The Druid's Garden

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

Ecoregional Druidry: A Druid’s Wheel of the Year August 27, 2017

In the 1990’s, now Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Gordon Cooper, developed the idea of “wildcrafting your own druidry”; this practice is defined as rooted one’s druid practice in one’s local ecology, history, legends and magic.  In today’s age of adapting and drawing upon many different traditions in the quest for spiritual wholeness, we sometimes forget that all knowledge, regardless of how ancient it is (like the Celtic Tree Alphabet and divination system, the Ogham) was originally developed in a local culture and ecosystem.  Thus, too, I believe our spiritual practice reflect our own local ecologies and ways of understanding.  I’m going to expand on some of Gordon’s ideas here and talk about my own work with “local druidry” or “ecoregional druidry” and how to put some of this into practice to create a “druid’s wheel of the year” that is specific to your local ecology and customs.  While I’m using druidry as an example here, anyone who is following a nature-based spiritual path and using the wheel of the year as their structure of holidays would benefit from such information.

 

Dividing Up the Landscape

The Laurel Highlands (Alleghney Mountain Range in the Appalacians).  These are the mountains I call home--my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

The Laurel Highlands (Allegheny Mountain Range in the Appalacians). These are the mountains I call home–my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

Before we get into how to adapt some of the druid path practices and material to a local setting, it’s important to understand the different ways in which we can divide a landscape into smaller units that are more uniform. Most of us understand divisions from a political sense: the line that separates two countries, states, or provinces. These divisions may help us understand some of the different cultural practices that we can draw upon that are regionally or locally-based. Local feasts, local foods, local agricultural practices, local traditions and folklore all may contribute to our own understanding of ecoregional druid adaptations (and I’ll talk more about those in a second post).

 

However, political lines only occasionally follow ecological boundaries, and so we also need to understand something about ecological boundaries. At the largest level are ecozones (like the Nearctic ecozone, which constitutes most of North and Central America) and bioregions (like the Eastern United States). These bioregions are very large areas that have many, many different ecosystems within them, but do share some broader characteristics (such as patterns of light and darkness throughout a year).  For our purposes, likely the most appropriate place to look is at the level of ecoregion (or ecological region) which is, according to Brunckhorst (2000) is a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterize a region.”  This may include patterns that repeat in the geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, flora and fauna, and soils of a land area. In the case of the United States, the Laurentia ecoregion which also includes all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest east of the Mississippi as well as parts of South-Eastern Canada. Within this ecoregion, there are many ecosystems which are unique to their specific locations but also broader species that are shared across them.

 

With knowledge of both your regional or local traditions and ecoregion and local ecosystems, you are well on your way to adapting your druid practice.

The Adapted Wheel of the Year

The holidays that make up the wheel or cycle of the year in the druid tradition follow the path of the sun and include the solstices and equinoxes are determined by the path of the sun. The solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days manifest differently upon the earth in quiet dramatic ways. The modern wheel of the year, which is celebrated by druids, was developed in Great Britain from older agricultural holidays from Europe. While it fits the UK ecosystem quite well, it may be far less appropriate Texas, USA or Australia. Particularly, while the astronomical event of the longest day and longest night are present always, how they manifest on the earth is tied to how the holidays are celebrated. For example, in the UK or Eastern US, the Fall Equinox is a ritual devoted to harvest because that’s what’s happening in the landscape. Many different adaptations of the wheel of the year have been created by druids all over the world, unique to their ecosystems.

 

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

Further, the four season model present and assumed in the Wheel of the Year is based on a temperate climate. Some druids don’t live in regions with four seasons. Even within a temperate ecosystem each season may vary considerably by weeks or months, with different bloom times. Each year also is variable; a warm and early spring equals a growing season that has flowering and fruiting maturing earlier.  And so why the sun and solar currents are steady, dependable, and predictable, the hydrological cycles, weather, and manifestation of the season on the earth herself is ever changing.  It seems, then, to create a truly representative body of holidays, we must observe both the progress of the sun across the sky, but also consider the role of the specific season upon the earth and how it manifests where we live.

 

While the overall themes of the wheel of the year manifest in most ecosystems (a time of light/spring, a time of harvest, a time of being indoors/shelter (which might be from sun or cold, depending on the location), these are not consistent with the traditional wheel of the year in many places.  Not all locations have traditional spring, summer, winter, and fall. And so, some druids may find it necessary to develop a modified seasonal cycle and wheel of the year. For example, a wheel of the year in the tropics might include a dry season and a stormy season; this would drastically change the nature of the seasonal celebrations and the overall themes.

 

Deepening the Wheel of the Year: Adding Ecoregional Sacred Observances

Even if you live in a temperate climate (like I do) that is fairly representative of the standard wheel of the year, one of the ways you might adapt the wheel of the year is by adding in what I call minor sacred observances. These, unlike the path of the sun or cross quarter days, do not have specific dates on a calendar set by the consistent path of the sun and patterns of light and dark. Rather, they mark a period in time in the ecosystem, and that specific occurrence changes from year to year.

 

Through a period of observation and interaction, which involved being out in every season and through all kinds of weather, certain events seemed particularly meaningful and salient in my ecosystem.  These were events that I noticed happened with regularity and also that were notable or strikig to me in some way. I also used some of my own knowledge of past local history and lore. This wheel of the year took me over a decade to fully develop and, just as importantly, changed substantially when I made the move from Michigan to Pennsylvania a few years back.  Here it is in its current form:

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

 

Anything that is in between the eight holidays is mostly variable – like the first hard frost or first snowfall.  These are particularly significant events that happen each year, and I make note of them and honor them when they occur. I also have noted important dates that connect me to seasonal activities and the land–the yearly creation of Pysanky eggs, a longstanding family tradition. Additionally, all of my gardening and homesteading activities that help root me firmly in the ecosystem like starting my seeds, preparing beds for the fall, harvesting, and so on.  You’ll also see that I have included what I consider to be important markers of changes in my local ecosystem, like the chirping of the Kaydids or the blooming of the hawthorn.

 

You’ll notice on my map, Groundhog Day is included for a simple reason: I live 40 minutes south of Punxsutawney, PA, who has an annual tradition of doing a groundhog weather prognostication (a fancy word for divination) describing how soon winter will end by reading Phil’s shadow. Because of that bit of regional and honored folk magic, I tie my own Imbolc celebrations in with the general regional celebrations for Groundhog day on Feb 2nd and do divinations for the coming year at that time.

 

Of course, a different druid (even one living in the same ecoregion) might have a very different calendar of events. For example, when I lived in the Great Lakes region of the US, the full freezing over of the ice on the lakes (so that you could walk, skate, or ice fish) was a memorable occurrence, as was when the first crack in that same ice appeared. For some druids near the coast, the monthly “tidal bulge” might be particularly salient or the blooming of the beach rose. This is all to say that your own earth-centered holidays and even more specialized seasons themselves can be developed in line with your observations of local ecosystems and ecology. The more that you know about the world directly around you, the more you will have a sense of what is sacred and meaningful about that world.  Perhaps you don’t have a winter, but you have a season of fog—that would change how and when you celebrated that season.

