Category Archives: Fall

Deepening the Wheel of the Year and Wildcrafting Druidry

What is amazing about this wonderful planet we live on is the diversity of ecosystems, weather, climate, and life.  This diversity, however, can be challenging for those looking to adapt druidry or other nature-based spiritual practices to their practices.  Particularly challenging is the concept of the wheel of the year, especially if trying to apply the wheel of the year in a non-temperate climate setting. Thus, today’s post extends some of my earlier discussions about wildcrafting your own druidry, which include developing your own wheel of the year; in considering the role of observances, activities, and rituals; and in developing distinct symbolism for your work.  I’m going to continue this discussion today by talking about a further way to work with a seasonal approach from a wildcrafted and observational way and continue wheel of the year development!  So let’s get going!

The Wheel of the Year and Why It Might Not Fit Your Practice

Late fall sunrise and mist over the homestead

For many, the wheel of the year in a standard sense with standard meanings (see here) is problematic and troublesome, not always fitting or holding meaning in their practice.  This is for at least two reasons. First, I have found that in working with new druids to adapt their practices to their local ecosystem, the idea of thinking in “four seasons” can be really limiting. Druids in a variety of ecosystems not have four seasons so the eightfold wheel may not make sense. Second, even those living in areas that traditionally did match up may now be seeing changes as climate change is causing changes to our ecosystems and weather.  Things are not what they were 100 years ago, or even 25 years ago.

The entire principle of the wheel of the year is that it is a modern mash-up of a set of old agricultural holidays from the British Isles, put together in the 1960s by Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardener. This wheel of the year construction fits parts of Eastern North America and Europe, certainly the British Isles, and allowed both Druidry and Wicca a set of consistent practices. Thus, if you live in an area that has four distinct seasons (temperate regions of Europe and North America), chances are, it might make some sense to you. But more druids live in regions that do not fit this cycle, making it challenging to create meaning. The wheel of the year has two pieces:

The cycle of the sun: The solstices and equinoxes are ancient holidays celebrated by many peoples across time. They are entirely determined based on the cycle of light and dark, which is a constant on our planet. In other words, regardless of what is happening on the earth, we can always use the path of the sun and the light in the world to observe the light of the sun and year.  While it is important to note that the available light impacts weather, there are also things that are happening on the earth that can be accounted for.   Regardless, in AODA Druidry and in other traditions, the times of greatest light (Summer Solstice), greatest darkness (winter solstice), and the two days of balance (fall and spring equinoxes

The cycle of the earth: The specific weather, the waxing and waning of blooming, rain, frost, or fog is all dependent on where you live.  This is where things often become more challenging for people who want more than the cycle of the sun as part of their own localized seasonal observances.  The first challenge is that while we think in distinct seasons.  But that’s not really accurate. In the land, changes happen slowly and the landscape gradually changes from one thing to another.  It’s just like a sunrise or sunset–humans have named distinct parts of the day as night, dusk, daylight, and twilight–but these are full of smaller transitions, each moment being distinct.  You will experience those states, but you’ll experience a lot in between.  The second challenge is that because we have terms for seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), we tend to try to fit the world into the terms we create.  That doesn’t always work. In other words, we’ve been conditioned so much to think about seasons in terms of the four, and stepping out of that conditioning to really deeply observe may actually benefit us deeply.

The Wheel Challenge: Your Ecosystem for Year

 So what do you do? How you develop a holistic and realistic wheel of the year that makes sense for you and your situation?   I would suggest rooting it in observation and interaction with the living earth–hence the “wheel challenge.”  Here’s the basic practice:

  • Spend time in nature or with nature as close to where you live as possible (e.g if you have a daily hiking trail in a local park, use that trail.  If you have a backyard, use that backyard).  The goal here is to get you as close to nature at your own home as possible.
  • Try to observe nature at least twice a week for 10-20 minutes.
  • Keep some kind of record of your observations: photographs, videos, sketches, journal entries.
  • In observing, note anything that changes: bloom times, snow melting, fogs rolling in, etc.  the goal is to document what is happening in your ecosystem so that you can identify any “seasonal shifts” that occur with regularity.
  • Try to disavow yourself of the regular notions of “seasonality” e.g it is spring so these things happen and instead, simply observe

This approach doesn’t require much of a daily investment and can be built into existing spiritual practices (like spending regular time in nature, daily meditation, etc). But for me, this approach reaped extremely rich rewards.

