Category Archives: Wildtending

Druid Tree Workings: Cutivating Recpiprocity

White spruce resin, locally harvested from my land

Norway spruce resin, harvested  with honor and reciprocity from the land

When I was still quite young, my grandfather used to take me and my cousins into the deep forest behind our house and teach us many things about nature.  One of the fun things he taught us, for example, was that you could use spruce gum or white pine resin not only as a chewing gum (something that gave us endless enjoyment) but also to cover over a cut to help heal it or draw out a splinter or stinger. I remember once day we were walking in the woods and I fell on the ground and scraped my knee quite badly on a rock.  He went to a nearby spruce tree and got some of the sticky resin, then carefully spread it on my knee and covered it with a tulip poplar leaf.  The resin stuck the leaf right to my skin, and we began the long ascent back up the mountain to the house.  Ever since that moment, the memory always stuck with me–how spruce offered me something that aided me greatly in a time of need, and how my grandfather had that key knowledge, a knowledge of herbalism and wild foraging, that helped me build the connection.

What had happened is that the spruce and I had made a deep and personal connection.  The spruce had saved me and soothed my wounds. This experience made that spruce tree a cherished friend–each time I would enter the woods, including long after grandpa’s death, I would stop by that spruce tree and say hello. As I was recently reading many stories about Spruce as I was researching my recent post on Spruce, I was struck by the resonance of my own experience.  Historical references point to the pervasive belief, by both many Native American peoples and early North American colonists, in the cure-all properties of the spruce.  As I read source after source learning more about the herbal uses of spruce, my mind returned to my grandfather’s simple actions.  Since he has long passed on, I can’t ask him who he learned this from, but it remains cherished knowledge to me.

If you read the lore and myths of any traditional peoples, peoples who did not have industrialization and lived close to the land, what you discover is that most of the magical qualities of trees, plants, or other natural features are usually directly tied to the useful qualities of these plants. I’ve discovered this pattern time and time again in exploring the magic and mythology of the trees of my own ecosystem. What you start to see is that the human uses of the tree have a very direct connection to the magical qualities of that tree. What this suggests to me, in a very clear way, is that most indigenous nature magic is based, in a large part, on reciprocity. In other words, if you want to work deep magic with trees, it is important to find ways to reciprocate and work with the trees not just spiritually, but physically.  It is this physical connection that leads us to a magical connection (as within, so without!)

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connections among beings are built on trust and reciprocity.  Human culture today is a good example–I would argue that part of why we have such a terrible breakdown in civility and trust in our culture is because nobody actually needs anyone else.  You don’t have to make peace with your neighbors if you can pay a specialist to come out and take care of whatever you need, rather than supporting your neighbor when they need a hand or vice versa.  You don’t need a neighbor to raise a barn, help bring in the harvest, or survive a long winter.  This creates an environment where we depend on money and other people’s goods and services rather than our friends, neighbors, and ourselves.  I learned this firsthand in the natural building community–if you want to put up a roof without heavy equipment and a construction crew, you better have many hands to help.  If there is no reciprocity, there is no actual reason for people to stay civil with each other.

The same is true of nature.  If we never learn how to use nature–ethically, thoughtfully, and with gratitude–we are never going to develop deep and abiding connections with her.  The reason that spruce was so revered pre-industrialization was that she provided incredible medicine, food, shelter, boat building materials, and more.  She was revered because she was useful, an incredible grandmother with incredible gifts. The same is true of all aspects of nature. We can no more expect to value nature highly if we do not understand or seek its uses. There is a magic that comes with an experience like my spruce tree experience–it creates an inherent value based on need that cannot otherwise be replicated.

I’ve long argued for the respectful use of plants, trees, and other parts of nature.  But moving into this use requires us to strip some of the problematic western cultural mindsets that are often subconscious and invisible.  I think that at the very base level is that what we want to avoid is treating nature like your local Walmart or Supermarket–as humans we’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that food and supplies come from shelves and stores, not nature. Supermarkets and big-box stores literally strip away the human connection with our broader ecosystem. One of the ways to think about industrialization and mass consumerism is that it signals that humans no longer have to directly depend on nature. Large-scale systems of extraction, harvest, and distribution mask the reality that has never changed: literally, everything we have comes from the living earth.  But because we are socialized into this industrialized/consumer-based thinking, we have to intentionally create different ways of directly interacting with nature. In the many years, I’ve taught wild food foraging, I often often see people more than excited to strip the earth bare of resources rather than reciprocate. Reciprocation is something that has to be taught and carefully learned–and it takes intentional actions.

Tied directly to the problematic mindsets associated with mass consumption is the issue of living on colonized soil and being part of a legacy of colonization.  This, too, is subconsciously woven into the fabric of our interaction with the landscape and her peoples. Colonization has left a horrific legacy that many of us who are living on colonized soil have to continually work to address.  We have a lot of work ahead of us in rebuilding sacred connections with the land outside of our door and honoring indigenous wisdom. Reciprocity helps shift us from these mindsets into ones that build connections.

Reciprocation and Tree Workings

As I’ve outlined above, one of the ways of connecting with nature and her spirits on a more deep level is creating reciprocal relationships: that is, where you offer something to nature and nature offers something to you.  This moves us away from mindsets that harm the land to those that reconnect us and heal.   For the rest of the post, I’ll share a bit about how to do this, using a few examples.

Trees

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Find a tree you’d like to build a connection with and get to know that tree.  Learn what you might be able to make from that tree, and learn what that tree might need or want for you in return.  If at all possible, connect these uses to your basic human needs: shelter, food, drink, medicine, etc.  Try to find a tree that is close enough to where you live that you can visit often–reciprocal relationships happen more easily if you can maintain them.   Here are a few possibilities to get your own ideas flowing:

Oak.  Oak trees are good choices because they produce flavorful and nutritious acorns, which with a good amount of sweat equity can be turned into acorn flour or acorn grits–and make delicious breads and cakes for rituals and more.  Acorns also happen to make outstanding inks, again for a variety of uses.  Oak wood is tough and strong and is great for natural building and carving.  Oak offers a range of benefits to humans and is an excellent tree to start this reciprocal relationship with.

Hickory. Hickory trees are another great tree to start these practices with: hickory nuts are amazing and can be made into nut milk or eaten straight from the tree. Hickory bark can be infused into an excellent hickory syrup, and of course, the branches and wood are fantastic for both indoor hearth cooking and outdoor fire-based cooking.

Spruce. Spruce is another excellent choice here.  Homebrewers would seek spruce for the delicious tips, while herbalists would use those same tips in teas and salves.  Spruce gum is a source of fantastic medicine for a range of issues.

Reciprocation: What would reciprocation look like for what you can offer your tree friend?  Part of it is physical and part of it is metaphysical.  On the physical side–before you do anything, always ask permission and gain it.  Make offerings and offer gratitude with each interaction in your tree.  Gather up the acorns, hickory nuts, or spruce cones and spread these seeds far and wide.  Help your tree friend extend their genetic legacy beyond what they normally would.  Start small seedlings and give these to friends or replant them.  Make offerings of your body (liquid gold) to gift your nitrogen to the tree.  Recognize that the tree has agency, has spirit, and is a being worthy of respect.

Rivers, Lakes, and other Bodies of Water

Perhaps you want to befriend a river and learn how to offer a reciprocal connection to this amazing body of water. Again, find a body of water that you’d like to build a connection with and take time to know this body of water: what commonly lives there? What is a “normal” and “healthy” functioning for this water?

Activities: Be present in the body of water, seeing what this body of water may offer you.  On the physical realm, this could include swimming and cooling off, kayaking, tubing, paddle boarding, ice skating, and more.  Find this body of water as a place of tranquility or rest for you. Learn about what you might harvest from the body of water: smooth stones, river sticks, fish, aquatic edible or medicinal plants (like cattails, arrowroot, etc).  Learn how this body of water might provide for some of your basic needs–a meal for your family, a place to rest and recuperate, a place to cool off.  Always make sure you are only taking a very small part of anything the water has to offer.

Reciprocation:  Remember that the river/lake/stream, like every other aspect of nature, is a being of agency, deserving of respect.  Ask before you do everything, and in everything you do, offer gratitude. Rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water are usually littered with garbage–pick it up and make sure that the area stays clean.  Many larger bodies of water have organizations that support ongoing clean-up, recreation, and more–see if you can join and financially or physically contribute to that work.  Find ways of doing other things for the body of water—water testing, learning about issues of runoff, and other such activity.

I hope these two examples have given you a nice idea of the ways in which we can build more reciprocal relationships in our daily lives.  It certainly works worth doing!

Sacred Trees in the Americas – Spruce (Picea glauca, Picea pungens, Picea spp.)

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape

The beautiful blue spruce looking across the landscape on a mountain in Western PA

When I lived in a walkable small town, what drew me every day was a line of beautiful blue spruce trees. Right around the corner from my house, they were on my daily walking commute to work.  We used to say hello and do an energy exchange each day. One day that following summer, I watched as the city landscaping people came through and ruthlessly cut them back away from the power lines (they were not growing even close to the lines) and I held space for the trees. Over the next few months, those trees began to heal, and they produced copious amounts of amazing tree resin as a first line of defense.  In the years that followed, eventually, the resin grew hard and the trees invited me to harvest small amounts that could be harvested without any damage to the tree.  That resin was powerful stuff–it had a very pine and musk smell and allowed for all sorts of powerful herbal and magical preparations.  I was honored by their gift and made good use of it–and I still have some, even years later.