 

Suggestions for Developing and Extending Your Wheel of the Year

First snow....

First snow….

I see this kind of ecoregional calendar as a next step in the druid tradition: we have a set of solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days that occur with regularity and that help bring us together. And these are determined by the path of the sun.  But each druid or group of druids might find their own way forward: the general principle here is that part of the druid tradition ties sacred ecological knowledge with a honoring of the cycles of nature and the cycles of the year. Or, you might choose to keep the solstices and equinoxes and do away with the cross quarter days entirely (as they are agricultural) and instead, build in other holidays or sacred moments that are important to you and your region.

 

How you develop your own seasonal calendar is up to you—it is about what is salient on your immediate landscape, the landscape you inhabit each day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming.  You might be surprised with the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farmers and farm products. A lot of traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems.  You’ll see that reflected in my map above—the flowing of the maple sap, for example, as well as the budding of the maple tree are significant to me both because I have done sugaring most years, but also because of the broader cultural custom in this part of the US.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs (like the celebration of the maple tree present in my region) and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities, might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? For example, for me around the Spring Equinox here (late March) nothing is blooming. But what is happening are the robins are starting to return and the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts are running with their sap. And the maples, in particular, are in a place of their highest power of the year (which I understand from talking to them and sensing their energy over a long period of time).  Maple, then, features predominantly in my local druid calendar as well as in ritual work that I do at that time.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature sprits, the powerful energies of the landscape where you live, and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

And so, with some observation, intuition, and research, you can develop a highly personalized “wheel of the year” calendar that is eco-regional and very specific to your druid path.  I’ll continue to examine this topic next week, when we explore how to develop localized rituals, observances, and activities for your wheel of the year.

 

(PS: If any of my readers are heading to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for Stones Rising next weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

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The Moon’s Sunbeams, or, Reflections on the Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017

In the druid tradition, we recognize that the solar currents, those currents of energy coming from the sun, are extremely powerful. And so, when the sun in the noon-day sky suddenly darkens, ancient peoples saw it as an incredibly bad omen. Dragons eating the sun, battles bewteen the gods, portents of other evil and pestilence across the land accompanied a solar eclipse. Given some of the extremely shocking and difficult events and the rise of hatred in the US of the months and weeks leading up to this eclipse, one could approach it with some trepidation. I wanted to share a bit of a druid’s perspective on the eclipse today.

Forest eclipse pattern

Forest eclipse pattern

The Solar Current’s Power

In his new book Secret of the Temple, John Michael Greer describes how temples were designed with particular features to channel the energy of the sun down and radiate it out across the land in blessing.  In AODA, for example, our main seasonal celebrations do this same work: bringing down the light of the sun to radiate it out upon the work.  While this is how AODA and the druid revival frame the solar and telluric currents, these ideas are certainly much older.

 

Given the worship and reverence to the sun in so many ancient people’s lives, it certainly is not surprising that if the sun suddenly blackened in the middle of the day, it would be an ill omen indeed.  What if the light didn’t return? People wouldn’t survive long in darkness.  For that brief moment, the utterly consistent sun appeared like it was being blackened from the sky.

A Simple Eclipse Ritual

Today, our grove met to do ritual during the eclipse.  at our grove deep within the state forest.  Our grove has an ancient Sugar Maple tree in the center and is an easy 15 minute hike in from the trail head.  When we met, we were in the sun by the lake, but decided to go into the grove and do the ritual while the eclipse was taking place.  Our ritual was simple: we did a simple grove opening.  I played the flute and my two friends worked to radiate light into the world, particularly focusing on our human world.  We did this for a time, and then paused to note the changes in the forest floor–the patterns became ripply at first, like waves in the ocean.

Amazing forest floor sunbeams!

Amazing forest floor sunbeams!

After that, we continued our ritual.  The second part of the ritual was also simple: we recognized the value of self care in these times, and we smudged each other.  Then we used a lavender hydrosol to bring clarity and focus for our journey ahead.  At this point, we closed out the grove and did an eclipse walk as the darkest point of the eclipse came into focus.

Walking in an Eclipse

The land stilled.  Everything grew quiet. Walking in the woods during the eclipse was incredible.  The sun’s rays of light behaved more like the moon.  It was if the sun and moon’s roles were reversed.  We didn’t have any fancy glasses or self-made boxes or welder’s masks.  We didn’t need any of that.  All that we needed were the trees and the light filtering through them.  We saw the eclipse much like our ancestors did–through the gentle light of the trees.  When the breeze blew, the little crescent moons turned into waves on the forest floor.  My friends and I danced in the sun’s moonbeams (or was it the moon’s sunbeams), frolicking along the forest path.

 

It was one of the most magical things I have ever seen.

Eclipse at full strength

Eclipse at full strength

 

The Moon’s Sunbeams (or Sun’s Moonbeams)

Experiencing the extremely magical eclipse in the forest taught me a valuable lesson–I had been feeling rather “doom and gloomy” about the world as well as about some other personal losses that happened in the last two weeks.  I felt like the eclipse was there to continue the pattern, to burn my retnas, to plunge my soul into darkness, to plunge the world into chaos, much like the Ancient peoples believed.  I had been reading too much online, letting some of the darkness of the recent events lodge within my soul.

 

And then, I went out to experience the actual eclipse.  And my heart was filled with joy as the moon’s sunbeams, or the sunny moonbeams, or whatever you want to call the flickering and wavering crescents of light, came down on that forest floor.  We might have went into that forest with heavy hearts and to do a ritual of light.  But the sun and forest surprised us with its own light.

 

It was a powerful experience, not just to see an incredible rare and glorious event of seeing the forest while an eclipse is going on.  But because it taught us, once again, about the healing power of nature.  Sun had no less power when she was behind the moon (or behind a cloud, for that matter).  She simply had different power, focused power, and it was a sight to behold!   So friends, keep your spirits high in these dark times.  Dance in the light of the sun and moon, and let your spirit soar.

Crescent Sunbeams, courtesy of the Moon

Crescent Sunbeams, courtesy of the Moon

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Working with Trees in Urban Settings August 13, 2017

Maples growing up through grate--been there for years!

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home.  As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her, and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall.  She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return.  I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread.  Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four foot space below the grate and the drainage channel and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit becuase of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples).  And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.

 

As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible.  I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from bustling city and town life.  But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, and establishing deep tree workings.  You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so.  Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines.  Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree who simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one who has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction.  This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different.  The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.

 

In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon.  It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going.  One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old.  Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism.  I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were.  I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.

 

In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees.  These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees.  Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch.  I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks.  So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.

 

Working With Trees

Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places.  Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction.  On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly.  Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old.  On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus.  They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels.  These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.

 

On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans.  Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc.  Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry.  Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade.  A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.

 

For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there.  For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.

 

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks).  These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree.  I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town.  They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.

 

Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!

 

Variety and Species

Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest.  I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples,  fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more.  Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places.  I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work.  It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.

 

Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification.  For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest!  And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!

 

Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts.  Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species.  For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas.  In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.

 

The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge.  I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more.  When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing.  There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.