Golden hickories of mid fall!

I’m posting this at a time when we have finished the growing season for the year (just after Samhain) and thus, the seeds of the new year are upon us.  I started my own practice of observation a year ago, last Samhain, which made sense as the clear demarcation of the end of the previous agricultural season and the transition to the next. By all means, though, start whenever you feel inspired.

My Example: The Unfolding of the 12 Phases of the Four Seasons

I spent the last year doing this the above challenge. I took daily walks on my landscape, I documented bloom times, took photographs, and also visited my tree (from the Tree for a Year challenge), and spent time regularly in my Druid’s Anchor spot  I also noted any time that I could really sense a “major shift” in my landscape (for me, this was first light frost and first freeze, budding of the trees, first snow, the first summer storm, etc). At the end of the year of observation (this past Samhain), I asked: Which observations or events led to major shifts in the landscape? What seasonal markers seemed present?  What is their timing?

This practice reaped rich rewards in several different ways. First, I was able to document most of the blooming plants on our property; I took photos, compiled information, and learned a lot more about where I live.  I identified several new edible and medicinal plants I did not know before. I also found one critically endangered plant, a rare form of Jacob’s Ladder. My nature knowledge really increased by focusing my energy in this way and spending more time photographing and documenting things systematically.

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

Second, I was able to develop a 12-fold pattern of the seasons.  I learned that each of the four seasons had three phases where I live–so I’m actually looking at a pattern that is twelvefold (or 3 within 4) rather than a basic four-season pattern here in Western PA.  I am so excited about this discovery and it is going to really help me add a new layer to my wheel of the year.  Now, my plan will be to celebrate the seasons in a 12-fold way. Here is my draft of my revised wheel of the year based both on what is happening in my local ecosystem as well as what is happening on our homestead.

Spring

  • Early Spring: Maples stop running and bud out, signifying the beginning of spring.  Nettle and skunk cabbage emerges.  Occasional snows and cold temperatures, ice, and freezing rain, with many days above freezing.  A bit of green can be found on the land.
  • Mid Spring: Cool-season crops (brassicas) can go in the ground (in the greenhouse and outside with cover).  Herbs start to emerge in the garden.  Perennials start to come out across the land.  Kayak can come out on a warm day. More trees bud and leaves start to unfurl.
    • The Spring Equinox usually marks a turning point to mid-spring (but not always).
  • Late Spring: Hawthorn blooms, marking the end of the frosts and freezes.  The last frost passes by mid-May.  Planting out warm crops and planting seeds. Dandelions, wild violets, and serviceberry bloom. Wild apple flower.
    • Beltane coincides with the blooming of the hawthorns and the arrival of late spring.

Summer

  • Early Summer: Garden is fully planted and begins to take off.  Harvest peas and spring greens.  Leaves are fully out and “full”.  Oaks bloom.
  • Mid Summer:  Perennial herbs are ready for first harvest (yarrow, lemon balm, catnip, parsley, and more).  Cukes and beans are ready to start canning.  Clovers and herbs growing strong.   Black raspberries start to ripen.  Elderberry flowers.
    • The Summer Solstice usually marks midsummer.
  • Late Summer (Lughnasadh): The land is at its peak; gardens are full and abundant.  Sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes begin to bloom.  Tomatoes start to ripen. Start seeds for fall cool-season crops.  Wild blackberry and wild blueberry crops are abundant.  Mayapple fruits ripen. Bonset and Joe Pye weed bloom.  Elderberry ripens.
    • Lughnasadh usually marks the peak of late summer.

Fall

  • Early Fall: Goldenrods and asters start to bloom and the land turns golden.  The apples start to drop from the trees. The first dying back is noticeable as grasses and plants go to seed.  We can tomatoes 3x a week.  Fall crops go into the gardens.  Joe Pye weed starts to go to seed.
  • Mid Fall: First light frost happens and gardens start to die back.  Fall crops go into the greenhouse. The asters continue to bloom.  Harvest squashes, gourds, and pumpkins as the vines die back.  Leaves begin to change.  Acorns start to drop and continue throughout mid and late fall.  Towards the end of mid-fall, Chestnuts drop.
    • The Fall Equinox usually marks mid-fall.
  • Late fall: Late fall is marked by the first freeze or hard frost (under 30 degrees).  This radically transforms the landscape as nearly everything dies back.  Maples and cherries are bare, oaks begin to go crimson and gold.  Garlic is planted.  The days grow noticeably shorter. We have to set up heated waterers for all of the flocks.
    • Samhain often coincides with the arrival of late fall.

