Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

The Wheel of the Year is obviously a powerful symbol, both in nature spiritual practices like druidry as well as more general neopagan practices.  It resonates with something that is ancestral and connected–living by the cycles and honoring the seasons. A host of different traditions use some form of a yearly wheel, and when you join many traditions, the wheel of the year is a critical part of the practice. But what do these holidays mean? How do they actually connect to our lives?  How do they connect to our local ecosystems, and how do the wheel holidays help us connect with nature?  I consider these questions and argue for a wildcrafted wheel of the year rooted in your own observation, connection, and daily life in connection with nature.

As a druid for the last 16 years, I feel like this is a question I continue to return to over and over again.  I even wrote a book on sustainable living practices as sacred action using a wheel of the year framework (see Sacred Actions) trying to explore these issues from yet another perspective.  I’ve celebrated these in all sorts of ways–by myself and in various groves and groups, formally and less formally, with other people’s rituals and my own.  And yet, I feel like almost every year, I get another piece of what it means to really live this wheel but also what complications and changes I have to make.

When I first took up the path of druidry when I was still in college, I began celebrating the wheel by looking at rituals in books and enacting them. There was nothing wrong with this approach, but I was essentially bringing in other people’s visions and classical interpretations of the wheel from an ecosystem in which I didn’t live.  It was a good foundation and gave me a connection to a tradition I was still attempting to understand.  However, it wasn’t until I really started delving deeply into wildcrafting my own druidry and developing an eco-regional approach that I really started to understand these practices.

I had an epiphany this week about Imbolc and the real power of this holiday. We had a pretty warm December and then January plunged us into very cold and dark times.  January was exhausting after weeks of sub-zero temperatures where we were trying to keep our animals warm, bringing hot buckets of water out to them several times a day, learning how to live with chickens in a tent in our spare bedroom–the chickens can’t handle the bitter cold we had.  Thus, the handsome Pythagoras, our roo, woke us up crowing up the sun every day!  Each morning, I’d face the bitter cold to tend to the animals, coming in like an icicle to warm by the fire (which I had to stoke and tend before venturing out). We spent our days making sure we had enough wood, and one of us was always up tending the fires throughout the night and wee morning hours.  It was pretty intense. This was deep winter, cold winter, dark winter, where the sun hardly even came out of the sky. And then, on January 31st, the weather broke.  We moved out of the teens and had a 30-degree day (I’m speaking Fahrenheit here!). The chickens got to leave their house tent purgatory, and the ducks and geese had their pools filled with water for the first time in weeks.  As the geese and ducks joyfully swam in their pool, you could see the joy and relief on their faces.  They knew the weather had shifted. And then  February 1st came and with it the flowing of the maple trees. The wheel had just turned from dark winter into late winter, and we celebrated Imbolc and tapped our maple trees.

I tell this story because, if I hadn’t lived on a homestead where we are required to go outside many times a day to tend our animals, the importance of this day would have likely been lost. I remember when I lived in an apartment, dorms, or a townhouse–I didn’t really pay attention much. I would have probably turned up the heat, ran the water a little extra to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then thought nothing of it on the way to the car or into a building.  Because that’s how it is in modern life is–everything is designed to make you a cog in the machine that never changes.  Regardless of what is happening in the ecosystem, you just keep on going.  But that’s not really what creates a deeply connected and wildcrafted wheel of the year.  Crafting our own wheel requires us to pay attention.

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh...with a portal into the unknown

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh…with a portal into the unknown

It was the experience of having to be out there in the cold for weeks on end, seeing the animals enduring the cold and suffering, and then after all of that, experiencing that powerful break in the weather and the first thaw.  As soon as the thaw happened, local wildlife changed activities, our flocks grew much more active and happy, our own spirits lifted as the temperatures rose.  When I think about the historical origins of Imbolc, how it was a holiday originally surrounding the lactating of ewes, I say yes–this must have been such a relief to those farmers and peasants who had just suffered through a difficult January.  Maybe the food stores were running a bit scarce.  Maybe they woke up for the 30th day in a row and froze each morning like I did while taking care of the animals and think…will this ever end?  And then, suddenly, it does. That was the power of Imbolc.  The breaking of the cold and dark times.  The promise that spring will return.  The flow of milk–of nutrients, of life.

I write all of this to illustrate a simple point: these holidays make more sense when we are deeply embedded in our landscape.  When we are deeply connected with nature, when we are out in it every day, when we–through our own life choices or commitments–are required to endure it along with the rest of nature, then we can learn the lessons the wheel really offers us.  Living the wheel of the year–not just celebrating it–teaches us the important lessons of that moment.  When we spend time in nature and commit to being out there, then we are forced to contend with whatever nature throws at us.  When we are understanding the holidays not only in terms of history or lore but based on our actual experience, then the wheel of the year unfolds for us.

And this is critical–in order to make the wheel of the year yours, a wildcrafted wheel that you build yourself, one of the best approaches is to find seasonal markers that make sense for you (I shared a lot more about this approach earlier in this post).  Maybe it’s the flow of the maples or the return of the robin, maybe it’s the hawthorn blossoming.  To me, these moments in our own landscapes are much more important than dates we may have from traditions that are far removed from us.  These kinds of key observational markers also will make sense in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is throwing off traditional seasons.

And here’s the other thing I learned through this process–not everyone has an eightfold wheel of the year.  Your wheel might be threefold, binary (rainy and dry), or even more.  In fact, I worked up a 12-fold wheel of the year for my region that actually works better than the eight (I shared that philosophy on the link above).  The idea being that there are distinct phases of each of the four seasons (and 4×3 = 12).  My 12-fold wheel allows me to understand my ecosystem in much more detail and allows me to see each season as waxing and waning.  What I found in creating these wildcrafted seasonal markers is that I start to anticipate them, look forward to them, and honor them as they occur.  So rather than having arbitrary dates and times that are disconnected, I do what my ancient ancestors did–I observe, make meaning of the observations, and build that into my spiritual practice.  And, I learn to honor and appreciate holidays like Imbolc at a deeper level.

What I’m suggesting takes time and effort.  You don’t have to do it all at once.  I suggest taking some time, a year and a day, maybe even longer, and simply observing what is right outside your door.  Ideally, your seasonal markers for the wheel will be happening in your everyday life–and if you are in an urban setting, they may also be dictated by the patterns of people as well as nature.  E.g. perhaps the early part of summer is when the local public pool opens.  The built and human-based environment is still part of our environment; we are all part of nature.

PS: This is part of my Ancient Order of Druids in America-themed posts.  AODA as a druid order is extremely committed to helping druids “wildcraft” their druidries and create local practices.  I am currently the Grand Archdruid in AODA, and have been a member for the last 16 years.  For more information on AODA, please visit www.aoda.org.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Reskilling at Imbolc

Imbolc–the first signs of spring (artwork by myself and my father, Mark Driscoll)

In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring.  Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles.  In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions.  So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities.  As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world.  Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it.  Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.

If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:

  • Fall Equinox: Receptivity.  Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear.  In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
  • Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age.  By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
  • Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices.  In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.

These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.

One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series.  My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed.  From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal.  That’s ok, do your thing.

Reskilling at Imbolc

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.

As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions:  Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you?  How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?

One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost.  The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe.  These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.

Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more.  The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.

Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays.  This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.

Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc.  So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction.  That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.

Reskilling

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.

Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc.  So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs.  These basics actually encompass quite a few things:

  • Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
  • Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
  • Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
  • Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
  • Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
  • Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
  • Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here.  These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.

This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.

Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in.  When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.

If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above.  Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a  skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills.  Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!

Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.

Sacred Actions and Reskilling

One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)

Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work.  It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.

Blessing and Honoring Your Tools

Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and  I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:

  • Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
  • I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use.  When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.

Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work.  You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).

Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft

Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.

For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling.  I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post.  In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings.  In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.

You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft.  You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project).  This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.

A Commitment to the Journey

A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft.  I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside.  After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony.  For this ceremony, I suggest that you:

  • Honor and bless your tools
  • Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
  • Set goals
  • Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits

You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate.  For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this.  I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me.  I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them.  I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them.  I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create.  I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space.  I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.

Conclusion

When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy.  I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were.  We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent.  Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet.  Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.

The big issue that a lot of people have is time.  Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy.  But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.  Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.

I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?

Building a Rocket Stove Maple Sap Boiler / Evaporator for Maple Sugarin’: Design Plans and Instructions for Boiling Sap

The Maple Sap Boiler!

Maple syrup season is one of my favorite times of year. Honoring the maple trees, collecting the sap in buckets, seeing the magic drip from the trees, and feeling the return of early spring.  Sap begins running just after the deep freeze is over, usually in early February here in the Alleghney Mountains in Western Pennsylvania. A very important factor in collecting sap is having a plan for boiling that sap into maple sugar.  Today’s post will give you full instructions for how to build a very wood efficient outdoor maple sap boil system using bricks, a stovepipe, and four restaurant trays.  I’ve used this system for five years at two different locations and it is one of the best setups I’ve seen.  For more information on maple sugaring, please see the magic of maple trees and maple sap.

There are a few key features about this setup:

  1. You can boil quite a large amount of sap using relatively small amounts of wood because it is using rocket stove technology. We boiled 40 gallons of sap down in 6 hours in March 2021 this system. That included about 45 minutes of getting the fire going and about 5 hours of boiling. We used two small piles of wood, most of which we trimmed as dead wood off of some of our Norway Spruce trees.  Thus, this is an extremely efficient system and can be fueled with downed wood.  The best kind of wood for this system is longer pieces of wood that are the thickness of your wrist or less.  The goal is to keep the flames on the boil system.  Wooden palates also work really well for this.
  2. This system (new) will cost you about $200, and half of that is the cost of the stainless steel pans and the rest is the bricks and stovepipe. However, many of these materials are quite easy to source for free or used, so take advantage of that. In fact, the stovepipe and most of the bricks all were salvaged here on the land, so the only thing we paid for was the boil pans. If you boil 40 gallons of sap a year, the system will pay for itself in under 4 years (around here, local maple syrup runs about $65/gallon). 
  3. This system requires no skills other than some sweat equity to build!
  4. The system doubles as a large party grill, so invite your friends over for the 4th of July for some grilled meats and veggies!  You will just need to source a griddle for it for this use (we use one for free that a friend gave us from her old oven).
  5.  Wood-fired maple syrup tastes much more incredible than maple syrup finished in commercial boilers. When you boil the syrup with wood, the syrup takes on a hint of smokiness that is just incredible. It’s hard to describe the exquisite flavor, but it is truly one of the best things you’ll ever taste!