 

In plain sight

Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passerby) around.  This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing.  I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much unwanted attention.  Unwanted attention from passerby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work).  So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways.  One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.

I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree.  Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music.  I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.

 

When others aren’t present

The other way work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As is a the early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present.  My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning, when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed!  This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.

 

Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environment go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife).  There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)

 

One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.  Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.

 

Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.

 

Acorns

Acorns

And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall.  This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.

 

Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship.  My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged oursevles on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry.  These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!

 

Moving the Seedlings

Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed wackers and mowers.  It is crushing have one’s young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places.  I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).

 

Offerings and Songs

Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good.  This is particular true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees.  Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizning their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.

 

I like to make these little “blessing” tokens.  They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town.  I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches.  This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.

 

Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.

 

Ritual work too, works well.  One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea.  I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone.  After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree.  This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us.  It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant.  It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people.  We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away.  I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples.  This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different.  Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!

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Rituals and Activities to Enhance Creativity and Support the Bardic Arts August 6, 2017

This is my song, this is my voice,
These are my words, this is my choice.
Hear me now, take heed of my words.
Love me now, and your spirit will fly.

Hear me in the howling of the wolf,
My voice is the song of the Bards,
I am the power that helps the salmon leap,
I am the very first breath of a child.

From Damh the Bard’s Song of Awen.

 

It has been a long journey into considering the role of the bardic arts in the druid tradition and the role that creativity plays in spirituality. I realized that one final thing was missing from our discussion–a set of practical exercises and rituals that you can use to better work with the flow of awen and embrace the path of the bard. And so, to finish out my long series on the Bardic Arts in the Druid Tradition, we turn today to some practical rituals and practices that you can engage in to help cultivate your own bardic practice. If you haven’t read the other posts in this series, you might want to start there.  They are, in order: the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts, the fine art of creating functional things, and finally, the bardic arts as a path of spiritual development.  And so today, we look at five practices that can help you further cultivate the bardic creative arts in your life and in the lives of others: the bardic circle/Eisteddfod, a bardic storytelling ritual, a ritual for invoking the awen, setting up a magical creative working space, and a ritual for cultivating the bardic arts.  I hope that these suggestions offer you some practical tools as you continue on your own path of the bard and embrace the creative flow of awen in your life!

 

Hosting a Bardic Circle or Eisteddfod

In the modern druid tradition, an Eisteddfod is a circle of bards who come together to share tales, stories, dances, and more.  We use this term more loosely in the druid community than where it originated historically, and to frame this practice, understanding a bit about the Welsh Eisteddfod is necessary. Welsh Eisteddfods are traditional bardic arts competitions that have been has been held on a national level in Wales since the 18th century, but go back in various forms much further than that. One of the key early figures in the druid revival, Iolo Morganwg, took the Eisteddfod a bit further.  He developed a “Gorsedd,” which was an event within the Eisteddfod that offered various degrees, ritual and ceremony for the for the purpose of promoting excellence in the bardic arts, particularly poetry, music, and literature. To this day the Welsh Gorsedd has druids, bards, and ovates who wear various robes.  The ranks of the bards include individuals who sit for exams in a variety of bardic arts, Welsh language, and more. Ovates and druids are honored for their contributions to Welsh Culture. Both of these practices persist to this day in Wales, and they take on a particular flavor in the modern Druid communities that trace their roots to the druid revival.

 

In modern Druid communities, it is very common to experience an Eisteddfod, sometimes simply for sharing, and other times, for a bardic arts competition.  Most typically, the bardic circles happen around campfires and can last into the wee hours of the morning.  Sometimes, the Eisteddfod is setup as a formal competition with multiple rounds, winners of individual rounds get to compete at the final night of the gathering.  The winner gets a prize, or at least, serious community recognition. But also, just as often, there is no competition and instead, it is a chance simply to share something by the fire: a poem, a story, a song, . Sharing at an Eisteddfod does not come easily to many people due to a lifetime of cultural conditioning, however, sharing at an Eisteddfod  allows you to break the potential years of silence and thinking you aren’t good enough and again realize there you are, telling a tale and hearing a thunderous applause.

 

Starting an Eisteddfod: You can start an Eisteddfod with friends (including non-druid friends). Ideally, you need a circular space where people can gather and enough people to make it a good time. A campfire or fireplace to gather around is a plus, but not necessary. Consider having a potluck meal as part of your Eisteddfod.

 

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

A Simple Setup. For an Eisteddfod, you need a space where people can gather, enough people to share stories, songs, dances, and other creative expressions, and some libations and food. A fire is a bonus, but is by no means necessary. You also need a master of ceremonies of sorts to help keep things going.  If you are doing an actual competition, you need two additional things: a panel of judges who will be able to declare winners and prizes for the winners.

 

The best part about an Eisteddfod don’t need to invite “druids” over or people on a similar spiritual path. Everyday folks from a variety of different traditions and life paths might find the idea of the Eisteddfod appealing and join your circle of bards.  It is a good way for solitary druids to find community without other druids nearby and still engage in a core practice in the druid tradition.

 

A Bardic Storytelling Ritual of Empowerment

The stories of our own past and histories can help shape our present understanding. This ritual is performed by two people. It can be performed in a sacred space, around a fire, or over a period of days where two people are spending them together. In this ritual, we use the bardic art of storytelling to share stories that are themed through one of four Jungian archetypes (the hero, caregiver, magician, and bard). The two people take turns telling their stories, and while one is telling the tale, the other is deeply listening. At the end of the tale, the listener shares the deeper qualities that he/she heard. For example in a tale of the hero, the listener might hear that the speaker showed bravery, quick wittedness, and eloquence. The goal of this storytelling ritual is to allow both participants to recognize the other’s gifts, the things that are already within ourselves, and that we may want to further cultivate.  Write down the qualities that the listener tells you for each of the stories—they are qualities to remember, and draw upon, for our own healing and growth.

 

The following four archetypes can be used:

  • The Hero (a person who employs courageous acts)
  • The Caregiver (a person who protects and cares for others)
  • The Bard (a person who realizes a creative vision)
  • The Magician (one who is able to work magic)

 

Other possibilities that you might want to include beyond the original three.

  • The Explorer (one who goes on a journey)
  • The Lover (one who expresses deep love for another)
  • The Sage (a person who seeks truth and deeper self awareness)
  • The Ruler (one who helps lead others)

Ritual for Invoking Awen

This very simple ritual for invoking Awen connects us deeply with the waters and the flow of Nywfre. You can use it at the start of any creative endeavor.

 

Supplies: Sacred Water. Before you can do this ritual, you will need to gather some water from a place sacred to you. Natural springs or wells are particularly effective for this, as is rainwater. If you are home-bound, even getting a bottle of fresh spring water from a local source will be effective here. Once you have your water, you can “make more” sacred water for this ceremony by simply adding new water (of any kind) to it. This water can also be used in your elemental altar, below. Place the sacred water in a small glass bowl and have it available for the ritual.