Winter

  • Early Winter. First snowfall (most years), freezing rain, and ice.  Nights are often below freezing but above freezing.  The land is brown and bare as even the oaks drop their leaves.  The days are dark and cold as we approach the winter solstice.
  • Mid-Winter.  After the winter solstice, “winter” really sets in. This is the coldest and darkest part of winter and comprises the latter part of December and all of January.  We start getting snowstorms and sometimes, polar vortexes.
    • Winter Solstice marks the start of midwinter
  • Late Winter. The start of late winter is firmly marked by the running of the sap of the maple trees.  Temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.  We have plenty of snowstorms and cold.   Towards the end of late winter, you might even see a skunk cabbage sprout popping up through the snow.
    • Imbolc often coincides with the beginning of late winter.

Now that I have this general pattern figured out, I can spend the next year really mapping much more specific things to this pattern.  When exactly does the robin show up? When does she have her young?  When do the flocks of birds start congregating for the winter?  Before I had these tied to a simple season (spring, fall, etc) but now, I can tie them more explicitly to my 12-fold seasonal wheel, which is exciting.   So I will be repeating my “wheel challenge” for this upcoming year to refine my wheel and add more details to each of the different areas.

The other thing that I’m now thinking about is that I’d like a celebration to mark each of these twelve.  I have added in the 8-fold holidays (which I do celebrate) to this wheel, as they fit ust fine, but, with a 12-fold system, I am missing what is essentially the “beginnings” to each of these seasons. So this next year, I can start thinking about how I want to celebrate and mark each of the “early” points.  It seems like the first one to plan is the “first snowfall” celebration to mark the start of early Winter.

Dear readers, I hope this is useful to you as you continue to think about how to deeply adapt your practice to your local ecosystem, develop wildcrafted and ecoregional druidries, and rewild.  I would love to hear how you’ve been creating your own wheel of the year.  Blessings!

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

 

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

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

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

Growth and Ecology

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

Witch hazel just as it emerges….

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

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

The Medicine of Witch Hazel

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

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

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

Other Uses

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

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

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

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

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

Witch Hazel branches in bloom

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

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

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

Divination and Meanings of Witch Hazel

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Rest, Retreat, and Balance at the Fall Equinox

I don’t know about you, but 2020 has been a hell of a year.  Usually, the Fall Equinox and the coming of the dark half of the year is a time for celebration, as Fall is my favorite season. But this year, the idea of moving into the dark half of the year when so much has already been dark is hard.  We have so much loss, death, employment insecurity, health insecurity, food insecurity, sickness, political unrest….the list goes on and on. Here in the US in particular, things are really difficult and many are dealing with basic issues to security, including financial security, food security, health security, and obviously, a lot of isolation. So, given these challenges, I think its important to fall back on our spiritual practices for nurturing, support, and grounding and embrace what the season offers. The Fall Equinox, as a time of balance, can help us bring those energies into our lives. The light and dark are balanced, reminding us to work to balance those energies in our own lives. So in the rest of this post, I offer some ideas for those who are solitary this season for potential practices, particularly surrounding rest and balance.

Contemplating Darkness and Embracing Rest

The fall equinox is a time when, for the briefest moment, we have balance. The balance between the light in the world and the darkness, when we stand equally within the dark and the light. I love the Fall Equinox because, like the Spring Equinox, it is a gateway.  In this case, in the Northern Hemisphere, we are walking through the gateway from the light half of the year, from the time of planting into growth, into a time of harvest and then, of rest.  Darkness isn’t a bad thing, its just different than the high light of summer (I wrote about some of these differences a few years ago and how to embrace the darkness as it comes).  I also think its important to realize that nature’s darkness is a different kind of darkness than we might be facing culturally.  Nature’s darkness is a time of rest, of rejuvenation, and of completeness.

At the same time, it’s also important to note that the darkness is hard for many: the energizing quality of the sun as it wanes can be difficult.  Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and the thought of going into the winter months with the cold and dark can be difficult.

