The Druid's Garden

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

Wildcrafted Winter Solstice Decorations with Conifers, Holly, Ivy, Bittersweet, and More December 20, 2017

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Decorated mantle with greenery, ribbon, and a nice candelabra

Part of the fun of the holiday season is “decking the halls” and decorating for the season. By bringing the symbols of the season into our homes, for festivity and communion, we are able to deeply align with the living earth and her turning seasons. And the symbols of this particular season, at the winter solstice, span back millennia: deep red berries and dark green conifers, trails of ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens. Adding to this, the symbols of the season are also reflected in mythology, such as the battle between the Oak and Holly king and the Goddess Frigga’s wheel of the year.  These symbols have been with us for centuries in one form or another, and weaving in and out of whatever dominant tradition that is present.  And so, in this post, I will explore how we might use natural materials, gathered lovingly from the living earth, to create our own holiday decorations: holly, ivy, various dried grasses, conifers, and more.  This can compliment, supplement, or even replace purchased decorations and can be returned harmlessly to the living earth after the holiday season is over.

 

I’m going to start with some background and reasons why you might want to go a “handmade” and “grown” route, offer suggestions on things to forage and find, discuss the spirit and magical work of creating and crafting, and then talk about some easy ways you can make simple holiday decorations.

 

Why Handmade/Grown Decorations

As a druid concerned with my own ecological impact and who engages in serious land healing, putting up a tree or figuring out how to decorate always represents an ethical conundrum. Obviously, I don’t want a plastic tree, as plastic trees are just another commercialized commodity. In fact, holiday decorations are a serious industry; in 2011, Americans spent somewhere around $6,000,000,000 on decorations. This land–and landfills–are now filled with inflatable snowmen, icicle lights, and even these crazy laser shows you can project on your houses, and more. These decorations are easy to purchase, easy to use and certainly, easy to throw away.  Even holiday greenery, like fresh greens, are now a commodity to be purchased anywhere from your local grocery store to big box store. To me, I want to steer clear of commercialized holiday decorations because it feeds into the cycle of purchase-use-quickly throw away and because I can’t be sure of the manufacturing processes or ecological impact on the earth. Even a used plastic tree is problematic to me–I’m not into the facsimile, I want something real. I want it to smell real and be real.

 

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

Basket with home-cut log, iron face, dried grasses, and greenery

And yet, a typical living tree also presents an ethical issue.  As someone working to live a nurturing and regenerative lifestyle, I don’t want to purchase a living tree that would be cut down so I can enjoy it in my house for a month. I think as I gain experience as a woodworker and I could put the whole tree to use, I might begin to feel differently. But at this point, putting up a tree in my house for a month to celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons simply aren’t worth a life of another being.  To address this, a lot of people opt for the “living tree” in a pot or with a root ball as an option, but they are often quite expensive and/or hard to source (around here, all you can only find cut trees; my town claims to be the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World” and takes great pride in high quality cut trees, so there isn’t much of a market for anything else). Long term, I might cultivate an evergreen in a pot and bring it in each year for the holiday season so that I kept using the same one again and again (otherwise, this home would be filled with conifers (not fruit trees) in a few short years!

 

And so, with this conundrum brewing and family quickly approaching for a festive feast on the 25th, this year, I decided to continue explore decking the halls the old fashioned way–with help from nature herself.

 

Gathering and Foraging Decoration Materials

Many different decorating materials from the land

Many different decorating materials from the land

Long before big box stores and plastic commodities, the only thing that was available was what nature herself provided–this is why we have evergreens and reds for this time of year: looking on the landscape, that’s what is available right now. Before commercialization, this was the only way to decorate–and I think its worth exploring how we might get back there.

 

Of course, the question of what to source and how to source it is a good one. If you are going to use real live materials for your decorations, you might start by seeing what is available in your surroundings (and I’ve offered a bit of a guide below) and even scope things out earlier in the year. I have found that its relatively easy to find materials even when I was renting: particularly, from friends, neighbors, family, or your own land.

 

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my "tree"

My friend Jason helping me prune branches that will turn into my “tree”

Now, at my new land, I’m going to save “yearly pruning” of holly, ivy, and various evergreens for the Yule season–this way, any material that I want to use can be pruned and then immediately used for decorations. Often, people (think elderly relatives and neighbors) are happy for you to prune back some of their greenery–all of this makes excellent bases for creating whatever you want: holiday baskets, swags, mantle displays, and even, a “creative” tree-shaped creation. So let’s take a look at some useful materials you might use for “natural” decorations for the holiday:

Conifers

Most conifers make really nice holiday decorations–and certainly, they form the background of the “evergreen” that helps remind us of spring even in the darkest time of the year. Like anything else, they dry out and drop needles, and so finding ones that hold their needles longer is helpful if you want your decorations to last.

