The Druid's Garden

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

Finding Balance at the Spring Equinox: A Sun Ritual Using the Three Druid Elements March 18, 2020

The Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, is the time when the light and the dark in the world are in balance. The timing of the Equinox is fortuitous–this time of balance–after such turmoil in the world. Here in the last two weeks here in the US, we’ve been on a whirlwind of change where nearly every person’s life has been radically disrupted and changed due to the global pandemic. Given the circumstances of where we are, today, I’d like to offer a balancing ritual for Spring Equinox that you can do personally to help bring balance into your life.  (I’m posting this a few days early from my usual weekly post so that you have it in time for the Equinox!)

 

Preliminaries

A representation of the 3 druid elements

A representation of the 3 druid elements

This ritual uses the three druid elements: Gywar, Calas, and Nyfre, drawn from the druid revival for the ritual. These three terms, deriving from old Welsh, represent three principles in the universe.  I think they are particularly useful for a spring equinox balancing ritual.

 

Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh) literally translates as “sky” or “heaven” and refers to the life force or vital energy that is in each of us.  Nywfre is the spark of life, that which separates an inanimate thing from an animate being.

 

Gwyar (GOO-yar) literally translates as “blood”, and refers to the concept of flow, flexibility, fluidity, motion, and general change. This is the element that acts like water, flowing around obstacles rather than hitting up against them.

 

Calas (CAH-lass) is tied to the old Welsh word “Caled” and literally translates as “hard”.  This is the element of solidity, stability, and grounding.

 

What’s interesting is that to truly have balance, we can’t just focus on Calas (grounding), which might be the first thing that would come to mind.  A situation as unstable as what is before us requires us to balance the three elements together: we do need Calas to help us be stable and rooted, but we also need a great deal of Gwyar, as the situation is evolving rapidly and nobody knows what is next.  Nwyfre is life itself–and embracing life during this challenging time focuses our energy not on the chaos and fear of death but on the energies of life, thus bringing us into greater harmony.

 

This ritual also uses three prayers (two from the druid tradition and one I wrote) and uses the chanting of another welsh term, Awen.  For more on Awen, see this post.

 

The following ritual would ideally be done in three parts: as the sun rises, at mid-day, and as the sun sets (this is the first version of the ritual I present). The second variant of the ritual still uses the energy of the sunrise, noonday, and sunset times of the sun, but in a metaphorical sense. Thus, I will offer two variants of the ritual.

 

The Ritual: Balancing of Gwyar, Calas, and Nyfre: A Three-Part Sunrise – Noonday and Sunset Ritual

The solar current rising at sunrise

Sunrise

Select a sacred place that you can return to at three points in the day: sunrise (or early morning), noon, and sunset.  Ideally, this should be a place that you can open up a sacred grove in, leave, and return to throughout the day and one where nobody else will disturb for the day (e.g. a spot outside or a spare bedroom). If you would like, you can set up an altar in this spot.

 

For this ritual, you should also have an offering for the land and her spirits. See this post for more on offerings. In terms of your offering, I think what you do, and how you offer, are very personal things. Offerings should be personal and tied to those spirits/deities/powers/lands/places you work with.

 

Sunrise:

Either in the early morning or just as the light is beginning to come into the world, go to your sacred space.

 

Open up a sacred grove in your tradition. For this, I suggest using whatever grove / sacred space opening you have in your tradition or using the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening. If you do not have a dedicated spot for the three stages of ritual, I instead suggest doing the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual around yourself to start the ritual.

 

Make your offering in your own words. Leave your offering in your space.

 

As the sun is beginning to rise (or observing the rising sun), say, “Sunrise is a time when the sun rises from the earth.  The promise of the day is before us.  The balance between light and dark is here.  We enter the light half of the year, full of promise and possibility.”

 

Pause, continuing to observe the sun. Then say, “As the sun rises with possibility, I call upon this moment to provide me fluidity, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a radically changing world. I now intone the ancient word for flow: “Gywar (GOO-yar), Gywar, Gwyar.” (Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

Stand facing the sun, and feel its rays upon your skin. Observe how the light continues to change as the sun rises. Feel the possibility of this moment. Pay attention to how the winds flow upon the land, and how the land awakens. Spend some time in mediation as the sun rises, drawing upon the fluidity and flexibility of this moment.

 

Say a Prayer of Flow (By Dana O’Driscoll):

Let me be like the waters,
Let me move like the sea,
Let me flow with the currents,
Let my spirit be free

Let me fly like an eagle
Let me buzz like a bee
Let me swim like an otter
Let my spirit be free

When the world is crushing
And I am unable to see
Let me flow like the river,
Let the awen flow in me!

 

When you are finished, leave the sacred space and go about your day until the mid-day sun.

 

Noon:

Enter your sacred space. Take a few moments to come back into your ritual mindset through deep breathing and quieting your mind.

 

Say, “Noon-day is when the power of the sun is at its zenith. This is when the sun’s rays offer life and vitality to all.  As the sun is at its height, I call upon this moment to provide me vitality, strength, and energy.  I now intone the ancient word for the lifeforce, “Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh), Nywfre, Nywfre.”

 

At this point, spend some moments in the light of the sun.  Soak in the sun’s vital rays, and observe the leaves and plant life upon the landscape and their interaction with the sun.  You might feel led to do some movement meditation, dance, or another vitalizing movement at this time.  when you feel the work is complete,  say the Druid’s Prayer:

 

Grant, O Spirits, your protection
And in protection, strength
And in strength, understanding
And in understanding, knowledge
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it
And in the love of it, the love of all existences
And in the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother and all Goodness.