So with all of that, let’s get started with how to build your own rocket stove maple sap boiling system!

Materials and Supplies

The following are the building materials that you will need to construct your rocket stove boiler.

  • Gravel: Several wheelbarrows full of gravel, depending on how level your original site is
  • Concrete bricks:  24 blocks for the sides and approximately 9 blocks for the back (depending on how you construct your boiler).  They cost about $3 or you can usually easily find them for free or used on Craig’s list (in the US).  We ended up using a mix of bricks foraged from the property that were left by previous owners with some new bricks–you can adjust for slight size differences.
  • Stovepipe: An wood stovepipe with a cap is your second piece of equipment. This is necessary for getting the fire really burning as it allows you to create a rocket stove effect for greatly enhanced efficiency.  Find one used –but make sure it is for wood and not gas.
  • Restaurant Pans: This boil system uses a set of four nested restaurant pans (full size, 6″ deep, stainless steel).  These represent about a $100 investment but can be used for years and years.  We’ve been using the same pans for 5 years now and they show no signs of wearing out.

You will also need some supplies on hand to complete the job:

  • Garden rake or hole to smooth out gravel
  • Shovel to help level and move gravel
  • Wheelbarrow  gravel and bricks
  • Level

Choosing Your Site

Once you have your materials, it is time to choose a site.  I would recommend three considerations:

  • Location: make sure it is at least reasonably near where you are tapping your trees. Large amounts of maple syrup are not exactly easy to move around, and so, you will want your boil system located near your trees if at all possible. 
  • Trees: Second, make sure wherever your stovepipe is located isn’t too close to branches or trees–the heat coming out of this is pretty intense.  You don’t want to damage trees in your sugarbush. 
  • Level: Finally, you will need to have a level surface for building your boiler, so starting with somewhere relatively level is a good idea.  You can always level the area out with soil and/or gravel.

Steps

The end goal is to have a boiler that is 4 standard concrete bricks long, 3 bricks high, and has a fairly sealed in the back that can keep your stovepipe secure. 

Cut-away view of the Maple Sap boiler with a shot of how to place the stovepipe for getting the rocket action!

Level your site and add a gravel foundation. The first thing you will want to do is create a level site using gravel.  We laid down 4″ of gravel across the area where we were building our boiler.  Level out the gravel as best you can, and check to see that it is relatively level before you start adding your bricks.  You can do this by using a larger level or use a smaller level on a piece of 2×4 board.  Adding gravel is important for two reasons–first, it allows the site to have good drainage and it prevents frost heaving (which is obviously an issue anywhere you are harvesting maple sap).

Build your walls, ensuring they are level and that the pans fit between them.  Next, you will build your two walls, building one tier of bricks at a time.  The first tier of bricks is two lines of four bricks across, and 21″ apart (the pans are 20″ 3/4″ wide).  As you work, make sure your bricks are level both short-wise and long-wise so that as you build your structure, you can keep it level.   After you lay your first set of bricks along both walls, double-check that all four of your pans fit and adjust accordingly.

Then, add your second layer and repeat the process, and finally, add your third layer and repeat once more.   At this point, your pans should fit snugly, but they should be able to be lifted out and put in with relative ease (remember when you start boiling, you will have to remove them at the end of the boil!)

Build your back and secure your stovepipe. I‘m going to show photos of how we built our back.  There are a few considerations.  First, you want to seal it up as much as possible so that the airflow goes primarily through the pipe and out any cracks (you can use cob for this or even small pieces of the concrete block).  You could use ashes or vermiculite if you wanted, but we just added smaller pieces of block.  Second, you will want to make sure your stovepipe is extremely stable so once you start boiling, you don’t encounter issues where it falls over, etc.  Second, you want to make sure you place a half brick or large stone under the pipe–as the ash builds up as you are burning all day, you do not want the pipe to clog.  Ours sits about 4″ off of the ground.

We had an interesting chimney-sized brick that was a square with a hole on our property, so we used that as something to better hold our stovepipe.   You can also just hold it in place with a few bricks long-wise.  After all of this building, you are ready to fire it up and boil!

Using your Boiler

I have some tips and tricks for using this boiler, as I’ve been boiling sap on this kind of setup for six years.  Here they are:

The absolute most important thing is to make sure your fire is going well for about 45 minutes before you add your pans.  One of the things that will cause the most grief and slow down your boil is a poor fire with your pans added too early.  If you get your fire started and wait at least 45 minutes, keeping it fed, by the time you add your pans, it should be able to keep going.  This means you need to procure wood and make sure its dry before the day of your boil (cause no wood outside is dry in Feb/March!)

Make sure you have dry wood that burns well. Your goal is high flames and a hot fire–not coals.  The flames should be touching the bottom of your boil pans.  This means you want smaller diameter wood (sticks, branches, wood palettes).  Often, your sugarbush will have enough downed branches that if you collect and keep dry, you will have enough.  If not, pick up some pine palates–they work wonderfully in this boil system and burn very hot. Cutting dead branches off of nearby conifers is also excellent and will yield many flames.  We recently had part of an Eastern Hemlock come down and a year later, that wood is amazing for sugarin’.

Good eats cooked on the edge of the boiler on a cast iron griddle!

You will need to tend your boiler throughout the day.  Plan on feeding it wood every 15 min, keeping an eye on the amount of boil, adding more sap, moving sap, and generally enjoying the day. This is an activity that requires your presence and is certainly “slow food.” Choose a nice day for boiling–you want a sunny day, as warm as it can be.  Usually, here our trees run in late January and through February and we choose to boil on a warm day in early March for boiling.

For your boil, you will want to have some kind of wire skimmer/strainer with a fine mesh, a mug or dipper for moving sap between the different pans, some heat-resistant gloves or mitts, and a vessel for transporting your finished sap (I recommend a pressure canner since it has the locking lid) for moving your hot sap to the house for finishing.  The oven mitts WILL get sooty so those from your kitchen will likely be ruined (which, of course, I learned the hard way).

You want your sap to be actually boiling–if it’s steaming but not boiling, it will take a LOT longer to boil off and your fire needs to be hotter.  Getting that rolling boil is necessary to make progress on your sap. You can get it too hot and then it starts to boil over–just add more cool sap to cool the pan down if necessary. 

The bricks next to the stovepipe will have a little bit of rocket action themselves–so it is a good place to cook yourself some lunch or dinner, especially if you have an iron griddle (see below).

This is about as dark as you want to go outside–bring it in the house to finish at this point.

Sugaring can be a really fun and community-oriented event.  In the many boils I have participated in over a decade, I’ve learned how to carve spoons, weave baskets, make cordage, and a number of other natural crafts that we would enjoy as we sat around the fire and took turns tending it. 

As you are gathering up your sap, make sure to discard any ice in your buckets or storage containers.  The sugars stay in the remaining non-frozen sap, so you can save yourself hours of boil time by removing the ice–this condenses down your sap and there is less to boil off.

The point of an outdoor boil is to boil off 80-90% of the water–and then take it indoors for finishing.  It’s hard to maintain the right levels of heat in this system to get it 100% of the way–you risk scorching or burning it.  So by doing most of it outside and finishing it on your stove (where you have full control) you are able to really be effective.

Sugaring Stage 1

Boiler Pans - the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Boiler Pans – the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Get your fire going and wait about 45 min until it is going really strong and well. If you add your pans too early, you will struggle to get the fire going and waste a lot of time.  Once it is going and will stay going when you feed it wood, add your boil pans being careful not to burn yourself.  Then, pour 3″ of sap in each pan. 

The way this system works is that the pans closest to the stovepipe will be hotter than the ones further out.  So your first pan, at the opening of the fire, will be your warming pan, your second pan will be hot and maybe boiling and pans 3 and 4 are your main boiling pans. You can see this from my image.

Feed your fire regularly, trying to make sure the flames are enough to keep at least your first two pans boiling steadily.  As the pans start to boil down, you will add the liquid from the 2nd pan into the 3rd and 4th as they boil.  Then add sap from the warming pan (1st pan) to the 2nd pan, and add more cold sap into the warming pan.  Use your mug for this.

This method works best because if you are adding cold sap directly, you are slowing down your boil–and the more you slow down your boil, the less efficient you are.  By adding sap from the second pan that is near boiling, you will not slow down your boil.  By having a warming pan, you keep the sap heating up and ready to move. As you boil, your final two pans will get darker and darker as the sugars are concentrated in the syrup.

As you are boiling, there will be bits of stuff in your sap–strain it as you add it, but the smoke and ash will continue to come into it a little bit (this is GOOD as it gives amazing flavor).  As the foam appears, skim it off and discard it.

Toward the end of the boil, you will either boil through your sap or get tired and want to call it a day.  At this point, your strategy switches.  You don’t want to boil it too far down or you can risk it turning to sugar–and the outdoor boil system isn’t very precise.  One of the things to look for when you are getting ready to be done is that the bubbles in the boil get thicker and the color turns much darker.  So, as you see your pans boil down and you are out of sap, you can start removing them.  First, pour off any remaining sap into your 2nd pan from your first and remove it.  Then, do the same with the second.  Allow these to boil down another 15-20 min and then, rake out your coals. 

Getting down to the final two boil pans!

At this point, you will want a good vessel that can carry your sap back to the house.  The absolute best tool for this job is a pressure canner with a lid that locks.  This will prevent you from burning yourself and you can finish it right in the pressure canner.

The easiest way to remove your sap is to label it out with your mug into your pressure canner until the boiling pan is almost empty.  Then, with a friend, each of you can take one side and pour off the rest. The pans are hot so be careful. They are also covered with soot, and you might be too after handling them.

