The Druid's Garden

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

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

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

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

 

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

 

Oaks in Many Forms

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

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

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

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

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Samhain of our Lives October 28, 2018

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

 

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Kale loves the frost!

Kale loves the frost!

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

 

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

 

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

 

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Weather Prognostication and the Wooly Bear Caterpillar October 17, 2018

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Wooly Caterpillar!

The Wooly Caterpillar!

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

About the Apple

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

 

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

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Wild Apple Foraging

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

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

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

 

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

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

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

 

Apples and Healing

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

 

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

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

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

 

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

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

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

 

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

 

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

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

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

 

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

 

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

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

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

 

Wild Food Profile: Milkweed + Fried Milkweed Pod Recipe June 30, 2018

Monarch catepillar enjoying a milkweed feast--they know the good stuff when they see it!

Monarch caterpillar enjoying a milkweed feast–they know the good stuff when they see it!

I love the summer months for foraging wild foods.  One of my very favorite wild foods is Common Milkweed (asclepias syriaca).  Around here, the pods are just beginning to form–and its a great time to explore this delightful wild food.  They have a light vegetable taste, maybe something like a sugar snap pea–very tasty and delicious.  In fact, this is one of the best wild foods, allowing you to have four different harvests from the plant at four different times during the spring, summer, and early fall.

 

Ethical Harvesting and Nurturing Practice

With the excitement of harvesting from common milkweed, however, comes a serious responsibility.  New farming techniques over the last 20 years have eliminated many of the hedges that used to be full of milkweed.  Because of this issue, the monarchs have been in serious decline.  When I teach this plant during wild plant walks, I tell people who want to eat milkweed that if you want to do so, you have to do your part first. Given the decline of monarchs and milkweed, it is necessary to first propagate it.

 

This is my suggestions: find where the milkweed grows in year 1.  Observe it, see the monarch larvae enjoying the leaves.  In the fall, come to the patch and harvest some of the seed pods (not all).  Scatter some seeds just beyond the current patch. Then, scatter them in at least 4 new places that will be good for milkweed.  If you have land, save seeds and start them in the spring (put them in the fridge for a few weeks before planting; they need a few weeks of cold stratification).   If you don’t know where milkweed is at all, order some seed online and start a patch.  Plant them in your veggie garden or along your house or in a community garden plot–they are a vegetable!

 

In year two, once you’ve established a new milkweed patch and have scattered the seeds, it is now ethical to harvest some (but not all) of that patch.  Keep spreading the seeds anywhere you can.  We need a lot more milkweed out there.  So for every plant you harvest from, you should be planting three more!  This is what reciprocation is all about–we can eat delicious vegetables from nature, but while we do so, give back more than we are taking.

 

Every year, I suggest scattering more of the milkweed seeds and getting others to grow them.  We can all do our part to help these amazing butterflies and plants continue to thrive.   I think doing whatever you can to create more milkweed is necessary before harvesting it.  This creates a positive relationship with the plant, shows you are ready to give before you are ready to take, and honors the spirit of both the milkweed and the monarch.

 

Abundant milkweed along a field

Abundant milkweed along a field

Milkweed as a Vegetable

Ok, so assuming that you’ve done your due diligence to ethically harvest this plant, let’s talk about how great it is to eat!  Milkweed offers four opportunities to eat different parts of the plant as the season goes on.

 

Shoots.  The shoots in the spring are the first harvest you can enjoy from this plant.  If you harvest the shoot, obviously, the rest of the plant won’t be there for the monarchs–so again, being sustainable in your harvesting and cultivating new beds of milkweed in places you have access to is really important.  You can harvest these like bamboo shoots or asparagus–cut when young, usually around 6″ or so, and steam or saute in butter.  Delicious!

 

Flower Heads: The unopened or slightly opened flower heads are the second harvest, occurring about a month after the shoots take off.  For my bioregion, this is usually early to mid June.  The flower heads can be treated just like broccoli–steamed, sauteed, or batter dipped and fried.  I like to dredge them in cornstarch and some salt and herbs and give them a flash fry. Delightful!

 

Pods: My favorite harvest from milkweed is the flower pod.  You want to look for the immature pods, 2″ or less across.  You can eat the whole pod, and treat it pretty much like you’d treat okra (but I think okra tastes nowhere near as good as Milkweed!) Remember when harvesting these, you are preventing the plant from going into seed, so harvest selectively and ethically.

 

Silk: Probably the most unique harvest is the silk; this comes from more mature pods before the seeds go brown.  You would remove the outer pod (which as it gets bigger, it gets tougher, which pretty much applies to any green vegetable!). Once the outer pod is removed, you can pull out the inner silk.  These can be baked into dishes or steamed–they literally get stretchy and taste kind of like a vegetable-flavored mozzarella.  I know that sound weird, but its super good.