Spruce is an important tree woven into the fabric of North America.  Common varieties include blue spruce, white spruce, black spruce, and Norway spruce. For the purposes of this post, we’ll talk about spruces of a few varieties, but focus my energies on Blue Spruce and Norway Spruce, both common trees throughout most of North America and both frequently found in the North-Eastern US planted as an ornamental and naturalized.  While neither of these two spruces is native to the Eastern seaboard, they are naturalized here and are so frequently found that they are one of the most common conifers in many parts of the US.  In fact, at the computer where I write all of my posts, just outside the window are two friendly Norway Spruce trees, always ready to say hello!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For the methods for how I research these posts, see this page. Other trees in this series include SpicebushRhododendron, American Hazel, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.  This material will all be part of my forthcoming Tree Alchemy oracle project!

Spruce Ecology

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Close up of blue spruce in late winter

Spruce is a common tree found in many of the temperate regions of North America–there are about 35 different species of spruce globally.  Blue spruces can grow up to 75 feet in the wild but often aren’t found more than 45 high in parks or yards. Norway Spruces are a much faster growing and larger tree and can get up to 150 feet high. All spruces are conifers and evergreen; they are extremely easy to find in the winter months when the deciduous trees have all lost their leaves.

All spruces have characteristics that make them very identifiable–for one, they usually have shorter, stiffer needles and all their needles have four sides. All spruces also have cones that are covered with thin scales that eventually open when the cone is ready to share its nuts/seeds on a warm day.  If you compare these needles and seeds to another common conifer, the pine family, you’ll see that the pines have much longer and flexible needles and much harder and more rigid cones. John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes that spruces also have needles that are spirally arranged on the twig (tying of course to the sacred geometry and sacred patterns that are present in all life). Most spruce needles, when crushed, have a strong smell–some are quite nice (Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce) while other spruces may smell piney and yet foul (White Spruce).  For all conifers, looking at the shape and distribution of the needles is usually the easiest way to tell the difference.

Blue spruces have a very “classic” holiday tree look, with a bluish tint and a very triangular shape. Other spruces may vary in shape–the many Norway spruces we have in our yard look like weeping trees more so than the classic triangle, but still, have that larger triangle shape.  Note that in urban areas, some spruces may be cut at the bottom so that people can sit underneath them–so you will want to look for indications that that has been the case, and then you can visualize the true shape of the tree.  This is also where you can often find copious amounts of sap–some tried or dripping off the tree that can be carefully and reverently harvested.

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Blue spruce with sunlight!

Most spruce trees, particularly those that grow in northern areas of North America (white spruce, blue spruce) are slow-growing (growing only 6″ – 12″ a year).  Some spruce varieties, like Norway Spruce, grow much faster–up to 3′ a year, which is why Norway Spruce is often a tree selected for landscaping.  This is part of why Norway spruce has been so widely planted–it grows quickly and tall, and thus can provide effective privacy, shade, and so on.   In fact, Old Tjikko, a Norway Spruce located in Sweden, is one of the oldest trees in the world at 9,950 years old.  Norway Spruces are clonal trees, meaning that Old Tjikko has regenerated new roots, bark, and branches over a period of millennia from a single genetic ancestor.  It is amazing to think about a tree that has regenerated itself over the millennia

In terms of Spruce’s role in the ecosystem, while wildlife uses these trees extensively for shelter during the harsh winter months, Spruce needles provide little nourishment to white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and other large herbivores and so these animals are not likely to feed on them.  As John Eastman in Field and Roadside notes, however, they were a favorite of the now-extinct Mastadon!  Finally, some spruces, including Norway Spruce, may develop galls from the Eastern Spruce Gall Aphid; these galls appear like a pineapple-shaped Gall on the new shoots.  If they are abundant they can cause damage to the health of the tree.

Human Uses: Wood and Tools

Spruce wood is considered a softwood tree, but it is harder and more durable than many varieties of pine.  Thus, spruce wood is commercially used and is fine-grained, light, and tough.  Primarily it is used as a wood for pulping for paper–many paper mills use Spruce for the production of paper throughout Europe and North America. Norway Spruce is a particularly good tree for this purpose due to its quick growth habit. John Eastman notes that Spruce wood is sometimes used for piano sounding boards, instruments, and boat building.  It is also used as an interior construction wood–it does not withstand the elements well but is light and strong for interior construction applications (it is sold as “whitewood” or “SPF” (spruce, pine, and fir) wood).

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid's Garden homestead

Norway spruce wreath as a yule decoration at the Druid’s Garden homestead

Another common use for Spruce today is in holiday decorations. Both Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce, when young, have the classic “Christmas Tree” look, and thus, both are regularly grown to be used as holiday trees.  Unlike Eastern Hemlock (which drops needles within a week or so of cutting), spruce trees hold onto the needles for longer, allowing them to stay through a holiday season.  Each year, we have spruce trees that can use some trimming.  Thus, we make beautiful wreaths that will last for months indoors to bring some of the evergreen energy into our home at the darkest time of year.

Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes offers extensive coverage of the Red, White, and Black spruces indicate that North American Native American tribes and early colonists to North America used Spruce trees extensively for a variety of purposes.  This includes extensive use in treating scurvy, especially in colonial America (see more below on medicinal uses).  Erichsen-Brown mentions that many tribes called spruce the Annedda tree and would strip the bark and needles off of the tree, boil it in water, and drink it to cure a variety of ailments. The roots of the spruce were used as lashing for canoes, baskets, and other weaving projects in many Eastern tribes.  The divided roots of spruce would be woven into very fine baskets that could hold water (these baskets were often used as boil baskets where hot stones were dropped into the liquid to heat up the water). The resin was also used to make pitch to seal canoes. Spruce wood was also steamed and bent to use for the inside of canoes.  Finally, the wood was used for the creation of various kinds of handles.

Here on the Druid’s Garden homestead, we just finished up a round of maple sap boiling with our new boiler system.  Since we have a lot of Norway spruce, I went through our tree stands and cut a number of the lower dead branches at the bottom of several spruce trees.  They burned hot and bright–perfect for keeping the sap boiling as the day went on. Of course, they have too much pitch to burn in indoor fires, but if you needed a hot outdoor fire with high flames, spruce is an excellent choice.

Human Uses: Herbalism and Edible Qualities

Spruce offers a range of wonderful range of medicinal qualities and can be used in a variety of herbal preparations. Be aware that most spruces are pretty pointy and can be hard to handle with bare hands–especially blue spruce. Thus, when harvesting needles or tips, it is wise to wear a pair of gloves or avoid getting sore fingers!  One of the most common ways of harvesting spruce is harvesting the young spruce tips.  The tips, here in PA, usually come into season in late April and into mid-May and can be harvested while they are still young and supple for a variety of herbal or edible concoctions.  In terms of the ethics of harvesting, what I usually do is first ask permission from the tree to harvest.  Second, I make an offering (such as using this blend).  Third, I take only 1-2 tips per branch so that I’m not causing damaging the tree, and spread my harvest across trees.  If I know that we have to do any pruning, I will obviously harvest all of the tips from that branch.

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

All spruces are high in Vitamin C, which allows you to make a tea that supports the immune system or brew up a spruce tip beer, which was originally a Native American creation (Ericsen-Brown) but later was widely adapted by colonial America. Also be aware that different varieties of Spruces have different levels of “skunkyness” which may impact any of your herbal preparations.  In my experience, Blue Spruce has the sweetest smelling tips and resin, where White Spruce is downright skunky and a bit unpleasant.  Norway spruce definitely has a bit of musk but is still great to use for most things.

The tips have an incredible range of uses. Black spruce or blue spruce tips were commonly made into spruce beer (originally made, according to Rollins in Edible Wild Plants of North America, because many people had vitamin C deficiencies and spruce tips are high in Vitamin C). Herbal uses for spruce tips are wide-ranging include a spruce needle or spruce tip tea, which can be used to boost the immune system. A strong tea can also be used as a sore throat gargle (to address a range of sore throat conditions); a mouthwash (for handling open sores in the mouth or bleeding gums).   The Spruce tips themselves are quite tasty and can also be used in dressings (like an infused oil); this is one of my favorite uses (a similar approach can be used with other conifer tips, like Eastern hemlock tips, which I share here). I like to gather the tips in spring and then infuse them in oil for a salad dressing or other herbal treats.

Another traditional use of spruce was the resin the tree produces. If you want to use it for incense or other spiritual purposes, you can check out my post on tree incenses from North America for details about how to use tree resin as incense.  Both blue spruce and Norway spruce make a very nice incense! Old-timers in the Northern Appalachian mountains (like my grandfather did) check “spruce gum.” Folks would look for mostly dried spruce resin and chew it just like chewing gum. I enjoy it from time to time, and it’s pretty good but certainly different than modern chewing gum. The resin is highly medicinal and can be used to make spruce salves for a range of skin conditions (it has anti-microbial uses).  Here’s a great recipe for a spruce and pine tip salve and chest rub and here is a video of making a bushcraft spruce salve for wound healing. If you are out in the field and have a sting or other skin issue, you can use the fresh gum right from the tree to cover a wound and draw out any toxins/stingers, etc–cover it with a leaf of plantain and be on your way.  Even deep puncture wounds can be aided by a bit of spruce resin in the field.

Finally, the inner bark of a spruce tree has been used for centuries as nourishing emergency food.  I haven’t had to opportunity to try this, thankfully, but I certainly will if we end up having spruce come down in a storm!