At this point, put the lid on your pressure canner and take it back to the house.  You still have to boil it down a bit more on the stove.

Indoor Finishing

Finishing your sap indoors usually takes another hour or two, depending on how far down you were able to get your sap.  Bring your sap to a boil again, and with a spoon, check it every 15 minutes.  You should try to keep an overhead fan running–if you boil too much sap down in your house your house can actually get sticky (this is why we do outdoor boils).  After another hour or two (or 5, if you still have to go quite a ways), you will boil it down to the point where you have a thick and lovely maple syrup.  What I usually do is bring out a little syrup I have from the year before and compare it to what is in my pot–and when I get to the same consistency, I am done. 

The spoon test: the one on the left is from last year and the one on the right is from this year. The one on the right still needs to boil down a bit more

Get yourself a few clean mason jars, and pour your sap into your mason jars.  Wait 24 hours.  You’ll have some stuff in the bottom of the jars from the ash and smoke from the boil.  Pour these off carefully, making sure not to get any of the stuff from the bottom of the jar.  Usually, if I’m pouring off 3-4 jars, I will pour all of the sludge into one jar and let that sit a second time, and pour it off a second time.  That’s the syrup that I will use first.  The idea is to get as much of that out–because that will impact the shelf stability of your syrup. You can also experiment with finely woven linen or cheesecloth to get all the bits out. 

There you have it!  This is literally one of my favorite activities to do all year–it is meaningful, sacred, and fulfilling. I wish you the brightest blessings of the maple tree and joy in your endeavors.

 

An Approach to Spiritual Retreat and Rejuvenation: Going Dark Week

Perhaps now more than ever, the idea of taking regular retreats is a critical one. Last week, in my post on the Winter Solstice, I shared the deep need for restorative activities that allow us to heal, process, and deepen our practice–particularly in today’s age and as we move further into the age of the Anthropocene. Finding restoration activities are particularly critical because so many of us are languishing, dealing with the real effects of deepening climate change, dealing with the long-term upheaval and separation due to the pandemic, among a host of other issues. Thus, this week, I want to share one practice that I’ve developed over the years that is particularly helpful–I call it “going dark” or “inner life retreat.”

What is a Going Dark Spiritual Retreat?

Going dark to explore the world of the subconscious and dreams

Going dark to explore the world of the subconscious and dreams

The principle of going dark is very simple–rather than being always on, always available, and always connected–you step off the grid for a bit. You set aside time for a retreat, where you withdraw, physically and virtually from all of your external obligations and instead focus instead on your own spiritual life, your own thoughts, your own healing, and your own creations.  The reason I call it “going dark” is because you literally power down your devices.  The screen goes dark and stays dark.  The quiet is present.  You are off, free from all of it, to focus on your inner spiritual life and connection with the living earth.

Going dark basically is a way to create a very intentional space for yourself, allowing you to withdraw from the world, and eliminate any external inputs from the dominant culture, and be with your own thoughts and mind. You replace these typical inputs with as much time as possible in nature and with your own thoughts.

The other reason I call it “going dark” is that I usually take this a step further–and do some candlelight evenings.  By reducing my dependency on electronics in general, and living by candlelight or firelight for a few days, I find that it is extraordinarily rejuvenating.

Why Go Dark?

Our modern technology creates a series of situations that severely hamper our inner life and create constant demands on our time and attention. First, where we are always expected to be on, 24/7, where many of us are tied to a technological device that is literally always within a few feet of us.  It creates a societal or workplace obligation where we are always available. Many have noted that this has grown immensely worse during the pandemic, where boundaries between work and life have blurred beyond recognition. This creates a situation where our obligations–facilitated by increasing technology–become constant and where we are able to comfortably step away.

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Connecting to the awen!

The second issue is apparent anywhere you go in public: the culture of screens, voices, and talking heads. This is abundantly clear in doctor’s offices, airports, restaurants, etc., where there is a constant chatter of screens. Screens are everywhere people congregate, wait, or travel.  This creates a situation where other people’s thoughts, ideas, and perspectives constantly fill our eyes and our minds. For example, I recently went to the dentist’s office and not only did they have a loud TV in the lounge, I was also expected to watch TV while in the dentist chair (I asked them politely to turn it off).  We become so used to this constant input that we don’t realize how much it fills our minds, preventing us from developing a quality inner life. If we spend all of our time with other people’s thoughts in our heads, we have no space for our own. Without access to those thoughts and space, we lose our rich connection to the subconscious, our dreams, and our creative selves.

The problem is, the stuff above is hard to avoid if you live any kind of typical life or work a typical job.  I work to limit it in my daily life, but I still find that it creeps in more than I’d like–a lot of it has to do with the obligations that I have to work and my other long-term commitments. So creating a regular “detox” and “downtime” from it can really help.  Hence: going dark.

Going Dark: Suggestions and Ideas

When you go dark, you power down the devices and intentionally create quiet space for your own thoughts, creativity, and subconscious to flow.  You realize that technology is not an extension of you, but a tool that can be replaced with other things.  You get into the spirit of nature.

If you want to try this practice, I suggest setting some goals and supports upfront for your spiritual retreat.  They are:

  • Decide how long you would like to go dark and what guidelines you will put in place.  Once you have a sense of it, stick to your plan if at all possible.
  • Let others know as appropriate.  I’ve been doing this for about a decade, but the first time I did it, I didn’t let anyone know. Suddenly, by about day 4, I had multiple people showing up at my house checking on me cause they thought something happened to me.  So…let your family and friends or other people to whom you are obligated to know that you are doing a retreat.  Put an away message on your email, social media, or whatever else so people leave you in peace.
  • Consider setting intentions for your going dark. Spend some time considering how you will spend your time–now that you’ll have more of it.
    • Do you want to stay home or go somewhere different?
    • Do you want to cook or have prepared foods so that you can focus on other things?
    • What kinds of things might you do in the absence of screens?  Meditation, journey work, reading printed books, creative/bardic practices, hiking, being in nature, etc, are just some possibilities.
    • Do you have some goals for the retreat (healing, rest, working on a creative project)? Even if you have some goals, its also really useful to create a lot of open and unstructured time to be led by the voices of spirit, the creative flow of nature, and your own whimsy.
  • Time of year matters. I like to go dark twice a year.  I always go dark in late December and early January because I’m off from work then.  This is usually when I do my best spiritual work and deep dives of the year, allowing creative and spiritual practices to flow.  I also usually go dark in the summer for a week or so, but usually, this involves some outdoor solo trip.

If you want to try going dark, even for a day or two, I do have one other thing to point out. At first, some people can literally experience technology withdrawal with this practice.  That’s because things like social media are addicting and can literally harm us and change our brain chemistry.  If we suddenly remove ourselves from the devices we’ve grown so used to, it can be a shock. Stick with it for a day or two, or even a week, and see how you feel at the end of it.  Too much screen time can lead to a host of chronic conditions in both adults and children, so it’s worth doing this practice.

I believe this kind of practice is particularly important right now. The more tools that we can create to help us navigate these difficult times with sanity and care, the better. Being able to take a break from the many things that weigh us down and just the stressors of everyday life, and really create quiet time for ourselves, is an important part of how we can navigate these challenging times.

Finally, in honor of my own spiritual retreat, I’ll be going dark for the first two weeks or so of January and will be refraining from blogging again until mid to late January.  I’ll see you in 2022–may it be more joyous, healthful, sane, and kind than the last two years.  Blessings!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Restoration at the Winter Solstice

The time of the greatest darkness is upon us at the winter solstice. Each morning, the sun seems to struggle to rise and hangs low in the sky. The world is covered in frost, cold, and snow, and the darkness of winter sets in. This is a hard time for many, perhaps more so now than before, given the cultural darkness and challenges that so many of us are facing globally and locally. So facing the darkness, in this very challenging time, takes something extra.

Winter Solstice Snow

Winter Solstice Snow

In my first post on this series (Receptivity at the Fall Equinox), I made the case that the traditional Wheel of the Year was developed and enacted under very different conditions than our present age. We now live in the Anthropocene, a period of human-driven climate change and cultural unrest which is very different than the Holocene, the period of relatively stable climate where the Wheel of the Year was developed. I argue that it will take a different kind of approach to celebrating the wheel of the year if we are to thrive in this age. Thus, I am offering a series of eight posts this coming year that focus on each of the traditional wheel of the year holidays and how they might be adapted to these darker and less stable times. I believe we need new approaches to celebrating our traditional wheel that emphasize the skills and vision that will help us not only navigate the continuing crisis but also help us bring forth a better future for our descendants and all life.

Previous posts in this series include the Fall Equinox (Receptivity) and Samhain (Release).  So if we think about how the wheel turns, after release–letting go, getting rid of all that holds you to former structures that are, frankly, crumbling around us.  So what comes next in our wheel of the year?  I argue at the time of deepest darkness, we should pay attention to our own needs and healing with the theme of restoration – for, without this, no work can proceed as we move forward back into the light and tackle some really hard stuff to come, stuff that is more externally focused!  In other words, we have to get our own house and mental health in order (the sequence of Fall Equinox- Samhain -Winter Solstice) so we can look externally in the year to come.

The Need for Restoration: Languishing and Solastalgia

A new term is popping up on news feeds as of late: “languishing.”  Languishing is somewhere in between well-functioning and deep depression. It is a state of feeling apathy, restlessness, feeling like the things that once brought you joy no longer do, feeling unsettled, and not interested in life. According to this article, research demonstrated that a good number of people are languishing, particularly in younger generations.  This term describes well what many people are facing.  What do we do about languishing rather than thriving?

Ice in the Winter Months

Ice in the Winter Months

The other piece that is coming into play with climate change is the concept of solastalgia.  Coined in 2007 by Albreiht et. al., they define it as follows “solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.”  If we think about all of the increasing changes we face–from wildfires to droughts to continued extraction activities, this concept grows more pressing and real.  How many of us have watched a forest that we loved get cut or burned, a pipeline come through our favorite swamp, or even a mountaintop get removed? How does that affect our mental well-being?

