The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.

 

The Samhain of our Lives October 28, 2018

Just last week, we had our first hard frost. After homesteading for a number of years, you grow to be vigilant for the signs of the first frost. The air smells different somehow in the two or so weeks leading up to it. The bird and wildlife patterns change.  The nights have a crisp bite to them that they didn’t even a few days before. And then, just like magic one day, the frost is there, glistening in the morning light. The garden radically changes overnight–even for those things you covered–the entire landscape lies in disarray.

 

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

I could feel it on the air, and for the last few mornings, have been going to to see if it had arrived. That morning, I turned the corner and first saw it first on the strawberry patch–white and glistening. The frost is beautiful, magical, and yet, destructive. While the garden was growing powerfully the day before–with the last harvests of our remaining tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, and gourds all ripening and growing abundantly–this morning, frost covers all.  By mid-day, the garden of yesterday is but a distant memory. The garden of the frost is a disaster zone for summer crops–the tomatoes are wily, the half-ripened crookneck squash spongy on the top where the frost hit, the eggplant fallen over in sadness.  By the second day, the leaves of these plants are withered and dead, former husks of what they had been less than 48 hours before.  The first time you see this destruction, its really something to behold.  It is shocking in how the cold can do so much damage in such a little time period by a temperature difference of only a few degrees.

 

Samhain is certainly here, and already, my garden has gone through increasingly hard and bitter frosts. The temperatures continue to plummet, the leaves drop from the trees, the animals and birds fatten up, hibernate, or fly south–and winter sets in.

 

This year though, this Samhain, it seems a little different. Maybe its the general collective despair and demoralization present right now, at least here in the US, which is affecting so many (and what I was responding to in my post a few weeks ago). Maybe its the latest UN report that suggests that–if we are lucky–we have about 12 more years to stave off the worst of climate change, but only if we act now. Maybe its reading that report and knowing that action, at least in my own country, won’t happen.  And, knowing, I will have to live to see the results of inaction, results that will irrevocably harm the live and lands I hold sacred. Maybe its the growing open conversations I am having with my new college students about their own futures and their fears.  I’ve been teaching college for over a decade, but it has only been in the last 1-2 years that I’ve heard my college age students start to openly discuss these things and their impact on their futures.

 

This Samhain, the changes in the landscape and in my garden, seem to reflect the changes going on culturally.  We’ve had more than a few hard frosts.  We’ve had bitterly cold days.  Some of our favorite summer plants are dying off. I think a lot of people are asking–is this a sign of things to come?  Are the darkest times, at the Winter Solstice–still to come?

 

Kale loves the frost!

Kale loves the frost!

In my frosted garden, I turn my eyes away from the summer crops, the eggplants, squash, and tomatoes that cannot handle even a 33 degree night with cover. Instead, I look to the carrots, onions, spinach, lettuce, celery, kale and cabbage that we had planted in late July. These plants are much more resilient, and all of them are doing fine despite the glistening of frost on their leaves. Some, in fact, had been enhanced by the frost–the cabbage leaves are more succulent, the kale more sweet. Rather than harming the plants, the frost had simply made them better versions of who they already were. This, too, seems to be a powerful lesson, both for the garden and for our larger culture.

 

It seems that I’m not the only one smelling frost on the air more culturally, and processing what to do about it. A few days ago, I saw a new thread on a permaculture forum written by a 22 year old girl who was asking serious questions: “Given the state of the world, do you really think permaculture offers us what we need to save the world?  If the older leaders refuse to act, can individual action save us? And if you are using permaculture this way, how do you stay focused when all of this is happening around us?” It was a good question, a reasonable question, and had a range of useful responses. One of the most powerful responses was from a man who had seen a world war, had worked industry, and had retired to a little one-room cottage in the woods. He shared some of the things he had seen in his life and said, “Its the cycle of life. The reason we practice permaculture is that it gives us hope. This is a season, others will come and go. I always ask is how do I respond.  And my response is to hope.” I wonder, too, if that’s why so many of us practice druidry.  It gives us connection, it gives us peace, but most of all, it gives us hope.

 

The practice of druidry, of living by the seasons, helps me process the inevitability of the crisis of climate and culture that seem to be bearing down at present. Samhain is in the air, both for us this year, but also for us culturally.  It might be that this time will pass and spring will arrive quickly.  Or, it may be that the world will have to endure the difficulties of winter, for some time to come.  Most of us think, or already know, that we are in for the latter, but I must remind myself of all that I learned as a druid gardener, all that I learned from celebrating the wheel of the year is present here this Samhain.