Western Magical Traditions and Spruce

Like many of the trees I explore in this ongoing series, Spruce does not get a lot of activity in the Western Magical tradition. In the typical sources, I consult for this series including a range of magical herbal books, hoodoo plant magic books, and western occult books.  However, I wasn’t able to find much mention of spruce.  Thus, it does not appear that spruce has any traditional uses that I can find in the Western Magical traditions–but I would love to hear from readers if they know of some sources that I do not!  Please share :).

Erichsen Brown does give an early reference (1475) to Islandic peoples using spruce both as a food and as an incense.  The cones were roasted coals and then people would dig out the kernels and eat the seeds. The resin used for incense.  Erichsen-Brown also notes that tribes throughout North America likewise used spruce for incense, but specific purposes or uses were not recorded.

Native American Traditions and Spruce

Spruce branches

Most of the traditional Native American uses already described, but I wanted to share some of the myths that are present.  These are largely in line with the curative and potent healing properties of the spruce tree.

Tying to the medicinal uses above, the Micmac believed that Glooscap, who was the first human created, gifted their people with extremely powerful medicine that could cure the ills of the world.  The ingredients included spruce along with ground hemlock (which may be Canadian Yew), willow, and black cherry.  In another legend on the same theme, In an Iroquois legend, Ahneah The Rose Flower, Ohsweda the Sprit of the spruce tree guards sacred spring in the forest. He shares the guardian duties with Ochdoah, the bat. Oshweda guards the spring from sunrise until noon, and while he guards it, everyone who drank of the clear waters of the spring had their illnesses cured and were filled with joy. but Ochdoah the Bat turned the spring water to poison on his watch.  In a third legend, this one Cherokee, “How the World Was Made” Spruce was listed among other medicines who are “always green” and always green medicines are the greatest of medicines

Spruce is tied in some tribes to a link to creation itself. It is often one of the first trees named (in relationship above to potent medicines) in creation stories or the first tree created. Another theme of these legends is the use of Spruce to build fires. In “When the Animals and Birds were Created” by the Makah. In this legend, two brothers of the sun and moon come to earth and start to create life there. As part of this legend, spruce is called an “old creature” whose “heart is dry” and therefore, will always be good for dry fires when the trees get older.  In “The Wolf Dance” which is a Salish legend, a spruce seed is linked to creation itself. So we can see some themes emerging from these different legends that honor the spruce tree a creative, healing force upon the land and for her peoples.

Divination Uses

As with other trees in this series, I’d like to propose three themes for magical practice and divination, given all of the variety of material above.  Here are three possibilities for the sacred spruce tree:

Endurance. One of the key features of spruces globally is their ability to endure.  We have the example of Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce that is literally one of the oldest trees in the world.   We see this same quality in many conifers who grow slow–the enduring nature of these ancient trees, who stand green through bitter cold and dry summers—the spruce endures on.  It is a powerful lesson to us, as people, to find the will and strength to endure.  This is why we see so many spruces in otherwise inhospitable parts of North America–these trees can endure very little light, long and cold winters, and continue to thrive.

Longevity.  Another key feature of the spruce tree that is clear from this material is the spruce’s tied to longevity.  It’s hard to imagine Old Tjikko, and other ancient spruces, seeing more than the whole of human recorded history.  When I encounter a spruce tree out in remote forests, I wonder how old they must be, knowing that they have the ability to regenerate their roots, branches, needles, and even their trunk.  This longevity is tied to this tree’s ability to remake itself in the face of challenges.

Supportive Healing. Nearly all of the trees in North America have specific ways in which they might heal–our physical bodies, our spirits.  Spruce’s healing powers, I believe, are tied to the well-loved tips and resins, both of which offer the base materials (Vitamin C, nutrients) that we can use to heal ourselves.  Thus, it’s not that spruce directly heals the body, but rather, facilitates the conditions and nutrients for the body to stay resilent.  That’s a very different kind of healing than something like hawthorn, which works directly on the body’s circulatory system and heart.  So spruce strengthens our bodies and gives us the capacity to heal.  That’s a realy beautiful thing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of spruce–the medicine, uses, mystery, and mythology.  This is a tree that was hard to research because there isn’t a lot about its mystical uses that I could find.  I’m very interested in hearing from you about your own stories and experiences with the incredible spruce tree!  Blessings.

Sacred Tree Profile: Devils Walking Stick (Aralia Spinosa)

The mighty Devil’s walking stick in early spring–look at those spikes!

The Druid’s Garden Homestead is located on a 5-acre parcel of land in Western Pennsylvania that is currently regenerating from intense logging. Three years ago, just before we bought the property, the family who owned it logged about three of the five wooded acres.  This has led to a host of possibilities where we can work on forest regeneration, observing the changes in this damaged place as it regrows, and certainly, opportunities for wildtending and creating food forests. As you walk through this regenerating landscape, one of the most striking understory trees is the Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa. Looking like a very spiky and menacing walking stick (it has a name fitting of its visage), this tree is also known as Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash, Shotbush, Pigeon Tree, Angelica Tree, or Hercules club. These varied names really speak to the grotesque and yet wonderful nature of this plant and, I believe, give us some sense of its deeper meaning and uses.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

This entry is going to differ somewhat from my previous entries in this series for a simple reason: there is almost no mythology, herbal, or magical knowledge about this tree. The giant stack of books and online databases of mythology that I regularly consult when developing this series have come up empty on this tree. Thus, I am going to rely much more on ecological knowledge, historical uses, and personal observations.  Regardless of its lack of use traditionally, I think this tree is worthy of our attention and fills an important niche in the ecosystem of the US East Coast as a dominant pioneering tree with powerful energy.

Ecology

Aralia Spinosa, or the Devil’s Walking Stick, is in the ginseng family.  It prefers part shade, moist soils, and can tolerate a range of soil conditions (fertile to poor, a wide range of PHs, and a wide range of soil types).  As an aggressive pioneering species, it comes in after disruption in forest and field conditions, where it colonizes predominantly through rhizomes and sending out roots in different directions.   The range of the Devil’s Walking Stick is quite widespread–it is native from Maine to Texas and grows up and down the entire eastern seaboard the whole way to Florida.

Devils walking sticks in early winter (mature)

As the USDA Plant Database suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick grows to a height of 35 feet, although as it is colonizing new areas, you can often find much smaller specimens. The leaves are compound and opposite, and every stalk literally is covered in spikes, even below the leaves and onto the leaf stems. The entire tree is covered in spikes, which do thin out as it gets larger. Some sources report that this tree can cause contact dermatitis if the roots or stalks are handled, but I have not found this to be the case (and in fact, have worked with the wood of it without any trouble!).

We actually have some very mature Devils Walking Sticks behind our garden, which are about 30-40 feet tall, and when they are in bloom in August, you can see thousands of butterfly moths, bees, and other insects all over the blooms. Their blooms look a lot like angelica with large umbles of small white flowers–the umbles can reach 12-24″ across and are massive on older trees. After the flowers go to seed, you can often see small birds feasting on the seeds along with deer and other wildlife. In the fall, the foliage turns dark yellow or purple and then pretty quickly drops from the leaves.  The berry clusters remain a little longer and are early winter forage for birds.

One of my favorite quotes about this tree comes from the University of Florida State Extension office, “Devil’s walking stick…literally thrives on neglect.”  It is also listed as “too aggressive for gardens”.  Thus, if you want to plant it, the best thing to do is plant it and then leave it alone (and understand that planting one will lead to many as they colonize by roots and suckers!

Plants for the Future suggest that this tree may be very ancient and that the spines covering the stem and leaves are an earlier evolutionary development to dissuade larger herbivores (read dinosaurs, mammoths, etc) who might seek to eat it. Deer and elk do not browse on it.  Given its very defensive and menacing appearance, that makes sense.

History of Human Use

Devils Club in late Winter getting ready to sprout

One of the few recorded uses of Devil’s Walking Stick is that it was grown in gardens in the Victorian era as a “grotesque ornamental.” The  Victorians were notorious for their love of the grotesque–those are things that are strange, hideous, or unpleasant while also being somehow mysterious, fantastical, or magnificent.  In some ways, it was the juxtaposition of something that was fantastical aong with being unpleasant or strange that lead to the idea of grotesque. I actually think that this “grotesque” concept is an excellent fit for Devil’s Walking Stick, which is certainly a slightly weird, wonderful, and yet disturbing tree to come across!

Another recorded use of the Devil’s Walking Stick was with the Cherokees, as described by Hannah Dinkins in Plants of the Cherokees and their Uses.  They were reported to harvest and roast the older roots and use them as an emetic (emetics are herbs that induce vomiting) or into a salve for healing old sores. Only the older roots were used this way, however, the young and green roots were considered poisonous.  The other use is, which is clearly a more energetic healing approach, is to burn the wood, and then as the wood burned, the smoke was blown on a person who had paralysis to treat the paralysis.

In the New Garden Encyclopedia by L. D. Seymour, Seymor notes that herbalists have used the root of devil’s walking stick, which they dry and grind into powder, for treatment of rheumatism, asthma, and coughs. In all of my years of studying herbalism, I have not come across any teachings of this plant that were not in obscure references and there are very few listings (none in places like Wood’s Earthwise Herbal).