 

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

The Ritual:  Begin by taking three or more deep breaths, settling yourself into your body and allowing your breath to center and calm you. When you are ready, close your eyes and ring out the “Awen” chant three times. Then, with the bowl of sacred water, lathe your brow and your hands, and say “May the Awen flow within me. May the muse inspire me.” Take a moment to visualize the flow of the Awen within you, flowing in from the land, sea, and sky.

 

Setting up a Magical Creative Working Space: A Bardic Altar

 

Setting up Your Altar

We can use the elemental systems present in the druid tradition to help cultivate the right kind of energy for our own creative workings. One very effective way of doing this is to draw upon the power of the elements to create a physical shrine dedicated to helping you with your creative bardic arts.

 

For the bardic arts, we might use a four-fold elemental system as follows:

  • Fire – Beginning projects, gathering steam, projects of passion and intensity, any body-based work
    • Materials for Altar: Candles, igneous rocks, plant material that likes to burn (like white birch, conifers), red altar cloth, images of fire/sun/light
  • Air – Projects that require deep and clear thinking, projects that are mind/language/communication/memory based, writing/poetry/songwriting projects, problem solving
    • Materials for Altar: Incense, white/light gray/light yellow altar cloth, feathers, wind chimes, bells, singing bowls, images of the sky and clouds
  • Water – Building positive emotions towards a project, overcoming challenges, allowing the Awen to simply flow through you, any painting-based work (watercolor), other work that requires flow and fluidity (like dance)
    • Materials: Bowl of water, collection of water from sacred places, shells, river stones, opals, blue altar cloth, images of water/rivers/lakes, lake plants, seaweed/lake weed
  • Earth – Continuing on with a longer project that you are growing weary of, stubbornness and determination, also any wood-based work or earth-based work (clay), any nature-themed work
    • Materials: Stones, roots, nuts, fruit, bowl of earth, brown or green altar cloth, bark, images of caves and mountains

You can create a small elemental altar near where you are working on your bardic arts to help bring in that elemental energy to the space. You can change the “focus” of the altar based on what elemental energy you might need at the moment for your work. An altar cloth and change of materials will allow you to always bring in the blessing of the element.

 

For example, I have a permanent elemental altar on a shelf in my art studio. While all of the elements are present, the major focus of the altar rotates based on the project I’m working on. If I am particularly deficient and having difficulty (for me, this is almost always in earth and maintaining my focus on a longer project over time) I will dedicate the entire altar space to the energies of the earth for that purpose. And so, I gather up things that are representative of the earth: leaves, acorns, roots, soil, and a potted plant and bring them into the altar.  I also include a small bowl of water, incense, and a candle to represent the other elements (as their presence is also needed for any project to come into manifestation).  Finally, I include an awen symbol on the altar to recognize and connect with the divine inspiration that drives the creative work.

 

In addition to the elements, you might want to put other pieces on the altar that are dedicated to your particular bardic arts.  For example, if you are working on writing, an old-style pen and inkwell might be appropriate, or a symbol fo Mercury, who governs communication.  If you are a dancer, an old pair of dance shoes and a photo of a dancer who inspires you would be appropriate, and so on.

 

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Another option if you don’t have space for an altar or you don’t have a dedicated bardic arts space (or it isn’t appropriate due to living circumstances) is to hang an elemental representation (or set of representations) somewhere near where you practice your bardic art.  So if you practice your storytelling in front of the mirror in the bathroom, hang up a painting or photo of the element(s) or a natural place that is strongly aligned with that element that will aid you.  You could also use a simple awen drawing for this purpose.

Using Your Altar

You can use the altar in a variety of ways.  The presence of the altar itself will have a beneficial on the bardic work. Pausing before you begin the work to open up a sacred space (see below) using the altar as a focus is also a useful practice.  Tending the water regularly (changing the bowl of water, regular adding of new things, dusting, etc.) also connects you to that bardic practice.  Even if you don’t have time to engage in your bardic arts that day, visiting the altar and offering an awen chant will continue to encourage the flow of awen in your life.

 

Before you begin to do magical crafting or practice your bardic art, you can use the altar as a focus point to open up a sacred bardic grove, which I’ll now discuss.

 

 

Opening up a Sacred Bardic Arts Space

As the druid tradition recognizes that the bardic arts are inherently connected to spiritual practice, you can create a sacred space in which to engage in your bardic arts by using a simple sacred grove opening. This practice is particularly effective if you are working on a project that is new, challenging, or spiritual in nature.

 

This could be very simple:

  • Declaring that you are opening a space for working in your bardic art
  • Declaring peace in the quarters
  • Drawing upon the four elements for strength (see below)
  • Asking the Awen to flow within (see below)
  • Putting up a sphere of protection (AODA) or a simple protective circle (OBOD) for the duration of your crafting experience.

 

Here is some elemental invoking language you can use:

  • May the blessings of the Air inspire me and give me focus and clarity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Fire inspire me and give me passion and creativity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Water inspire me and allow the work to flow.
  • May the blessings of Earth inspire me and give me grounding and strength.

 

You can also get more specific with the language based on the bardic art.

 

To invoke Awen, yo might use a simple poem:

I call upon the Awen, the ancient source of divine inspiration,

I call upon the muses, the hallowed ones who guide my hand/voice/body
[as appropriate]

I call upon the living earth, the force of nature that inspires my craft.

I call upon my ancestors, whose creativity flows within me.

[Add any additional calls as is appropriate]

May the blessing of the awen flow within me this day and always. 

 

And with that, you can open your sacred space for creating the bardic arts, and leave it open as long as you plan on working that day.

 

Art and Spirit: The Bardic Arts as Self Development and Spiritual Practice July 30, 2017

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”

–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

 

In the last two months, through various angles, we have explored ways of taking up the path of the bard, one of the three paths of the druid tradition. Topics have included the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, and tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts. In my last post, we also explored some of what industralization had us lose in terms of the bardic arts–both to those who create them and those who use them and how we might regain some of those things individually and in our communities. Today, we delve deeply into what I believe is the deeper wisdom in studying the bardic arts: using the bardic arts one means to of self enfoldment, self-betterment, and self discovery.

 

Shifting from Product to Process

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

A few posts back in this series, I talked about the commodification and commercialization of the bardic arts in our age of hyper consumerism. In this age, if you are good enough to sell your work, you should be doing so, and if you aren’t good enough to sell it, you shouldn’t be making it. This belief, of course, suggests that the point of the bardic arts is producing a product that has a commercial value: a story that people will pay to listen to, a song that people will download on Itunes, a painting or wooden bowl that people will buy, and so on.  And our culture makes it hard to be a bard if something else is your goal–the pressure to do this, as your work improves, is really intense at times. The problem with this mentality is that it focuses on the end product: that the bardic art has produced a particular thing that has some kind of value to other people such that people would pay to see it/hear it/own it. Of course, in a society that is oriented to consume products of all kinds (including non-physical ones), the privileging of this mentality makes a lot of sense.  But in emphasizing this product, we lose the value of the bardic arts as a process–a process of deepening, of unfolding, of development.