  • Fir trees: Many fir trees are prized for their uses for swags, wreaths, and living Yule trees.  They smell great and hold their needles for a long time.  They also aren’t too prickly to work with.
  • Blue Spruce: Blue spruce is a very prickly conifer but is quite beautiful.  If you want to work with it, I suggest you wear leather gloves. It has a really firm and strong branch and needle structure, and so, it makes a nice Yule tree, it is also good for baskets and swags.
  • White Spruce: I actually did most of my decorations this year out of white spruce, primarily because I had a lot of it to trim to make more light in my garden. It makes particularly nice wreaths as it is pliable, bendable, and won’t stab you like its blue counterpart. It also lays nicely over mantles, etc.
  • White Pine: White pine is a very feathery tree with long, soft needles that are very bendy.  It makes nice basket decorations and also nice wreaths (like white spruce).  My family used these as holiday trees for many years because we had planted them, and as kids, we always played games to see who could manage to hang the ornament on the tree on the first try (as the White Pines don’t hold ornaments well).
  • Red Pine/Jack Pine: Red pine and Jack pine are both more firm with smaller, more prickly needles.  They work great for swags, baskets, or a “constructed tree”.
  • Eastern Hemlock: Hemlock is very abundant where I live but makes extremely poor holiday decorations because the needles will drop within 2-3 days of the branches being cut. As much as I love the hemlock tree, this is one to keep outside. 

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my "tree"

    Three pruned branches I wired together for my “tree”

Evergreen Materials and Berries

Evergreen materials that are non-conifer in nature are also amazing to work with for holiday decorations.  Many of these are often planted or foragable in the wild.

  • Bittersweet vine: Bittersweet is considered an “invasive” vine in many parts of the US, and this time of year, it still holds onto its lovely red berries.  You can weave these into wreaths, mantle pieces, and more.  I had a lot of this when I lived in Michigan and I would make lovely wreaths and such each year with it.
  • Holly: Holly shrubs also produce holly berries, which gives us two of the most common colors for the holiday season.  They are evergreen and hold their shape and berries long after they dry out, making them useful for all sorts of decorations. Even when fully dry, it keeps its shape and color quite nicely (although once in a while the berries will pop off).
  • Ivy: I love working with Ivy as a holiday decoration.  I usually use it to wrap around other wreaths or as a mantle decoration.  Even when fully dry, it keeps a nice dark green color for several months.
  • Periwinkle: Periwinkle is a low, evergreen, ground cover that often moves into forests in a mat and prevents other plants from growing–so take as much as you want.  Its hard to pull out, but you can cut it close to the ground and make wreaths, etc.
  • Wintergreen: I like to use small amounts of wintergreen plants for small decorations.  They are small and low growing, but are evergreen and smell wonderful. Use only if abundant.
  • Partridge Berry: Like wintergreen, this is a small low-growing evergreen that often has red berries. Given its symbolism, I like to use this (or wintergreen, above) in the place of mistletoe, which does not grow around here.

 

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

A good place to cut back the ivy and use it or decorations!

Other Materials

You can look for what is around you for materials to finish out your holiday decorations:

  • Lichens: Certain parts of the country (north and south of me) are in areas that produce usnea and other lichens that have a silvery appearance; these are nice to weave into decorations (and use medicinally!)
  • Dried Grasses and Plants: I love using dried grasses and plants. Sometimes, I will brush some gold acrylic paint onto these to really make them pop.  My favorites include milkweed pods, dried goldenrod, dried lobelia, and more.  Take a walk in any field and you will find tons of nice things you can add.
  • Pine Cones: Can be added to many holiday decorations and, again, brushed with gold or silver for extra effect.
  • Popcorn: Stringing popcorn is a fun activity to do with friends and family and really compliments other natural decorations.

 

Additional Supplies

In addition to your foragable materials, the following supplies will help you make some great decorations:

  • Various pruning shears (small and large)
  • Green wire (for flowers)
  • Wire cutters and pliers
  • Thicker wire if you are going to be doing heavier pieces (like big wreaths, swags, or a tree “hack”)
  • Red and Gold ribbon (red, gold), preferably wired. This ribbon can be used and reused again and again.
  • Gold paint you can spray or brush on
  • Hot glue for certain projects
Some supplies

Some supplies

Bringing in the Spirit

I think part of the magic of finding your own materials is bringing in that energy and honoring the plants that you are gathering.  When I gather, I like to ask permission and honor any tree or plant that I take from.  I explain to the spirits of the plant and the land what I would like to do, and invite them into my home as I harvest the decorations and craft them.  This adds an additional magic-filled element to the preparation of these decorations.

 

I also think that crafting decorations for the Winter Solstice a few days before the solstice can help you get into the “spirit” of the season, bringing you in alignment with the everlasting qualities of the dark conifers–they stay green, and they give us the promise of spring.  Handling them, smelling them, infusing our homes and hearths with them, helps us accept the darkness and work to move beyond our own darkness.