Given all of this, I think that’s one of the things to focus on during this season in particular: rest and slowing down. If we consider traditional agricultural calendars and holidays (which much of the druid’s wheel of the year is based on), the Fall Equinox helps us continue the harvest season (which begins at Lughnasadh and ends at Samhain) and moves us into the season of quietude. As a homesteader and sacred gardener living in Western PA, we have four seasons, and the late fall and winter really do provide a time of rest.  It is dark early, the animals hunker down, the perennial plants go into their hibernation, the woodland creatures hibernate, and the annuals drop their seeds.  Our garden is tended and put to bed.  Our garden, which is always a source of labor and joy, goes into slumber. And then, we can all rest for a bit before the season picks back up in the spring.

An Outdoor Rest Ritual

A place of rest

A place of rest

On the theme of rest, you can do a simple rest ritual for your fall equinox celebration. The first is a rest ritual.  Its pretty simple: take a blanket and go into the woods or a wild place of your choice.  I like to be near running water for this.  Open up a sacred grove or circle in your tradition and then place your blanket in the middle of the space.  Lay down on the blanket.  First focus on physical relaxation and deep breathing: starting at your feet, work to tense, and then relax each part of your body, working your way up to your head.  As you do this, attend to your breath, coming into a quiet breath meditation.  After this, just rest.  Work on the absence of activity, of thought, and simply be at peace.  Doing this, even for 10 or 15 minutes, can really help you slow down and relax.  If being absolutely still doesn’t work, try just observing the natural world around you and give your conscious mind something to focus on.  When you are done, thank the spirits of place, and close out the space.

I do want to stress that you can do this ritual indoors (and I’ve done so with good effect) but I’ve also found that it is much more effective if you do it outside somewhere if at all possible. Laying on the ground allows you to really soak in the telluric energy from nature and that has a nurturing quality to the body, mind, and soul.

Druid Retreat

Playing on the theme of rest, I have long advocated for druid retreats (of any duration–from a few hours to a few days) as a spiritual practice, and these are something that I really think can benefit us in these challenging times, particularly in the spiritual preparation of heading into the dark half of the year among so much cultural darkness. This is an excellent time for one–the Fall Equinox is still usually pretty warm out and you can go camping, rent a cabin, or even just retreat into nature for a few hours.  I have written extensively on how to take a longer druid retreat (Part I and Part II) for more details on a longer retreat.

Even if you can’t do a longer retreat, consider a shorter retreat of a few hours.  The most important thing here is that you set your intentions and just go and be.  Spend time with yourself, looking inward, and working on the things you can control (we can always do self-work, even when the world is spiraling out of control around us!)

One of the things I did recently in this theme was doing an overnight kayak trip, a retreat from the difficulty of everyday life.  My sister and I went overnight on the Allegheny river, taking our trip the weekend before the fall equinox.  Packing minimal gear, we camped on one of the public wilderness islands in the Allegheny that are open for primitive camping.  My favorite part of this trip was sitting in the brisk morning watching the sunrise over the water.  It was really nice just to disconnect for two days and spend time with water, wildlife, sun, and good company.

Retreat on the Allegheny River

Resiliency was a key theme for me as we were on our retreat–it was helpful to meditate on the theme of resiliency, what it means to me, what qualities that I have that can make me more resilient, and how I can move forward despite some extremely challenging circumstances at present.

Gratitude Practice and Ritual

I think because of these challenging times, we are all tending to focus on what we are missing or how things are hard or scary, not what we still have or are grateful for. One of the things I’ve been doing throughout this challenging time is to ramp up my gratitude practices.  I want everyone and everything in my life to understand how much I value them. Gratitude practices can be as simple as taking the time to thank those in your life (human and non-human alike).  Offering practices, shrines, and other nature-honoring practices (see link above) can also be a fantastic way to offer thanks.

One of the things you might try is committing at the Fall Equinox to a daily gratitude practice and bringing gratitude more into your central awareness.  Here’s what I suggest:  in a ritual space, begin by focusing your meditations on the idea of gratitude.  What is it to you? How does it manifest? How does it make you feel when someone is grateful for you? What does it make you feel when you express gratitude to others?  Once you’ve done this, write down everything you are grateful for in a list.  Now take that list and divide it into days between the Fall Equinox and Samhain (about 6 weeks) and divide up your list across those six weeks.  Each day or every few days, you will have something or someone on your list to express gratitude for.  Make this a part of your life for the next six weeks and see what happens.

Spiritual Tools and Healing Herbs

Some of the nicest hawthorn I have ever harvested — found on the recent retreat!