 

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

As a druid homesteader, I respond to the frost–and the incoming winter– by good planning and good design. The “problem” of winter  becomes a “solution” if I simply plan accordingly. I choose my plants more carefully for the fall and winter season–knowing some are resilient and designed for the cold, and others, like the tomato, fall at the first brush with frost.  I start these plants in July, when summer appears to be endless.  But soon enough, the fall will come, and these plants will thrive.

 

Using shelter and layering, the plants can survive much more than a bit of frost. Our little greenhouse will have a third layer of protection this wee, and our spinach, lettuce, bak choi, and arugula will be able to be continually harvested till January or later. Carrots and potatoes will stay in the ground waiting to be unearthed anytime the ground is unfrozen enough for us to do so. The greenhouse itself, combined with a second inner hoop house and then a thick floating row cover offers shelter. Embedded stones and a back covered wall allow the design of the greenhouse to be even more resilient, pulling in the warmth into the stones when the sun is out. The stones radiate that heat into the soil in the cold nights. Nothing will succumb to the frost or cold in that greenhouse unless it goes considerably below freezing. And if it does, we will make our final harvests, put wood on the fire, and wait till mid February or early March when the soil to warm enough to plant again.

 

Further, as a druid gardener, I think about the “problem is the solution” from the permaculture principles.  With the right plants and planning, we can thrive and grow.  Our world *needs* to change. The current course of our society is radically unsustianable, and every bit of communication from this wonderful earth is letting us know that with in creasing frequency.  Finding new ways to live, to be, to inhabit this world will require us to adapt to the harsh realities that Samhain brings.  We can’t be tomatoes in the coming years to come: we must be kale, cabbage, carrots, tatsoi, arugula, spinach–all of the plants that can withstand the harsh winter and still offer abundance.

 

As a druid, likewise, I have many lessons that help me think about and process this difficult time. I have celebrated the turning wheel of the year and the seasons for many, many years. I know that looking to my ancestors and honoring the season in the moment brings me quietude and peace.  I also look to my ancestors to re-learn how to live more sustainably and simply, in line with the living earth. I know that winter is coming, and it will be dark, and harsh, and cold.  But somewhere in my bones, woven into my DNA, I know my ancestors got by with much less than I did, and they thrived–if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.  I also know of the beauty of winter when it arrives; I know of the freshness of the snowfall and the cold nights where the stars glisten.  And most of all, I know that spring will come once again.  The maples will once again begin to run, the crocuses will once again bloom.

 

 

In the meantime, I’m going to shore up this greenhouse and plant more kale.

 

Weather Prognostication and the Wooly Bear Caterpillar October 17, 2018

In the last week, I’ve seen almost 50 wooly bear caterpillars. These caterpillars are also known as “wooly caterpillar”, “bear caterpillar” and “wooly worms” (latin: phyrrhartica isabella). These fuzzy, brown and black caterpillars come out just as the weather grows cold. I often find hidding in woodpiles or garden mulch getting ready to hibernate till the spring. The cold seems to summon them forth–you see nothing of them all summer, and then, a few weeks before Samhain they are everywhere. And, dear readers, they are here with a message.

 

These caterpillars, not unlike other famous wildlife in the area, have long been known to predict the harshness of winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar has more brown than black, that means the winter is mild. But, if the caterpillar has more black than brown, the winter will be tough. Here’s a graphic I made to share this wooly bear caterpillar prognostication!

 

The more advanced version of this was taught to me by my grandfather, George Custer, who said that you can “read” the beginning and end of winter with the caterpillar. The brown and black do matter, but the more black at the beginning of the caterpillar, the harsher the beginning of winter will be. The more black at the back of the caterpillar, the more harsh the end of winter will be, and the more prolonged.

Here’s some live examples from photos I’ve taken over the last few years.  This wooly was from last year (and did, in fact, predict a terribly harsh and cold winter!)

 

 

This is a wooly I just found this year–I’m hoping this little guy is right and that winter will be mild and very pleasant!

 

There are stories about where this tradition originated and how it was popularized in the mid 1800’s (you can read more here). This particular folk tradition appears to exist all along the Appalachian mountains, anywhere that the caterpillar typically lives. And the wooly bear is not the only weather prognosticator in this region; we also have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog 45 minutes north of where I live who also does weather predictions about winter and the coming of spring.