Making Simple Decorations

Now that you’ve done your foraging and have a pile of potential decorations around you, you can start crafting it into various kinds of decorations.   These aren’t hard to make and with a bit of effort and perseverance, you can have some great decorations. Here are some options:

 

Baskets, Planters, and Vases

Baskets and vases full of greenery are about the easiest things to make and will certainly give you some easy success. Stuff some greenery in a vase, maybe add some dried grasses and berries, and then, add a bow. This year, I used old planters (that still were half full of dirt) and easily made a few baskets in under a half hour.  You can do the same with smaller vases, mason jars, and so on; really anything that has some weight to it that will hold greenery.

A simple outdoor basket -- greenery and a bow

A simple outdoor basket — greenery, dead grasses and goldenrod, and a bow

Wreaths and Swags

Wreaths are simply a circle with a hollow in the middle, and can be easily made by finding pliable conifers and wiring them together (fir, white spruce, and white pine make particularly good wreaths).  Simply place them in a circle, get green wire, and wire every four to six inches.  Then, you can wrap it with ribbon and do any final trimming necessary. Then find a nice place to hang it!

 

Swags are simply an easier kind of greenery wall display than a wreath.  You wire some branches together, add some berries and a bow, and add a hanging hook. These can replace pictures or even be added above a door, on a table, etc.

Preparing to wire the wreath

Preparing to wire the wreath

 

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce - beautiful!

Completed wreath: wire, ribbon, and white spruce – beautiful!

 

Mantles and Windowsills

A really easy way to use the greenery, berries, and grasses is for decorated windowsills and mantles. These allow you to have some festive cheer without necessarily having to “construct” anything. To do this, simply lay greenery in a pleasing way along your windowsills, add some ribbon or a bow, or candles. Even a few ornaments look nice in these displays.  For mine, I primarily used holly and ivy, as I had a lot of that material and it lays well.

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

Lovely windowsill decor with a candle

The Home Constructed Tree

As I mentioned above, I made my own yule tree this year.  I had a number of branches to cut down to make more light in my winter garden (photos above), and I was determined to do something nice with them beyond simply compost them. And so, after about a half hour to an hour of wiring and pruning, I managed to get the three large branches wired together and in the house. I used strong steel wire and plyers.  Then, I carried it indoors and set it up in a tree stand. It actually worked, and from nearly every angle, looks like a weepy yet wonderful tree!

My "constructed" tree

My “constructed” tree

 

Conclusion

Once the holiday season is concluded (for me, I usually leave decorations up through the dark month of January and take them down just before Imbolc), I will gather these materials back up, save the bows for next season, and add everything to my compost bed.  Everything from these will be returned to the land to participate in the cycle of life. I hope that everyone has a blessed and wonderful winter solstice! I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging until after the New Year. Blessings of the holiday season and the darkest time of year.

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Ecoregional Druidry: A Druid’s Wheel of the Year August 27, 2017

In the 1990’s, now Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Gordon Cooper, developed the idea of “wildcrafting your own druidry”; this practice is defined as rooted one’s druid practice in one’s local ecology, history, legends and magic.  In today’s age of adapting and drawing upon many different traditions in the quest for spiritual wholeness, we sometimes forget that all knowledge, regardless of how ancient it is (like the Celtic Tree Alphabet and divination system, the Ogham) was originally developed in a local culture and ecosystem.  Thus, too, I believe our spiritual practice reflect our own local ecologies and ways of understanding.  I’m going to expand on some of Gordon’s ideas here and talk about my own work with “local druidry” or “ecoregional druidry” and how to put some of this into practice to create a “druid’s wheel of the year” that is specific to your local ecology and customs.  While I’m using druidry as an example here, anyone who is following a nature-based spiritual path and using the wheel of the year as their structure of holidays would benefit from such information.

 

Dividing Up the Landscape

The Laurel Highlands (Alleghney Mountain Range in the Appalacians).  These are the mountains I call home--my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

The Laurel Highlands (Allegheny Mountain Range in the Appalacians). These are the mountains I call home–my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

Before we get into how to adapt some of the druid path practices and material to a local setting, it’s important to understand the different ways in which we can divide a landscape into smaller units that are more uniform. Most of us understand divisions from a political sense: the line that separates two countries, states, or provinces. These divisions may help us understand some of the different cultural practices that we can draw upon that are regionally or locally-based. Local feasts, local foods, local agricultural practices, local traditions and folklore all may contribute to our own understanding of ecoregional druid adaptations (and I’ll talk more about those in a second post).

 

However, political lines only occasionally follow ecological boundaries, and so we also need to understand something about ecological boundaries. At the largest level are ecozones (like the Nearctic ecozone, which constitutes most of North and Central America) and bioregions (like the Eastern United States). These bioregions are very large areas that have many, many different ecosystems within them, but do share some broader characteristics (such as patterns of light and darkness throughout a year).  For our purposes, likely the most appropriate place to look is at the level of ecoregion (or ecological region) which is, according to Brunckhorst (2000) is a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterize a region.”  This may include patterns that repeat in the geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, flora and fauna, and soils of a land area. In the case of the United States, the Laurentia ecoregion which also includes all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest east of the Mississippi as well as parts of South-Eastern Canada. Within this ecoregion, there are many ecosystems which are unique to their specific locations but also broader species that are shared across them.