A final tool I want to mention the theme of rest and rejuvenation is to seek out herbal healing allies during this time.  Here in our ecosystem, we have a number of plants that are ready to harvest at the fall equinox: Goldenrod (anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory), New England Aster (lung support), Hawthorn (for the heart and emotional heart), joe pye weed (for supporting the kidneys and gallbladder), and so much more.  Learning about one or more plants in your ecosystem, how to make sacred medicine from them, and harvesting them is a wonderful practice.  I’ve written extensively about this, so check out any of these posts:  Sacred medicine making at Lughnasa, A druid’s guide to herbalism part I &  part II, preparing flower essences, how to learn more about herbalism.  One of the things that I especially like to do this time of year is to create smoke cleansing sticks for spiritual purposes–smoke cleansing traditions appear in many traditional cultures and certainly have a role in many modern druid practices.  I have offered instructions on my blog for the basics as well as extensive lists of plants you can use if you live in an ecosystem similar to what I have here in Western PA!

One practice I can suggest is thinking about one thing that plants could help you with in the coming dark half of the year (if you need suggestions about plants or ideas, post in the comments and I’m happy to help!) Create yourself some sacred plant medicines and spiritual tools with the intent of using them to assist you with these challenging times and the coming dark half of the year.   Here are a few ideas:

  • Working on emotional healing and resiliency – Hawthorn tincture or glycerate
  • Focusing on grounding – acorn infused oil
  • Working on clarity of thought – ginko leaf and/or lavender tincture
  • Clearing away dark energy or thoughts – cedar and sage smoke stick

You get the idea!  The list I offered above are spiritual tools you can craft and use for these challenging times.

Conclusion

I hope this post has found its way to you in a time when you needed it and that you have a blessed Fall Equinox. I’d love to hear other ideas for what you are doing this particular fall equinox to strengthen and prepare for the dark half of the year.

 

 

Fresh Flower Crowns and Flower Garlands: Step by Step How-To Guide

A woman hikes up to a sacred spring that she visits at least once a season.  From her small bag, she pulls out a beautiful crown of flowers that she had lovingly crafted before leaving home.  Placing the crown upon her head, she dances and sings around the spring, drinking deeply and celebrating life on this early fall.  As a sign of respect and offering, she hangs the flower garland near the spring and carries her sacred water back down the mountain.

Family wears crowns I made at the bridal shower

I find it interesting that the ancient art of flower crowns garland making is almost non-existent today, at least here within the US.  This tradition has so much potential. The only people who I’ve seen make these delightful crowns are children, who haven’t yet lost their magic or wonder about the world.  And yet, garlands and flower crowns, are powerful, expressive, and wonderful to create, to wear, and to offer.  I grew interested in learning this practice after I had read about the ancient practice of adoring flower garlands sacred springs with regards to Lughnasadh traditions, and I liked the idea of a flower garland or crown as a potential offering.  When I spoke with a few friends who live in areas of the world that used to practice this tradition (like Ireland) I was told that it was no longer done.  As a second motivation to learning to practice this art, my sister was getting married and I decided to make a flower crown for her shower (see photo).  We had planted a lot of flowers this year, and August and September are “peak” flower time for us in this ecosystem, so I had a lot of materials to work with.

Thus, in this post, I’ll share some strategies for making flower crowns and garlands and some of the ways you might build this delightful practice into your own spiritual path. A garland typically refers to a wreath or long string of plant material that can be laid across something (like a hearth or altar) while a flower crown is something you can wear (like the photo above).  But the process of making them is almost identical and is simply dependent on the size.

Supplies

You will need three kinds of supplies to make a flower crown:

  • Willow, hydrangea, young grapevine, or some other bendable plant matter such that you can make a crown base.  I don’t have willow here, but Hydrangea sends out long enough canes that will work.   You can discover many different options in your local bioregion by walking around and seeing if you can form a head-sized loop with various woody bushes or thin branches from trees.
  • Flowers, any kind that are in season and abundant can be used.  You can use wildflowers or else purchase some at a local farmer’s market.  Certain flowers last longer than others (for example, zinnia have a stronger staying power due to their thicker petals while daisy will fade faster).  You might also select flowers for their magical properties–building a crown with rosemary, sage, and new england aster would have a different energy than one with lily, sunflower, and trumpet vine!
  • Tools including a pair of pruners, some small green wire (floral wire) and wire snips.  If you are making a flower crown that will be worn, you absolutely want to use wire.  If you are making something like a garland or crown that will be offered in nature, I suggest instead switching to natural cotton string or hemp; something that can break down naturally.  I also suggest using wildflowers you gather or flowers from a garden or organic farm for this; commercial flowers are heavily laden with pesticides and you do not want to leave commercial flowers as an offering to poison the land.