 

I think that embracing these kinds of folk traditions is an important part of rewilding our druid and nature-based spiritual practices. These kinds of locally-based traditions get is more intune and aware of our surroundings.  And folk traditions, whether rooted or not in reality, have tremendous power.

 

Before modern weather prediction, humans relied on a large number of subtle cute from the land and clouds to know what kinds of weather was happening and what to expect both short term and throughout the winter.  Preparation for winter, effective preparation, was critical to survival.  Being able to read the land in this way was a skill that many people once had. I don’t think a lot of us realize how much we see without understanding.  A book ( Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty).  really helped illustrate just how much I didn’t know, and Gatty’s book is a great place to start regaining this lost wisdom.  Gatty shares a lot of information about how to read the landscape, the clouds, the trees, and so on to establish prevailing wind patterns, read the weather, and get from one place to another. His is a rather scientific and observational approach. I like to combine his approach with more esoteric approaches, like the wooly bear’s weather predictions. The combination of these things can help us be more aware and prepared in our environment.

 

The Wooly Caterpillar!

The Wooly Caterpillar!

 

I love seeing the wooly bear caterpillars this time of year. Yes, they say, winter is coming. And yes, you need to prepare. I think its great that they live in my woodpile–just what I need to be attending to before winter comes. I hope that you, dear readers, are settling in. The caterpillars tell me that winter will be fairly mild this year.

 

(I’d also be delighted to hear about other folk customs of similar animal/insect divinations if you have any to share!)

 

What can Druidry offer in dark times? October 7, 2018

Things seem broken right now. These last two weeks have been a very hard week for many people. The national conversation here in the USA grows more difficult by the day, and it seems nearly every nation is facing many kinds of serious issues. These challenges are happening concurrently at many levels—internationally, but also in communities we care about, in our families, in our homes. Things are tough. They seem tougher for many of us today than they were yesterday. Many of us fear that they will likely be even tougher tomorrow. This is the reality of industrial decline, the reality of the climate crisis before us.

 

The questions that I’ve had for myself, and my fellow druids is a simple one: what can druidry offer us in these dark times?

 

I’ve been thinking about the role of druidry in all of this, this question a lot, not only over the last several weeks, but over the last few years as it becomes more and more obvious that humanity has chosen for itself a course that we cannot escape from.  I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts and practices that you, too, may find healing and strength in them.  I’ll group my answers to this question in three areas, reflecting the three major branches of druidry: that of the bard, the ovate, and the druid, and then offer some overall thoughts on the tradition and druidic philosophy itself.

 

Bardic Responses: Within and Without

The bardic arts within the druid tradition are varied and multiplicitious. In my OBOD 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture, when I researched the bardic practices of almost 250 druids worldwide, I found that nearly all of them saw their bardic practices first and foremost as a spiritual practice that gave them peace, strength, and the ability to function better in the world. For a much smaller portion of people, art was a medium for them to express their feelings, hopes and dreams–about nature, about the crisis of our age–through their bardic expression. We’ll now consider each of these in turn.

 

Bardic Arts as Inner Healing

Art journals for processing and healing

Art journals for processing and healing

For many of us, during these difficult times, it is important to have something to retreat to.  Soemthing that calms us, provides us distance, space, and perspective.  For those of us who practice a bardic art, the practice of that art can certainly be a source of refuge. Druids from around the world use the bardic arts as a way of making meaning of the world, processing difficult things, and grounding.

 

Some bardic practitioners work best when they are in a “healthful” headspace, however, and feel that they can’t create something if they aren’t happy.  But my response to that is–create.  Express.  Get it out.  The audience for some of our bardic expression can be only us, never anyone else, and that is healthful and helpful for these dark times.  For me, I use art journaling as a bardic expression that is meant solely as a healing medium–one that nobody else has to see, and not even one I necessarily hold onto after it is completed (I’ve thrown many a journal in the Samhain fires to release the energy I put into them!). The point here is to find something you can do from a bardic perspective: song, dance, drumming, photography, artwork, writing, singing, movement, woodworking, and so on–and let it help you find peace.  If you aren’t sure how to get started in this, you might check out my Taking up the Path of the Bard series of artices here, here, and here.