 

The point of pursuing the bardic arts, as part of a spiritual path, is the same reason we pursue the spiritual path itself: because we want to go on a journey. Not because we want to achieve enlightenment or achieve any other worldly accomplishment–rather, it is to develop, to grow, to unfold.  In this view, then, it doesn’t matter how talented or skilled you are in your bardic art(s) of choice because the point is to gain a deeper understanding of self, of craft, of spirit and of the connections between those things.  The real “work” of the piece from a spiritual perspective is unfolded in the act of creation. If the point is to express yourself and learn more about yourself as part of the journey, the end product is almost like a bonus. The bardic art journey is its own kind of journey, an incredible one, and one well worth pursuing.

 

The Bardic Arts and the Cultivation of the Self

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”– Robert Pirsig

 

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig describes how the main character, Phaedrus, has an older motorcycle that he has learned to service himself and throughout the story, he “listens” to the engine and fine tunes it to his great satisfaction and joy–to him, this work on his motorcycle is an art in and of itself. Another character, John Sutherland, prefers to allow experts to fix his motorcycle, and often gets frustrated and is forced to hire professional mechanics. This interplay between Phaedrus and Sutherland offers a rich exploration of what constitutes craft, quality, and value. For Phaedrus, the point isn’t to fix the motorcycle, rather, fixing the motorcycle helps him better understand himself.  It is in the interplay between the honing of his own craft, addressing challenges, and the focus and dedication of that work that he grows to deeply understand himself and his own life.

 

The bardic arts have a way of doing this kind work on the self like few other things do.  This comes through embodiment, cultivating a richer identity and self-love, being in relationship, connecting to spirit, and striving for excellence.

 

For one, many bardic arts require intensive focus, where we simply are present with our own bodies in ways that we are rarely present at other times. The bardic arts demand our hand-eye coordination, our voices, our vision, our sense of touch and smell, and many of our other physical faculties. Westernized culture is largely a disembodied one–our minds are the focus, and much of the pastimess of modern humans have us going off into various fantasy worlds (through games, television, movies) rather than being present and centered in our bodies. This embodiment, then, helps us recognize what our physical bodies are capable of and helps us re-orient ourselves back into our bodies. This has the benefit of grounding us back into the here and now, slowing us down, and helping us be fully present, among many other things.

 

Second, the bardic arts help us cultivate a deeper sense of identity and of self. Engaging in a bardic art, and the practice of that art, often requires you to work solitary–spending time with the self. Even if you do some kind of performance or collaborative art that requires a group (like playing an instrument in a band or acting), practice by one’s self is still a regular part of that experience.  This time spent with yourself strengthens your own self love and bonds with yourself because you are taking inherent time to simply be with yourself and enjoy that time. We often don’t take much time for ourselves–but I believe we need to get to know ourselves and develop relationships with ourselves in the same way we might develop relationships with any other friend.  This time, then, helps us better understand ourselves.

 

Three, interacting with the instruments of the bardic art (your voice, the media, an instrument, even for dancers, the earth itself), creates an interplay between you and your tools/environment. It ultimately teaches us about relationship and how to be in relationship to some other thing.  My words, as I write them, shape me and hone my thinking in ways that without writing them, I wouldn’t experience.  My watercolors, likewise, help paint my soul with color and joy as I use them to paint the page in front of me.  This interplay, this interaction, becomes part of the self-unfoldment of the bardic arts.  When you carve wood–are you carving the wood or is the wood carving you? The answer is simply, “yes.”

 

Finally, creation of the bardic arts connects us with some of the most important aspects of humanity: when we think about what gets preserved in most museums, what remains of a culture, it is rarely their businesses, their stock market, their tallies of grain or ore.  It is their arts: plays, music, literature, statues, architecture, jewelry, stories, songs.  In fact, the study of the things that humans create is called the humanities, where literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, dance, and so on have their place. These are human things, things we create with our hands, our hearts, and our minds.  The oldest things that survive ancient pre-humans are cave paintings. Creating is something that humans do, and have done even before we were human.  The bardic arts, then, allow us to reconnect with our own humanity, our humanness.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Arete and the Strive for Excellence

As the opening quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggested, learning how to work on something with care, precision, and a sense of wanting to do “good work” helps you cultivate that care in other aspects of your life.  If you develop a sense of wanting to produce quality work, that gives you an inherent sense of care.  That same care can be cultivated into other aspects of life–and part of that cultivation is learning how to do it well in one area.  The Ancient Greeks had a concept of “arete” (Greek: ἀρετή) which has a few translations: excellence of all kinds and in all things, living up to one’s potential in life, or having a high quality. It was synonymous with the idea of “moral virtue” suggesting that excellence was tied to morality and potential. The Greeks believed that people and the things people created could both have arete. 

 

I don’t see arete as an external quality, something to be judged against the “experts” or “professionals” who make a living doing a certain thing.  Arete is also inherently different than perfectionism. Arete is about personal potential and fulfillment–my personal best may not be someone else’s, based on my own skill, tools available, mindset towards the work, where I’m creating it, and any innate talent I may bring to the situation. The Greeks understood this, and maybe, in the druid tradition, we understand it too.  More, arete is in line with doing the best work you can, engaging in your bardic art to the best of your ability, and in doing so, becoming a more virtuous and fulfilled self.

 

I think cultivating Arete through the bardic arts this is particularly important as we are being subjected to a wide range of cultural values that suggest that cheaper, quicker, and easier is always better.   In many cases, it is not, and learning how to do the best work we can, so that we can strive for excellence is a worthy goal.  It is through this striving for excellence in one thing that excellence comes in many other areas of life as well.

 

Embracing the Flow and the Unconscious

I had a dear friend and mentor visit me some years ago. A few months prior to his visit, I had moved my art studio to a different room in the house; the old studio space became a spare bedroom. My friend, who was very much dedicated to his own druid practices each day, was staying in that room.  After spending a day or two there, he asked me if that room was where I had done my daily spiritual work, because the room had a focused energy. I said no, that was where I painted. And that one interchange has had me thinking, and reflecting, since–noting the similarities between my painting and my other kinds of spiritual work, particularly, meditation of all kinds (movement, stillness, discursive, etc).

 

In speaking to many who pursue the bardic arts with regularity and dedication, there seems to be this moment when the intensity of modern living sheds from us and we enter into a place of focus, quietude, and flow. Many very much see it as a meditation, a chance to go deeper and connect. After immersing oneself for some time within that bardic art, one comes out of the experience more relaxed, calm, and grounded. This is not any different, for me at least, than spending time in ritual or quiet meditation: the effect is the same.  A calmness, a sense of fulfillment, and of serenity come over me after time working on my bardic arts, whether that is fine arts, crafts, or writing. I will say though, it takes a level of skill and practice to get to the point where the flow comes–it is after some period of practice.

 

Above, I talked about the unfoldment that happens in the self. I think a lot of that work is semi-conscious or even unconscious. Our rational minds lose their vice grip and things can flow to the surface as the bardic arts flow. I often find that when I paint, carve, or engage in other work with my hands, by the end of that session, I’ll have come to an understanding of an issue that I didn’t have clarity on when I started. This experience is a powerful reminder that there are many levels to consciousness, and tapping into the bardic arts, when you are at that point of flow, allows you to tap into deeper ones than before.