 

With knowledge of both your regional or local traditions and ecoregion and local ecosystems, you are well on your way to adapting your druid practice.

The Adapted Wheel of the Year

The holidays that make up the wheel or cycle of the year in the druid tradition follow the path of the sun and include the solstices and equinoxes are determined by the path of the sun. The solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days manifest differently upon the earth in quiet dramatic ways. The modern wheel of the year, which is celebrated by druids, was developed in Great Britain from older agricultural holidays from Europe. While it fits the UK ecosystem quite well, it may be far less appropriate Texas, USA or Australia. Particularly, while the astronomical event of the longest day and longest night are present always, how they manifest on the earth is tied to how the holidays are celebrated. For example, in the UK or Eastern US, the Fall Equinox is a ritual devoted to harvest because that’s what’s happening in the landscape. Many different adaptations of the wheel of the year have been created by druids all over the world, unique to their ecosystems.

 

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

Further, the four season model present and assumed in the Wheel of the Year is based on a temperate climate. Some druids don’t live in regions with four seasons. Even within a temperate ecosystem each season may vary considerably by weeks or months, with different bloom times. Each year also is variable; a warm and early spring equals a growing season that has flowering and fruiting maturing earlier.  And so why the sun and solar currents are steady, dependable, and predictable, the hydrological cycles, weather, and manifestation of the season on the earth herself is ever changing.  It seems, then, to create a truly representative body of holidays, we must observe both the progress of the sun across the sky, but also consider the role of the specific season upon the earth and how it manifests where we live.

 

While the overall themes of the wheel of the year manifest in most ecosystems (a time of light/spring, a time of harvest, a time of being indoors/shelter (which might be from sun or cold, depending on the location), these are not consistent with the traditional wheel of the year in many places.  Not all locations have traditional spring, summer, winter, and fall. And so, some druids may find it necessary to develop a modified seasonal cycle and wheel of the year. For example, a wheel of the year in the tropics might include a dry season and a stormy season; this would drastically change the nature of the seasonal celebrations and the overall themes.

 

Deepening the Wheel of the Year: Adding Ecoregional Sacred Observances

Even if you live in a temperate climate (like I do) that is fairly representative of the standard wheel of the year, one of the ways you might adapt the wheel of the year is by adding in what I call minor sacred observances. These, unlike the path of the sun or cross quarter days, do not have specific dates on a calendar set by the consistent path of the sun and patterns of light and dark. Rather, they mark a period in time in the ecosystem, and that specific occurrence changes from year to year.

 

Through a period of observation and interaction, which involved being out in every season and through all kinds of weather, certain events seemed particularly meaningful and salient in my ecosystem.  These were events that I noticed happened with regularity and also that were notable or strikig to me in some way. I also used some of my own knowledge of past local history and lore. This wheel of the year took me over a decade to fully develop and, just as importantly, changed substantially when I made the move from Michigan to Pennsylvania a few years back.  Here it is in its current form:

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

 

Anything that is in between the eight holidays is mostly variable – like the first hard frost or first snowfall.  These are particularly significant events that happen each year, and I make note of them and honor them when they occur. I also have noted important dates that connect me to seasonal activities and the land–the yearly creation of Pysanky eggs, a longstanding family tradition. Additionally, all of my gardening and homesteading activities that help root me firmly in the ecosystem like starting my seeds, preparing beds for the fall, harvesting, and so on.  You’ll also see that I have included what I consider to be important markers of changes in my local ecosystem, like the chirping of the Kaydids or the blooming of the hawthorn.

 

You’ll notice on my map, Groundhog Day is included for a simple reason: I live 40 minutes south of Punxsutawney, PA, who has an annual tradition of doing a groundhog weather prognostication (a fancy word for divination) describing how soon winter will end by reading Phil’s shadow. Because of that bit of regional and honored folk magic, I tie my own Imbolc celebrations in with the general regional celebrations for Groundhog day on Feb 2nd and do divinations for the coming year at that time.

 

Of course, a different druid (even one living in the same ecoregion) might have a very different calendar of events. For example, when I lived in the Great Lakes region of the US, the full freezing over of the ice on the lakes (so that you could walk, skate, or ice fish) was a memorable occurrence, as was when the first crack in that same ice appeared. For some druids near the coast, the monthly “tidal bulge” might be particularly salient or the blooming of the beach rose. This is all to say that your own earth-centered holidays and even more specialized seasons themselves can be developed in line with your observations of local ecosystems and ecology. The more that you know about the world directly around you, the more you will have a sense of what is sacred and meaningful about that world.  Perhaps you don’t have a winter, but you have a season of fog—that would change how and when you celebrated that season.

