can find in plants.  Each plant family has its own patterns–patterns that repeat across species.

For example, the Rose (Rosaceae) family plants happen to mostly follow a pentacle pattern, particularly with their flowers, while the leaves are alternate and usually oval-shaped with serrated edges.  Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) instead, have a square stem/stalk, leaves that grow opposite from one another, seed pods that contain four seeds each, and are often aromatic (e.g. when you crush a leaf and smell it, it has a distinct smell).  Plants in the pea/legume family (Fabaceae) have an irregularly shaped flower that often has two large petals (called banners), two smaller wings, and a single petal called a Keel (similar to the keel on a sailboat). They often have pea-like pods and pinnate leaves.  I share these three patterns to help you see that each plant family has its own characteristics, things that define them, and if we learn those things, we can better understand, connect, and identify with life.  (I’ve mentioned it before, but the book Botany in a Day is the best guide out there to learn plant patterns).

Understanding these kinds of patterns can also help you navigate the world safely and with identification skills that can come in handy. For example, a few years ago, a friend and I decided to camp in the Flordia Keys–we had never been there and wanted to do some kayaking, etc, and get away from winter for a bit When we got there, I noticed a particular pattern that appeared to be what I would consider “Toxicodendron” like (e.g. in the sumac family). And I was right: I had just met a poisonwood tree–which turned out to everywhere in the Keys.  Poisonwood isn’t actually in the Toxicodendron subspecies, but it does belong to the larger sumac / cashew (Anacardiaceae) family.  Because I already knew the pattern of what these plants looked like from my longstanding relationship with Poison Ivy, I was quite good at quickly spotting them–saving my friend and I a nasty bout of dermatitis. 

The other piece here with plant patterns is useful for those that might be traveling and/or moving somewhere new.  If you are deeply connected with your local ecosystem and have to temporarily or permanently relocate, learning these larger patterns of nature can really help you reconnect.  Maybe you can’t find that which was growing in your old home, but you can find plants in the same plant family, which can help you re-establish and build these relationships.

Patterns in Spiritual Practice

Patterns in nature and in plants can offer many different kinds of insights for spiritual practice in the bardic, ovate, or druid arts.  In the ovate arts, plant patterns can help you more deeply connect to nature, identify plants, and work with the land and the spirits of the land.  You can establish deep relationships with plants across similar species by understanding them, identifying them, and looking for patterns.  In the druid arts, consider using nature’s patterns for themes for ritual work, meditations, or sigils.  In the bardic arts, you can use nature’s patterns as themes and inspiration for poetry, writing, visual arts, music, dance, and more!  The sky is the limit in terms of what you can do with these powerful patterns.

I’d also argue that many of the symbols that are developed over time by human cultures have their ancient roots in nature.  We might have advanced writing systems and iconography, but if you go back far enough, nature’s language is embedded within all of our symbols.

Patterns of the World

I hope that this post has helped illustrate the many magical and wonderful patterns present in our natural world.  Do you have any additional patterns to share?  How have you worked with these patterns? Are you working with other patterns? I’d love to hear more.

 

PS: Tarot of Trees 4th edition! I also wanted to announce that we are working to fund the 10th-anniversary edition of the Tarot of Trees.  If you liked the original, please check out the Indegogo campaign here.  We are offering the Tarot of Trees in a larger size with a new design.