 

Chant three Awens (Ahh-oh-en) <As you chant the Awens, feel this vitalizing force settle deeply within you.>

 

Leave the sacred space until sunset.

 

Sunset: Arrive just as the sun is setting, where it is just beginning to touch the edge of the horizon.

 

Say, “Sunset is a time when the sun meets the earth.  As the sun enter’s the earth’s embrace, I call upon this moment to provide me grounding, stability, and peace.  I now intone the ancient word for grounding: Calas (CAY-lass), Calas, Calas.”(Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

At this point, if you can, lay or sit upon the ground.  Feel the solidity of the ground beneath your feet.  Feel the deepening darkness on the landscape.  Spend some time in meditation as the darkness comes.  As the darkness comes, feel the womb of the earth supporting you, grounding you, and providing you peace.

 

When you are finished with your meditation, say the Druid’s Peace Prayer (this is my own variant):

 

“Deep within the still center of my being may I find peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within you>

“Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within this space>

“Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace emanating from you outward.”

 

Close your sacred space (using your own tradition or using the AODA’s solitary grove closing ritual).

Single Moment Variant

Sunset

The above ritual uses three moments in time to call upon the druid elements and uses druid prayer (mostly traditional, one new one) to help connect to those energies.  I suggest removing the first two druids prayers, finishing instead with just the Druid’s Peace Prayer, and using visualization techniques for each of the moments where you would otherwise be in the sun. I also suggest using a drum, bell or another instrument to shift between the three points of the sun’s path across the sky.

 

Here is the adapted ritual.

 

Open up your sacred space and make your offering.  For this, I suggest using whatever grove / sacred space opening you have in your tradition or using the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening.

 

Make your offering in your own words.

 

Say: “Sunrise is a time when the sun rises from the earth.  The promise of the day is before us.  The balance between light and dark is here.  We enter the light half of the year, full of promise and possibility.”

 

“As the sun rises with possibility, I call upon this moment to provide me fluidity, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a radically changing world.  I now intone the ancient word for flow: “Gywar (GOO-yar), Gywar, Gwyar.” (Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

Envision the most beautiful sunrise you have ever seen. Feel the possibility and anticipation of the sun at the start of the new day.  Bring this possibility, flow, and energy into your life.

 

Pause, play a few notes on your instrument, ring a bell or singing bowl.  When you are ready to proceed:

 

Say, “Noon-day is when the power of the sun is at its zenith. This is when the sun’s rays offer life and vitality to all.  As the sun is at its height, I call upon this moment to provide me vitality, strength, and energy.  I now intone the ancient word for the lifeforce, “Nwyfre (NOO-iv-ruh), Nywfre, Nywfre.”

 

At this point, envision the sun at its highest point on a warm summer day.  Envision yourself soaking in the sun’s vital rays. You might feel led to do some movement meditation, dance, or another vitalizing movement at this time.

 

Pause, play again a few notes on your instrument, ring a bell, or use a singing bowl.  When you are ready to proceed:

 

Say, “Sunset is a time when the sun meets the earth.  As the sun enter’s the earth’s embrace, I call upon this moment to provide me grounding, stability, and peace.  I now intone the ancient word for grounding: Calas (CAY-lass), Calas, Calas.”(Chant this as much as you feel led).

 

At this point, if you can, lay or sit upon the ground.  Feel the solidity of the ground beneath your feet.  Envision a beautiful sunset, the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen, in your mind’s eye.  Envision that sun setting, and feel the deepening darkness on the landscape.  Feel the womb of the earth supporting you, grounding you, and providing you peace.

 

When you are finished with your meditation, say the Druid’s Peace Prayer (this is my own variant):

 

“Deep within the still center of my being may I find peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within you>

“Quietly, within the circle of this grove, may I share peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace within this space>

“Gently within the circle of all life, may I radiate peace.” <Pause, feeling the peace emanating from you outward.”

 

Close your sacred space (using your own tradition or using the AODA’s solitary grove closing ritual)

 

Imbolc Symbolism for the North Eastern US: Reflections on the Landscape February 2, 2020

Imbolc was traditionally a Gaelic holiday celebrated in the holiday celebrating the first signs of spring. When I first started down the path of Druidry, I never felt very connected to Imbolc as a holiday because there seemed to be this huge disconnection between the holiday’s traditional roots and what I was seeing on my own landscape. Part of this is that the weather in the UK is much milder than where I’ve lived and I’m more likely to see at the Spring Equinox–or later–what might be first signs of spring at Imbolc. I thought it was funny when I’d see rituals where I should decorate my altar with snowdrops when they were still another 1-2 months away from coming forth!

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Reflections on Imbolc

My own issue with Imbolc speaks to what I see as one of the major challenges we have in Druidry, here in North America and globally:  It’s actually pretty hard to take the traditions of ancestors that were rooted in one place (the British Isles) and port it to another place (like North America). Once they are removed from their context, they lose a lot of rich meaning.  But it’s not just a contextual problem, but also a lifestyle one: the ancestors of the druid tradition also lived a non-industrial agrarian life, so different from modern life. Some of the traditional activities don’t make sense to you if you are living, say, an urban lifestyle (like the lactating of ewes!)  Further, as an animist, I don’t get into the deity specific focuses of the holiday, creating yet another kind of disconnection. So there are multiple points of disconnection: disconnection with the way of life of the people who originated the holiday, a disconnection with what is happening on my own landscape, and also, perhaps a cultural disconnection.