 

Suggestions for Developing and Extending Your Wheel of the Year

First snow....

First snow….

I see this kind of ecoregional calendar as a next step in the druid tradition: we have a set of solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days that occur with regularity and that help bring us together. And these are determined by the path of the sun.  But each druid or group of druids might find their own way forward: the general principle here is that part of the druid tradition ties sacred ecological knowledge with a honoring of the cycles of nature and the cycles of the year. Or, you might choose to keep the solstices and equinoxes and do away with the cross quarter days entirely (as they are agricultural) and instead, build in other holidays or sacred moments that are important to you and your region.

 

How you develop your own seasonal calendar is up to you—it is about what is salient on your immediate landscape, the landscape you inhabit each day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming.  You might be surprised with the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farmers and farm products. A lot of traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems.  You’ll see that reflected in my map above—the flowing of the maple sap, for example, as well as the budding of the maple tree are significant to me both because I have done sugaring most years, but also because of the broader cultural custom in this part of the US.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs (like the celebration of the maple tree present in my region) and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities, might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? For example, for me around the Spring Equinox here (late March) nothing is blooming. But what is happening are the robins are starting to return and the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts are running with their sap. And the maples, in particular, are in a place of their highest power of the year (which I understand from talking to them and sensing their energy over a long period of time).  Maple, then, features predominantly in my local druid calendar as well as in ritual work that I do at that time.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature sprits, the powerful energies of the landscape where you live, and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

And so, with some observation, intuition, and research, you can develop a highly personalized “wheel of the year” calendar that is eco-regional and very specific to your druid path.  I’ll continue to examine this topic next week, when we explore how to develop localized rituals, observances, and activities for your wheel of the year.

 

(PS: If any of my readers are heading to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for Stones Rising next weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

 

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland February 5, 2017

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

Save

Save

 

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

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

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

 

Abundant harvests of apples!

Abundant harvests of apples!

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

 

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

 

Treecrops and Tree Blessings

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns

Acorns

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

 

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

 

The Timing of Tree Blessings in January

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Wassail (Waes-Hael) for Apples and Pears

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

 

A good harvest of wild apples

A good harvest of wild apples

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Ritual:

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

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

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

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

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

6.  More wassail songs are sung.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

This is what we are looking for!

This is what we are looking for!

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Close Your Space. Close out your ritual space.

 

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

 

Closing

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

 

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

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

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

 

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

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

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

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

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

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

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

 

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

 

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

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

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

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

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

 

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

 

Embracing the Darkness at the Winter Solstice December 19, 2015

The period of time around the winter solstice, when the light of the sun is weak and our days are so short, is a period of difficulty for many. Darkness is something that we fear in industrialized cultures; it is something that we work to drive away through our own inventions and ingenuity. We instinctively feel the need to light up our lives every waking moment–our houses at night become as bright as the sun, the various screens projecting intense light, keeping us up and wired late into the night. If a room’s lights aren’t bright enough, we call them “dim” and see this as a deficiency, working to make them brighter. Even as I’m walking down the streets of my town at night, motion sensor lights blind me as I walk past people’s houses on the sidewalk. Consciously, automatically, and unconsciously we are continually working to drive away the dark–and in the process, fighting the natural cycle of the seasons.

 

For a moment, in the span of time reading this blog post, let’s consider an opposite approach–that is embracing the darkness this time of year. Before we continue, I’d like to suggest setting the right mood.  Start perhaps turning your screen down to a lower brightness setting, turning the lights off, and if its getting dark or is already dark, perhaps lighting a candle to get in the mood. Ok, that’s better!

 

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Our Problem with the Darkness

Our problem with darkness likely stems from a lot of different sources–major religions being one of them. Many of the major world religions have spent literally millennia emphasizing driving away the darkness with holy light, in ascending beyond this world, and in associating the “light” with the good.  These same religions have taught us that anything associated with the earth, the dark, or the depths of the earth are somehow corrupt and not good–and that is now woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness and our culture’s mythologies.  Think about how many stories you know where something dark and evil comes from below! I think it is this reason that we are driven to turn on the lights at the first sign of darkness, to quest to drive it away.  This “obsession” over the light, however, blinds us–by denying the darkness we deny part of our own souls.

 

Another reason that we fear darkness, I think, is the secret fear fear of losing the ability to see. Works like Blindness Jose Saramogo, epitomize this fear–that of not being able to physically see or going unexpectedly blind.  I have watched a good friend of mine go blind due to medical complications over this last year, and its been tremendously difficult to watch her struggle with it–the darkness in her eyes has literally turned her whole family’s world upside down.  Seeing such a good friend struggle with blindness, I think, is a lesson to me as to why we work so hard to drive away the dark.  The hidden fear of losing our sight–either temporarily or permanently–is one that perhaps resides in each of us.