Plants for the Future notes that eating large amounts of the berries are poisonous. They suggest that the young leaves (with their slender spikes) must be gathered before the prickles harden and then can be finely chopped and used as a potherb). While this might be the case, even the young plants are pretty vicious and I’m not sure this plant has any desire to be eaten!

Really not something you want to grab hold of!

The wood itself that comes from the trees is extremely light, soft, and brittle.  It has a lot of larger air holes, making it akin to something like young elder or staghorn sumac, but not as firm. Because of the nature of the wood, it does not have many human uses (although it will certainly start a decent campfire).  I’ve worked with it a bit and have found that you can certainly make small things from it like wands, a walking stick, or staves, but I’m not sure you’d want it for any tough job (like a handle).

The Magic and Meanings of the Devil’s Walking Stick

I was unable to find any specific mythology or magic surrounding the Devil’s Walking Stick tree, despite its widespread growth here in the US.  Based on the above information, we might consider at least three possible meanings for this tree:

Opportunistic and cunning. The Devils Walking Stick offers very opportunistic and cunning energy.  It grows in areas that have been disrupted (like our logged forests) where it quickly colonizes and spreads, growing quickly and taking the opportunity provided.

Over-the-top Defenses. The Devil’s Walking Stick is one of the most defended trees here on the US East Coast.  While its toxicity and thousands of thorns, nothing is going to get through to eat this tree.  I think this tree obviously signals that defenses are needed, perhaps more than are necessary.  I could see this tree being of use if you were feeling like you were being attacked or under duress.

Overcoming Adversity and Exorcism.  The energy of this tree would be good for helping you overcome any kind of adversity that you face and exorcise unwanted things from your life (physical or metaphysical).  This tree pulls no punches and stands in its power–and it will help you to do the same.

Don’t mess with me! Devil’s Walking Stick

I will also note that if you are developing a local ogham, Devils Walking Sick could be a potentially very good replacement for the Ogham Straif (Blackthorn).  Like Blackthorn, Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneering species with a host of defenses and, frankly, the right kind of energy

I think that because this tree does not have a rich mythology or magical tradition, there’s a lot of opportunities to work with it, to experiment, and to see what comes.  I would love to hear from you, my readers, about any insights, stories, or experiences you may have with the powerful Devil’s Walking Stick!

 

Additional Sources:

https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=arsp2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=arsp2

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c294

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1764

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st080

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

Basket of abundant chestnuts!

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

 

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

 

History and Hope

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

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

 

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

 

Seeds of the future–and of hope

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Ecology and Uses

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

 

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

 

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

 

Harvesting and Eating Chestnuts

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

 

Geese help sort chestnuts–they adore eating them!

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chestnut Magic and Folklore

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

 

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

 

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

Powerful Chestnut Tree bearing nuts!

 

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

 

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

 

Magic and Meanings of the Chestnut

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: A Healing Grove of Renewal

Reishi growing from a stump!

Reishi growing from a stump in my sacred forest

Many years ago, I shared the story of the “mystery of the stumps“, which was my path into druidry. I grew up spending all my days in a forest that was rich, full, and bountiful.  When I was 14, that forest was logged.  My heart broke, and afterward, I tried to enter the forest but it was horrible: downed trees everywhere, so much damage, so many friends that had been cut and taken away.  I thought the forest would never heal.  I withdrew not only from nature, but from my spirit and creative gifts, and spent a time in numbness and mourning–a period that lasted almost 10 years. I didn’t return to the forest till I was 24.  When I finally went back in, so much had changed–the land was regrowing.  Large thickets of birch, blackberry, and cherries were everywhere, springing up to regenerate the land. It was then that I discovered the Reishi mushrooms on the stumps of the hemlock trees, a testament to the true healing power of nature.  Not only had the forest regrown–but it had produced some of the most potent natural medicine on the planet for humanity.

 

I retell this story today because I think its important to realize how much time it takes nature to heal.  Nature works on “slow time“–seasons upon seasons, cycles upon cycles, each year passing where nature, given the opportunity, works towards ecological succession and more complex and interwoven ecosystems.  When I entered the forest just after the logging, the forest was so damaged.  If I had returned even a few weeks later, however, I would have likely started to see the first stirrings of rebirth and renewal.  Where the forest canopy broke, new plants and trees could spring forth.  The seeds and seedlings were already there, waiting for their opportunity to heal. Every year after, more healing and growth takes place.  Slow, but steady is natures healing pace.

 

Just as nature uses time to heal, so too, can we use ritual and sacred space over a long period of time to help enact nature’s healing. Today’s post explores this idea through the development of a “grove of renewal” that works with time and the seasons and focuses on both inner and outer magical practices and techniques for healing. Using this approach, we might see the druid and the living earth walking hand-in-hand to enact healing upon the land. As nature heals through the seasons, we, too might use this same principle for land healing.

 

(I will also note that this is a post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling over several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing: what it is, different approaches, and different ways we might work with it.)

 

Slow time, Slow Ritual, and Nature’s Healing

Part of the challenge we have in the ecological reality of the 21st century is time.  Our culture moves very quickly, with cycles of consumption and production intense and overwhelming.  Everything is too fast, as I shared in my earlier series on “slowing down the druid way.” Fast food, fast lives, fast jobs, fast relationships; everything moves so quickly. Sometimes, we unfortunately try to apply this same thing to our spirituality and expectations.  One-off rituals or false starts, rather than sustained practices. The speed of the 21st century doesn’t just influence us: it also means that nature is being consumed/destroyed/damaged much faster than she can heal.   Part of the challenge, too, is that the earth takes time for damage to show: melting ice caps and glaciers aren’t responding to today: they are responding to previous years, and we won’t see the full effects of today’s carbon emissions for some time.

 

But nature’s own powerful lesson resonates deeply here:  with healing, time moves differently. This is true of land healing as much as it is true of our own heart healing.  One way nature heals is through a process called ecological succession. Ecological succession, from a mowed lawn to a pinnacle oak-hickory forest (which is the final ecosystem where I live) takes about 250 years.  That is, if lived in my region, and you stopped mowing your lawn today and did nothing else, in about 250 years you’d have a mature oak-hickory forest. Or, maybe you could speed that up to 75 years if you planted all the oaks and hickories in your front lawn (and again, stopped mowing)!  This same lesson applies to us, as we are part of nature: time heals all wounds in ways nothing else will. Time is the ultimate healer.

 

Most of the time when we think of ritual, we think of a single event, a sacred moment in time. We do a ritual, it is good, the energy radiates outward.  This is also true of a lot of land healing: we do a ritual to heal the land, and hope it has some effect.  However, this isn’t the only approach. I’ve been developing a technique that I call the “Grove of Renewal” that uses permaculture design, more than traditional ritual, and works with nature’s ultimate healer: time.  So, rather than thinking about land healing as a ritual or series of actions, I’m thinking about it as a permaculture designer: cultivating a space for healing as an “extended” ritual over time. By focusing efforts on a small space, that healing energy can radiate outward to the broader landscape for the benefit of all.

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

 

The “Grove of Renewal” approach focuses on one small space.  By focusing our energies on this one space, we can help this space heal in a powerful way.  Each day and cycle that goes by, more healing happens both physically and energetically. At some point, your grove of renewal is a healed and healthy space, so much so that you can now direct that healing energy outward in a much broader way. Its important to note that this is slow magic, very slow magic. It unfolds over a period of years, and thus, requires patience, peace, and connection.  You are building a relationship with a piece of land as a healer, observing and interacting, and doing regular work. You are on nature’s time.

 

So let’s look at how you might create your own “Grove of Renewal”!  First I’ll explain the basic steps and then I’ll share my own example so you can see how one of these might work in action.

 

Step 1: Choosing Your “Grove of Renewal” Space.

 

For your grove of renewal, you’ll want to choose a small physical space to help heal. Perhaps it’s a segment of lawn you want to convert to a native plant garden and butterfly sanctuary, perhaps it’s a strip of land behind an alley nobody cares about. Perhaps its a new piece of land you just moved to, and you can now tend. Wherever it is, you can make this place a center of land healing, your own “grove of renewal.”

 

On the physical level, this should be a space where physical land healing can happen.  That is, it should be a space that is protected in some way (in the sense that someone else isn’t going to come and mow down all of your efforts). It should also be a space that you have direct and regular access to, the easier, the better.

 

On the metaphysical level, you also need the “go ahead” from spirit–that you are working in accordance to the spirits of the land and their wisdom.  Thus, you might be directed towards a particular place where spirit wants this grove of renewal to happen.  Use outer and inner listening techniques and make sure you are aligned with the land itself.

 

Selection is so critical, as you will be working this space extensively over a long period of time. Take as much time as you need for this step–remember, this is slow healing, slow time.  Make offerings, visit a number of times, and allow yourself to resonate with the space.  In permaculture design, a year and a day is not unreasonable, and is a generally accepted permaculture design techniques for observation and interaction. That’s the kind of slow time I’m talking about here.  When you are certain it is the right place, move on to step two.

 

Step 2: Create your plan.

Because your grove of renewal will function as a shrine for physical and energetic land healing, you want to consider what kinds of things would work best with that intention and any other specific intentions you may have.

 

On the physical level: Create a plan for the plant life and animal/insect/bird/reptile/amphibian life that you want to invite to the space.  If you are working from scratch, you might be able to carefully design it.  If there is already life there, you will want to work with it and tend it. Learn what kinds of plants are native to the area, what kinds of plants support diversity, and build diversity in. Learn what used to grow there, and think about how you can help restore it to a healthy ecosystem. You might combine this with other physical land healing techniques, like the refugia garden.