 

What I thought I’d do in this piece is share with you some of my own Imbolc symbolism, adapted for someone living in the Allegheny Mountains of Western PA, and talk about the stories behind the symbols and how I got there. I hope this will offer an example of how to adapt a holiday associated with the druid tradition (but maybe one you don’t immediately resonate with) to your local landscape. This allows you to practice a wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry that is more rooted in local landscape and place  I do think it’s important to recognize the difference between activities, observances, and rituals–celebrating a holiday to me isn’t just about doing a particular ritual, but rather, engaging in a number of activities and observances that mark that time of year. Thus, I’m not really talking much about rituals here, but more, my adapted Imbolc themes. And like those original peoples who developed holidays, these choices are very rooted in my own local landscape, regional culture, and my lifestyle.  I hope that you can use them as a guide for developing your own.

 

Weather, Groundhogs, and Prognostication.

This first symbol is rooted in the rodent weather prognostication that happens throughout the US.  Throughout the US in several different states that have German roots, American Groundhogs look to see their shadows and foretell the coming of spring. I happen to live about 45 minutes south of the most famous Groundhog of them all, Punxatawney Phil. Today marks Phil’s 134 years of weather predictions. Yet, this tradition is much older.  The tradition is rooted in Germany, where they used a European Badger to predict the weather this time of year. When the PA Germans moved here to Pennsylvania, they found that the Groundhog (or Woodchuck) was the more appropriate prognosticator, and the tradition has continued on. All throughout PA and now in many other states, the Groundhog is honored this time of year for his service in helping predict the end of winter. There’s a lot of fun that you can have in honoring the groundhog and doing some prediction of your own this time of year. If we broaden this tradition for personal celebration, you might think about Imbolc as being a good time to do some divination for things to come.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: One strategy for adapting your Druidry locally is to look at more local or regional customs that might align with your holiday. Look for annual traditions, large festivals, or other traditions that might take place at or near your holiday. In my case, adding Groundhog Day and prognostication/divination to my wheel of the year was an easy choice, both because of where I live but also because of my own cultural heritage as having many PA Dutch ancestors.

 

Tapping the Maple Trees

 

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees

The second symbol that has become a cornerstone of my own Imbolc traditions is tapping the maple trees. The sap in the trees will run when the temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. For where I live, this almost always occurs in the two weeks around Imbolc. In fact, I consider Imbolc officially “here” the first day when the sap is running and I do my best to tap the trees on that day if possible (which doesn’t always happen, but usually I can get within a day or two!) A big part of my Imbolc celebrations includes tapping the trees, singing to them, making offerings to the trees and doing ritual work, and drinking their fresh sap as a blessing and cleansing. Usually, between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox, we get together with some other friends and do a day of boiling the sap–a way to share in community and the activity of the season.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: A lot of the druid wheel of the year holidays focus on changes in the landscape. Start by observing the time of year and look to see what is happening around you.  What is happening with wildlife? Precipitation and weather? Plants and trees? Through these observations, you’ll see that things can be both very quick (e.g. the changes that happen on the landscape after a hard frost) or quite subtle. It took me a number of years–and access to other people who knew about maple sugaring–to select this symbol and practice. Now, it is absolutely central to my activities this year and is certainly part of our regional culture here.

 

Snow Spirals and Ice Observations

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Snow spiral in sacred grove

The weather this time of year is very dynamic, perhaps more so than most other times a year, at least in this ecoregion. We have periods of snow, periods of ice, and periods where the temperatures thaw. I like to do a lot of work with snow and ice this time of year, tied to what is happening in the landscape. I pay attention to the snow and ice, I make snow spirals to bless and protect the land.  I also like to spend extra time at our stream and pond observing the melting and freezing of the waters.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: For each of the eight holidays, I like to spend time in observation of the landscape. I usually change the focus of my observations based on the holiday–for this holiday, the waters are the most dynamic and hence, where I spend some of my focus.

 

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow)

The newest addition to my own Imbolc celebrations is the creation of the Butzemann.  My

Butzemann from 2019

grandmother used to keep a scarecrow in her garden, and I always thought it had a life of its own–in fact, traditionally, many scarecrows did! The Butzemann is another tradition that comes from PA Dutch culture and is, essentially, a magical protective scarecrow.  You build the Butzemann at Imbolc, out of things that will burn, preferably, materials from last year’s garden and from the land around you.  At the spring equinox, you walk the Butzemann around the property and invite a good, protective spirit into the Butzemann. You give the Butzemann a name (there are some fairly complex traditions around naming, but essentially each year, you add a new name to your Butzemann, but keep all the older names as additional names.  Eventually, the name gets quite long indeed, demonstrating the Butzemann’s legacy over the years). You hang the Butzemann somewhere prominent for the remainder of the year, where it can protect your crops, flocks, and home for the growing season. I also like to make offerings to my Butzeman at each of the major holidays where he is active (Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, and the Fall Equinox). At the end of the growing season, by no later than Samhain, you burn the Butzemann so his spirit can go on the wild hunt.  If you don’t burn the Butzemann, the good spirit will leave anyways and your Butzemann could become possessed with a bad spirit.  At the end of the season, you may also save some special materials to construct your Butzemann the following Imbolc.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: I was so excited to learn about this practice from the folks who are developing Urglawee (PA Dutch Heathenry). I was looking for a practice that helped tie the growing season together and that would protect our flocks and land.  Wassail traditions are part of the blessing and protection fo the land but are very orchard and tree focused. This tradition offers another layer and is a wonderful way to tie the seasons together and offered me another great bioregional and cultural practice.

 

Sowing the First Seeds of the Season

Catnip seedlings!

Catnip seedlings!