 

Pan Fried Milkweed Pods Recipe

I’ll now walk you through one of my favorite ways of preparing this delicious vegetable.  First, find yourself some milkweed pods that are 2″ or less in length.  I wrapped mine up in a leaf when I was out and about and checking on a patch I had been cultivating for some years.

Milkweed harvest

Milkweed harvest

Usually they don’t need washed or anything, but you can check and wash them if its appropriate.

Next, you dredge them in flour or cornstarch.  A plastic bag or bowl works great for this.  I like to use a bag and just shake it up with them inside.

Bag with cornstarch

Bag with cornstarch

Next, you dredge them in egg.  (What? Aren’t you supposed to do the egg first? Actually, if you do the egg after, the batter is much lighter and fluffier!)

Dredge in egg

Dredge in egg

Then, you heat some frying oil in a pan (I am frying in olive oil, but you could do others) and when the oil is hot, pan fry them.  I prefer to use an iron skillet for this for even heat.

Oh yeah!

Oh yeah!

Next, you drain them on a paper towel.

Finished delicious treats.

Finished delicious treats.

My family enjoyed them with chicken, homemade refrigerator pickles, and a nettle-dill dip dip (which I posted a recipe to sometime before).

The meal

The meal

Take a bite and enjoy!

Yum!

Yum!

 

May your milkweed seeking and cultivation be fruitful and the land be abundant!

 

Honoring the Ancestors of Land, Tradition, and Blood October 15, 2017

As the world  (where I am at, at least!) gets bathed in frost, as the plants wither and die, as the trees bathe themselves in color and then drop their leaves, as the cold wind blows and as the darkness sets in, we in the druid tradition–and in any other traditions–turn to think about the ancestors. In this post, we’ll explore the global traditions surrounding honoring the dead that tie to August-October and honoring the dead to see similarities, we’ll discuss three types of ancestors the druid tradition recognizes, and then we’ll explore ways to honor the ancestors.

 

Food for the Ancestors!

Food for the Ancestors!

Global Ancestral Traditions

When you start digging into ancestor traditions around the world, some striking similarities seem to emerge.

  • The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a blending of European traditions and Aztec honoring of the dead, goes from Oct 31 – Nov 2. As part of this celebration, Mexicans that believe that the souls of the dead return to the living and elaborate and colorful altars of food and gifts are prepared.
  • The Japanese Buddhists celebrate Obon in August; Obon also honors lost ancestors and the Japanese believe it is a time when ancestors temporarily return to the land of the living.
  • In Korea, Chuseok, which is a three day celebration of thank-giving and honoring of the ancestors, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is either in September or October. This holiday includes thankfulness for the harvest and visiting the graves of the ancestors.
  • In China, Buddhists and Taoists have an entire month dedicated to the ancestors called “Hungry month” where the dead are said to walk among the living (held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, or August). The spirits are fed and given offerings on an altar to appease their hungry spirits.
  • Gai Jatra is a festival of cows and the dead in Nepal, held in August. The Cow, the Hindu sacred animal, is led through the streets to help deceased family members cross over.
  • Finally, in Cambodia, Pchum Ben, a festival of honoring the dead, is celebrated in mid-September to mid-October for 15 days. Cambodians believe the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at this point and dead ancestors may return to seek out the living. They dress in white (Cambodian colors of mourning) and visit temples and also offer food at temples for the hungry ghosts.

 

The festival of Samhain itself came from the Gaelic tradition (which also celebrated Imboc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh). On the Hill of Tara, a mound called the Mound of Hostages built between 3350 and 2800 BCE has a cave that is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. In the Samhain tradition, it was believed that veil between the otherworld was thinner and the souls of the dead could pass through. The souls were thought to return to their homes and seek hospitality, so offerings were left for them. Great fires burned for various rituals to protect livestock through the winter. People often dressed up in costumes and went about door to door for food to confuse the spirits (which is where modern Halloween traditions come from).

 

These traditions are all notably similar in their understanding of what happens with regards to the dead, what should be done, and when it should be done. Sometime in the fall, somewhere between August and early November, something changes in the fabric of the world and the “veil” grows thinner and those who have died are able to briefly return and walk among us. They are often hungry and in search of their family, and so, various preparations need to be made in order to honor them which may involve preparing home altars, visiting temples, feasting, and making offerings of food.