 

In order to do this work on the physical level, you will need to carefully observe and interact with the space over a period of time . Think about the space you have already (wind, light, soil, water, potential pollutants) and how you might intervene.  Consider what you want the final result to be in 10 or 50 years: a forest environment, a wetland, a meadow with wildflowers, etc.  Consider what plants may grow there that are rare and endangered. Consider what insect life and wildlife that may need a space to live.  Look at what may already be growing there–what will you do with what is there?  Will you remove it and plant natives? Will you work with what is growing?  These are important decisions!

 

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

Larger Spiral Garden Design Inspired by the Three Druid Elements

On the spiritual level. Since this is also a ritual space, you may also want to mark it ritually in some way. Thus, sacred objects can be included in the plan, but should be naturally-based and locally sourced.  You might create a stone altar, stone cairn, use statuary, decorate the space with found natural objects (shells, bones, stones, etc), hang a flag, etc.  I like to decorate my shrines based on what I can find locally and in the immediate area.

 

Putting it all together. Once you have the pieces in place, create a plan: what do you need to do first? Second? Third? Realize also that the best laid plans can be changed, so also be ready to adapt as necessary.  Nature isn’t going anywhere!

 

 

Step 3: Create the Space, focusing on inner and outer work.

Creating the space itself should be a ritual activity, working on both the inner and outer planes.  I suggest timing your beginning of the work to one of the eight festivals in the druid’s wheel of the year.  When you are ready to begin, take your first step and start the work. You are working both on the physical and the level of spirit.

Spiritual work.  I usually start with the spiritual work.  One of the things I’ve done to help further this work is to create a permanent sacred space.  I do this similar to creating an open grove (or open circle, like the kind you’d use for magical work or celebratory work), but creating it as a sacred space with a particular intention: healing.  Additionally, I strongly recommend putting up energetic/magical protections around the space and renewing these regularly.

Other spiritual work may also unfold, such as creating a shrine or other permanent spiritual focus for the space.

Physical work.  Physical regeneration of land usually involves building soil fertility, planting trees or other plants, and doing any other clean up that is needed.  This work takes muscle, time, and regular tending.  See this work not as a moment in time, but as a process that unfolds (much like growing a vegetable garden–it takes a plan, seed starting, planting out, tending/weeding, and harvesting, all before you begin the cycle again!)

 

Step 4: Visit your space regularly and let it flourish.

After your initial work and once you have things in place (which may take you some time), it is time to let nature do its own healing.  Visit your space often as it grows and heals, pay attention to the ways that the energies of that space may change.  Pay attention to these changes on both an inner and outer way:

  • What is growing there that you haven’t seen before?  Can you identify it?
  • If you planted anything, how are the plants growing?
  • Observe life: insects, birds, animals, etc.  Do you see anything new?
  • How does the space change in different seasons?
  • Energetically, do you sense any shifts? If so, what are they?
  • How do you feel when you are in the space?
  • What messages from spirit might you be experiencing?

This step requires us to be very intuitive.  You come and visit as you feel led to do so. I suggest, at minimum, visit at least once each quarter of the year (for example, at the spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice).  You don’t have to be visiting every day (although you certainly can).  In my own experience, its almost better to let nature work on her own for a time and then return.

 

Another thing sometimes happens: nature tells you to leave the space alone for a while.  The space needs its own energy and time, and you may be asked to let a year or more pass before you are asked to return.  Honor any requests made to you on the part of spirit.

 

Step 5: When the space is healed, radiate that healing outward.

At some point, your space will have a very positive energy, a sense of peace and quietude that only healed spaces can have.  This may take place across a single season or series of seasons.  Or it may be a very long process, depending on the healing that you are working to enact.  You’ll know when the time is right; this space will be bursting with energy and you will feel it start to flow outward.  At this point, you can do a “radiance” ritual, envisioning the sun and earth’s energy and radiating it outward.  This ritual can be as simple as meditating on the energy in the space and encouraging the excess to flow outward into the landscape and to places where it is needed.  Again, working intuitively here, with spirit, can be helpful.

 

Spirals of energy

Spirals of energy

Example: A Woodland Grove of Renewal

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working to convert a burn pile on the edge of a forest on my own property into a Grove of Renewal.  This wasn’t the first space I’ve tended in such a way, but it certainly is my most intentional of spaces.  My first step was identifying the space: I was starting a fire one day and looking for some extra kindling.  I wandered into a section of the property I hadn’t really explored before. Suddenly, I saw this beautiful circle of stones surrounding a stump–it was calling to me, almost radiating light in my direction. As I got closer, I realized, sadly, that these stones had been used as a burn pile, and had half-burned plastics, lightbulbs, wires, hairspray bottles, and much more all over them (there were many such burn piles on my land when I arrived here).  My first task was to sit with the space for several sessions quietly, meditating on the energy of the space.  In one such session, I brought my drum and drummed a bit, but otherwise, simply listened and held space.  This lasted some months, through the fall, winter, and into the spring.

 

Once I felt the impetus to proceed, I setup a small altar nearby and then cleaned up the space, which had many years of garbage and debris from burn piles.  I chose to start this work at Beltane and conclude it by the Summer Solstice. I recycled what I could and removed what I could not. At the summer solstice, I also stood a large stone upright to bring light and healing energy into the space. I brought in additional materials to help the soil heal from the toxic ashes; leaves I had been composting from another part of the property and some aged manure to increase the soil fertility.  I was planning on adding plants, and I wanted them to have good and fertile soil.  Since this was a woodland environment with already mature tree cover (oak and hickory, yay!), the following season, I decided to populate the shrine with some of the rare woodland species that have been disappearing from the landscape.  Here in the Appalachian mountains, we have many such species under dures due to overharvesting including three I selected for the shrine: black cohosh, ginseng, and goldenseal.  I planted these around the shrine and tended them until they were well established (and I’m still in the process of tending them and adding additional plants).

 

Now, I am in the process of creating a small pathway into the shrine and going through that section of the woods–with the idea that the rest of the woods is sacred, and this path is the only path that should ever be walked by human visitors.  That will further protect my rare woodland species.  I have already created a small pathway into the shrine, planting solomon’s seal (another native woodland medicinal) at the entrance. While this was ongoing, I am continuing to do regular ritual with the space, helping clear it energetically of the “burn pile” energy and bringing it into a more positive place.  I’m also just visiting the space from time to time, saying “hello” and seeing what is going on. Regularly, at the new moon, I work with the space, usually doing some flute or drumming. Since establishing this space, I have a pileated woodpecker pair who have moved into this patch of forest and is now nesting nearby.  I also regularly see Jays, Sparrows, and many others!

 

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

It still has a lot of time before the energy builds enough to radiate outward and send the flow of healing energy back to the land, but I know it will.  At that time, I will work to create a flow of healing energy from that space outward into the surrounding environment (which in the vicinity, includes strip mining, coal mining, and factory farms).

 

Concluding thoughts

The “Grove of Renewal” is a simple yet profound technique to help you establish a space for healing energy: both for an immediate ecosystem in need of healing, but also, as a way to engage in land healing energetically in the broader landscape.  I think this is exactly the kind of work that druids can do who want to “give back” in some way.  Your “Grove of Renewal” is likely to look very different than my own, but any space can be brought back physically and energetically to a place of healing, light, and life. And certainly, this is work worth doing.

Wine Cap Mushroom Cultivation: Wood Chips, Garden Beds, Recipes, and More

How many times have you seen your neighbors getting tree work done or had tree work done yourself? The landscape company often comes with the big wood chipper and truck and then, after cutting up the wood, hauls that beautiful pile of chips off to some unknown location. Last year, our electric company came through and was doing tree work along our driveway and road to prune and cut trees too close to the power lines. We asked them to dump the wood chips on our property, and they were happy to do so. A lot of times, companies have to pay or go far out of their way to dump wood chips, and they see them as a “waste”; they will almost always dump them for free if you ask!  But a pile of wood chips are harldy a waste–they can offer you multiple yields over a period of years.  In today’s post, we’ll look at mushrooms from a permaculture and druidic perspective and see one way we can use them to both understand nature’s alchemy as well as cultivate home-grown food, focusing on using fresh wood chip piles.

 

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

Wine cap mushrooms on wood chips

About Mushrooms

Mushrooms are amazing: they are in a kingdom by themselves (fungi) and are in a kingdom all to themselves.  They do not contain chlorophyll, so they are unlike plants. They are saprophytes, breaking down organic matter (usually wood) and feeding on the nutrients contained within. In this way, they work as part of nature’s system of decomposition, breaking down the old so that the new can begin again. Their “bodies” consist of fungal hyphae (which are white or tan lines or threads that run through soil, wood, etc). The threads are also called mycelium. They also consist of the fruit, which is what we call a mushroom. The fruit of the mushroom is actually its reproductive system, which is what the mushroom itself sends up to reproduce (via spores, in most species).

 

I think we can learn a lot from the mushroom  kingdom, both from a permaculture perspective as well as a spiritual/druidic perspective.  On the permaculture side, the mushrooms remind us that nothing is waste: they can break down not only wood but also many of our own human wastes: cardboard, newspaper, office paper, and coffee grounds.  Amazingly, they can also be used to pull toxins and do “mycoremediation” to help damaged sites heal.  this includes pulling toxins and pollution from soil as well as pulling toxins and oils in water contaimination.  Mushrooms are truely amazing!  On the spiritual side, the mushroom is one of the great alchemists of nature: taking waste (dross) and turning it into soil which can then can nourish plants–soil is what the entire ecosystem is based upon!