 

Bardic Arts as Outward Response and Change

It has long been the case that artists, musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, and the like, helped carry parts of culture with them, respond to culture, and work to change culture through their art.  Consider the power of a photograph, a story, or a song. Sometimes, a single image can impact people–and enact changes in perceptions and behaviors–in ways other forms of communication cannot.

 

And so, for those of us drawn to it,  the other way our bardic practices may help us respond and deal with the crisis of our age is through external expressions–bardic practices that help us get our message out there, help us help others, help others see a new perspective, and so on.  Unsurprisingly, for me, that’s a lot of the writing I do on this blog–I can’t control what is happening more broadly, but I do feel, at least in this small corner of the web, that I am doing something good.  It doesn’t have to be big, the important thing is feeling empowered to do something.

 

Ovate Responses: Seeking Solace in the Living Earth

Part of the challenge in present culture is the constant flow of information, the constant bombardment. These larger cultural currents seem to crash over and over again like powerful waves, knocking us over, beating us up, and then knocking us over again. Finding ways of shielding against this flow of information and getting regular—and long—breaks from it can be very helpful. For this, I like to find quiet time in nature.

 

Grounding and Flow, or the Druid Elements of Calas and Gwyar

A while ago on a similar topic, I wrote about the interplay between calas (grounding/stability) and gwyar (flow/adaptablity) and how both are necessary in these times. Seeking solace in nature can offer us either–or both–of these things as we need them.

 

Seeking the stabilizing forces of nature can help give us strength in these difficult times.  Work with stones, the earth, trees, mountains, or caves can be particularly powerful to help connect with Calas and offer us grounding. The Oak tree down by the river is not going to throw re-traumatizing bullshit my direction, she is not going to bombard me with things I don’t want to see, or frustrate me with her lack of integrity. She is simply going to be as she always is: stable, welcoming, and powerful. When I sit with her, and simply breathe. I can sit with her for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and she will always offer me the grounding and stability of her presence.

My favorite spot for connection on my land

My favorite spot for connection on my land

 

Similarily, these times require us to be flexible, to be adaptable, and to be willing and ready to change, even if change is difficult.  Nature also offers us the energy of gywar for this purpose, primarily through clouds, wind, and water. When I go out on my kayak on the Clarion river, I am offerd both zero cell phone signal (so no unwanted intrusions) and the activity of learning to go with the flow, to float, and to let the river guide me. Likewise, laying on the solid earth and watching the leaves blow and the clouds flow is another excellent way to connect with this energy.

 

Retreat and Rejuvenation: Nature Heals

In this broken time, I like to places that are damaged and in the process of healing.  Nature is a master healer, and learning to read her landscape and the healing that happens in each breath can remind us of our own capacity to heal. Old fields that are now bursting with life, logged forests that are coming back into health. The dandelion, in her bravery, pushing up through the sidewalk and giving no care.  The mushrooms on the stumps that offer the promise of new beginnings from old wounds, breaking down the old so that the new can come in.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, almost all of our forests are in a state of healing. 100 years ago, according to the 1898 PA Department of Agriculture Forestry publication, 98% of Pennsylvania’s forests were logged. Stripped bare,, used to support mines, lay rails, and make charcoal for steel production. Some of these forests are so regenerated that its hard to tell that they had ever been damaged. Others show the tell-tale signs of ecosystems still regenerating.  I like to go to these places, these healing-in-progress places, and be reminded that nature can heal all wounds, given time. We are part of nature, and therefore, we, too, can heal. You can also take this idea much further by doing a druid retreat–retreat into nature for a time (a few hours, a day, a week or more).

 

Druid Responses: Stability in our Practices

Spiritual practices offer much in the way of healing and strengthening us in these difficult times, and in the druid arts, these primarily center around the practices of ritual and mediation.

 

Daily Meditation as Emotionally Beneficial and Balancing

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Daily deep breathing, mediation (of any form, but especially nature based) and simply being quiet for a time can greatly aid us.  Even taking three deep breaths when we get upset, maybe closing our eyes for a few moments to let the intense emotions slip away–these simple mediative practices can be incredibly sheltering during these times.  More and more research is coming out on the benefits of mediation as a way of promoting more happiness, less anxiety, and better approaches to handling stress and strain.  A daily meditation practice offers you such benefits–and certainly, it is a core part of our tradition.

 

Meditation in the druid tradition is often combined with being in nature–walking meditation, meditation in stillness or focus, or simply, sitting quietly and not allowing your thoughts to overtake you.  Discursive meditation also ofters a powerful tool to step back from emotions and think through them.