On the full moon nearest to Imbolc, we start our first seeds of the year for our garden (other than garlic, which you plant the previous fall).  I think this is an important part of our traditions surrounding Imbolc because it lets us focus not on the remainder of winter (all six weeks of it, according to Punxataweney Phil) but rather, this pulls us into the light half of the year.  Tending the seeds, watching them grow, and planning for the future is a powerful reminder that spring will come again.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: This one is fairly pragmatic.  We have big gardens on our five-acre homestead and Imbolc is usually about 12 weeks out from our first frost–the first opportunity to start seeds for the year. This is when we start slow-growing herbs like Lavender and Sage, our allium crops (onions, shallots, leeks, and chives), and our greenhouse starts. It’s more meaningful to do this work tied to a druid holiday.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can hopefully see from this list, I’ve rooted my own Imbolc practices and activities in a way that is tied both to my specific life (as a homesteader growing my own food in a rural environment) but also to my specific landscape and local/regional culture. While it took me a number of years, the effort and intention I put into making Imbolc “mine” has really enriched my experience of this holiday and, honestly, took it from being my least favorite to one of my favorites.  I hope these symbols and activities are useful and inspirational to you on this most sacred day.

 

Sacred Dreaming at the Winter Solstice December 15, 2019

” When the body is awake the soul is its servant, and is never her own mistress. … But when the body is at rest, the soul, being set in motion and awake … has cognisance of all things-sees what is visible, hears what is audible, walks, touches, feels pain, ponders”- Hippocrates, Dreams

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Dreams are a critical part of what it means to be human–every night, we dream.  We may not remember our dreams.  Our dreams may be fun, terrifying, illuminating, or simply mundane.  There is magic in dreaming, and magic in our dreams. This magic of dreaming is particularly useful to consider at this time of year, at the Winter Solstice, when the darkness is all-consuming, the sun lays so low on the horizon, not even seeming to be able to bring power and light to the world.  This is the time of dreams and of the night. In today’s post, in honor of the coming winter solstice, I consider the role of dreaming and I share some dreaming techniques that you can use to deepen your relationship and attention to your dreams this time of year.

 

In the last few years, at the Winter Solstice, I’ve spent some time exploring the darkness, dreams, and the spaces of the night. Two years ago, I wrote about embracing the darkness and experiencing candlelight living. Last year, I explored how nature offers us suggestions for embracing the darkness through the quiet of the seeds and lessons of nature.  This year, we’ll explore the human realms and think about how the darkness may encourage our souls and spirits to dream and to travel beyond our physical bodies, gain messages, and gain a deeper connection with ourselves and spirit. The solstice, here in Western PA, gives us 14.5 hours of darkness–plenty of time for deep dreaming and dreamwork.  In the first part of this post, I’ll explore different ways that humanity has considered the role of dreams and dreamwork, and then in the second half of this post, I’ll share some techniques to help explore dreaming more fully.

 

Dreaming in the West: Subconscious and Psyche

In Western Culture, at least here in the US, dreams are not really given much importance, and certainly, they are considered free from mystical qualities. Modern psychologists, including those who study dreaming, see dreams only as a way for the subconscious to process our experiences. A good example of this kind of thinking is found in “Dreamtime and Dreamwork: Decoding the Language of the Night” by Stephen Krippner and colleagues from 1990. This work is a useful perspective on how psychologists view dreaming and how dreams interact with layers of the psyche. Going back further, Carl Jung recognized that humans have a psyche (a combination of the mind, the body, and feelings) and that dreams were one way in which the psyche communicated to us.  He writes:

 

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” –Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 10, paragraph 317

 

Thus, within the realms of the west, dreams are mostly considered manifestations of our own psyche or subconscious.  We also have plenty of expressions to show how unimportant dreams seem to be with phrases like “only in your dreams”.  While there is certainly validity in the Western Perspective, it lacks any connection to spirit beyond us.  As a druid and an animist, I know there is much more going on than just my psyche speaking to me.

Ancient and Indigenous Understanding of Dreams

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

We might look to indigenous wisdom for an understanding of how non-industrialized cultures view dreaming.  In many native cultures, dreaming is a way to connect with spirit (ancestors, deity, etc) and hear messages and to travel in a different world, a world that is just as real as our own.  In the book Black Elk Speaks, much of the teachings that Black Elk conveys to his people were passed to him through his dreams. Dreaming was important to all of the Ogala Sioux people.  As Black Elk shares about Crazy Horse, ““Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one.”

 

The Aboriginal Austrailian Dreamtime is one of their most important concepts, the essence of who they are as people.  As described by Clanchy (1994), the Dreamtime dates back at least 65,000 years and part of it includes stories of how the universe was created, how humans were created and what their purpose was, but also that the dreamtime continues eternally and is both past, present, and future.  The Dreamtime is also the land that they inhabit, the spirit of the place. Dreams that individuals themselves have function within this culture in a variety of ways, including “dreams of passage” (den Boer, 2012) where individuals have powerful dreams surrounding various rites of passage (deaths, births, marriages, etc).

 

We can see dreams at work in various ways with the cultures that influenced modern Druidry, including the Welsh.  In the Mabinogion, The Dream of Rhonabwy, where Rhonabwy dreams for three days, visiting the time of King Arthur, engaging in battles, and playing chess.  The Irish believed and closely linked dreams and omen.  Ettlinger (1946), drawing upon a variety of ancient sources, notes that dreams to the Ancient Irish were considered divinatory, visionary, and healing.  She notes a number of different ancient Irish stories where prophetic dreams lead kings to avoid conflict or seek it out, and they often sought out advice to interpret their dreams.

 

The ancient Egyptians, and later, Romans, Greeks, and Jews created “sleep temples” where people would go, rest, be hypnotized, dream, and have their dreams analyzed.  These temples often helped people with more psychological ailments, recognizing the importance of dreams and sleeping to well being.