 

The mushroom we are talking about today is the Wine Cap mushroom, also known as King Stropharia (stropharia rugoso-annulata), sometimes also called “Composter mushrooms” or “Garden giants.” You can purchase these online from a variety of mushroom companies; my spawn came from Tradd Cotter’s Mushroom Mountain. I’ve had the pleasure of taking multiple workshops from Tradd at our local Mother Earth News Fair, and I like his company and ethics a lot!  The nice thing about these mushrooms in particuar is that they are versitile and easy to keep cultivating. Once you have some mycelium, its possible to keep spreading these mushrooms as long as they have something to eat.  So if you have your own chipper, a ready supply of leaves or other compost waste, these mushrooms will keep on going!  So let’s talk about a few ways you can work with Wine caps.

 

Wine cap mushroom

Wine cap mushroom

Wood Chips

The techniques that I am sharing today only work on a fresh woodchip pile (less than a few weeks old). If you try this with an older wood chip pile, or in a pile that has been dead wood recently chipped, it is likely that other species of mushrooms have already colonized your pile.  What this means, then, is that when you try to colonize your pile with your own mushroom spawn, there may be considerable competititon and you may not get the mushrooms you hope to get (You also need to be *very* careful about ID in this case).

 

As I mentioned in the introduction, wood chips are fairly easy to obtain in many parts of the US, at least.  You might be able to get them from local muncipalities, and certainly, from local private tree services.  Most of them are all too happy to drop off piles of mulch to you so they don’t have to drive far to dump them and/or pay to have them dumped.  You may also be doing some of your own brush clearing; again, any fresh woodchips will do for this process.

 

Seeding Your Pile

 

To seed your pile, simply break up your mushroom spawn into smaller pieces, dig holes in your pile (a foot or less down) and add the spawn.  After the pile was dumped, in early August, a few of my druid friends and I seeded our pile in about 15 minutes.

Layers of mycelium with mushrooms growing out the top. I was removing mulch for other areas and got this amazing photo!

In addition to moisture and food, mushrooms need oxygen.  If your pile is too tightly compacted, you may only get mycelium growing on the top of the pile.  Never fear–once you remove some of the mulch for other purposes (see below), the mycelium can colonize further into the pile.

 

Fruiting

At some point, typically for Wine Caps, when the temperatures hit above 60 degrees, your pile will start to fruit.  Our pile started fruiting in April, and is still fruiting at the beginning of June.  Thus far, we’ve harvested at least 20 lbs of mushrooms from the pile.  As exciting as the huge wine cap mushrooms are, they often get buggy and full of worms.  Thus, it is best to harvest the smaller mushrooms to eat and leave the larger ones in the pile to spore and to produce food for others.

 

Spreading the Mushroom Love: Mushrooms in the Garden and More

Once you have an innoculated pile, you can use your wood chips all through your garden and as mulch.  Anywhere you do this, you are likely to get mushrooms popping up, which is an amazing food production source!  Here are some of many possibilities:

  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Paths: Add several layers of cardboard to your garden paths and then mulch with a thick layer of innoculated wood chips.  Your paths will last at least 2 years, and probably at some point, they will fruit with mushrooms.
  • Mulched Mushroom Garden Beds: All garden beds benefit from mulching. If you look at a forest, you will never see bare soil on the forest floor: it is always mulched with a rich pile of leaves, etc. This helps the forest prevent erosion and retain  nutrients. Many gardeners leave their soil bare, which allows the sunlight to quickly strip it of moisture. By adding a thick layer of mulch (straw, leaf rot, or wood mulch) you can prevent the loss of mosture, and likely, never have to water your garden again.  That’s my method: layers of mulch equals never needing to water, unless we have some kind of severe drought!  Adding your mushroom-innoculated mulch to your beds benefits the whole garden.  This page offers a lot more details on this practice, debunks myths about wood chips in the garden, and offers information on why it works.  Keep your wood chip mulch to 2-3″ deep at the most and you will have no probmes–and you will get more mushrooms. In fact, every place that we have spread this mulch has fruited at least once this spring!
  • Mulched Tree Areas: Your trees, likely, can also benefit from some innoculated mulch. I put this around my fruit trees, being careful not to mulch the trunks too closely.  This does the same thing for the trees that it does for the garden!
  • Mulched Paths: You can mulch any other paths with this approach, including forest trails and so on.  I am working on some forest trails through our wooded areas, and these mushroom mulched paths are a wonderful addition. Again, I use thick layers of newspaper or cardboard (when necessary) or simply mulch (if the forest floor is largely bare, as mature forests sometimes are).  You can further get fancy and line your mulched paths with stones. Part of why I do this is that our tick issues in Western PA have grown extremely intense; it is better for us to mulch and keep nice wide paths than to be covered in ticks (we also have guinea fowl and chickens for tick patrol, and they do a great job!)
  • Mulched Planters: You can also mulch container garden pots and planters with a light layer of this mushroom mulch.  You may not get any fruiting mushrooms (I haven’t seen any on ours yet) but you certainly will get the benefit of the water retention!

 

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine caps growing in wood chips

Wine Cap Cuisine

Wine caps are a mild and delicious mushroom, with a growth habit similar to a portabella.  They do not have a strong flavor, and when they cook, they produce a lot of liquid, which needs to be accounted for in any recipe.  For the best way to taste the mushroom flavor itself, you can simply fry these in some olive oil or put them on the grill brushed with olive oil.  You can also stuff them (I like to stuff them with rice, veggies and cheese) or make a simple cream of mushroom soup.  Essentially, any recipe that calls for a portabella mushroom can be instead used with a wine cap.  Here’s one such recipe I made this week

Wine Cap Mushroom Soup

  • 1 lb of wine cap mushrooms, washed and sliced
  • 1/2 cup marsala wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • fresh thyme, chives, and parsley
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup sliced kale
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the mushrooms in olive oil until they start to soften (about 5 min).  Add the wine, onions, and garlic, and simmer for an additional five minutes.  Add the broth, herbs, and salt/pepper and put a lid on your soup, allowing it to cook for 15 more minutes, until the mushrooms and onions are tender.  Remove from heat.  Add kale and heavy cream, and let the flavors meld on the stove for 10-15 min before serving.  Serve with some fresh chives on the top.

 

Examples of older wine caps, not as good for cuisine due to the worms. Cut the small ones instead.

Radical Mushrooms: Kitty Litter and Other Decomposition Projects

I didn’t stop with the wood chip pile with regards to how to keep working with the Wine Cap mushrooms.  I wanted to use mushrooms t help break down other “waste” products at the house.  have three cats, and they have long been using natural plant-based cat litters, usually a pine base or a wheat based litter.  I saw instructions like these, knowing that people use kitty litter (fresh) for mushroom cultivation for eating.  While I had no intention of eating mushrooms grown in used kitty litter, In this case, I was wondering if the mushrooms would work in this litter to help break it down (and thus not put it in a landfill, but return those nutrients to nature).  I first started with a regular compost pile, putting a few palattes together, which in about 1.5 years, was full of cat litter.  I put some mushroom spawn in the pile in the fall, at the same time I seeded the much larger mulch pile, but nothing happened.  I think it had too much ammonia and not enough oxygen.  I took the palatte composter apart, and instead, spread the kitty litter in a thinner area, only about 6″ deep.  I again seeded it with mushroom spawn: and this time, it worked.  I now have a kitty litter composting area.  I add litter only to one side, and allow the mushrooms to slowly break down the litter that has sat longer.  This simply stays on the edge of the woods, effectively eliminating the landfill and returning those nutrients to the earth.  I call this a mushroom win!   I will also note that I do *not* pick or eat the mushrooms in this pile, but other wildlife seems to enjoy them.

 

I hope this brief look into how to tranfsorm “waste” into resources for the druid’s garden is helpful and inspirational to you!

Diary of a Land Healer: January

It is late January. We had a very bout of cold weather these last few weeks, as I’m writing this, the weather broke and I’m out in the land for a longer stay since since the sub-zero temperatures hit. When I came to my new home and new land in the fall, there was so much to do, just moving in and getting ready for winter, stacking wood, unpacking, painting, fixing things, building a greenhouse, and settling in that I didn’t have the time I wanted to spend with the land. But winter is good for such quiet communion, and so, I’ve been seeing what there is to discover.

A snow spiral, one of many I walk while the snows fall!

A snow spiral/labyrinth, one of many I walk during the winter months.

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, in purchasing this land, I knew that part of my work here would be in documenting the regrowth of this land after the previous owners had about 3 acres of it it selectively/sustainable timbered. Regrowth and regeneration is an incredible thing to bear witness to, and I excited to experience and document it up close. And so, this year, I’m going to write one post a month in a series I’m calling “diary of a land healer.” The goal of this series  is to document observations, interactions, and spiritual lessons from watching this beautiful ecosystem heal and regenerate–and the possibilities we have, as humans, to intervene in that process. Because land healing is a process, and because the inner work that facilitates healing is also in process, the thoughts that I present in these posts will also likely be in process.