 

Conclusion

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The bardic arts can also give us a sense of joy that is hard to find in other ways.  We can engage in the bardic arts because they make our souls sing–and finding how to use them to cultivate happiness is an important part of this spiritual work.  For many, part of this comes in sharing your work with others (one of the reasons that the Eisteddfod, or Bardic Circle) is so critically important.  But for others, it simply means tackling a difficult piece and feeling a sense of accomplishment, or learning an important skill through repeated practice.

 

Making things is personally empowering and gets us into a creative, skilled mode where we function best as humans.  There is nothing like a happy group of people learning how to carve spoons, make their own tools, raise a barn, build a rocket stove, or grow their own food.  There is a radiant joy that emerges when we learn how to make our own things.

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Embracing the Bardic Arts: A History of Making Fine Things July 23, 2017

One of the changes that humans have experienced with the rise of industrialization, and more recently, consumerism, is a shift away from creating our own lovingly crafted objects, objects created with precision, skill, high-quality materials, and care and into using things that instead are made by far away people and machines. I wrote a little bit about this before in a post on wood. In speaking of the 17th century, Eric Sloane writes in the Reverence of Wood:

“In 1765, everything a man owned was made more valuable by the fact that he had made it himself or knew exactly where it had come. This is not so remarkable as it sounds; it is less strange that the eighteenth-century man should have a richer and keener enjoyment of life through knowledge than that the twentieth-century man should lead an arid and empty existence in the midst of wealth and extraordinary material benefits” (pg 72).

I know that a number of us on the fringes (and growing increasingly towards the center) are picking up these old skills through the process of reskilling and supporting craftspeople in their trades. The craft brewing movement, wood carving movement, and fiber arts movements are several such examples.

 

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Making some loafers out of scraps of leather and old leather couches!

Recently, I’ve been learning a few new skills including making candles from the beeswax from my beehives, learning how to make my own leather shoes, and learning basic woodcarving techniques (some of which I’ll write about at some point). But what has struck me in the process of trying to learn these things is the lack of specialized, accessible knowledge on the subject, especially in my local area. What I’d ideally love to do is to sit with a master and learn the process from him or her here in my local community–but there are no masters to be found locally. Youtube, old books, and an occasional class where I drive a long way to learn is the most common way of gaining this knowledge these days.

 

And so, I wanted to step back a bit from the specific crafts, and today, spend some time reflecting upon the idea of making things as both a functional handicraft and as a bardic art that cultivates the flow of awen. I think this is important for a few reasons. For one, as someone on the druid path, supporting the bardic arts, which includes various functional crafts, is an important part of that path: finding one’s own creativity and being able to do something with that creativity is central. But second, that learning how to make my own things that will last, from local materials, helps us minimize our footprint on the living earth. Third, making our own things helps me slow down and reconnect with the earth and her gifts. Plus, there is simply a lot of fun to be had in making your own shoes, paper, jams, spoons, or whatever else! (Of course, all of this requires time, which is a challenge I also wrote about earlier this year).

 

The Skilled Trades and Home Economy

At one time, humans in communities provided nearly all of their own needs: there were coopers, cobblers, tanners, barm brewers, blacksmiths, wainwrights, apothecaries, tailors, as well as bustling home economies that produced many other things that a family needed. A list from Colonial America offers a description of some of these jobs here.  What strikes me about this list is the amazing number of specialized professions there were for making everyday objects and tools for human use, everything from brewers’ yeast to barrels, from medicines to wagon wheels. In other words, humans in a community used to make things for that community–the expertise was centered in and around that community. My example of making shoes, or the art of cobbling, falls into this category: every community had a local cobbler to make and repair shoes–this required specialized knowledge, tools, and practice.

 

The second kind of economy in these times was, of course, the home economy. Homesteads were places of constantly bustling activity: bread baking, cheese making, tool making, farming, candle making or rush light making–providing so many of a family’s own needs.  My candlemaking experiences, here, certainly fall into this category.  I’m not going to talk too much about the home economy today (although I likely will at an upcoming point).

 

The system I outline above was no perfect system, but it was a system that employed highly skilled people working with more local materials in their local communities, making things for the use of that community; combined with highly adaptable home economies that produced the bulk of a household’s needs. This system allowed people to monitor how supplies in the local ecosystem would last and to understand their direct ecological impact when they made new things. Further, this general system has worked for most non-industrial agrarian cultures around the globe for millennia. Its especially interesting to note, too, that this system actually seemed to be less work intensive than current systems; one such presentation of this is through Juliet Schor’s The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and in Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto.  Both of these books explore the issue of work, showing how many of our ancestors had plenty of time for 12-day feasts and much revelry and worked fewer hours than we did (a topic I explored earlier this year).

 

Candlemaking for the first time!

Candlemaking for the first time!

Tucked into quiet places, you still may find the remnants of these locally-based, highly skilled trades: odd tailor who makes his or her own suits, the local wood turner, and so on. Today, we see the remnants of these older ways of life in antique shops and other nooks and crannies: hand-hewn and worked wooden objects, iron tools clearly forged by an expert blacksmith, homemade buckets, spinning wheels with various small repairs, handmade clothing and quilts, and so on. In fact, my town still has a cobbler who fixes shoes (but doesn’t’ make them; he tells me his grandfather from who he learned the trade from did). At a thrift store visit last year, a dear friend of mine found an incredible green suit made by a tailor right here in town (and obviously, no longer in business).

 

But with the rise of consumerism and industralization, we left behind many of these skilled trades and we left behind our home economies to buy things. We also, unfortunately, left behind even the idea that craft was something to take seriously and that a high-quality product was worth paying more for or to spend a tremendous amount of time to make.

 

The Decline of the Skilled Trades

As someone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the rust belt/flyover zone, I have always lived in a time of declining small businesses and large corporations. Each year of my life, I’ve watched more family businesses and local shops close up for good and be replaced by large corporations on the edge of town reachable only by car (rather than in town, reachable by foot). In fact, I lived this firsthand, watched my parents’ own graphic design home business steadily lose their local customer base as one business after another closed their doors, or relocated, or were bought out by a bigger corporation who were headquartered in a far off state and not interested in offering work to local graphic designers. The first Walmart came to my area while I was still in middle school, driving many local establishments out of business within only a few years’ time.

 

At this point, exploring the landscape of most places in the US shows the most boring monotony of the same businesses selling the exact same things (an issue I took up last year). I had, of course, read in various places about the engineering of American society to be consumerist in the times following WWI. This general pattern was well underway long before I was born, and in fact, was several centuries in the making. To understand this phenomenon better, I spoke to some older family members to try to understand their firsthand experiences. My older family members attribute a large number of factors to the loss of our small trade businesses and creation of handicrafts locally, but I’m going to hone in on three that seemed to arise with the different conversations: 1) the rise of large corporations (which is the fairly obvious one), 2) the lack of new apprentices to carry on the family businesses; 3) the loss of the blue laws and 4) the cultural disregard for handmade things.

