The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

 

Awen and the bee

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

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

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

 

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

Awen from the heavens

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

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

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

 

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

 

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

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

An Ancestral Ally of Humans: History, Medicine, Magic

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

 

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

 

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

Rosemary in flower

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Rosemary Smudges and Incense

Rosemary smudge for ancestor altar

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

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

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

Rosemary Oil for Visioning and Past Life Work

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

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

 

Rosemary Tea for Tea with the Ancestors

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

 

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

Rosemary

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

 

Samhain Cooking with Rosemary

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

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

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

 

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

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

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

 

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

 

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

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

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

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

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

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

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

 

Smell and Nature Connection

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Journey of the Senses

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

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

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

 

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

 

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

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

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

 

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

 

History and Hope

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

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

 

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

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

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

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

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

 

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

 

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

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

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

 

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

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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!)