The real crux of the issue that I see is that things aren’t going to get any better globally.  Climate change is going to grow increasingly worse, and with it, a lot of other things are also on the decline.  Sure, things may stabilize for a bit, but we are in the ‘slow crash’ and things are going to keep tumbling down. Thus, we have to figure out ways to support ourselves and our communities–and to be strong enough to face our present age. I’m not mincing my words here.  I don’t think at this point anyone can ignore the crisis of our age or its severe impact on our mental or physical health. And if we are going to thrive in the coming age, we need to be in the strongest place possible: mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Understanding Restorative Activities

Restoration can be defined in a few different ways. It includes returning to health, bringing back to a former position or condition, or improving the condition of someone or something.  Part of restorative work is understanding our needs: what needs are being met, what needs remain unfulfilled, what we have the power to change and control, and what we have to learn to accept.

Restoration Meditation: Uncovering what Works

Understanding your own needs for restoration and rejuvenation is really central to this work.  I think that sometimes we buy into the hype of various products and “self-care” gimmicks, as though they can provide us the healing and restoration that we need. Or we listen to what other people think is a good idea rather than our own intuition.  So take a moment to set all of that aside and start thinking about your own needs and how you can be restored.  Thus, starting with this meditation can help you work through what is possible and create a game plan.

  • Think about the times that brought you the most rest.  What were they? When were they? What conditions did they come under?
  • Think about the time that you feel you were in the best mental health.  When was that? What conditions were present?
  • What is your perfect restful day look like?  Is it away from home or at home? What are the conditions that allow you to have this perfect restful day?
  • Do you ever prevent yourself from practicing self-care? Think about the deep emotions or issues that might be present in this issue.
  • Does anyone else ever prevent you from rest and healing? Is there a way to mitigate this problem?
  • How can you create or replicate the conditions that allow you to rest? What limitations or issues might you need to address?
  • What basic needs do you have that are unfulfilled? Is there anything you can dot work to fulfill them?
  • How do you support your physical body?  What can you do differently (food, exercise, rest, etc.)?
  • How do you support your emotions and mental health? What can you do differently?

First, understanding your own needs is central.  Nobody can define for you what rejuvenates you and how you can find your own healing–you must do that for yourself.  And your needs for restoration are not necessarily the needs of other people. For example, for me, the most restful thing I can do is stay home and be in my gardens and art studio, have a lot of unstructured time where I have no obligations to anyone, stay off of social media, and not answer texts or my phone.  Those things can create a deep sense of peace, the flow of awen, and the ability for me to dig into some really cool projects uninterrupted. This is really different than, say, someone who wants to travel far from home and spend a week on the beach. The point here is to know yourself and how you work.

The second part of this, getting at bullet point four, is self-sabotage or sabotage by other family members or close friends.  Sometimes we actively or subconsciously prevent ourselves from getting the rest and restoration we need.  Deeply examine any of these issues and where they may come from as part of this work. And sometimes, we have people in our lives who actively try to thwart self-care activities–and its important to recognize both of these so that we can heal.

Restoration Activities

White Pine Forest Bathing and White Pine Healing Steams, Baths, and Teas

White pine in winter

White pine in winter

Turning to evergreens, particularly the pine family and white pine, is an excellent idea as a restorative activity. Since the white pine is an evergreen tree, it reminds us of the green of summer and holds back the darkness.  White pine, both physically and energetically, draws things out.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine steam treatments and tinctures for people who have problems with breathing.  The connection to the breath is important–as we go about our lives in this very difficult age, it feels like many of us are holding our breath.

As a restorative activity, visit a white pine forest or spend time with a white pine tree.  Make sure you ask the tree’s permission to spend time and leave an appropriate offering. Simply be with the tree or in the forest, breathing in and out, sitting near the trunk, wandering and looking for messages, and allowing the energy of the white pine to soothe you.  Release the tension in your body, mind, and spirit.

Additional activities surrounding the white pine include doing a white pine bath (gather up needles with permission and an offering, add them to a bath and soak), a healing white pine tea (brew needles for 3 minutes, add honey), or a white pine herbal steam (instructions here).  All of these can be combined with other winter solstice activities or

If you don’t have white pine in your ecosystem, you can find an equivalent conifer–a dominant evergreen conifer tree, tall, majestic, with medicinal qualities ideally connected with the lungs.

Slowing Down

The holidays around the Winter Solstice, at least here in the US, feel like an insanely busy time.  Making a commitment to yourself to take some quiet moments and/or embrace slowness really matters.  Our culture glorifies busyness and the constant ticking off of to-do lists and this can contribute substantially to feeling over-worked, over-committed, and exhausted.  The following suggestions are ways to “slow down” and embrace a slower approach–which itself can be very rejuvenating.

  • Candlelight evenings and embracing the darkness. Living by candlelight is another restorative activity that can have substantial restorative benefits.  Electronic devices emit a blue light which can inhibit the production of melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep.  Shift your lighting to any kind of natural light, even for an evening or two.  Pick up a real book (not an e-reader or phone) and enjoy the quiet, slowness, and stillness of the winter. Embrace the extra sleep that this kind of practice allows.
  • Technology detox. Allow yourself to have a serious break from your electronic devices and the many obligations they bring.  Disconnect–for a few days, a week, whatever you want to do–and go technology-free.  To do this successfully, let friends or family know what you are doing and make a commitment in advance.  Often when people do this, at first there is a bit of panic or even withdrawal–we are so used to constantly picking up our phones, etc.  But after a day or two when the initial shock wears off, you realize how much better you feel without the constant technological tether.  This can create more meaningful opportunities to engage in a spiritual practice, explore one’s own understanding of the world, or embrace bardic arts.  Consider how you might fill the time normally spent interacting with technology with restorative activities.
  • Embracing a “slow” philosophy. The slow movement has been gaining traction for many years.  The philosophy has many components, slow food, slow spirituality, slow work, and slow time to name a few.  The principle is simple and yet very difficult to enact: we slow down.  We take our time to cook healthy food that came from local sources or that we grew, we reframe our relationship and time commitments to work, we create unstructured leisure time, and we reject the many cultural demands that say we must work harder, faster, and always be on the go.  This is an incredibly restorative activity!

The Druid’s Retreat

Another restorative that can be done is for you to have a retreat. A retreat is a fantastic way to set aside time for spiritual growth and rejuvenation. A retreat can restore you in ways that few other things can. I have two posts that go into detail about how to set up your retreat and how to go about your retreat.  Winter is a lovely time to do a retreat–rent a cabin, find a way to do a home retreat, etc.  I always do a winter retreat–usually in late Dec and early January, when I’m off from my job, when the rush of the holidays has ended, and it simply allows me time to rest and dig deeply into my own spiritual practices.

Conclusion

My suggestions above hopefully will get your own creative ideas flowing for how to embrace rejuvenation and restoration at this darkest time of the year.  This is such important work to do–for if the healer is herself not healed, how can she heal others?  As we begin to move forward from the Winter Solstice and back into the time of light, our bodies, spirits, and minds are restored and we can consider the powerful and meaningful work that is to come. Blessings of the winter solstice to you, dear readers!

Announcements:

Article on Druidry 101: Finally, I wanted to share my article on Druidry 101 that was published this week in Spirituality and Health magazine.  Please check it out!

 

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Holly (Ilex Opaca) – Magic, Meanings, Ecology, and Divination

American Holly is one of the most wonderful trees for getting us through dark times.  And as the season of darkness is upon us once more, it is a good time to consider the magic, meanings, and mystery of this incredible holly tree!

American Holly has many names including white holly, prickly holly, Christmas Holly, Yule Holly and Evergreen Holly.  It is quite similar to European Holly (Illex Aquifolium) with similar leaves, berries, and an overall growth habit. The American Holly has larger, brighter leaves and berries, but the trees are otherwise quite similar. While I often argue against importing meanings and uses of European trees into American contexts (with Ash being a great case in point), in this case, I think that the myths and old-world understandings of Holly apply!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. 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 my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, 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, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, 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.

Ecology

Beautiful holly berries in late fall

The native range for American Holly spans from Rhode Island and New England coastal regions down into Florida and across the midwest to Louisana and Texas.  It can be found throughout the south-eastern and Eastern United States, and beyond its native range, is widely planted as an ornamental, thus, is frequently found in urban and suburban areas. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled in a city or new area is a chance to connect with American Holly in some form: tree, shrub, or small bush!  In fact, it is so popular as an ornamental that you can find up to 1000 different cultivars. It is shaped into shrubs, trees, and even holly hedges.

In the wild, American Holly is primary an understory tree, thriving in shaded woods, along streams and creeks, and can handle both dry and wet conditions, but not flooding or wetland conditions.  It does prefer slightly acidic soil and sandy soil and will grow in full sun to full shade. If the soil is too alkali where it grows, the leaves will turn a brownish-yellow.

The American Holly is an evergreen tree that can grow to 40-60 feet tall.  It has evergreen leaves that grow in an alternate pattern with a leathery feel.  The holly leaves are fairly unmistakable and easy to spot because of their depiction in modern culture: they are 1-3″ long with spiny tooths coming out of them in a regular fashion.

It provides food for birds (cedar waxwings, songbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, bobwhites) and small mammals (turkey, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels). It is a nursery plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly. It also provides excellent cover and shelter for birds–we have an American Holly growing next to our house and every year, the cardinals make a nest within the densely packed branches.

The holly tree blooms with white (sometimes greenish-white) flowers in April-June that have four petals and a balanced fourfold shape.  You can tell the male from the female flowers because the female flowers appear in clusters of 1-3 while the males appear in clusters of 3-12.  Male and female flowers often occur on separate trees. These make way for green berries, who finally turn to the classic bright red as we move into the late fall (Samhain) and winter months (Winter Solstice). Only the female tree produces holly berries.

Human Uses

The Holly wood is a beautiful, strong, fine-grained white wood that can be sanded, stained, and worked.  It is often used for furniture, woodwork, carving, engraving, cabinetry, and other fine woodworking.  It is not in high commercial demand because hollies never get that large, but among folk artisans and woodcarvers, it is often sought out and used.