 

Modern technology also hasn’t helped our relationship with darkness–new CFL bulbs, computer monitors, phones, ipads, and so on all function on a blue wavelength–the same wavelength of the morning sun. This tricks our bodies into thinking its early morning even when its late evening, reducing the production of melatonin which allows for restful sleep (its so bad that we can now buy meltaonin in pill form to force it into our bodies–but our bodies should be producing it).  Physically, we need darkness to stay in good health.  Darkness helps cue sleep and a host of other beneficial hormones that help us regulate our sleep patterns–and sleep is one of the keys to a long life.  The lack of darkness is attributed by a number of researchers to be at least one cause of the rise in depression and obesity in many industrialized nations.

 

Finally, the holiday season and the associated frenzy that goes along with it also doesn’t help our relationship with the darkness at this sacred time of the year. In ages past, people slept more and rested during the dark months.  In temperate parts of the world, when the darkness came was after the last of the long harvest season was finished. They would fatten up on the last of their fresh stores this time of the year, and enjoy each others’ company, burn yule logs, and take this as a time of rest. But we are now in the throes of a massive holiday rush–running, buying, doing, parties, activities, the frenzy of the holiday season each year growing in intensity.  I’m weary just thinking about it, even as I have worked to distance myself from it.

 

Embracing the Darkness

Living by the seasons and with the seasons means shifting our mindsets and practices to align more closely with nature’s rhythms–and darkness is part of that cycle. The darkness in this season functions much like the “hanged man” in the Tarot–we draw the hanged man when we are in need of a new perspective. Darkness, even darkness in familiar spaces and ways, gives us that perspective fully and powerfully.

 

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

Jessica Prentice has done some of the best research and writing I’ve seen on the importance  darkness–her writings have certainly inspired this post. Her book, Full Moon Feast, describes humanity’s relationship to the dark and cold months of the year beautifully and compellingly. She notes at least one African tribe that sleeps for 14 hours in the darkness, and who uses that extra time for visionary and spirit work. Without this darkness, she says, our souls are robbed of this opportunity to engage in a deep level with our souls.

 

I think maybe that’s part of the challenge we face–the frenzied culture works hard to keep us always going, going, going, doing, doing, doing, and time for deep introspection and reflection is generally not encouraged. The darkness asks us, individually, to be with only ourselves and our own thoughts. It is this darkness where we can commune with spirit, in waking dreams or in sleep, in meditation, and in visionary work. Part of this is because darkness is that it functions through visual sensory deprivation–but when our external visuals shut down (as in meditation, dreaming, journeying), our inner visuals have the ability to be developed and honed.  It allows us time to sort through things, it gives us space and distance from everything that surrounds us, and allows us rest and quietude.

 

And darkness serves us as a negative space to compliment the other spaces in our lives–the middle points as well as that of the light. We appreciate the light all the better if we are not always in it.  It gives us balance and perspective. Darkness, furthermore, allows us to have some sacred distance between ourselves and the many inventions that our lives are full of–distance from electronic devices, from artificial blinding lighting, from television, and so on.

 

As the darkness came across the land, starting at Samhuinn, I have worked to embrace the darkness and live more fully present in it during this time. Some of these were full immersion, while others were just steps to reduce artificial lighting–but all were meaningful and helped me get into better tune with the season’s time of low light and darkness.  This has led to a number of activities and insights that I’d like to share today that can help you do the same.

 

Candlelight Evenings

One of the most simple, and yet profound, shift you can make is to shift from electric lighting to candlelight evenings.  These are evenings where you light your living space using oil lamps or simple candles (instructions for candles are here, and I’m working on a post forthcoming about easy olive oil lamp designs using recycled/rancid olive oil).  Besides being an earth-friendly practice, its not that hard to do at all, and you’ll find that you quickly adapt to this lifestyle.  Your eyes adjust, your rhythms change, and the world seems to slow down.  Peace and tranquility are present in these candlelit evenings.  Sleep comes much easier, and stays much longer. Its almost hard almost to put into words how profound of an effect this can have on your living this time of year–or any time of the year.

 

After switching to candlelight evenings earlier this year (and doing occasional ones in years past),  I along with friends and family who were visiting and who took part, noticed a substantial increase in our sleep and restfulness as well as our general well being. I would say to give one evening a week a try for a while and see how you like it–I first started doing the candlelit evenings occasionally, and now I do them nearly as they have really improved our quality of life. I have even done some painting and artwork in candlelight, and that has given it a really different kind of quality than artwork done in full daylight or electronic light.