 

Obviously, when large corporations like Walmarts and Targets come to town, economics has a lot to do with the issue. For one, because they buy and ship in such bulk, they can undersell local businesses on the same products. But they also sell cheap products in snazzy packaging with fancy words masquerading as good products. This has been talked about a lot in other places and is fairly well known, so I won’t belabor the point here.  This decreases the demand for these locally-produced crafts and trades.

 

The second reason was the lack of young people wanting to go into these traditional crafts and trades–which has a lot to do with economics, but also with interest. When my parents attended the closing of our local shoe store in Johnstown (called Yankee Shoe Repair), they spoke with the owners, who said that there was nobody who wanted to carry on their business and that was one of the reasons they were closing. They purchased a good deal of leatherworking supplies for me, and that’s how I got my start in leatherworking.

 

Third is my mother’s “blue law” theory. Blue Laws, which used to protect family time, also contributed to the downfall of the trades here in our region. The Blue Laws governed, among other things, when businesses had to stay closed to ensure adequate time for families and religious services. After the blue laws were removed, family businesses often kept with those traditions (and still do, in limited places) while big corporations remained open for longer and longer hours, making it more convenient for customers. Today, we are seeing the real effects of these pushes with the loss of Thanksgiving day and the push for being open on Christmas day. The limited hours made shopping at these stores (and their associated value systems) less convenient and, in an age of convenience, folks less likely to visit the family owned business.

 

Finally, the idea of something being handmade (rather than store-bought) after World War II took on a negative connotation for many Americans. Handmade objects were looked down upon and seen as less desirable. My mother shared with me stories of wearing “hand me downs” or “handmade” clothes rather than purchased ones and how she was teased as a child. Even in my own childhood, I experienced this. My paternal grandmother was a maker, going to church sales, picking up huge bags of old clothing and drapes, and repurposing them into toys, skirts, doll clothes, and more. When I went to school with my handmade clothing lovingly crafted by my grandmother, I was mocked (which, to the other children, suggested poverty). Today, “handmade” still has some negative connotations (especially if it’s done in a less-than-sleek manner).

 

Problems with the Shift to Consumer Economies

So now that we have some understanding of what happened to the skilled crafts and trades, I want to briefly explore a few problems that this has created. These are key problems for both individuals, communities, and our broader lands.

 

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

A handcrafted leather book with ecoprinted pages

The Loss of Highly Skilled Workers and Educational Opportunities. First is that the highly skilled labor required to produce these objects has shifted to mechanized low-skilled labor. This means that these highly skilled trades employing people in every community that offered a good living have now vanished. These skilled trades had offered young people educational opportunities and career opportunities through apprenticeships. Now, these positions are largely relegated to lower-skilled or unskilled factory workers in a single community (likely these days, overseas). We’ve taken 100,000+ cobblers located all over and have replaced them with 10 factories each employing 300 low-paid, unskilled employees in far off locations. Pressing a button on the shoe cutting machine is a lot different than the custom measuring, cutting, and fitting of a pair of  shoes for a specific person in terms of the skill, care, and precision necessary for the work.  Not to mention that you end up with a much better product if the shoe is made for your feet. Finally, a pair of shoes made in a factory vs. one made by skilled hands fundamentally changes the nature of the work we do, and I believe, makes it a lot less meaningful. 

 

I have firsthand experience of this factory work: when I was in high school, I worked for a summer in a bra and underwear factory; we didn’t produce bras or underwear (they were made in sweatshops overseas), but we hung them, packaged them, and shipped them off to various big box stores all over the country. It was the most wretched four months of my life. At the factory, anyone could do the work; it could be learned with minimal training, usually less than a few hours. There was no craft, no care in the work–and how could there be? People worked in rough conditions, for minimal pay, and there was no need to be skilled or invest time in the quality of our work done well. This isn’t to say that people at the factory were lazy–they worked hard, but the nature of that work was much different than our skilled shoemaker fitting a person for a custom pair of shoes.

 

Environmental Health and Health of Ecosystems. One of the things about goods being made right in your local community is that you know what goes into those goods and where those goods come from. The local tanner and hunters have some idea of the level of the deer population; the local woodworker knows about the health of the forest; the local farmer can speak about the quality and health of the soil. When the creation of goods is removed from our vision or done on the largest industralized scale, we no longer can assess the health of those places where raw goods are coming from nor the impact of those goods on the land.  Sure, we may hear stories, but it is a “far away” problem that we pay no mind. Further, those producing goods as a family profession are going to care about the health of the land from which those goods come (and continue to come) as their livelihood depends on it. Not so with the large-scale production factory, who can often just find a new source of raw materials to exploit (this, also hidden from view from the end consumer).

 

The truth is, I have no idea where my goods really come from when I’m purchasing something at the store; they are hidden behind various “distributed by” labels on packaging and even writing a company often does not lead to any deep understanding. This means I can’t really assess their real costs to myself or to any community that may be involved in the extraction of resources nor production. And I certainly have no idea what the environmental costs of those goods are (and I suspect they are generally quite high).

 

Product Quality and Comfort. On the consumer end, the quality of the products has declined with the loss of our skilled trades and crafts; in many cases, options in many cases is to choose between low-priced junk and high-priced slightly better junk. While factories can certainly produce these objects more “efficiently”, they certainly can’t do it better or of a higher quality. Shoes are a great example here. A pair of shoes fitted to an “ideal” foot is not a pair of shoes fitted to my foot, and my feet nearly always hurt because they are different than the factory-produced ideal. I have never liked shoe shopping and it usually takes me many tries to find a decent pair of shoes that are comfortable. The factory standardizes human feet in a way they shouldn’t be standardized, and my limited experiences with cobbling have already taught me that human feet don’t come in simple digit sizes. Tracing my own and others’ feet on paper as part of learning to make shoes has taught me that feet are as unique as we are, and shoes, therefore, also need to be. Goods designed in a specific local context or body in mind are simply better than those that are not!

 

Variety and Weirdness. The standardization of goods also comes with the loss of diversity (and anyone who has studied evolution knows how important diversity is to any system!) A local shoemaker in one town might produce a very different kind of shoe than one three towns over depending on his/her skills, training, and creative approaches. With a factory pumping out 10,000 shoes a day that are identical, we now have much less choice, less quirkiness, and less all around creativity.

 

Suffering, Joy, and the Energy of Goods. As I’ve stated on this blog before, the things that are near to us, including physical goods, bring their own energy and that energy impacts us. A shoe produced in a sweatshop invariably brings some of that suffering into your own life–it carries the energy with it from how it was extracted and made. I highly suspect that the cobbler enjoyed his or her work much more than, say, the under-paid and chemically-exposed factory worker. Whose shoe would I want to wear?

 

The “Real” Costs. I think the real lure here is the idea of a cheap good and its overall value. Cheap products are not better ones, ones that are of quality and that last.  It’s true that Walmart and Payless Shoes other bargain stores can sell a cheap pair of shoes for $25, while the local shoemaker sells a much better and high-quality pair of leather shoes for $150. This doesn’t seem very competitive on the surface to the average consumer. However, given that the whole purpose of consumerism is to consume as quickly as possible, and so, the $25 pair of shoes you wear every day have barely a year shelf life.  You’ll have to replace those cheap, uncomfortable shoes 10 times in a decade.  This ends up costing far more than the $150 pair of shoes that last a decade with minimal maintenance and repairs.