 

While I could present much more information here, what is presented is hopefully sufficient to demonstrate that for many pre-industrial and indigenous cultures, dreams have incredible power: they can offer us messages, connect us with our ancestors, connect us with spirits of the land or landscape, offer us augury or predict things to be, and help us connect deeply with ourselves.  While the psychic interpretation of the west is certainly *part of* dreaming, dreaming can also connect us to the metaphysical aspects of the world and spirit well beyond our own minds.

 

Dreaming the Winter Solstice: Some Dreaming Techniques

If you are going to start doing dreamwork, or pursue it at a more serious level, the Winter Solstice is the best time to begin this work–this is when night has the power, the darkness is in the landscape, and dreams have power. The deep darkness is a place of dreams, a place of spirit. Our conscious and controlling selves meld into a dream where we are simply along for the experience that is more than us and yet, intimate with us.  While we dream every night, there are a variety of tools to help us dream deeply, more powerfully, and with practice, more intentionally.  I’m going to outline a few of those practices now as a way to get started.

 

Herbal Allies for Dreaming

In what grows here in North America, Mugwort is the clear choice for dreaming.  Mugwort helps us dream powerfully and intensely, and can be useful for those who have difficulty remembering their dreams and also those who want to work on more intentional dreaming.  Mugwort, fresh or dried, can be made into a tea (don’t brew it too long or it will get very bitter), and is usually quite good when sweetened with some honey.  Mugwort can also be put in a smoking blend or smoked on its own.  You can make a dreaming oil with mugwort (and possibly other herbs like rosemary, borage, or lavender) and rub it on your temples and heart before bedtime. Finally, you can make wonderful mugwort smoke sticks (smudges) either with mugwort alone or with other herbs like sage, cedar, or rosemary.  Any kind of interaction with mugwort can put you in a place of intense dreaming–for that’s what she does–create intense dreams!

Other herbs that help with dreaming are those that calm the mind and body. Many use Valerian or Hops as aids to fall asleep more readily and stay asleep. These kinds of herbs can help put us in a ready state for sleep.

 

Mugwort gives us more access to dreams (Mugwort card from the Plant Spirit Oracle)

Grove Sleep (Temple Sleep)

A technique that I use often is derived from the Ancient Egyptian “Sleep temples” above. The goal of this is to create a sacred grove (ritual space) that allows me to experience dreaming in a more intentional and sacred way.  I recommend this practice when you can sleep in and you don’t have any pressing things on your agenda either before bed or when you wake up. The presence of a significant other can complicate this practice (or, if your significant other has a spiritual practice, you might do it together).

 

What I do is just before bed, brew up some mugwort tea and place my dream journal by my bedside. Then, I turn out the lights and leave a single candle burning.  I open up a sacred grove (using the AODA‘s solitary grove opening) in my bedroom. After I have the sacred grove open, I engage in some mind quieting and meditation techniques, lying in bed. These vary, depending on what I need and where my mind is. If my mind is racing, for example, I might engage in some empty mind meditation. If my mind is already calm, I might use some discursive meditation to help prime me for dreaming (both of these techniques are described here).  I attend to my breathing.  I fall asleep.  Usually, using this technique, the most memorable and potent dreams come in the few hours before I wake up, but this is not always the case.

 

When I wake, I write down anything of meaning in my dreams (including when I wake in the middle of the night).  Then I fall back asleep and keep dreaming.  In the morning, before I do anything else, I write down the remaining notes on my dreams and then close out the sacred grove and go about my day.

 

I don’t obviously do this every evening (that would be a lot!) but I do it often enough that it has become a regular spiritual practice of mine.  Attending to dreams in this intentional way has made my dreams not only more meaningful, but has given me more control over them as well as more chance of remembering them.  I started this practice some years ago, at the Winter Solstice, and it has become a welcome addition to my spiritual path.

 

Dream Journaling

A final dream technique I highly recommend is keeping a dream journal.  I have found that it is helpful to write down at least meaningful dreams, if not all dreams.  I kept a daily dream journal for a year, and since them, usually, write in my dream journal at least once a week.  I keep it by my bed so that I can wake up and immediately write.  If you think you will remember your dream later, I’m sure experience tells you that writing it down immediately after waking is the best way.  If you don’t have a dream journal handy and you have a powerful dream, just hit the record button on your phone or keep a little voice recorder (that is often easier than writing and turning on the light).  The important thing here is to help you remember your dreams and then, you can return to them as time passes.

 

Conclusion

Thus, at the Solstice, you can walk in the landscape of the dreamscape and see what comes. See who you meet, what spirit tells you, what your own subconscious tells you, and enjoy this dream journey! I would love to hear from my readers about your own experiences with sacred dreaming and the techniques you have developed!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks of a hiatus from regular blogging for spending holiday time with my family, holiday travel, and rest.  I will return to blogging in early to mid-January.  Have a wonderful Winter Solstice / Alban Arthan / Holiday season, everyone!

 

References

Krippner, S. E. (1990). Dreamtime and dreamwork: Decoding the language of the night. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
Clanchy, J. (1994). Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies.
den Boer, E. (2012). Spirit conception: Dreams in Aboriginal Australia. Dreaming, 22(3), 192–211. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028402
Ettlinger, E. (1948). Precognitive Dreams in Celtic Legend. Folklore, 59(3), 97-117.
 

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?

 

 

 

Ancestral Herbalism and Samhain: Working Deeply with Rosemary October 27, 2019

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

As we quickly approach Samhain, it is a useful practice to spend some time with rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and build her into your Samhain practices. In this post, we look into some of the magic and medicine of Rosemary, and I share a number of ancestor and Samhain-focused practices that you can use with Rosemary.