 

Three Kinds of Ancestors

For many of the cultures above, those living on ancestral homelands–the ancestors would include spirits who lived on the land, who created and passed on the traditions, and who were blood ancestors. In the druid tradition, particularly in non UK contexts, we have roots from many places.  And so we often honor at three kinds of ancestors. We honor the ancestors of the blood: the contributors to the physical DNA within us, our genetic heritage, people of our family lines that came before. We honor the ancestors of the land: those who lived and tended the land before us.  And we honor the ancestors of our tradition: those who helped create the druid tradition and bring it into being (both ancient and modern). Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:

 

Ancestors of the Blood.  This is the most common definition of “Ancestors” in the US and usually around the world.  We carry the genetic heritage and legacy of our ancestors.  We know now, for example, that genes can be expressed or repressed by how people live; our ancestors’ and their lives, are literally written into our bodies and into the DNA present.  The work of our ancestors are also present in the landscape: how they lived, where they lived, what they did while they lived, and so on. Even in the US, with its lack of attention to the metaphysical realm, you’ll hear people talk about a deceased grandmother that they feel is “watching over me” and so on, so even if there isn’t a fully expressed ancestor tradition, there are small pieces.  We also have Memorial Day, which is a close to an ancestral tradition as we have, where, at least in my family, in late May we visit the graves of ancestors and tend to them. It is to these ancestors that have literally brought us into being that we give thanks.

 

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Ancestors of our lands. For those of us living in North America, especially on the East Coast where I live, the peoples who once tended these lands for tens of thousands of years are no longer generally present.  These are people who tended this land for generations, who understood and interacted with the spirits of the land, and who were mercilessly driven from it or forcefully relocated to other parts of the US. Now, by no means am I advocating appropriating any of their traditions. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable and relevant to honor those who came before–I have always gotten a good response when making such offerings. I think this is especially important for druids who are honoring the land–in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, she makes the strong case that not only were native people critical to creating an incredible abundance found in the Americas, they also did plant breeding work, allowing certain plants to thrive through their careful propagation. The land that we love as druids is a land that was so carefully tended by their hands.

 

Also as part of the ancestors of the land, for me, are the 1930’s conservationists who did so much to establish the state and federal park system here in the US.  After I visited Shenandoah National Park a few years ago and saw the careful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enormous amounts of people who were put to work creating the park systems, I wanted to honor these ancestors as well.  The conservationists of that era did us a tremendous service by having the vision to preserve land, to set it aside, and to make it freely accessible.  That is well deserving of an offering!

 

Ancestors of the Tradition. The final kind of ancestor we could honor are ancestors of our tradition–those who have influenced the practices that we hold.  I generally honor three groups here: the Ancient druids (a lump group, since we dont’ know any of them by name).  The druid revival druids, many of whom we know, like Iolo Morganwg. Morganwg has gotten a terrible rap. Let’s be clear: Iolo Morganwg is one of the key ancestors in our tradition and if were not for him, I believe we would not have a tradition. In the more modern movement, we might look to ancestors of the tradition like Ross Nichols, who, with Gerald Gardener who sat in a bar in Glastonbury and developed the modern wheel of the year and founded OBOD, or Dr. Juliet Ashley, who was instrumental in developing many of the frameworks currently used by AODA and Mother Betty Reeves, one of the Archdruids in AODA who helped pass the tradition to John Michael Greer so he could bring the order back into a healthy place. My point is, without these ancestors’ contributions, we would not have a druid tradition–and the specific traditions I practice–today. Its important that we honor them, as they are ancestors of this path.  Your own ancestor of tradition path may look a little different than mine, of course, depending on what specific path you follow.

 

How do we honor the ancestors?

Honoring All Ancestors: As described in the worldwide traditions above, some of the ways we can honor the ancestors are as follows:

  • A Spirit/Ancestor Altar. Creating an altar to honor the ancestors and make offerings either outdoors or indoors (or at another sacred place).  You can leave offerings of food here.
  • Making offerings of other kinds. A pinch of tobacco for native peoples of the land, a bit of bourbon, picking up trash in the forest in honor of the conservationists, and so on, may be useful offerings that can be made to honor certain groups of ancestors. Remember that an “offering” doesn’t just have to be a physical symbolic thing that you give–it can also be your time and energy.
  • Feeding the Ancestors. This may include something called a “spirit plate” that is left outside (traditionally in the west), preparing a feast for them, food offerings at an altar, and so on.
  • A Dumb Supper.  A tradition circulating within various forms of pagan celebrations is a “dumb supper” where you invite the ancestors to dinner.  In this case, two plates are set for each participant–one for the participant, and one for their ancestors.  The way I’ve done it most commonly was that we create two plates of food and eat in silence, listening for the voices of the ancestors.  A cup of mugwort tea may also be enjoyed to open the senses for the voices of the ancestors.  Afterwards, the spirit plates are left on an outdoor altar till morning.