Where do we go from here?

Industrialization isn’t going to go away tomorrow (and it would be very bad if it did for those of us who still depend on it).  And yet, I think there are a lot of things we can do to cultivate the bardic arts, both within ourselves (as my earlier posts in this series suggested) and to cultivate a culture in which the bardic arts are valued and profitable.  Let’s look at a few of those things now!

Master class on shoemaking!

Video master class on shoemaking!

 

Supporting Skilled Trades

I think the very first thing all of us can work to do is to support those folks who are still around, still engaged in their skilled trades.  My town has a cobbler–he doesn’t make shoes (unfortunately, I’d love to learn from him!) but he does repair them, and I’ve been glad to visit him every few months with small shoe repairs. I honestly know enough about shoemaking at this point that I could manage some of the repairs–but I want to give him business (and his repairs will be nicer than mine!)  There’s a local wood turner who I’ve been buying wooden bowls and plates from, and so on. The more we can seek these folks out and help them thrive, the better. On the more fine arts side, the same thing applies: finding local artists, local theaters, local musicians, and supporting their work as much as possible. Each town and community has its own quirky, unique scene of great people creating great things, and supporting that work is so critical to returning to a bardic-arts enriched culture.

 

Reskilling, Time, and Community

We just don’t have time like we used to have to engage in these functional crafts; our ancestors who were making these things in pre-industralized cultures had a lot more time to do so.  (Pre-industralized cultures worked a lot less and played a lot more than people do now). The time and “productivity” suck we are all facing means that we simply don’t have the life energy to really invest in these skills and get good at doing them. I feel this really harshly because I have lots of things I want to do–a wide variety of skills to learn and master–and more often than not, I’m exhausted with my work (and paying off those darn student loans) and don’t have the energy or time to do many of them. This is a cultural problem that faces anyone who is trying to earn a living within our current system.

 

I think that this time crunch we are all facing means that we don’t necessarily have the energy to figure things out or to fail in order to learn.  The way we learn as humans, even when there is someone teaching us, is by trying, testing things out, failing and re-trying, and fiddling with things till we get it right.  Its like a slow spiral, working ever inward and deeper.  We need a lot of time to hone our crafts, to take them from beginner attempts into things that are functional that we can be proud of.  This means we have to invest a lot of time in them–the one thing that we don’t currently have.  Without investing the time, we can’t get good at them and turn them into an art.

 

Still, these skills are worth doing and worth preserving, and finding ways of doing so (living arrangements, working arrangements, defending vacation time, etc) are important things we all need to figure out how to accomplish.

 

My solution at present to this is twofold.  For me personally, it is a matter of making the time and keeping with it. I’m working to make the most of the small amounts of time that I might have available (e.g. stitching up a hand-bound book while talking with friends or waiting for my car to be repaired, similar to what knitters do).  But also, setting aside sacred days and times to do that work.

 

The second is community–I’m working hard to find friends to learn these skills with and working on building a network of folks who have different skills.  Like the mini-villages of old, finding people who can teach and who are willing to trade is a great way to keep these old skills alive and vibrant.  And so I have a friend who carves spoons, and we trade for artwork, another friend makes really great jams, and so on.

 

The third is to pick a craft and really hone it.  I’ve been such a dabbler for a lot of my life, and I really want to start making a few things and doing those well.  I’ve suck with my painting and writing longer than anything else, and the results of those efforts show.  I’m really getting into leatherworking and some primitive woodworking, and I know those skills will both take me years of time to develop and master.  These seem like enough: both in term of the time investment, but also in terms of the materials/tools investment (which is considerable).  But picking one, or two, and really working at it is important.

Reskilling and Preserving Living Knowledge

As I’m involving myself deeper in my own reskilling, I’m also seeing the serious cracks and edges of this movement from a knowledge perspective. While knowledge of how to do many things used to be widespread, local knowledge about many of these more complex skills  seems to be absent almost entirely. Skilled knowledge about these things may be out there in the world, but it is often contained in small pockets, or inaccessible in faraway places, or offered only at considerable cost (I could travel to a master shoemaker and learn, but it would cost me over $1000 to do so). Or, knowledge is contained in good books, many of which are out of print.

 

Another issue with this is that many of us no longer have this knowledge or access of where to find it, and we are learning a little bit and bumbling about in that learning and sharing what we learn.  But the truth is, you can’t just replace a master craftsperson with a short online tutorial and expect the product to come out the same way.  I am learning this the hard way with shoemaking–I tried what looked like it was a decent online tutorial, but my shoes didn’t really come out and the key aspects of the tutorial I needed were lacking. I invested in a kickstarter campaign to learn from a master craftsperson and his course is incredible and deatiled–and I’m putting the finishing touches on my first pair of custom shoes!

 

And so, in terms of reskilling movement for more specialized skills, we need to continue to build first-hand knowledge. I think it would behoove us to seek out the teachers of these kinds of skills, learn from them, and work hard to pass it on and to keep those traditions alive.  I can’t stress this enough–seek these folks out, learn from them, document that knowledge, share it, and preserve it.  The internet is great for this!  Share, share, and share!

 

Localizing Resources

Another strategy that you might try to start bringing more handcrafted functional things into your life is looking at what resources already exist in your community or local ecosystem.  Here, there are always places being logged, and those loggers leave behind so much good wood.  Straight branches, curved interesting pieces, green or drying out.  This is part of what prompted my interest in woodworking: the materials are so abundant and easy to find here that it seems that all I need is to put some time and hone the skill of doing it.

 

I have a friend who makes these incredible pieces of art from buckthorn vines in Michigan.  Buckthorn is everywhere in Michigan, and townships often have clean up days where they pull them out and burn them.  She takes them home and turns them into baskets, picture frames, and more. My other friend, Deanne at Strawbale Studio, uses the clay, sand, and silt in her soil combined with phragmites reeds to make houses and natural structures.  Again, she is capitalizing on resources that are already present there in the landscape. Yet another friend has cultivated abundance by growing bamboo for flutes and whistles!

 

So rather than picking a hobby that requires you to bring resources in, perhaps look at what resources are there and use them, if you can. This is the best synthesis of nature-oriented spiritual practice and the bardic arts and crafts.

 

I think that the edges are starting to wear thin for a lot of us concerning the lure of consumerism with its flashy gizmos and cheap gadgets. It’s exciting to see the rise of the reskilling and maker movements, where people are realizing the potential of their own creative gifts and working again to create functional and lovingly made crafts. I think that many of these movements are not yet mainstream (perhaps craft brewing and the tech/maker movement being the most mainstream at this point), but I do see them as gaining momentum, at least among the fringe groups focusing on sustainable living, permaculture, transition towns, and the like.  While this post explored some history and problems, our next post will continue to get us deeper into the relationship of the self with the idea of craft and the bardic arts–and how we can embrace this work as part of our own spiritual and sustainable path.

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