 

A few tips for candlelight evenings are as follows:

  • If you have animals or children, observe them carefully around open flames. My two cats took some adjustment, but both now know they cannot go near the flames.  I’m assuming children could be likewise taught to respect fire.
  • A good stock of candles is a necessity and it pays to source them carefully.  I wouldn’t go buy new candles because the cost can quickly add up and we don’t want to create additional consumer demand for “stuff”. Thrift stores always carry them cheaply, as do yard sales and auctions.  I recently got a HUGE box of candles of all sorts at an auction and this box will probably last me for at least several years. If there is a local beekeeper, they will likely offer beeswax (in candle form or just in block form that you can turn into your own candles). Beeswax is extremely efficient and burns beautifully when compared to paraffin or even to soy.  It also smells amazing.
  • Be aware, however, that some really old candles have leaded wicks–we recently discovered one such candle in our stockpile and quickly put it out after it started dripping little molten silver balls into the wax.
  • To maximize candlelight for reading or delicate work (like painting), I would suggest an alternative to the “lots of candles” technique.  And this is to use an old-style candle lantern that directs the light all in one direction (here’s a photo of one from Wikipedia–I’m traveling and forgot to take a photo of mine!)  I bought an old metal scoop at a yard sale that has a flat base and works for this purpose–and even a tin can cut in half would do just fine for shorter votive candles.  The point here is that you can carefully direct candlelight to be more efficient for your needs.
  • Likewise, good candle holders are a must–but make sure they are not made of wood, as forgetting about one can lead to a fire hazard (I speak from near-experience)!  A good candle holder has a handle so you can take it with you and a dish for catching wax.  The little ones that are meant for dining tables are much less useful when you are walking around your house.
  • Old oil lamps are not hard to find, they are really efficient, and worth having around.  I got to know these well with the amazing amount of power outages I experienced while living on my homestead in the Detroit metro area!  The issue that I have had with these practical lamps is that they burn kerosene or lamp oil, and both of these are derived from fossil fuels.  They are also really stinky when they burn–kerosene is insufferable, but even the more “refined” oils are kinda smelly.  And other oils for these are not easy to use–they won’t typically burn olive oil or other vegetable oils that are more sustainable due to the fact that vegetable oils aren’t as flammable and don’t draw well through the wick. However, there are alternatives to this for oil burning–you can purchase little vegetable oil burners, or you can make your own. I’ve been experimenting with using rancid olive oil (leftover from herbal oil infusions that sat on my shelf for too long) and various olive oil lamp designs–I’ll be posting on this in an upcoming blog after some more testing and development!.

 

Night walks and Night Rituals

A second way of embracing the darkness is to do simple night walking and dark night rituals. Taking a walk in the dark–on any piece of land, without a flashlight–can teach you a great deal.  Full moonlight on a clear evening provides not only ample light, but so much light that you can see a moonshadow (and don’t you know, the sun shows the shadow of your body, the moon, of your soul!). Even waxing or waning moonlight, however, can be sufficient for walking without lights (note that the brightness of the moon varies based on where you are living–its much brighter in the tropics than it is in the northern-most and southern-most parts of the earth). Try it–its amazing. When I had my homestead, each night near the full moon, I would take night walks–walking around the pathways of my property. Even though I  knew the paths so well in the daylight, in the night, they surprised me, opening up mystery and wonder. Now, I walk the streets of my town at night, without light (its a very safe town) and really enjoy the experience (although its hard to get your eyes adjusted because of all of the lights from the cars).

 

A step up from this is to do darkness rituals, such as the one I’ll describe below.  The idea here is that you create a ceremony that honors and embraces the darkness in some way–there are lots of ways to do this.  This past week, a friend and I did both did a night ritual and night walk as an early Winter Solstice celebration. Above my town is a mountain that has a park–the park includes an overlook, the highest point in this area.  Its a bit of a steep climb, but well worth it.  We bundled up (it was cold that night), took skins to sit on, took two flashlights as backup, and set out about an hour or so before sunset to climb the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun went over the horizon. We then opened a sacred space, and sat, watching the town lights come on all around us and watching darkness fall. Several deer came to greet us, and we simply sat in the darkness, taking it all in, doing personal visionary work and meditation as we each felt led.  The moon came out (she was only in her first quarter, but our eyes were adjusted and she shed plenty of light) and as our eyes adjusted, we gained deep awareness and insight.

 

A part of me, inside, was afraid of making our way back down the mountain because parts of it were very rocky and steep–but we did, easily, using nothing but moonlight to guide us the entire 30 minute walk home.  There was no need for our backup flashlights!  I think this was me battling my secret fears–the fears we all have–of trying to move about in the dark.  But you really do get your “night eyes” and the world is very bright, even in the darkness! When we came out of the park, we were blinded by the headlights of the cars–it was really intense. But regardless,  my fear was laid to rest, and I learned a valuable lesson about the darkness.  It took care  to make it down the mountain to avoid roots and rocks on our path, but it was a delightful experience, and we experienced that path so much differently than in the day.

 

I did something similar, but in the opposite direction, on the Summer Solstice–in that ritual, my mother and I drove out to a secluded overlook in the hour well before dawn to see the rising of the sun upon the landscape.  It had a very different energy, one appropriate for the Summer Solstice!