 

As person whose spiritual work centers on trees and land healing, I’m more often than not paying attention to what is wrong: the fallen trees, the timbering that was done, polluted streams, gas fracking wells, and so forth. As someone with a deep spiritual relationship and love of trees, seeing any of them cut down is horrible. And yet, why this land chose me was because I was to bear witness, and help to regenerate, this forest ecocystem. And today, the land wants to offer me a lesson on nature’s regenerative processes.

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond

Shifting perspective; tree reflections on a thawing pond.

And so, as I walk, my eyes naturally first gravitate to the stumps or some of the downed brush that the loggers left behind. But this land is not asking me to pay attention to the damage. It is asking me to pay attention to what is happening in terms of regrowth. That same giant oak stump, beautiful, powerful, grows mushrooms that weren’t there in the fall, but are here in January are bursting forth, even for a few fleeting warm days. Mushrooms are opportunists; at even the smallest amount of moisture, temperature change, they take advantage.  These mushrooms have done just that and are magnificently emerging–in the cold of winter–from this huge stump.  That’s the magic of the microcosm: the work of the cycle of nutrients, of life and death, of decay and rebirth.  Not only in nature does this happen, but also in our own bodies: many mushrooms, including turkey tail, growing here on this land, are used quite effectively for fighting cancer and free radicals in the human body.

 

Mushrooms!

Mushrooms!

 

I reach down to touch a mushroom and feel my hand go moist and slimy–even the slugs are out on this fine January day. We think the world is so cold, so frozen, so devoid of life after weeks of fridigly cold temperatures, but a single warm day proves this to be an illusion. Beneath the frozen pond, beneath the ice and snow, life awaits. It is a good lesson that nature teaches me every year–the land is always awake. Even two warm days encourage the emergence of insect life, the sprouting of mushrooms and the movement of buzzing beetles in the pond. When the cold hits again, they simply slow down and wait it out.

 

This same lesson is a useful one in our own lives. I think sometimes we have periods of cold and dark where it seems like we are barely moving. Perhaps, we too, are waiting it out. But beneath that waiting, our roots are reaching deep, the germination of the seed is already begun. Life is ready, at any moment, to spring forth.  And in the most unexpected moments and ways, it does.

More mushrooms!

More mushrooms!

 

When all the snow melted away, the skeletons of the plants from last season are still there, their dried bodies moving against the breeze. I recognize the dried lobelia, goldenrod, and wild lettuce; three potent healing herbs. Lobelia serves as a powerful antispasmodic in small doses (dealing with cramps and spasms) and yet functions as an emetic (that is, makes you puke) in large doses. Goldenrod serenades the fall sun and waves goodbye as the sun sets upon the light half of the year. Goldenrod is a wonderful anti-inflammatory (internally and externally) and really useful for allergies as an anti-histamine. Wild lettuce has psychoactive properties and can be used for pain relief. As I look at the skeletons of these plants, I reach down to the dried lobelia.  As I touch her, hundreds of tiny seeds spring forth, black specks upon the melting snow.  Her children, soon, will arise in the spring.

Grasses by the flooded creek

Grasses by the flooded creek.

 

As I walk, I check on the trees that I planted in the fall on Black Friday (what I call “buy nothing, do something” day). So many of the stakes of the tree tubes have gotten heaved up from the ice and cold, and I push them back into the earth. I look forward to seeing how many of the little seedlings take root and flourish here, their presence forever changing the make up of this land. Their planting is my first move to help this forest return to a pre-colonial form, an abundant food forest: chestnuts, paw paws, hickories, and oaks that will one day produce a tremendous amount of abundance. It was the logging that cleared the way for me to replant. In permaculture design terms, the problem was the solution. In fact, everywhere I look, my permaculture design training kicks in. I have many things I want to do, so many ideas for this land.  But when my head starts racing, I am told simply to “wait”. I know that whatever I don’t get to do in my time here, nature will do herself, in her own time and in her own way.

 

As I continue my walk, I come to a maple tree.  The split in her trunk is quite large, yet she grows strong. An imperfection has made her perfect, in the sense that she is still alive and growing because she was not a good candidate for logging.

Imperfection saved this tree!

Imperfection saved this tree.

It is the same with the Guardian Oak in the Eastern part of the property overlooking the creek; a giant burl on the tree allowed this tree to survive.  The burl, an imperfection, allowed this massive and ancient oak the ability to thrive. There are deep lessons here. If we are too perfect, if we strive to be too straight and tall and narrow, the loggers may come for us. Better to be weird, different, quirky, and certainly not commercially valuable–that is how we survive, and thrive, in these difficult times.  It reminds me of the Wendell Berry poem “Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” where he writes “Your mind will be punched in a card / and shut away in a little drawer. / When they want you to buy something / they will call you. When they want you / to die for profit they will let you know. / So, friends, every day do something/ that won’t compute….Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction.”  Wiser words were never spoken, and perhaps, the oak and the maple have their own last laugh, for they are still growing strong, quirky as ever.

A mighty fine burl indeed!

A mighty fine burl indeed!

Another interpretation: the burl, which many would see as an imperfection, something wrong or diseased, is also the greatest strength for this oak.  It asks us: how might we transform our sorrow/pain/suffering into a strength? How might our inperfections be our greatest gifts? The lesson of transformation whispers through the oak’s dried and still present leaves as they crackle in the January air.

 

I continue to look around, seeing the powerful life and strength here. This land, despite having been logged four times 40 years, is not a victim. The mushrooms growing in sub-zero temperatures laugh at the idea that they are anyone’s victim. The overflowing stream, Penn Run, that flows at the edge of my land babbles in joy at the ability to wash away the old and bring in the new. There is no pain here, only life. There is nothing here that should’t be just as it is.  Being here is an honor and a gift.

Acorn in the brush!

Acorn in the brush!

 

PS: I have two annoucements for this week:

 

I want to thank everyone for their patience while I took a blogging hiatus for most of January.  I spent the month working on my article studying the bardic arts for the OBOD’s 2018 Mt. Haemus Award.  I’ll be sharing more about that piece in next week’s blog post!

 

Also, if you are looking for a good druid gathering, consider joining me at MAGUS (the OBOD’s MidAtlantic US Gathering).  It is open to members, guests, and friends of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) as well as those with an interest in druidry. I will be the keynote speaker for MAGUS this year and will be doing a workshop and leading the main ritual (another form of the Galdr we did last year). MAGUS takes place at the beautiful Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, an amazing place where we raise standing stones. Registration is now open for the event. Find out more information here.

 

Reparation and Healing the Land as part of American Druidry

Sunrise over the land

Sunrise over the land

Two weeks ago, I talked about what American Druidry looks like. One of the big issues that came up in conversations here on the blog in the comments and also in the comments on the Druid’s Garden Facebook page was guilt from those of non-indigenous heritage. Guilt about the legacy of abuses against Native Americans in this country–a legacy that continues to this day. Guilt of being here on this land, knowing that many of us who are here now are here because of three centuries of genocide. Guilt about knowing that despite all that we may do now, this past bloodshed colors the way that we interact with the land, our relationships with the spirits of the land, and everything else we try to do to connect with the land and build sacredness.  In the last two weeks, I’ve heard how people feel the spirits of the land aren’t open to them because of this legacy, how they don’t even know what to do to begin to rectify it, or they don’t think they have a right to do anything to the land, or how they are afraid to act because they might do more damage. For some people, these feelings of guilt are literally preventing them from doing much of anything because they don’t feel they have a right to the land. I’m glad we are having these conversations, and I think these are the start of understanding a way forward.  This week, I want to more deeply share my perspective.  That is, I want to talk about moving beyond guilt and doing reparations: the work of repair.

 

The Right to Speak?

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially today, and there’s a lot of question about who even has the right to speak on a topic. Before I begin this conversation, therefore, it is useful to know who I am. I’m a druid, and I have been walking this path for over a decade. I’m a permaculture designer, an herbalist, an whimsical artist, a land healer, a teacher of many things.  But maybe when we say”who I am” what we mean is what blood I carry. On one side of my family, I am a fourth generation descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the US after the potato famine forced many farmers to leave Ireland. These proud Irish came, settled here in Western PA, and mined coal. On the other side, my family has a very…colorful past. We have in the same generation (mingled in later bloodlines) a very well-known historical figure, a prominent general, who successfully defeated the Native Americans on their own soil and slaughtered thousands in his lifetime. We also have Shawnee man of whom little is known (as it is a taboo topic to the older generations in my family, but DNA records demonstrate that this “unmentionable fact” is true). We also have Pennsylvania Dutch (that is, PA German) ancestry. This pretty much makes me a mutt with direct ancestral ties both to this land and the bloodshed that happened. Does this mixed ancestry give me the “right” to speak on this issue? I have no idea, but at least, now you know where I’m coming from and can evaluate what I say based on that, if such things matter.

 

To me, my own ancestry or what my ancestors did or didn’t do isn’t as important as the work I do today. What was done before me were other people’s lives, decisions, and choices.  I live in the shadow of those choices, and I certainly have to deal with them, but I can’t change the decisions of my ancestors or others here that caused these things to happen. I can’t change the bloodshed that was caused by General George Custer and his contemporaries.  I can’t change the pillaging of the Allegheny Mountains for coal, steel, and iron. I can’t change the past. The only power I have is the work I can do in the present.  I think that this is the best response I can have: to help repair the damage that was done, to help put balm on these centuries-old wounds, and to rebuild my own relationship with the land. And so, I focus my energies on that work, rather than lamenting the past or my ancestors’ place in it.