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

Before we get into what you can make or do with rosemary, let’s spend some time exploring and understanding this ancient herb. Rosemary has been with humanity almost as long as we have written records. Native to the mediterranean region, rosemary was first found referenced on cuineform tablets from Ancient Egypt that are from 5000 BCE–thus, humanity has at least an 8000 year old relationship with this herb (but I suspect it is much longer than our written history!). It was spread to China as early as the 2nd century CE, and to Europe in the middle ages.  It came to North America and South America in the 1700s and now has global reach.

 

The “officinalis” in Rosemary’s latin name indicates that this was an herb used as of the materia medica in ancient Rome and beyond. While Linneaus in the 18th century came up with the Latin taxonomy of naming plants, and thus gave Rosemary her official “officinalis” designation, the uses of this plant go back quite further.  In fact, the term “rosemary” derives from Latin, ros marinus (“dew of the sea”).  Even the word itself has a wonderful history.

 

Rosemary has been considered by many cultures as a sacred herb tied to memory and remembrance, and love. This was certainly known in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as in much of the other cultures in the Mediterranean, where rosemary was used both for weddings (in the form of sprigs or wreaths) as well as for funerals to honor the dead.  It is burned as incense, used in cooking, used as medicine and used in funeral ceremonies–a tradition that continues to modern times in Australia and other nations. Thus, you might say that Rosemary is an ally to us both in life, and in death.

Rosemary in flower

Grieve speaks of the different rosemary customs in her entry in A Modern Herbal, particularily surrounding memory and rememberance. This is a common and well known use, such as represented in Ophelia’s line in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”  Many herbalists recognize the usefulness of rosemary both for strengthening the memory, but also working with us a plant spirit ally in helping us remember. Memory can be a fickle thing this day and age, especially with phones rather than our minds and hearts doing the rememberance.  Rosemary, thus, is a potent ally for us, particularly at Samhain when reflecting back, honoring the past, and honoring those who came before us is central. 

 

Rosemary is also an incredible herbal ally. Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write of Rosemary and its many uses.  Modern herbalists recognize rosemary as useful both as an essential oil as well in its plant forms.  Every part of the plant can be used medicinally. Both the oil and the herb can be used as a carminitive, that is, offering beneficial and healing action on the digestive system and aiding in the reduction of gas and digestion of food (in fact, you will find that many culinary herbs aren’t just for taste, but have these same kinds of actions–which is probably why they were traditionally used in cooking!)   Rosemary, in tea or tincture form, can also be used to help calm the nerves.   Finally, rosemary is very useful in a hair wash to strengthen the hair and encourage new hair growth (I use a vinegar infused with rosemary often!)  Research has also shown that rosemary oil can be used to increase alertness and cognitive function, which is pretty cool!

 

There’s a lot more that could be said about rosemary’s virtues, but I think you get the idea–Rosemary is an amazing Samhain herb for so many reasons.  So let’s get to some of the stuff you can make and do with rosemary as a focal herb for this time of year.

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

Rosemary (on its own or combined with other herbs) make fantastic herbs for doing any kind of memory work or clearing work. Make sure you use fresh rosemary for your smudge stick making–dried rosemary is brittle and easily falls off the branch. I usually gather up rosemary in the weeks before hard frost (for me in Western Pennsylvania on the US East Coast, this is usually 1-2 weeks before Samhain arrives).  Some I save for culinary use, and the rest I use in smudge stick making. I have full details for how to make your own smudges and a list of recipes for smudges. For Samhain, and ancestor work, I like the following combinations:

  • Rosemary (alone) for deep ancestor work or memory work (such as working with the ancient art of memory mansions, etc)
  • Rosemary, Lavender, and Mugwort for deep dreaming work (which is best done between Samhain and Imbolc)
  • Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme for helping me shift my energies from the light half to the dark half of the year, and accept the frost and cold that is to come.

If you are growing rosemary itself, don’t overlook the roots as another useful part of the plant for incense and smudges–it has a more woody and deep aroma and is excellent!

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

You can construct an herbal oil using rosemary leaf and rosemary essential oil that excellent.  I like to use a combination of rosemary and borage for this work, but you can use other plant combinations.  To make your oil, crush fresh or dried rosemary and borage and place in a small mason jar.  Cover the jar with fractionated coconut oil (prefered over olive oil for this recipe, but you could also use almond or olive oil–whatever you have around).  Wait 1 week (for fresh herbs) or one moon cycle (for dried herbs) and then strain.  For a bit of added punch, add rosemary essential oil (2% dilution, or about 10-15 drops per cup of oil).

Keep your rosemary oil in an oil roller or jar and rub on your temples and heart for any kind of visioning or past life work.  It also doubles as an excellent “memory” oil for wanting to jog the memory or wanting to hold something important in your memory and not lose it.

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

One of my very favorite Samhain traditions is to invite my ancestors to tea.  For this, I typically make a tea of three herbs: rosemary, lavender, and mugwort (small amount of mugwort because it can be bitter) and I sweeten it with honey.  To make the tea, boil water, add your herbs (about 1/2 tbsp of herbs per cup of tea), let seep for 5-10 min, and then strain and stir in your honey.

 

The ritual is simple and can be performed anytime around Samhain (I like to do this Samhain eve).  To set up the ritual, you will need a teapot and two teacups and candles.  I start by  then light a candle and leave it in my western window (also traditional).  I light candles around my space and place a blanket on the floor for me to sit on.  You should also have a large empty bowl.