 

Darkness Vigil

Going along with my night walks and night ritual above, you do a simple darkness vigil. And by this, I mean sit in the darkness for a period of time, longer than you are comfortable with, preferably for at least an hour or more and definitely outside if you can manage it.  I really like doing this at dawn or dusk because if you are outside, this is when the animals are on the move–if you are sitting still somewhere, they will walk right by you oftentimes. I would suggest that prior to your vigil, you open a sacred protective space using whatever methods or traditions that you typically use (I use either the AODA’s Solitary Grove Ritual without any tools or just the Sphere of Protection for this purpose).

 

The idea here is to do this without fire or light–sit in the darkness itself. The light, even candlelight, creates a different relationship with the darkness on the land–and you want to bring it in fully.

 

Its cold this time of year for many of us, of course, and to address that, I use the “hot rock” method that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The method is simple: you you heat up something that has good thermal mass (a rock, brick, or fire iron).  You can heat it by placing it close to an actual fire (I would place mine on top of my woodburning stove); alternatively, if you don’t have an actual fire, you can place it in an oven. Then you wrap it in an old towel, and take it with you.  It holds the heat well for quite some time–usually a good hour or more.  I usually stick this in my lap if I’m doing a winter vigil, keeping my hands on it and pressing it against my belly. This, warm layers of clothing, and something to keep the cold off of your butt (like a skin or yoga mat) will really help keep you warm.  You could, of course, also use hand warmers, but they have a lot of chemicals and plastic–the hot rock method is heavier, but no less effective.

 

Of course, the question you might be asking is – what do you actually “do” at one of these vigils?  There are lots of things you can do.  Start with your feelings–explore what you are feeling and work through it.  Pay attention to the land, especially the movements of animals, wind, trees, sounds, and the like.  Ask questions, aloud, and see what animal or plant messengers answer.  Take in the darkness, and use it to work on a soul level with your own darkness, hidden spaces, fears, dreams, the things that are unspeakable in the bright light of the sun.  Open yourself up to it and see what comes.

 

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Lunar Tea infusions


This is an idea I learned from Rosemary Gladstar–the lunar herbal infusion. An infusion is a tea, specifically of delicate plant material like leaf or flower, where the hot water is poured over the tea, covered, and allowed to seep for as long as you’d like (sometimes overnight for the strongest medicinal extraction).  You can do this and then allow your infusion to sit in the moonlight or in the darkness overnight.

 

I have made a few teas by boiling water, pouring them over herbs in a mason jar, sealing it up, and then sitting it in the moonlight for the evening.  I have been using this method using plants that gain deeper awareness and insight: Indian ghost pipe, lemon balm, and hawthorn being one such recent combination that had meaningful effect on helping me shift my senses and embrace this dark time. Another good combination is bay, lemongrass, and peppermint.  (You can also use cinnamon here as well, and its a very powerful visionary herb, however, it is a demulcent herb, so it will thicken up your brew–excellent for a sore throat, but a little weird if you haven’t drank it cold before). You can use these infusions as part of your night walking, night rituals, or any other spiritual practice. Think of it like drinking the moonlight!

 

Electronic Light Mitigation

If you are going to use screens (TV, computer, phone, etc) at night or use light bulbs, there are better ways of using them that pay homage to the darkness. Various dimmer programs exist for computers–my favorite program is a free program called F.lux. It automatically adjusts your color and brightness as the evening progresses, so even if you are on your computer later at night, its not blazing blue light at you. It makes a world of difference–I’m writing this now mostly by “computer candlelight” thanks to f.lux.

 

Its worth paying attention also to the kind of lightbulbs that you use: the older ones often are more yellowish or cast a yellowish hue  is better on the eyes.  Lower wattage and lampshades also help. I also have an old-school lava lamp that creates really diffused light–I often use this for providing some low light to my main living area, and supplement it with candles or oil lamps for moving about the house.   Its not much different than a good oil lamp!

 

Activities in the Dark

Another thing I like to do is to do various activities in the dark that are traditionally done in the light–exercise or yoga, for example, is delightful in candlelight or no light.  I also enjoy playing my panflute in the dark–no need to see, and the darkness makes the music more beautiful. Even eating a meal in candlelight or near darkness can be a special treat–the shutting down of the visual senses allows for the other senses (including inner senses) to be emphasized.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that you find these suggestions enlightening (or perhaps, dimming?) as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice.  I think that a lot of us see the wheel of the year as a string of rituals and celebrations–and it certainly can be that–but it can also be more.  Really to embrace and live in that energy of the season can make a world of difference–we go from fighting against it, and wanting it to be over, to really living in the present moment with it.  I’d love to hear of your own suggestions for embracing the dark season this year.

PS: I’ll also direct your attention to my posts on the Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice, for those of you in the southern half of the planet) and sustainable activities surrounding those days–I’ve finished that series of posts, but they are still some of my favorites :).