 

The Work of Repair

When we hear the term “reparations”, most frequently in the US it is tied to discussions and activism surrounding the monetary compensation for past horrible crimes (genocide, slavery, war crimes, etc).  But this term has a lot of meanings, and its useful to explore those, especially in the context of nature spirituality on American soil.

 

Merriam Webster’s is a good place to start to think about this term and what it can offer us:

  • 1 a : repairing or keeping in repair
    • b reparations plural : repairs
  • 2 a : the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury
    • b : something done or given as amends or satisfaction
  • 3 : the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation usually used in plural

All three of these definitions give us something to consider in terms of the work of repair.   We do need to be active in the tending of the land (definition 1a-b).  We also do need to make amends for the wrong or injury that has been done to the land and her peoples.  And finally, we do need to find some way of compensating those who have been wronged.  And unlike ancestors’ actions and the choices of past generations, which is inherently disempowering and makes us feel bad without anything to be done, the work of repair offers us the ability to actively engage in this work today.

 

A Framework for Repair: Nurturing, Care, and Peace

On this blog, I’ve long talked about three ideas that I think offer us a framework for the work of repair: shifting from exploitative practices to nurturing ones, the permaculture ethical system of care, and peace-making as a spiritual practice.  My long-term readers will recognize the currents that run into this conversation, but I’ll also summarize for those of you newer to the blog:

 

First, Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, in the opening chapters, Berry describes two orientations toward the land: that of the exploiter and that of the nurturer.  He describes the exploiter as the agribusiness person who seeks to extract as many resources as possible from the land for profit.  We might easily point to any number of colonizing activities, stealing land from native peoples, pillaging natural resources, fossil fuel extraction activities, mountaintop removal, etc.  In other words, he describes the behaviors and activities and unfortunate cultural heritage of the present day United States, a cultural heritage that each of us have inherited.  The nurturer, by comparison, is a small family farmer in Berry’s estimation, someone who is as much concerned with the health of the land as he/she is with its productivity.  The nurturer, then, makes care a primary concern and thinks not only about what is taken now, but how those actions impact the health of the land and her people.

 

Expanding on this notion of care, the permaculture ethical system offers us further tools.  The ethics of people care, earth care, fair share, and self care are interwoven: to care for the land is to care for the people, to take one’s fair share is inherently to care for self and others, and so on.  The point here is care as a primary virtue. Within permaculture is the idea that humans can be a force of good.

 

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

Huglekultur Beds (another form of repair work)

This leads me to the third thing: we can tie care and nurturing directly to the work of druidry through the tradition’s emphasis on peace, the work of reciprocation, and the work of honoring the spirits.  I think this is critical: its not just that the land is somehow under our care, but that we are in direct relationship with it.  Its a deep reverence and respect that druidry offers this conversation–the work of peace.

The Work of Repair

In my experience, it is necessary to show the spirits of the land that I’m a different kind of human: the last four centuries, particularly on the East Coast of the US where I live, have primarily involved people who look like me pillaging the land.  When I walk into the woods or enter any other natural place, how do the spirits know I’m a different kind of human?  Certainly not by what I say–the cultural legacy of the US has shown, time and time again, how words can’t be trusted.  No, the spirits of the land will know me based on my actions: what I do, directly, to care for the land and engage in the work of repair.   It is through this work, I believe, that I have continued to develop a very deep relationship with the spirits of my landscape, of the Allegheny Mountains, and of many other places that I have visited.

 

And I’m not just talking about doing ritual in the woods.  I think that doing rituals and that kind of land healing work is critically important (and I’ve advocated for it myself, led large group rituals, etc). But rather, I’m talking about the physical labor of helping to plant trees, heal land, clean up trash, reseed the landscape, etc.  And so, what I believe the work of repair is work that is:

 

  • both psychical and energetic in nature
  • offers healing and strengthening to the land
  • puts the land in better physical shape than it was found (i.e. engages in activity that directly speeds the healing of the land; such as many permaculture techniques)
  • offers these actions from a fundamental place of care, nurturing, and mutality

 

I can’t sit here and tell you what you should be doing to do the work of repair. Each of us has to find our own way forward with this work given our limitations and resources–but the above philosophies and orientations and the above definition can certainly help put you in the framework for the repair work.  What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about some of the things I’ve been doing and how that fits the above framework.   I’ve talked a ton about energetic repair already through my long land healing series from last year, so I’m going to now give some physical repair examples.

 

Some Examples of Repair

I wanted to share three recent examples of the work of repair work that will heal and strengthen not only the land here, but my physical connection to the land.

 

Countering Black Friday with Tree Planting

Some of the trees planted!

Some of the trees planted!

I think Black Friday is the most horrific day of the year, it is an anti-holiday that pays homage to mass consumption and cycles of waste.  I went out once when I was 17, and have never participated in it since then.  And so, to counter the consumerist frenzy that takes place on Black Friday, I always like to do something in line with people care, earth care, or fair share on that day.  I think this is a wonderful way to show the spirits of the land that you are a different kind of human and reject the lure of consumption.

 

This past Black Friday, a friend and I planted 45 trees on my new property.  Earlier on this blog I mentioned how the land here has been timbered four times in forty years, and how I was working with the spirits of the land here to help heal.  As part of that work, I have been working to replant the forest–both with seeds as well as with small trees.  After consulting with the spirits, we’ve decided to try to bring this forest back to something more akin to what it would have been before my white ancestors arrived: in PA, that’s about 33% chestnut with other hardwood nut trees and an understory of PawPaw, Elder, Spicebush, and more.  And that’s exactly what I worked to plant: 25 chestnuts, 20 paw paws, and a few other assorted nut and fruit trees (persimmon, hazel, and, to anticipate more climate change, Pecan).

 

It was a long day of backbreaking labor, but at the end, it was a day well spent.  Rather than engaging in activities that took from the land (through the manufacture of consumer goods, the spending of fossil fuels to visit stores, etc), I used only my own human energy to move trees, move compost, plant the trees, and more. After that day, each day, I walk out on the land and see the many blue tree tubes and smile with joy.  And since then, I’ve also done ritual to support their growth and health.  The spirits of the land are happy that this kind of work is happening here, and that brings me into a closer relationship with them.

 

Waste as a Resource: Humanure Composting

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

The Druid’s Garden beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

Last year, I wrote about Humanure composting and shared my design for a humanure toilet (modeled after the “Lovable Loo” design from the Humanure Handbook).  In that post, I described why people compost their waste and how to do it.  I have continued to engage in this practice and I believe it is a wonderful way of engaging in repair work.  I have decided to compost down and then return all of my own waste to the wild areas on my land since so much had been taken from them with regards to logging.  I find that this brings me back into cycle with the land and honors the land by putting resources back (rather than sending them “away” to mix with municipal septic systems). One of the things I’m doing now that I’m on my new land is to take this a step further by switching my cats from a clay-based litter to a wood based litter (made of recycled waste wood).  Once this proves successful, I will also compost all of their waste in their own compost bin, and again, after two years of composting, return those resources to the land. The point here is simple: what my household eats (my household being myself and my two cats) is taken from the land and therefore, in any form, should be returned to it.  That’s the work of care and nurturing, and that brings balance.

 

Sheet Mulch, Lawn Liberation, and Web Soil Repair

A final way that I’ve long engaged in the work of repair is cultivating a healthy soil web and replacing lawns with gardens of all kinds.  As I’ve discussed before, the lawn is a site of consumption: it does not offer a healthy ecosystem, it does not offer food or forage to wildlife, and it certainly is not healthy from the perspective of nature.  Developing gardens (for wildlife and humans) and converting lawns into other things is inherently repair work.  It repairs not only the relationship between the spirits of the land and the human, but also helps repair the human’s spirit.

 

There are lots of ways to do this: a common one is through sheet mulching (which I wrote about here and here).  You simply add a weeds suppression layer (cardboard most often) and then layer on organic matter (fall leaves, manure, finished compost, wood chips–many things that other people see as “waste” and leave on the side of the road for you to pick up).  This takes away the grass and immediately gives you a good growing media. This isn’t the only technique to do this (I’ll be talking about another–hugelkultur–in an upcoming blog post) but it is certainly a great one to get started!

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

Sheet mulching at Sirius Ecovillage

 

Supporting Native Peoples

I also want to talk about people care here before I conclude today’s post. There are no longer tribes of native peoples where I live; all that is left of them are the place names that once represented them. However, in other parts of the US, primarily out west, we certainly do have many native peoples still actively fighting for the rights of the land, the water, and their sovereignty and dignity as people.   Further, we have indigenous people all over the world who also are fighting similar battles.  And if we care about the work of repair, we also have to care about–and fight for–them. I think part of the work of repair can also be supporting native peoples: writing letters to representatives, offering monetary donations to causes, and being informed on what the issues are and how you can help.

 

Closing

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought in terms of how we might continue to shape a distinctly American Druidry through the work of repair. The work in this post, I believe, is necessary if we are to deepen our own connection to the land and her spirits, but also work to get beyond the guilt of the past and work to actively remedy, as much as we are able, the wrongs that have been done.   It is through this deep work that I believe we can cultivate deep–rather than surface–relationships with the land and especially with the spirits of the land, those who have been here for millennia.

 

I also want to conclude by saying that I am under no illusion that the work I’ve outlined here is enough to repair all of these old wounds. I believe that that the full work of repair will take generations of people.  But what I do believe is that someone has to pick up that work and start doing it, and that someone can be me–and perhaps you as well!

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

Save

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

Save

Save