Rosemary

To begin the ritual, I open up a sacred space (using AODA’s Solitary Grove ritual) and when opening the space, indicate that the sacred space is traversable by any ancestor who wishes to visit.  I then pour myself a cup of tea and wait. When an ancestor arrives, I likewise pour them tea and we sit and converse using spirit communication techniques (if you haven’t yet honed your skill in this area, a divination system like an oracle deck would work great).  After we are done conversing, the ancestor has taken their tea energetically.  I then pour it into the bowl and see if another ancestor wants to come and have tea.  I have met many fascinating ancestors this way–of land, tradition, blood, and bone.

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

Samhain is one of my favorite times to really “cook” for a festival, particularly cakes, breads, and other doughy goodness.

If you are lucky enough to have chestnut flour available (which you can create yourself if you have access to some chestnuts), this is an amazing cake for Samhain that combines rosemary with the hopeful and strong chestnut.

For those who aren’t off hoarding and cracking chestnuts, I highly recommend this rosemary bread that you can make in a dutch oven.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Rosemary is such a powerful and potent plant ally for us, particularly at Samhain.  Dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with Rosemary.  Let me know if you try anything here!

 

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply October 21, 2019

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Chestnut’s Magic, Medicine, Mythology and Meaning (Castanea dentata) October 13, 2019

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

Just a few weeks ago, I went and checked the local chestnut trees that are in a field near where I live.  Ever since I moved to the new homestead, I have been eagerly visiting these trees.  Last year, they dropped plenty of husks but with only shriveled nuts inside. This year, I was extraordinarily pleased to find that both trees had produced a bumper crop of the delicious nuts–some almost 2″ across, but most smaller, almost all worm-free, and delicious. I eagerly filled my basket with the nuts, stepping carefully around the extremely prickly husks.  I sat with each of the trees and we conversed as I harvested the nuts. I took home 25 lbs of nuts that day, and these nuts will sustain myself, my geese (who love them), and my friends and family for many a Samhain, Thanksgiving, and Yule feast!  Chestnut trees have many lessons to teach us.  Even after the way they have been treated here in the US over the last few centuries, they are still kind, abundant, and wise.  So today, let’s explore the magic of the chestnut tree, trees who certainly come into their power this time of year (here, in the mid-to-late fall) as their protective husks suddenly open and their abundance comes forth.

 

This is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern seaboard of the US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  Today we are talking about the American chestnut, Castanea dentata.

 

History and Hope

Chestnut is a tree with a complex history in North America. One of the better sources–and delightful reading–about the history of chestnut comes from Eric Sloane’s On Reference of Wood. Prior to white colonization, chestnut was one of the most abundant trees (making up about 25% of the total tree cover, which is an enormous amount of tree cover for one species).  These abundant and giving trees reached up to the tops of the tree canopy, and I’m sure, were incredibly majestic to behold.  Native American peoples depending on them, and cultivated them, as a serious food crop.  Unlike acorns, which take a lot of processing (especially those we have here on the US east coast) chestnuts require practically no processing and are a rich source of nutrients and carbohydrates.

At the time of colonization, chestnut wood was put to use as a sturdy and rot-resistant building material; in fact, many of the old barns here that date before the 1900s have rafters and beams made of solid, strong chestnut. Like many other trees, with colonization came the cutting down of the largest of the chestnuts for wood purposes.  But the tragic history of Chestnut doesn’t end there.  In 1904, the Chestnut blight (Endothia parasitica) swept across North America.  Grimm described the decline of chestnuts as “the gaunt skeletons of great trees in our forests.”  Eric Sloane talks about this in a similar way–chestnuts were once a very dominant tree among our landscapes, with massive trunks and tall branches and crowns, reaching into the heavens.  After they died back, they left skeletons everywhere.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, something even worse happened. Here in PA, as a political move being claimed in the name of stopping the blight, the PA Forestry division ordered every last chestnut cut down.  So to stop the blight…you eradicate the species?  That’s right.  Rather than see if some trees could develop disease resistance, instead, they cut down to the very last tree.  If you look at this map, you will see how impactful that decision was on the number of chestnut trees. My own interpretation of this, giving when it happened, is that by this time, about 90% of the forest cover was lost in Pennsylvania already.  This was an easy excuse for even more logging to fuel growing industrialization and demands for wood.  By the 1940s, the American chestnut was all but extinct.  Thus, within less than forty years, between four and six billion American Chestnuts were gone.

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

Fortunately, this is not where history ends.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, Chestnut is seeing a resurgence.  First, we have organations like the American Chestnut Foundation who conduct research and help people plant new American chestnut trees. The American Chestnut Foundation  Second, Chestnut is becoming an important staple of Permaculture designs, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry.  Many chestnuts grown in this way are Chinese Chestnuts or, in some cases, hybridized chestnuts with much of the original American chestnut DNA. This work is certainly ongoing, but all is not lost.  Chestnut is currently listed by the IUCN as “critically endangered” but the USDA has declared them “functionally extinct.”

 

Original American chestnuts do still survive; the blight does not kill back their roots.  They usually send up shoots, up to 15 or 20 feet high, and then, after a time, the blight kills them back. Sloane talks about this with his book, where he describes the chestnut stump “still trying to grow” (pg. 101).  Some disease-resistant chestnuts have been found, and other selective breeding programs are also taking place, as these great hybrid chestnuts from Oikos tree crops. Other patches of American chestnuts have survived outside of their typical range, such as small patches in Canada and Michigan.