Holly (both European and American) is tied to the winter months, the dark half of the year, and the Yule season.  These traditions of “decking the halls with boughs of holly” were imported from the old world and then applied to the American Holly.  I’ve used Holly extensively as a natural decoration for Yule and it is just lovely on the mantle–it stays green and the berries stay red long after the plants dry out.  We usually have to trim our Holly to keep it away from the sidewalk–and these trimmings are all we need to provide delightful Yule decorations for our home.  With this said, the demand for holly decorations has caused a decline in wild-growing holly in some parts of the US; given this, it is wise to cultivate a holly or two in your yard if you want to have these decorations or source them sustainably.  As with anything else, commercial demand causes a decline of the species, and we very much want to attend to this issue when buying any plant matter at the store.

Edible and Herbal Uses

All of the Ilex species (which includes all Hollies) are somewhat toxic if ingested.  The berries of the holly are poisonous and will cause diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, and dehydration–so while you can use them on your mantle, you don’t want them in your stomach!  However, if you wanted to induce vomiting (emetic action) these berries are one thing you could use to do so as they are a traditional medicine in this regard.

The roasted leaves of the American Holly can be made into a caffeine-free herbal tea. This tea has a rich history, including drinking as a tea substitute extensively during the American Civil War when resources were scarce. The tea has some medicinal properties and was used to treat colds, although I couldn’t find too much more information on the specific medicinal uses, as it is not listed in any herbal that I own.  In fact, many holly species also have leaves that can be made into tea, but you want to make sure you identify the species properly. A good guide for this is Eat the Weeds, which offers a thorough discussion of how to make tea (with caffeine) with some holly species. They discuss how some communities have made a tea of the young leaves of the Gallberry holly (Ilex glabra) which can be a good source of vitamins and minerals.  Make sure you have the identification right on this holly though, because others (like the Yaupon Holly, lex vomitoria ) have leaves that make you vomit.

Western Occult and American Folk Magic Uses

Holly is, as mentioned above, inseparable the Winter Soltsice/ Yule and it has been tied for milleniua with bringing brightness into the dark half of the year. Holly was, of course, one of the seven chieftain trees of the ancient druids, and thus, a very magical tree throughout the world.

In the American Hoodoo tradition, as described by Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic,  Holly leaves are burned with other blessing herbs to protect the home and bring good luck into the home.  Placing holly above the door to the home also protects the home and draws helpful spirits.

In Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, she describes some of the mythology surrounding holly, including its connection to immortality.  In the old world, people were encouraged to bring the holly into their homes to ward against elves, fairies, and other spirits that could otherwise cause harm.  Holly’s bright berries and leaves also helped people with winter depression and help us get through the darkest time of the year. The holly was always required to be removed from the house by Imbolc eve or it could bring misfortune. In Ancient Rome, the Romans gave gifts of Holly during the five-day festival of Saturnalia, which took place at the winter solstice. These eventually gave way to the Christian imagery, which still uses Holly, in December. Even though Christianity has shifted many of the ancient pagan beliefs, the remnants of these can still be found even in modern-day celebrations here in the US.

The Holly King and Oak King legends are also powerful and enduring; both evolved from earlier indigenous and pagan depictions of the green man or the spirit of the forest/plants as well as the virility that is necessary for life to continue.  Paterson notes that the oldest depictions of the Holly King were of a wildman holly god, and Christian suppression later turned him into more of a “king” like figure without sexual virility.  Regardless of the shift of this imagery over time, the Holly and Oak kings rule over the year and are two sides of the god of nature and his cycles.  The Oak King comes into power at Midwinter (when we move from the lowest point to the highest), while the Holly King comes into power at Midsummer (the waning part of the year).  The Holly, therefore, represents the growth, light, and harvests of the rest of the season to come.  Many rituals in the modern druid tradition acknowledge the power of the ancient Oak and Holly kings as part of our ceremony.

Holly is one of the sacred trees in the Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The Holly, Tinne, is tied to the letter T and the Ogham letter that has three upright lines.  According to Steve Blamires in Celtic Tree Mysteries, the evergreen nature of the Holly tree can be tied to a “link” as in a link in a chain, which is one name for Tinne.  This shows Holly’s link not only with the oak (from the ancient lore) but also between our world and the otherworld.

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes holly as being firey and warm in the second degree.  Astrologically, it represents Saturn in Leo.  It is a very protective tree and is thought to ward against lightning and also against hostile magic and hostile spirits and otherworldly beings.

Divination and Magical Uses

Based on the ecology, folk uses, and history of holly, the following are three divination and magical uses for this incredible tree:

Darkness. Holly has long been associated with the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year, and seeing Holly come up in a divination reading may signal that a time of darkness is upon you.

Light in the Darkness.  Tied to Holly’s theme of darkness, however, Holly reminds us that there is always hope.  The triumph of the Holly king over the Oak king in the ancient myths ensure us that even when the light is all but extinguished from the world, the evergreen leaves and bright red berries will be a sign of coming out of this dark time and hope in the future.  Stay strong, for spring will return.

Protection in Dark Times. We are continuing to live in darker and more uncertain times, with more and more of us losing basic faith in our institutions, culture, and civilization.  It is certain that human civilization is on a dark path.  Thankfully, trees like holly can offer us basic protection from the hostile energies of this age.  And that’s exactly what she does!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the incredible Holly tree.  If you have additional information to add or stories about the holly, I would very much love to hear them!  Blessings to you, my dear readers!

Druid Tree Workings: Witnessing the Death of an Old Tree

Oak friend - one of my first interactions with this incredible friend

Oak friend – one of my first interactions with this incredible friend and mentor

Many of us on the path of nature spirituality grow close to trees–so very close.  What happens when a tree that you love dearly, who is a good friend and mentor–tells you that it is time to go?  In this post, I share the story and passing of one of my dear tree friends, a White Oak with a giant burl. After I share the story, I offer some general thoughts about how we, as humans, can support and honor the natural lifespan of our tree friends. This post is meant to be a compliment to my earlier post: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass.  My earlier post talked about trees who were cut before their time–while this post honors those who have the privilege of living a full life and dying naturally.

The Story of the Big-Burled White Oak

When I first came to the new Druid’s Garden Homestead here in Western Pennsylvania I was extremely drawn to a White Oak tree.  She had an enormous burl on her and was easily 200 or more years old. She sat holding back the bank of the stream at the edge of our property.  At her roots was even a seat from two stones–I would come down there and sit every day, observing the stream.  I created my first sacred grove on the property just below where she grew and did many of my rituals and journeys there for my first two years on this land.  As I observed and spent a great deal of time with this magnificent oak, I found a large stump–it was clearly a second oak tree that had been cut, probably 20 or 30 years ago.  The previous owners had done selective logging throughout their time living here, at great cost to the forest. The more I observed my White Oak friend, the more I realized that she had lost a companion, someone important to her. I could tell from how she grew–her branches grew in a way that at one time, you could tell she was sharing space with another tree. I could sense this in her, a deep sorrow, from time to time.  She would not speak much of this companion, but I sensed her sadness.

My burl oak behind our goose pair

My oak friend and I would talk often about many things.  She taught me much about the land, of the Genus Loci (spirit of place) here, and the history of the land.  She shared how happy she was that we came and that we brought other druids to meet her. She told me she had waited her whole life to meet humans who cared and who remembered their own ancestral ways, who were reconnecting with the living earth.  I told her that we were so young, we were learning, and we had so much further to go. She said we were doing our best and she said that was enough.

Two years ago, in Fall 2019, she asked me to find a new place on the property to do my ritual work and not to use the grove by the stream again for some time.  She asked that I not raise or direct any energy near her or to her. She told me that she was passing, that she had lived a full life, and that it was time for her to go.  I cried and was so sad, and I asked her if she might not stay a bit longer.  In this age, we have so few good elders of any kind, I shared–human, tree, or otherwise–and I selfishly wished that she would stay.  She said gently and kindly, no, my time has come. She said she was very pleased that she could live a full life and die a natural death–when so few trees, even here on the property and in the region due to such extensive logging–could do so.  She felt it was an honor to live, an honor to die in this way, and she was ready to go.

Another shot of our beautiful oak

Another shot of our beautiful oak

This is not the first ancient White Oak that I’ve observed die naturally. I had another White Oak friend when I still lived in Michigan.  This oak was also old and wise and he, too, told me he was going to pass a few years before he did. Oaks die in stages–the first year, you’ll notice about half the crown is no longer producing leaves.  In the second year, there may only be a small amount of the oak left producing leaves–a large branch or two.  And usually, at the end of that second year, the tree lets out one final breath and passes over the winter.  This is just how my Burl oak friend went.

Honoring her wishes, throughout 2020, I would come to visit, make regular offerings, but keep my distance.  As she came back into leaf, her crown was much thinner, with only about half the leaves of the previous year. I cried and was sad, but continued to hold space for her. I honored her request to do my spiritual work elsewhere on the property. The winter passed, and I hoped secretly that she would come back with a full crown in the spring, having changed her mind.  But this past summer, she had very few leaves left–just one large branch.  As part of my Samhain and late fall ceremonies, I made her offerings and continued to visit with her.  At Samhain this year, she told me goodbye and I could feel her energies shift.

This past week, a month after Samhain, she laid herself down.

I did not witness her fall–I was not meant to witness her fall. It would have been too hard on me, after too many hard years.  My partner did, and that is his story to tell.  But he told me while I was at work, and when I returned, I visited my friend again. Her spirit was transformed, different. It’s not that she’s gone, but the presence she was has altered from a living being to something interwoven with the soil web, the spirits of place.

The Oak has Laid Down

The Oak has Laid Down

The best way that I can explain my understanding is this:  trees that die naturally undergo a spiritual transformation slowly, just as their physical bodies return to the land.  All of the soil beneath your feet contains the nutrients from those fallen trees–after the mushrooms and bugs and woodpeckers begin their slow transformation, the spirit also transforms.  They get woven back into the Genus Loci of the land, the spirit of place.  It will be decades, perhaps, until this tree returns to nature–longer since she’s fallen over the stream.  But that too will be a process that I will continue to observe and interact with, and do what I am asked.