 

Here are a few powerful tools:

  • Observation meditation: Find something you want to observe for a period of time (an intricate flower, a lizard, a bird, a tree).  Do three deep breaths, then return to a normal breath pattern.  Observe and be in stillness.
  • Oneness meditation: Similar to the above, find a part of nature with which you want to connect.  A waterfall, a stone, a tree, etc.  Mind your breath and then imagine that part of nature encompasing you, and bringing you in line with its energy.  Take that energy within you with each breath, and on each outbreath, release any pain or suffering.
  • Discursive meditation.  Discursive meditation helps with focused thinking; the idea in a nutshell is that you choose a theme for meditation.  This can be something that is causing you pain or something you want to understand more.  Now, think deeply about it, following one thought to the next.  If you find yourself deviating from the original thought, trace it back through.  I have found this strategy particularly helpful for working to get at the root of emotions–why am I having this emotion? And once I have the root, I can work on it directly.

 

The Wheel of the Year and Ritual Work for Clearing and Healing

In the Druid’s wheel of the year, we recognize that the dark times are part of the natural cycle of things, that they are part of life and the passage of time.  Still, it is difficult to live in a time of decline, when we know that winter is quickly approaching, and there is nothing we can do to shelter from that storm. Take advantage of the season that is upon us for introspection and healing work that the dark half of the year provides.  It allows–and encourages us–to go deeply within, to cast off that which no longer serves us, to re-orient our relationship to the darkness of this time, and to bolster ourselves and strengthen ourselves for what is to come.

 

Ritual work can be highly effective for this goal.  Writing simple rituals for yourself, tied to the wheel of the sun and the phases of the moon (or simply, when you need them) can greatly aid you in these dark times.  Rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs, they can be simple.  Some ritual actions you might take include:

  • Releasing: Letting go of emotions, feelings, pain, other things that are not serving you any longer.  Rituals where you throw things into water or where you release things with water are particularly helpful here.
  • Cleansing: simple rituals to cleanse you (particulalry after releasing) can also be helpful here.  Smudging with herbs, asperging with water, doing a naked or barefoot forest bath, clearing yourself with the energy of the sun–all of these can be powerful cleansing rituals.
  • Energizing/strengthening: Bringing in energy to help bolster you during these difficult times. Drawing in the power of nature, the energy of the sun, the strength of the oak–whatever you need to help strengthen and ground you.
  • Shielding:  Shielding rituals are particularly effective in this day and age, and I suggest every person develop one and use it if they don’t already have one.  I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (which offers banishing, energizing, and shielding in one 5 minute or less ritual)–using this daily helps clear me and offer me balance and strength.

These are just some simple ideas–the important point here is to work with nature, work with whatever other powers you have, to find ways of strengthening you, cleansing you, energizing you, shielding you, and releasing the pent up emotions of these hard times.

 

Druidry as an Alternative Life Philiosophy

Observing and interacting with nature in a sacred manner offers us much in the way of re-aligning ourselves, and our worldview, towards that of the living earth.  Modern industrial and consumerist culture has a set of beliefs that have spiraled us into many of the challenges we face–and druidry offers us alternative perspectives and philosophies that can be counter-balancing in these times.  These include:

  • Tertiary thinking. Tertiary thinking encourages us to avoid false binaires and to consider alternative perspectives beyond those which are given
  • Recognizing the cycle and season. Modern American culture (and I suspect many others) demand that we are always in what I’ll call “high summer.”  High summer is high energy, with lots of activity, long days, lots of abundance. But life isn’t like that–and the more that you follow and align yourself with a wheel of the year and the cycles of nature, the more that this view will shift into a view that embraces, or at least accepts, that we also go through cycles in our lives, and cycles in our culture.
  • Nature as sacred and healing. Unlike much of culture, which sees nature as something that can be exploited, we druids recoginize the sanctity of all life, the sacredness of the living earth, and her power to heal.  This can, by extension, put us in different relationship with everything–for all things, ultimately, come from her and return to her.
  • Understanding time differently. Living by the seasons and wheel of the year also puts us in a different relationship with time; rather than time being a line, time can be a circle or spiral, which offers us powerful tools for reflection and strengthening. I wrote more about this in my series on time a few years ago here, here, here, and here.