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

The American Chestnut can grow to 4-8 feet in diameter and a height of 100 feet or more high, although such trees are an extremely rare sight today!  The Chestnut wood is light, soft, and moderately strong, but very rot-resistant; it was used for posts and poles.  The bark was rich in tannic acid, being used for tanners.  Unlike oaks, hickory, walnut, or beech, Chestnuts produce quite a dependable crop of nuts each year.  For one, Chestnut blooms later in June or even here, in early July, which is well beyond the danger of frost (which can take out other nut trees).   Chestnuts themselves develop in extremely spiky burr balls; the nuts are impossible to get until the tree is ready to release them.  When the nuts are ready, the tree opens its burr ball and the burr and nuts fall to the ground, literally raining chestnuts all over the ground.  You still have to be careful to avoid the chestnut burr husks when picking (no bare feet under chestnut trees) but you can quickly gather boatloads of chestnuts in a short period of time.

 

Because of the richness of Chestnuts, they were traditionally used to fatten up animals for fall butchering (this is one of the old terms, “mast year” where “mast” is Old English for food on the ground.  I experienced this firsthand–after bringing home my incredibly 25 lb chestnut harvest, I started cracking the nuts and peeling them to get to the nutmeats to make flour (see below). But each nutmeat I cracked, a goose beak was there faster than you could imagine to scarf up those nuts.  The geese know that winter is coming!  They will be fat and happy indeed.

 

Today, Chestnut offers exciting possibilities for agroforestry and regenerative agriculture.  One book that really explores this is Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture, where he took abused and battered farmlands and planted rows of chestnuts, berries, and much more.  I highly recommend his book, or this video, which explores his approach in mroe detail.  You will see a lot of examples of the use of Chestnut as part of larger regenerative systems–chestnut is a tree that is planted once and can literally produce for 100’s of years.  That is a good investment from a permaculture perspective!

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

From a processing standpoint, I think chestnuts are some of the very easiest nuts to process.  After the tree is ready to give up its nuts, they all come down within a few day windows.  Like all other wild foods, timing is everything! One good visit to a Chestnut tree the right time a year results in massive quantities of the delightful nuts. I picked nuts for about an hour and a half and returned with a brimming basket and 25 lbs of high-quality nuts.

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

To process your nuts, there are a few options. The easiest is to score an “X” in them, stick them on a baking tray, and bake them for about 30 min in an oven at 425 degrees. They will be done when the X peels back.  They will need to cool a bit, and then you can eat them fresh.

 

If you want to get fancier, you can make a nut flour.  I’m going to post a separate post about how to this in more detail (with photos in a few weeks).  In a nutshell, you shell your chestnuts, then chop them finely (a food processor works well for this).  Lay them out to dry for a few days till they get hard.  Then you run them through a small hand mill or some kind of electric mill (for milling flour).  Store it in the freezer for up to six months and enjoy it!

 

There are other chestnut recipes as well–they are tasty and really satisfying. Chestnut butters, chestnut milk, even chestnut crepes!  I find chestnuts to be a very grounding and healing food, rooting you in place and in time.

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

Chestnut is largely absent from the magical and herbalism literature, to me, somewhat surprisingly.  I found a few entries out there, which are as follows.

 

Chestnut and horse chestnut (buckeye) are interchangeable in the hoodoo tradition, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic.  One old word for horse chestnut is “conker.” They are used for the enhancement of “male nature”, to protect from rheumatism, for gambling success and work-related issues in Hoodoo.  The interchangeability is probably because buckeyes look a lot like chestnuts.  Even so, I think they have their own magic.

 

One Iroquois legend explores the bringing of the abundance of the Chestnuts to all tribes.  In this legend, a young boy, Hoadenon, watches his uncle grow a pot with a small chestnut inside.  He enjoys the food, then shrinks his pot with the chestnut inside, saving more for another day.  This way his uncle can eat for years with just the one nut.  Hoadenon, wanting to please his uncle, makes too much food from the chestnut, using it up.  Hoadenon then goes on a quest to bring back more chestnuts, having to defeat many awful beings who protect them.  Eventually, he is able to do so, and chestnuts are now abundant and available to all.  In other related myths, mostly chestnut is associated with a source of sustenance.

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

Agrippa’s Philosophy of Natural magic discusses that horse chestnut is tied to Jupiter, and so, we might assume that chestnuts of others kinds are also under the dominion of Jupiter.

 

As you can see from these scarce entires, though, there is practically no magical or folklore tradition associated with Chestnut–so let’s make one.

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

I see Chestnut a lot like I see Ash – a tree with great potential and full of hope, but on the brink of collapse.

Chestnut, through the serious conservation efforts, is beginning to make a comeback.  The message of Chestnut is, perhaps, the message of our world.  Humans brought the blight to the chestnut trees, and then, helped in eradicating them by cutting them all down.  But now, thanks to humans with more wisdom, the chestnuts are returning, and with them, hope and abundance.

Chestnut is one of the most perfect of trees from the standpoint of providing human needs.  It produces good, sturdy, rot-resistant wood.  It produces yearly amazing crops of edible nuts that will sustain many (human and animal alike) through tough winters.  It grows beautifully and offers a stunning energy and presence on our landscape.  And most of all, it offers us the power of what we can do, as humans together.  We must remember our destructive past–the scorched earth policies that literally destroyed ecosystems, forests, and more.  We should remember that many of those policies and thinkings are still with us, here today.  But not everyone buys into the “use it up till its no more” policies concerning the earth.  We can look at the present, and the future, where reparations and regeneration are possible. We can work with the energy of chestnut, not cutting it down, but rejuvenating it.  Working with it as a friend and ally.  We can bring that kind of action in the world.  Chestnut is a symbol of all of this–and more.

 

The American chestnut is still a critically endangered tree.  But our whole world is in that same place–critically endangered.  And Chestnut, chestnut brings us hope.