Helping an Old Tree Pass

I am honored to be able to tell you this story of my dear friend passing in a natural way and also share some general thoughts for those of you who come into these kinds of circumstances.  I think one of the most important things to realize is that a lot of trees don’t get to live their full lifespan.  Humans come to cut them down, especially in areas where there is a lot of logging.  Or fires, diseases, etc, can take them before their time.  It is a true honor to work with a tree that gets to live a full life and pass naturally.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

Accept that the tree will pass and honor that passing.  Just like people, trees die.  All things that are currently alive have a natural lifespan. The tragedy is not in their death, which is part of the cycle of nature. The tragedy is when they are not able to live a full life when they are logged and cut without any honor or ceremony or respect.  Thus, to witness the passing of an elder tree, one who has been able to live a full life, is truly an honor. Recognize and respect this.

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak--she was their friend too!

Geese help me honor and respect the fallen oak–she was their friend too!

Listen carefully to the wishes of the tree. I got the sense with both of my ancient tree friends that passed that they did not want any energetic interference–no rituals to raise or direct healing energy, no energy work of any time.  Offerings of friendship and acknowledgment were fine, as was light conversation. You can’t force someone to live whose time has come.  Thus, ask your tree friend what it is you can do and to that fully–even if they tell you to stay away, as my tree did.

Tell stories and remember. Those that are remembered live on. I will always remember my tree friend, and her remains will be with me on our land for a very long time. Remember your tree.  Remember and tell stories, like I’ve shared here.  Tell others of the life and death of this tree and allow that memory to stay strong. Paint something beautiful.  Create a song.

Consider other tokens of remembrance. With permission, you can perhaps use some of the wood or something else from the tree to create objects, tools, ritual items, etc.  In our case, with permission, I will also cut some of her wood to use, and dig up some of the clay from her roots, and create things that honor her.  For the maples that she took out when she went down, I have asked permission to harvest some of their wood for my ongoing natural building projects (I use wood from our land, but I am not willing to cut any trees down who are thriving, so I try to wait till they pass naturally or are taken down by a storm).

Observe and grow. Our white oak has produced numerous babies, some of whom are already quite large, and some who are still fairly young.  I will do my best to honor my friend through tending her offspring–helping them grow tall and strong, developing relationships with them as they mature, and honoring the legacy of her passing.

While seeing a tree friend pass is certainly a very sad experience, I do think that holding space for our tree friends is no different than seeing a relative who has lived a long and healthy life finally move on.  It gives us a chance to reflect upon the cycles of life, to honor friendships that we have created, and to deeply reconnect with the living earth.  I am honored to have known this white oak in her life, I am honored to have witnessed her passing.

Creativity, Mental Health, and Well Being: A Case for the Bardic Arts

Creativity is the birthright of all people. When humans are young, play and creativity are central to our own development. Children don’t worry about it being ‘good’; they just make things, play with crayons, laugh, dance, and sing. They play. As children get older, school and society often discourage individual creativity and play, particularly in a culture that values economic growth above all else. The result of this has been a stifling sense of creativity, with many adults believing in the myth of talent (that you have to be good at something immediately to practice it creatively) or insisting they have no creativity.

The bardic arts are those in the druid tradition that focuses on creative works: storytelling, creative writing, fine arts, fine crafts, and any other endeavor where you are building in your creativity. The ancient bards were part of the druid community and were the storytellers and historians of their people; undergoing rigorous training and learning how to pass on the legacies and traditions of their community.  In the druid tradition today, we see any creative practice–for the good of the self, community, or unknown others–as part of the path of bardic arts.  Druids see practicing the bardic arts and cultivating creativity as a spiritual act.  Even with this positive framing, many people feel they “aren’t creative” and may be blocked.

Hence, culturally, we live in a world where a lot of people are discouraged from creating anything–and while this is starting to change due to the challenges of the last few years,  I think we have a long way to go.  Not being able to cultivate a sense of play and creativity has serious implications for our mental health and well-being.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the reasons that creativity is good for all of us, drawing upon scientific research as well as druid sensibilities.

(I’ll also point readers to my longstanding series on the bardic arts, which can be found in these articles: taking up the path of the bard part 1, part 2, and part 3; cultivating awen in your life, bardic storytelling, bardic arts and the ancestors, and visioning the future.  I’ll also point readers to my 2019 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture on the bardic arts in the druid tradition!)

Creativity, Bardic Arts, and Mental Health

The idea that creative practices are tied to mental well-being has a fairly well-established history. In the 19th century, treating mental illness with the bardic arts was standard medical practice.  This was before the age of pharmaceuticals and modern industrial treatments.  According to this study from 2016, the idea of “therapeutic mental health landscapes” was common.  People would be surrounded by gardens, beautiful trees, and landscapes, and be able to engage in a number of creative practices as therapy.  This same kind of thinking: that creative practices have therapeutic effects can be found in research on World War I soldiers, in managing anxiety disorders, in helping individuals with compassion fatigue, and in managing depression. Studies from 2012 and 2008 demonstrated that women who engage in quilting and other crafts-based activities in their leisure time have more mental well-being and general happiness than those that do not. Similar findings are true for “men’s sheds” that provide socializing and opportunities to work wood. These are just some of the hundreds of studies that demonstrate the efficacy of creative practices on well-being and mental health.

Scientific research has begun to explore the relationship between creativity and mental illness, both psychologically and genetically. This study from 2015 examined the relationship between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and creativity.  The study used a mathematical model to predict whether people who were diagnosed with mental illnesses had a higher disposition for creativity–and sure enough, they did. This led the researchers to suggest that creativity and certain mental illnesses may have the same genetic base. One study from 2003 explores divergent thinking (when people have to be creative within constraints) and makes the case that there there is a spectrum between creativity/genius and psychosis and madness/psychopathy. Thus, individuals may fall at different points on this spectrum.  Most recently, genetic research suggests that one gene, the COM-T gene, may be linked to creative thinking.  This same gene is also linked to certain forms of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. From this research, we see some link between creativity and mental illness.

In my own study of the creative arts within the druid tradition, I found that creativity helped address mental health challenges and create stability in a tumultuous world.  As part of my 2018 Mount Haemus lecture, I surveyed 266 druids worldwide about their creative practices. Many, many participants felt that their bardic arts were necessary to their functioning as human beings. It wasn’t that bardic arts was simply a hobby to them, but rather, it was a critical and integral part of their own lives and helped with their well functioning. In my survey, of those who regularly practiced bardic arts, almost half responded in this way to the question “Why do you practice the bardic arts” with a discussion about mental illness and/or health and well-being. Some of their answers included: “My creative practices are akin to my breathing.  I would be lost without them” and “I practice bardic arts to stay sane and grounded”; “Bardic arts help me navigate the difficulties of life.”  Thus, 50% of my participants used creative practices not only for self-expression but for mental balance. Some people used the bardic arts to make sense of the world itself, while others used it to help process issues relating to their personal life or broadly to 21st-century life.

A personal example offers another interesting point to this discussion. On one side of my family, we have a lot of mental illnesses. And it has been a source of some discussion over the years, as some members of the family have debilitating mental diagnoses and others of us showed no signs of mental illness. At first, it seemed random; some of us lost the mental illness lottery and others were spared. It wasn’t until I started digging into this creativity research that I had the ah-ha moment. Those of us who had dedicated creative practices had little to no struggles with mental illness; those who did not have regular battles with mental illness. Did those with mental illness not create?  Or did the lack of a creative practice allow mental illness to take root due to the lack of coping mechanisms? Or perhaps some of both?

Another piece of this puzzle involves the state of mental illness in most industrialized nations. On the rise for mental illness of pressing concern are the youngest generations: children and college-age students have much higher instances of mental illness today when compared with decades ago. Changes to the school system and the rise of the testing culture have had the creative arts stripped from the curriculum.  When funding grows tight, the arts are the first thing to go. We lock kids away in boxes, make them sit quietly and learn facts, test the hell out of them, never let them play or be outside, cut out music and art classes (with Common Core in the US, this is now even worse than before)–and we wonder why kids are depressed? Then, to have them cope with this reality, they get medicated. If children can’t play and create, of course, it is likely to cause a lot of psychological harm. What exactly does refusing them creative practices do?  When these children grow into unhappy and disgruntled adults, is it surprising?

Adults have other issues.  Most are conditioned to believe they are not creative and have no capacity for creativity that they literally engage in defeatest dialogue–“I could never do that” and “you’re so talented.”  The myth of talent, that you have to be good at something the first time you try it, has caused serious harm to many who otherwise would create.  The “I could never do that” shows a lack of understanding and willingness to experience creativity as a process–a process of learning, growth, exploration, struggle, and success.  Being creative takes only a few simple things: a willingness to do it and persevere, some basic tools and instructions, and the time to invest. And yet, for many adults in modern western culture, the idea of creating is outlandish.  I know this from firsthand experience--I’ve cultivated my own creative skills over a long time and now, that I’m a highly skilled artist, literally every time I share my work, I end up in one of these defeatest conversations.

So given all the above–how do we cultivate creativity? How can we gain the wonderful benefits of the Bardic Arts in our own lives?

Embracing Creativity and Flow for Mental Health

Let the awen flow!

Let the awen flow!

Finding ways of allowing ourselves to create–without judgment, without reservation, without blocks–can be an extremely freeing experience.  By shifting our ideas of producing a high-quality creative work (which comes with time and practice) and instead simply making the act of creating the key goal, we can start to overcome some of these challenges and reap the rewards of creative practice in our lives.

A “flow” state is a creative state where a person gets deeply immersed in their work.  In a flow state, you may lose track of time, have a deep focus on your creative activity, and often emerge from this activity feeling calm, refreshed, and grounded.  A flow state is one way that druids would describe the ‘flow of Awen’ – it is when you are deeply immersed and simply flow with your creative practice. The flow state cultivates deep calm and relaxation and has health benefits similar to meditation.