 

Druidry as A Response to this Age

If you think about what druidry does, what the different paths do, it very much is a way of reconnecting us with those things that are the most important: our connection with nature, our connection with core practices that sustain us, and our connection with our creative spirit. It offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, relfect, and ground.

 

Druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age.  As druidry develops, as we figure out what the druidry of the 21st century should be (as opposed to the druidry of the 19th century or even druidry of the 20th century), I think all of us have much to contribute to this conversation.  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us during these dark times.

 

Awen!

Awen!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings September 30, 2018

“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed

“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms.  Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time.  When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox!  It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.

 

About the Apple

Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild.  Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten.  There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out.  Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!

 

Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away.  These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life.  Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting properly.  By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree.  he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider varitey.  He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.”  I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree.  Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.

 

One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US.  Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)

 

In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America.  Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe).  Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks.  Unlike today’s limited varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples).  Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.

 

And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apple.  Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season.  Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era.  Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.

 

Wild Apple Foraging

Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms.  I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early Stepember, I return to these trees for a potential harvest.  Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat.  Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varities and tastes!  Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varities, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly.  He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc.  Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on.  Let this cool and strain the juice.  (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor).  This juice can be used to make a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a delightful wild apple jelly.  I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider. 

 

If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby.  You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apple. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore.  Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.

 

Apples and Healing

“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side.  He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.

 

Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health.  Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely.  Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple.  However, Wood notes some consitenencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples before they are ripe have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker).  Therefore, herbalists today use apple for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses.  Here are some highlights:

 

Love magic:  In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

Expelling evil.  In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight.  The apple tree’s apples are gaurded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound.  He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound, and then goes to the castle to claim his bride.  This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.

 

Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.

 

Apple and Healing  Long Lost Friend (an American Grimorie of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.

 

Apple’s Protective Nature.  As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle.  Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:

 

Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything.  She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.

 

Apple as a Gateway to the World.  In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree.  A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtles back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

Apple’s Blessings.  Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in.  Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain.  Apple offers us connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.

 

Apple as Healing and Life-Giving.   The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples.  Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.

 

Apple as a Gateway.  Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place.  Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.

 

Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples.  And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.

 

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

Building Deep Plant Relationships at Lughnassadh July 29, 2018

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Last weekend, some druid friends came over for a retreat with a focus on land healing. As part of the ritual we collaboratively developed, we wanted to make an offering to the spirits of the land. I went to my sacred tobacco patch and carefully gathered leaves drying at the bottoms of the plant and flowers for use in this offering, humming a song that the tobacco had taught me and making sure that none of the leaves hit the ground in the process. The ritual went beautifully well and the offering was well received by the spirits.  After the weekend, it struck me how long my relationship with these particular tobacco plants was–more than a decade at this point from seed to leaf to flower to seed.  And how I had something to share about cultivating this relationship over time.

 

So I thought I’d take a short–yet related–detour from my “connecting with nature series” to talk about plant spirit and plant relationship work, specifically tied to Lughnassadh, and building sacred relationships with plants over time, using the wheel of the year and wheel of the seasons.

 

Lughnassadh and Sacred Plants

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

Lughnassadh is an ancient Gaelic festival still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.  Of course, Lughnassadh is also a holiday celebrated by many druids and other neo-pagans today as part of the wheel of the year.  While traditions vary from region to region and group to group, it is largely agreed upon that Lughnassadh always was and is a “first harvest” festival.  In my neck of the woods, early August is just when some of the most important crops are coming into season: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, wild berries, elderberries, and more. I’ve come to see Lughnassadah as a festival dedicated to the plant kingdom, not only because of the abundance that the plants produce this time of year in temperate climates, but also become of my long-term work as an herbalist.

 

As I wrote about some years ago, Lughnassadh is a perfect time to make sacred plant medicine and harvest herbs. The power of the sun is energizing, the herbs are in full bloom and many are at the peak of their growing, and the weather is warm for wandering among the weeds. It is after that moment in early August that we start seeing die back and die off of many medicinal herbs as the fall grows nearer and nearer.

 

Today, though, we aren’t just talking about any herb harvesting–we are talking about cultivating deep relationships with one or more plants on a long-term, perhaps lifetime journey.  I first share my story of the sacred tobacco that I have been growing for over a decade, and then share ideas for you to start cultivating your own deep relationship with a special plant.