Making Your Garland or Flower Crown

To make your flower crown or garland, you will want some kind of sturdy base. I have found the easiest way to make a base is to use some kind of bendable woody material (vine, willow, hydrangea). Cut a fresh long piece of bendable woody bush or tree material (in my case, I am using hydrangea).  If you don’t have a fresh piece, you can soak a dried piece of willow for a few hours and then shape it.  You could also do this same practice by attaching flowers to a rigid headband, if you wanted a headband style flower crown.

Here I am with a piece of freshly cut hydrangea about 40″ long.  It has a few extra pieces coming out, which is fine and will add more greenery to my crown.

The next step is actually the most tricky and when you are most likely to break the branch.  Slowly bend the woody material until it forms a head-shaped size (or a larger wreath size if you are making a garland instead).  At this point, place it upon your own head to make sure it is not too big or too small and adjust accordingly, holding it in place so it doesn’t slip.

Next, keep weaving the branches through until the crown is solid and won’t shift.  Usually, this can be accomplished by the 2nd or 3rd go around.  In my case, I had a lot of extra smaller branches that were coming out of the main hydrangea stalk. I wove some of these in and cut some of them with pruners.  Once you are at this stage, test the crown again and make sure it fits the shape of your head.

Now that you have your crown, it is time to gather flowers.  You can gather them earlier and leave them in water.  You want them as fresh as possible to go on your crown.  At this stage, you can think about design–what do you want to include? How many flowers? do you want a big center flower or a bunch of flowers all around?  Select what you will need.

Here I am with my crown, flowers, and other tools ready to go!

For making something to wear, you should probably use wire (I am using thin green floral wire) as it holds the crown in place better.  But if you are leaving something to offer, I would not use a wire (which won’t break down and leave no trace) and instead use a natural hemp or cotton string for the flowers.

To construct your crown, lay your first flower and wiring or tie it to the crown.  Then, lay your second flower where you tied or wired the first, and tie that one.  Keep going around the crown, working to layer each flower and tie them. If you are wearing the crown, make sure you don’t make one side heavier than the other!

For this first crown, I left it mostly with greenery and wired only a few flowers.  For the second crown (below) I added as many flowers as I could!  Both have their charm.  You can see what I mean about layering flowers here–just wire one in, lay the next on the previous wire, and work your way around the crown.

If you wanted to make a garland, the process is the same, just with a larger shape.

The other thing I want to share here is that you will have to work quickly if it is hot outside or your flowers will start to wilt.  You might want to do a few practice crowns till you get the hang of things and can work quickly so that the flowers are fresh when you finish.

If you aren’t going to wear your crown right away, you can preserve it for at least 6-8 hours by wrapping it gently with some wet cloth or wet paper towels and putting it in a plastic bag and then sticking it in the refrigerator or a cooler.  I was able to preserve several crowns for transport this way without any issue and they were still fresh hours after I made them.  Once you start to wear it, depending on the heat of the day, it will likely look great for an hour–or several before it begins to seriously fade.

Ideas for your crowns and garlands

The uses of these crowns are wide-ranging. I have made them this summer as part of a personal ritual; the preparation for the ritual was gathering the materials and making the crown. I then proceeded to my ritual space and did my Lughnasadh ritual.  Once druid gatherings and events get going again, I could see these very successfully being built into other rituals and experiences.

I have also used them as an offering at sacred places (like the opening suggests).  I left a small braided bundle of herbs (a derivative of the crown idea) on the land that was being cut recently.  I have left one within the grove of renewal that I have been working on regularly for land healing purposes.  I have also visited my favorite sacred spring and tucked a small garland into the greenery behind the spring (lots of people visit it and I don’t know what they’d do with my garland if they found it!)

As I mentioned above, I made two very colorful ones (the ones that opened this post) for celebratory purposes–my sister was getting married and we wanted it to be extra special, especially since the pandemic has made everything more difficult.  Those were very special crowns, and mementos that she can save, dry, and hang on a wall. It was a seriously wonderful and unique way to honor the bride and mother of the bride.

I hope that you have found this post inspirational, and yet another way that you can create sacred and meaningful things from your own druid’s garden!

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors

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

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

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)

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.

 

 

 

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

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.