All people are capable of getting into the flow state–and we can cultivate it by setting up the right conditions for it to occur. So here are a few things we can do:

  • Create time for creativity and creative practice
  • Work to develop a base level of technical skill in what you are doing–when you are too new at a skill, you will likely not get into flow states as easily
  • SEtup any conditions that may aid you: the right tools, music, the right setting, etc.
  • Rather than forcing a particular project that you want to create, try to allow yourself to work on whatever you feel drawn to in that moment.  This particular thing has worked exceedingly well for me–it does mean I have a lot of projects ongoing, but I am always ready to make progress on one or two of them when I sit down to create.

For me, for example, I often get into it as a writer by playing instrumental music, sitting down at a set time each week, and doing some brainstorming to get me in the mood (most of my blog posts are written in the flow state, and revised at a later place).  As an artist, my requirements are a bit different.  I usually put on a familiar movie or music track (this time with words) and lock myself in my studio.  And in either case, I ask myself, what am I most excited to work on? Of course, this kind of dedicated creative practice, along with my other spiritual practices, do help me maintain my mental balance and stability, even under conditions that can be difficult.  You’ll note that with each of these, I’ve had to practice ways of getting and staying in flow states–and once I did, I had a method that “worked” for me, and therefore, allowed it to come often.

To be clear, I’m not saying that an emphasis on the creative arts is the solution to all mental illnesses. But what I am saying is that according to a lot of druids in my study, and based on some of the other factors shared above, it may offer us a buffer to stave off mental illness.  Creative practices may be one of several things we can do to protect ourselves from the debilitating and rampant mental illness that is plaguing our culture.  And we get some cool paintings, stories, or songs out of it too!

Thus, creativity can be a buffer not only for these challenging times where mental health and self-care seem to be at an all-time low, but also a buffer to help us understand, process, and experience the world. I certainly use my own artwork to do that: I paint my feelings and emotions surrounding fracking and mountaintop removal here in my home. I paint my feelings about the loss of my beehives due to colony collapse disorder.  I paint my frustration about the inability of our world’s leaders (particularly here in the US at present) to do anything substantial about climate change and mass extinction.

Putting the Garden to Sleep: End of Season Activities and Rituals

Garden bed with scarecrow

The day before the first hard frost. Our garden is still bountiful as the Butzemann watches over all….As the darkness continues to grow deeper on the landscape, it is high time to consider how to put the garden to rest for the winter and honor the garden that has offered you so much bounty and joy for the season. I actually find this one of my favorite gardening activities of the year, both on a metaphysical and physical level. There’s something special about “tucking” your garden in after a productive growing season and knowing that the land will go fallow and rest as the cold and ice come. Here are both the physical activities and sacred activities that you can do to help put your garden to rest.

Do note that my timings are based on the temperate climate in Western Pennsylvania, USDA Zone 6A.  You can adapt appropriately based on your own end-of-season and seasonal changes.

Metaphysical Activities

Metaphysical activities support the garden and the downward/restful flow of energy that allows the land to be fallow before returning to abundance in the spring.  For millennia, our ancient ancestors all through the world did rituals and ceremonies to support the abundance and health of the land; these are intended in the same direction. (For some you can do later in the year, see this post).  Physical and metaphysical activities go hand in hand–everything that we do in the physical world has an impact on the metaphysical, and vice versa.  Thus, by working on both levels, we are able to achieve maximum effect.

Burning the Butzemann

In the Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition, the Butzemann is created at Imbolc and set out to protect your crops and land at the Spring Equinox–and we practice this tradition each year.  At the Spring Equinox, a friendly guardian spirit is invited into the Butzemann to guard the crops and flocks for the coming season. And at Samhain, the Butzemann must be burned to release the guardian spirit and offer thanks.  What we usually do is build a bonfire somewhere near or on Samhain.  Then we take our Butzemann to the fire and once again call the Butzemann by name (the naming tradition being very important) and speak of the good things that happened on the homestead and garden (e.g. you protected our crops well, we harvested 15 pumpkins, our flocks were safe from hawks, etc).  Then we release the Butzemann to the flames and watch it burn (which is always really cool).  This completes the Butzemann ceremony until Imbolc when a new Butzemann is constructed (from the previous garden’s materials and other burnable materials) and the cycle begins again.

Honoring the Soil and Compost through the Soil Web Ceremony

Garden shrine with fall bounty and freshly fallen oak leaves

Compost is a major theme this time of year, as so many things die to have their nutrients reclaimed by the soil web of life. Even perennials, including plants and trees, contribute to this great soil web of life.  Thus, it is very appropriate to honor the soil web this time of year.

For this, I like to do a “soil web” dance.  This is an embodied ritual that involves me dancing (barefoot if possible) on the earth, allowing my footsteps to be my prayer to the earth.  I may be moved to praise the soil web, the nematodes, the worms, the bacteria, the protozoa, and so much more.  My dance always involves dancing in the garden, through the paths, and eventually to the compost pile.  At the compost pile, I leave an offering (last garden harvest food and/or liquid gold are very appropriate here).  I may also make symbols with sticks with leaves as a shrine to the soil.

If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering (see below).

A “Rest Well” Chanting Ritual for Gardens and Land

Inviting the land into peaceful slumber is another way you can put the garden to bed on a metaphysical level.  For this, I particularly like using Ogham and chanting magic (with a drum if it’s warm enough).  I chant the following ogham (you can adapt these to your own ecosystem or needs)

  • Ruis (Elder) pronounced RWEESH: Elder is for endings, cycles, and resolution.
  • Phagos (Beech) pronounced FAH-gus: For preservation, sleep, history, and memory.
  • Quert (Apple) pronounced KWEIRT: Apple is for future abundance, blessings, and harvests.

So the chant would go:

Ruis – Ruis – Ruis
Phagos – Phagos – Phagos
Quert – Quert – Quert

And after this, you can start playing with the syllables of each of the three trees in any order, such as:
QUE–eee—iii–rr–tt – QUERT  QQQQ —EEERRRR —TTT
And so forth.  Just allow your vocal cords and body to explore this expression fully.

End your ritual chant with a focus on Ruis, as Ruis is the Ogham connected to the present moment.

As you chant, really envision the energy of each of these trees coming forth: the Elder coming in to help aid with the end of the season, for closing down, and for resolution.  The Beech carries the garden/land through the darkness of winter, where it is able to rest, the soil is preserved, and carries forth the memory of the past into the future. And finally, the Apple, which offers the promise of future abundance and carries a blessing to the garden/land.  Really project this energy as you chant.  As you feel the ritual is complete, start to wind down, ending with chanting Ruis very softly.

Garlic Ritual: A Land/Sea/Sky blessing

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

The garlic planting ritual is a really nice way of seeding a blessing for the entire season to come.  Garlic is the last thing to be planted in the fall in our ecosystem (at the time you plant garlic, your fall crops should already be being harvested).  And that garlic will stay in the ground for almost 9 months, being harvested in the heat of the summer.  In the winter, the garlic sets deep roots and then, as the spring comes, it sends its green shoots up into the air.

After you plant your garlic, honor your garlic with a simple land, sea, sky blessing. Gather up the following materials:

  • A bowl of hardwood ash (or compost)
  • A large bowl or bucket of clean water (rainwater, snowmelt, spring water, water from a local spring or creek) and a bough of a conifer (Eastern hemlock is what I use, but you could also use white pine, cedar, juniper, etc)
  • A flute or other woodwind instrument (or your breath)

You can put your items on the ground or create an altar for the ceremony.

Sprinkle the ash/compost on the bed and say, “With the blessing of the earth, may you root deeply this winter.  May your roots and bulbs be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Next, asperge the bed with water by dipping the branch into the bucket of water and flicking it all over the bed.  Say, “With the blessings of the sacred pool, may you be nourished and grow.  May your bulbs and roots be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Finally, play your flute/woodwind instrument.  If you do not have a woodwind instrument, you can get down and blow directly on the soil, offering your breath to the soil.  When you are done, say, “With the blessing of the air, may you sprout in the spring and grow strong through the summer.  May your entire being be blessed, and through this blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.

Finally, cross your arms and bow your head. Say anything else that comes to mind at this point, honoring your garden.  If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering for the garlic.

Physical Activities

Physical activities are probably the typical things that people do in the fall–but some of these have a bit of a magical twist.  I’ll share the physical counterparts and how these are ritualized and connected to the work above.

Putting the Garden to Rest / Fall bed Prep

In the process of fall bed prep--the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

In the process of fall bed prep–the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

Fall bed prep can be any number of things.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we use sheet mulching/lasagna gardening techniques for our annual vegetable garden areas, and so this is the best time to build soil.  After the first hard frost (for us, usually mid-October), we clear away any weedy material and cut back annual plants (leaving the roots in the soil; they will break down and aid in soil compaction).

Then we do some sheet mulching–depending on the bed, this might include a layer of fall leaves and compost, a layer of cardboard (if the weeds got out of control) or simply a layer of finished compost.  If we are starting new beds, we always build them in the fall with layers of finished compost, hot compost/straw bedding (from chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea coops), and leaves.  You can also consider a winter cover crop (which doubles as fodder for your animals).   As you are doing this work physically, you can be doing the metaphysical work I described above.  (If you use this method, in the spring, all you need to do is use a broadfork or garden fork to aerate the bed!).

For perennial beds, we will do our final herb harvest of the season, tying up bundles of herbs in the house to dry.  We will trim back plants that die back during winter (e.g. echinacea, mountain mint, monarda, etc), and cover up plants that benefit from light cover (strawberries). We will also harvest any extra seeds from our refugia garden so that we can scatter them or give them away in the coming months or year.

Garlic is the one crop that you plant this time of year, and garlic can have its own special ritual, as I described above. I have instructions for planting garlic here.

Once all the summer crops and those that died back after the hard frost are removed, then you can do the “rest well” chant above. Obviously, anything that is still growing (kale, lettuce, etc) is covered and protected for the coming cold, and to extend the harvest season (for more on this approach, see Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook).  I like to use these last garden foods through Yule and finish them off for our Yule feast.

Making Compost

Chickens scratching it up!