 

The Story of Sacred Tobacco

I remember tucking the small packet of seeds, a gift from a gardener, herbalist, and wise woman, into my bag ever-so-carefully.  A gift like this was meant to be cherished, and I couldn’t wait till the next spring when I would be able to start some of the seeds. Like little specs of dirt, the tobacco seeds called to me, “plant me, plant me, give me good soil” and I assured them that all of this would come to pass.

 

In the spring, after opening up a sacred grove for planting (something I do regularly with my spring seed starting) I scattered them on some growing trays, and covered them with the finest layer of soil. They sprung up almost immediately, with almost 100% of them germinating, their little fuzzy green leaves reaching toward the light. Within two weeks, I transplanted them, and they grew quickly, getting big succulent leaves and putting up stems.  I transplanted them again, and they grew even bigger.  By the time the last frost had come and gone, they were in large plastic cups straining to get in the ground. I created a special wheel of the year garden for them in a warm and sunny location and into the ground they went.

 

The continuity of the seed....

The continuity of the seed….tobacco pods ready to harvest.

Its fun when you are growing a new plant for the first time; all the photos or descriptions in the world never substitute for the plant itself and its glorious spirit.  This is especially true when you don’t even know what the plant exactly is! I hadn’t grown tobacco before.  My tobacco plants, the 15 or so that took root, were delighted with their new space.  They put on leaf, and then, grew masses of beautiful little flowers that looked like elongated yellow parasols.  As the flowers grew ready to fall off, the plant told me to harvest them and dry them, and I did.  The flowers turned into large seed pods, which eventually grew brown–along with the rest of the plant–and burst open, self seeding for the following spring.

 

At Lughnassadh that first season, I carefully harvested the leaves and lay them in the sun to dry–since my intention was an offering tobacco, something grown solely as an offering to the land and not smoked–I didn’t have to worry about the complexities surrounding the curing of tobacco. I later learned that I wouldn’t have wanted to either way, as this variety has an extremely high nicotine content (and I am not a smoker, ceremonially or otherwise). I let the leaves dry out and go brown and yellow, and then crumbled them up, added the flowers I had already saved, and stored it all in a jar.  I created a little leather pouch and filled the pouch with the tobacco, and went off to make some offerings. The land loved the offering and asked for more and more, so I carried the pouch with me and used it often. I saved the seeds and began sharing them with some people I felt drawn to give them to. I saved the stalks and used them in my smudge sticks. This is the same tobacco (and later, tobacco blend) that I recently talked about in my Beltane Offering Blend post–that blend is my current favorite for creating an offering.

 

Later, I learned that these seeds were nicotinia rustica seeds, also known as “wild tobacco”, “shamanic tobacco” or “Aztec tobacco.”  It is native to North America (and hardy to zone 8), but is no longer widely cultivated in the Americas because the more common tobacco, nicotinia tabacum, is what is now prized and grown. Nicotina Tabacum is much less harsh, with 1-3% nicotine content, which is what people smoke in cigarettes and pipes.  Rustica, on the other hand, has up to 9% nicotine; in some places in the Americas, it is used as an entheogen or as one of the ingredients in herbal blends that also contain Ayahuasca (likely, this is why it is called “shamanic tobacco”). It is believed by some South American Shamans that tobacco is a plant that gives you access to the spirit of many other plants; it is like a gateway plant to the deeper plant mysteries.  I have found this to be true, even though I only use it as the plant has directed–as an offering.

 

Each year I had a garden, I planted this plant, and gave it a privileged space. If I planted only a few things when I didn’t have a garden, my tobacco would always be planted first to be planted. And each year, I saved seeds. Each year, I kept my pouch with me and offered the tobacco regularly to the land–and it was always extremely well received.

 

Over time and over various harvests, the plant shared some of its deeper mysteries with me, a song for harvesting, for example.  Now, when I start new seeds in the early spring, the first sprouts are like an old friend, greeting me once more. I sing the songs, I sow the seeds.  Since I save the seeds, my relationship with these particular seeds, this particular plant continues and persists throughout my lifetime, and in the many cycles of this annual plant’s lifetime. As Lughnassadh is here this week, I will continue my annual tradition of harvesting the plants as they go to seed, laying the leaves in the sun, and continuing this cycle into the future years. I will once again mix my blend and fill up my jar for the year till the spring when I plant again.