 

Honoring the ancestors of our blood: To honor the ancestors of our blood, you might also choose some additional activities.  For example, I believe it is a wonderful honor to find out as much as you can about your ancestors, where they came from, and who they are.  In the USA, in particular, we have often completely lost these cultural traditions. finding out who they were, learning about our histories of our own memories of our families.

  • Writing our own histories so that when we become ancestors, or children and children’s children will have that material. My ancestors didn’t do a good job of this; or if they did, this has been lost and it is of great sadness to me.
  • Learning about the history of your last name. One of the ways I did this was to study the cultural heritage of my last name, O’Driscoll. I managed to find this book on the Internet from the O’Driscoll Clan, in Ireland, called O”Driscolls: Past and Present. I now have a much better understanding of who the O’Driscolls were and the name that I carry.
  • Learning and practicing one or more cultural traditions from your ancestors.  If you are like me, you don’t have any cultural traditions of your ancestors left.  I have decided to learn some of them and carry on traditions from my ancestors.  One of these is creating pysanky eggs, information which I shared on this blog before.
  • Learning the stories of the ancestors.  Learn a story or two from the lands where you can trace your genetic heritage.  Perhaps, perform it for family members!

 

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land: The ancestors of the land are many and diverse where I live. We have the Native Americans of various tribes who used to live here  (such as the Shawnee, who were the most local to my area). We have those who came here after, and who unfortunately, pillaged the land to build industry–and for me, these are also ancestors of blood. Finally, we have conservationists who have worked to preserve a beautiful park system throughout the state and country.

  • Honoring Native Ancestors: Learning to tend the land.  There are lots of ways to honor the native ancestors of the land, but to me, engaging in their work and tending the land is one of the best. I believe that we need to re-learn how to inhabit a particular place, tend it, and bring it back into healthy production for the benefit of all life. We need to reclaim our last heritage of humans interacting with the land–again, I point to the incredible gift that M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild is–her book showed that it was by the judicious use and propagation of the wilds that the native peoples brought abundance and a deep ecological knowledge. The best thing we can do to honor the ancestors of this land is to treat this land with reverence and respect and to learn their knowledge. Because of this, I study native plant uses, I study the traditions of the ancestors of the land, and I learn how to cultivate and harvest plants. In other words, I re-establish my relationship with the land, and through that, the ancestors of the land.
  • Conservation Activities: Because I recognize not only native ancestors of the land but also those in the CCC and other groups who essentially “saved” large parts of land for state and federal parks, I believe that the best way you can honor these ancestors of the land is by continuing their work. This may be political advocacy to save lands that they had a hand in protecting, trash clean up work, re-introducing native species to lands, and more.
  • Reparation work. Given that my own ancestors also helped to damage the lands and contribute to some of the ecological challenges faced here in my local ecosystem, I also do reparation work on behalf of my ancestors. Most often, I do this through land tending through the practice of permaculture (see the first bullet point) but also do land healing work.

 

Ancestors of our tradition: we do have many ancestors in the tradition of Druidry. They are important ancestors, and I mentioned some of them before: Iolo Morganwg, William Stuckley, Ross Nichols, and those who brought forth and continued the druid revival and continued it. We don’t now all of their names. But I still think they are deserving of our honor.

  • Readings.  One of the things I like to do to honor the ancestors of the tradition is to read a short paragraph of their writings in a sacred space (if a text is available).  It is a simple act, but acknowledging their work, their efforts, and their life energy is also important.
  • Altar: I like to honor my ancestors of the tradition on my main druid altar.  I made an ancestor oracle recently (see next week’s post!) and have all of my ancestors there on the altar, including those from the druid tradition.

As druids, I believe it is very important we think about where we came from. Iolo Morganwg and others of the early druid revival have gotten their names sloshed through the mud in an unfair way. Iolo didn’t plan on having his papers published; it was also quite common in the day to “discover” ancient texts. Why are we making him have the same standards as academic scholarship in the 20th century? There’s this body of sacred wisdom and knowledge that we have been given access to, that has been tremendously helping us through these difficult times. We need to honor those who shaped this tradition.   I think this is very appropriate for ritual, but I also think studying those ancient works and using them, integrating them, is also really important.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought–my goal was to tease apart the idea of “honoring the ancestors” and show how rich and incredible this work can be.  Next week, I’ll share details of how to create an ancestor oracle to further some of this work.  Blessings as we continue into the dark half of the year!