Compost making is a great thing to do in the fall, as the winter will allow the compost to break down.  At the Druids Garden Homestead, we have chickens to do some of this work for us, but I’ll share a chicken compost and a non-chicken compost method.  Our method is to rake up as many fall leaves as we can and place these in a large pile near the coop (of course, jumping and meditating in them is also part of this!).  Then, as the snow and ice comes down, we layer another layer of leaves in the chicken run.  They don’t like walking on snow and ice, and this keeps them comfortable and occupied.  They scratch the leaves up, poop their nitrogen-rich poop, and are happy chickens.  When about mid-April rolls around and the ground thaws out, I muck out all of the chicken leaves (along with giving all of the coops a thorough cleaning, which gives us a lot of straw).  I layer the chicken leaves/compost with the straw in thin layers, piling this up as high as it will go.  You can add anything else here you like (non-weedy) such as coffee grounds and other fresh compost items. With a warm summer, this breaks down into an amazing pile of compost by late fall—just about the time you are doing your garden bed.

If you don’t have chickens, take fall leaves (preferably mulched) and add them in thin layers with other good compost-making things: manure, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, all of the old garden plants that died back during frost (non-weedy) and anything else you have.  Keep your layers of leaves pretty thin, especially if you weren’t able to mulch them.  Note that some leaves break down really quickly like maple, where others (oak) take a really long time to break down.  This approach should get you a nice pile of finished compost by next fall.

For either, honor the compost by doing the Soil Web Dance.  You can honor your new piles or your finished piles (or general composting area)

Final Harvest of Summer Crops

Finished compost

The final harvest of summer crops for us comes in the days before the first hard frost.  Some things with a light frost can be preserved, but once we hit about 35 degrees, that’s enough to kill of almost all of the summer crops: peppers, nasturtium, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, squash, beans, zucchini, etc.  Thus, starting in early October, we pay very close attention to the nightly temperatures, doing row cover as necessary.  But, when our first hard frost is imminent, we harvest the last of the crops: all the green tomatoes that will ripen on the counter for the next few weeks, beans, corn, peppers, basil, etc.  We like to cook a special meal with this (Samhain meal if possible, depending on the year) and make a special offering from this for some of the ceremonies above.  It is a great way to enjoy the last fruits of the summer season and also create a special offering food.

Gathering for Next Year’s Butzemann

As we are clearing the gardens and the Butzemann, we begin to think about next year’s Butzemann.  It is customary to collect some of the materials for use in next year’s Butzemann from this year’s landscape.  As we cut the gardens back, we gather materials that are stowed away in our shed till Imbolc.  I always like to leave an offering for any plant who is going to be part of the Butzemann.  For example, this year, the big patch of Mugwort spoke to me to be included for next year, so I have a large bundle of her saved for next year’s Butzemann.

Conclusion

Late fall is truly one of my favorite times because there is so much richness in how you can engage in sacred gardening and sacred action. I hope that this post has provided you with some ideas for how you might honor your soil, put your garden to rest, and start setting up physically and energetically for the season to come.  Blessings!

Transitioning into Deeper Darkness: Seasonal Activities and the the Golden Hour

Sun at sunset

Sun at sunset

As the light grows dim this time of year, as the days grow short, many people find this particular season a difficult one.  Without the light, our thoughts can spiral into the darkness, our spirits long for the warmer days.  The cold and dark are barely here, and there is so much winter ahead.  Just this week, I had three separate conversations with friends about this exact issue: it is a hard time of year, particularly the time between Samhain and Yule, when we know there is much more darkness to come.  It is a hard time this year, in particular, when so many of us are beyond stressed and burned out due to the unfolding events of the last two years.  It also was a strange year, in that we had temperatures that stayed well above freezing, which kept the leaves green–and suddenly temperatures that plunged very deep below freezing, which dropped all of the leaves in about two days.  I realized that there might be some benefit in writing about this time–not so much what is problematic but instead, how we might navigate it from a nature spirituality perspective.

I think that this time is one of the hardest of the year for many people.  We know that the cold and dark are on their way.  We see the death across the landscape as the bitter cold comes into the land.  It’s hard to have a flush, abundant garden one day and the next, find most of your plants have died.  This time of year forces us to come face to face with both darkness and death in ways that it is rare during the rest of the year.  And the more time we spend on the landscape, the more that this issue stares us in the face.   Here in Pennsylvania, it is also complicated by the end of Daylight Savings time, meaning that by the time you leave work, the sun has already set–and there are many days when you do not see the sun at all.

So, what is a druid to do?  I have developed a few strategies over the years that have helped myself and others, which I’ll share in the rest of this post!

Embracing the Season and Spiritual Activities

Late fall sunrise!

The first strategy is to embrace and honor this time for what it is–accept the cold, the frosts, and the death upon the landscape.  I have found that the more I fight against something, the harder it becomes to accept.  But, the more that I seek the good and the joy in it, the more enjoyable it becomes.

For this time of year, I have worked hard to find activities that I really love for the late fall and early winter. I have worked to develop a set of rituals and seasonal activities that bring me joy, that I can look forward to, and that sing to my spirit. The whole idea here is that it’s not just about saying “oh, the darkness and cold are here” but really creating intentional activities that make the most of these cold and dark times.  Your intentional activities may end up looking very different than mine–but I share these for a model of what you could do.  The more things that you have to look forward to and that you enjoy, the better this time of year becomes.

Gardening, Homesteading, and Harvest: Cycles and Looking Forward

If you do wild food foraging, or if you have a garden or homestead, there are a whole host of activities that come with this season–and you can embrace them, make them meaningful, and really look forward to them every year.

For those that do wild food foraging and live in a temperate climate, this is a perfect time to find the last of the nut harvests and spend time processing those nuts.  For example, one of my favorite of these is harvesting and processing acorns into acorn flour, which can be used to craft all kinds of sacred bread, cakes, and other delicious ingredients.  Acorn flour is a serious endeavor but it is just so worth it! Other nuts in my bioregion are hickories, chestnuts, and hazelnuts–each with their own unique sacredness.  This is flour that you can store in the freezer and pull out for sacred activity year-round.

The second activity that I really look forward to this time of year is putting my garden beds to rest.  I have worked hard to develop a series of rituals surrounding the end of the growing season: how to work with the annuals that have perished due to the frosts and freezes (saving their seeds, composting them, honoring their journey); bringing in the last harvests of the year, and also clearing the beds for next season.  I call this “putting the garden to bed” and it has become an important part of my homesteading activities each year–full of ceremony and honor (I can blog about this if anyone is interested!).  I feel like in doing these, I have a good closure to our season and the garden is a blank canvas for planning and planting in the future.

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At Samhain, we also burn our Butzemann, which allows us to have full closure for the growing season.  The Butzemann is part of the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, and it is a kind of magical scarecrow that guards the home for the whole light half of the year.  At Samhain, it is released through ritual burning, marking the end of the growing season.  But like many of the other activities here–it’s not just a closure moment.  You also start thinking about your next Butzemann, which you construct at Imbolc.  Right now, I have some amazing gourds and dried plants that I am letting sit over winter–I have big plans for these for Imbolc and for next season’s Butzemann.

What you can see from these three examples is that while they are all rooted in the moment of this time–in the growing darkness and cold–they are also rooted in the cycle and hope for the future.  The nut harvest and other foraged foods can be brought through the winter and enjoyed in the future.  The garden beds being put to rest allow for you to be ready to plant in the spring.  The Butzemann is burned, but the materials are started to be gathered for a new one, again, already getting you thinking of that cycle of the year and the promise of spring to come.

The Golden Hour and the Flame

Light and embracing the waning light is an important part of finding balance during this time of year. Because there is so much less light, you begin to pay attention to how to bring it, embrace it, and honor the light.  When there is an abundance of light in the summer months, these activities seem less central–but as winter sets in and the days grow so short, finding ways of bringing in the light is critical for balance and peace.  Thus, in the time of darkness and cold is to shift your emphasis from the waning sun to the inner and outer flames–through a physical embracing of the between times of light and fires.

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

One practice that everyone can do is to embrace the “golden hour”.  The golden hour happens twice a day–at dawn and at dusk.  This is a period of time about 10-20 minutes before the sun comes up when the light changes–either from bright daylight to this golden hue or from darkness to a golden hue.  It doesn’t last for too long, but if you go outside during this time, you experience a very magical moment.  It happens just after the really spectacular parts of the sunrise in the morning–the light evens out and then you are awash in a golden light.  It is particularly powerful when the leaves have changed on the trees–the whole landscape is just aglow in golden light. In the dark half of the year, the golden hour becomes quite accessible–it is easy to be awake both at dusk and dawn, and thus, you can make it a point to embrace the golden hour on the landscape. I find the golden hour to be good bookends for the day–watching the sunrise and sunset.  When we are in high summer, these are harder times to access (particularly those in the early morning) and so, it is really in the winter that you can get to experience this lovely time.  For me, I like to go out to my druid’s anchor spot and just sit and observe the land waking up or the land going to bed.

The second is to bring fire into your life in any way you can.  This might mean bringing in candles and candlelight living–take one day a week to use candlelight rather than electric light and see the difference in your own happiness and stability. This might mean making some candles or olive oil burners for the coming season. Or, this might mean embracing fires in your home.  For example, for us, we move from outdoor cooking and having regular outdoor fires to bringing our fires indoors.  This includes a whole host of seasonal activities including preparing the hearth, bringing in the wood and lighting the first fires of the season.  We have two wood burners in the house–a stove in the basement and an open hearth for cooking and joy on the first floor. Creating fires often and spending a lot of time with these fires can really help!

Whatever way you can, embrace these times of twilight, of limited light, and allow yourself to slow down into the rhythm in the dark half of the year.

Conclusion

I hope that these strategies and activities are helpful to you as we move into this time of deep darkness.  Part of the reason I do so much at this time of year is that I do find this time of year–particularly here in Pennsylvania after Daylight Savings Time ends–really challenging.  It used to be one of my least favorite times of the year, a time of year that I dreaded.  After working so hard to find rituals and seasonal activities that allowed me to embrace it, it is now a time of year that I always look forward to.  I wish you blessings in the coming darkness!.

PS: I have recently appeared on Rosalee De La Floret’s “Herbs with Rosalee” Podcast.  Please feel free to check it out below!  (Or here’s the link directly: https://youtu.be/RvjQgOMxA9E)