 

My choice of tobacco originally wasn’t my own; they were gifts of seeds and I wanted to see them grow.  But in retrospect, I am delighted that this tobacco is now so firmly in my life. I really like the fact that my sacred tobacco has only one use to me–an offering–and that use is critical for my interaction with the broader land.  I also liked the idea of “reclaiming” tobacco from the ways that it has been abused (and grown in a toxic and unceremonial way) by my broader culture.  So part of this work was “reclaiming” a native sacred plant, and part of it was building a brand new relationship with that plant that was my own, not built on any previous culture’s use.

 

This isn’t my only plant relationship–each of the relationships is unique and its own.  But this is certainly one of my more potent ones, and therefore, is a good illustration of the larger technique I’m sharing today.

 

Plant Spirit Connections and Practices

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

So here’s a simple technique you might do, based on what I’ve written about above: choose a plant to cultivate a deeply sacred relationship with. Plan on this relationship spanning a period of time, years or decades, if possible. Rituals and sacred actions have meaning in part because we repeat them; the more repetition we have over the years, the deeper the connection and meaning.

 

I would recommend choosing a plant that has some sacred use to you and that you can grow, even if its in a pot or on a sunny windowsill.  For the method I offer above, I think the cultiavation of it is important.  If you aren’t cultivating the plant, I would suggest one you have regular access to, and that you can “tend” in some way (pruning, scattering seeds, etc).

 

In terms of sacred use, there are so many options:

  • an offering plant, one that you use to make offerings to the land, ancestors, spirits, diety, etc (this is where my tobacco mainly fits)
  • a smudge stick or incense plant, one that is used to help purify and cleanse a space (also can be an offering)
  • a culinary plant that you use for cooking special meals or creating sacred drinks at sacred times (see, for example, my elderflower recipe)
  • a visionary plant, one that helps you open new doorways
  • a brewing plant, one that can be used to create sacred alcoholic beverages (and you might check out Buhner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some inspiration)
  • a plant for sacred decor, see for example my post on Yule decorations
  • a sacred crafting plant, a plant you can make something from (like cordage, plant dyes and inks, cattail paper, etc)

 

Spend some time selecting your plant–there is no rush.  The plant will be there when you are ready.  Your plant has lived hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, she will wait for you to be ready to begin this work.  In my case, I had no previous relationship with tobacco at all (and had avoided my culture’s use of it); but for other plants I work with in this way, I certainly have had previous relationships (sometimes spanning back to my childhood). By the time I do this work, they are already good friends :).

 

Begin simply by planting your plant or finding it in the wild, watching it grow.  If it doesn’t yet grow where you live, cultivate it. When you interact with your plant, especially for sowing and harvesting, try to do so in an open grove/sacred space.  This helps establish, from the beginning, the sacredness of your relationship with this plant.

 

Visit your plant often. Pay attention to how it grows, how it moves in the wind and how the rain washes over it. Learn your plant in the physical world: learn how it grows in each stage of its life cycle. If it is a perennial, watch it die back and be reborn in the spring. If it is an annual, carefully save its seed each year and plant again to bring your sacred relationship with you as the years go on. Learn what pests may eat it and how to prevent those pests.

 

Connect with the plant in spirit. Listen for the plant’s inner song (each plant has a song, and may reveal that song in time to you). Find out if the plant has a sacred name she wants you to use–and call her by that name.  Find out if you can use that name with others, or if she wants you to keep it to herself.

 

If you can consume part of the plant, do so, and see how it works within you. Do some meditation after consuming your plant; see how it feels and what it reveals. If you want to get even more radical, do a fast and consume only the plant (or tea from the plant) if it is edible; let it sustain you (again, Buhner’s work on fasting may be helpful to you here).

 

Ready to harvest!

Ready to harvest!

Find your sacred harvesting time–perhaps it is Lughnassadh, perhaps some other sacred day on the wheel of the year or a full moon.  Discover how the plant wants to be harvested and prepared; use your intuition and go with the flow of it. Use the plant respectfully, taking just enough to get you to the next harvest (perennial) or saving the seeds carefully (annual).

 

Let the years pass, and continue to build your relationship with the plant. Be slow to speak of this work, and speak of it only when directed by the plant (as tobacco has asked of me); this will keep the magic between you and the plant.  As the years pass, you will grow quite close–and your sacred plant will always be there, with you, offering her quiet presence. The plant will help show you the way to her magic, her stories, her songs. All that you need to do is begin with an open mind, patience and perseverance, and let her guide the way.  Blessings of the plant kingdom this first harvest season!