The Druid's Garden

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

Ode to the Rooster January 29, 2017

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.

 

The Way of Wood January 22, 2017

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Imagine sitting down to your holiday meal with loved ones and family. There is a feast before you–ham, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, gravy, and various other family favorites. The table is decorated with colorful red tablecloths, the lights are low, the lights on the tree are twinkling….and you are given a Styrofoam plate! I’m sure this has happened to all of us over the years–and to me as well! What if, instead, you were given a beautiful hand-carved wooden bowl or plate to eat from? How would that change the experience of eating your meal? What if the meal was by candlelight, with engaging conversation, and took my time with the meal?  In fact, if you had lived in an earlier time, you likely would have had this experience, and it would have been the “norm.”

 

In fact, Eric Sloane describes the shifts in our relationship with lovingly crafted, wooden things in his On Reverence for Wood. In this passage, he describes America before the Civil War: “Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘A substance with a soul’. It spanned rivers for man, it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” (Pg. 72)  I think this quote beautifully expresses humans’ relationship with wood in previous generations, and to me, helps fill a gap that I didn’t know was missing.

 

A lot of things I talk about on this blog are what I might frame as “big” things: working on land regeneration, sustainable living and permaculture, growing food, natural building, beekeeping and more…these big things seem important and relevant. But there are also the more subtle ways of shifting living and communing with nature that may be less obvious, but no less profound. I think that there is value in exploring alternatives to the everyday objects that fill our lives and that we interact with. How many times, for example, do I encounter plates, bowls, cups, and silverware each day?  How many times do I put my feet in a pair of shoes, or put a pair of pants on, or put my head on a pillow in a typical week?  How many times do I sit down to enjoy a simple meal? How do those simple, daily patterns, unfold?  And so, today, I’m going to explore a rather simple concept, in honor of the many feasts most of us attended as part of the holiday season over the last few months. I call this concept the way of wood.

 

The Way of Wood

What I’m calling “the way of wood” refers to, in a literal sense, spending more time and contact with wood that has been lovingly shaped by careful hands.  Wood that has a soul.  The wood’s origins are important–ethical resourcing of the wood is critical. These wooden objects come into your life either by trading/purchasing/commissioning it from those who work with wood or by honing your own skill in carving/woodworking/turning, etc.  So far, I am in the first category, having found woodworkers whose talents I wish to support, although I hope to turn my artistic sights on this beautiful art form quite soon!

 

The way of wood, in a broader sense, asks us to consider the nature and origins of the objects that we engage with in everyday life–and bring those objects more carefully and consciously into our daily living experiences. This, again, means considering relationships between the object, how it was made, where it was sourced, as part of an energetic relationship.  The way of wood also encourages us to seek deeper connection with nature through the creation (and supporting the creation) of homemade items from local sources over industrial ones.  In other words, we are looking for items that have “soul” and that are, likely created outside of the industrial/consumption/stuff-making system.  Of course, this “way of wood” doesn’t happen overnight, but as things wear out, we might seek to replace them with things of a different nature, a careful nature, a slower nature.

 

The curved spoon and others...

The curved spoon and others…

Why does the way of wood matter? Some history here has really helped my thinking–I hope it helps you too.

 

The Loss of Reverence for Wood

At one time, wood was the most important thing we had: we made everything from it.  It was, as the quote above suggests, “a substance with a soul.” Eric Sloane’s masterpiece, Reverence for Wood, is well worth reading on this subject. I’m going to briefly summarize some of what he shares in that book here to help us understand historically, humans’ changing relationship with wood and its connection to industrialization here in the US–but I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to read his work.  Its a short book (about 100 pages) and filled with his incredible illustrations–a gem well worth your time.

 

Sloane’s book explores, century by century, in reverse chronological order, human’s changing relationship with wood. Of key importance to Sloane was the drastic shifts between the 18th century, when everything was made of wood (as described in the quote above), and the 19th century, with the rise of the age of iron and industrialization, where wood became used as the fuel of progress.  Much of this shift was firmly settled with outcome of Civil War in the United States, the war not only of slavery, but of an agrarian society vs. an industrial one. With the triumph of the Northern industrialized states, industry quickly transitioned the entire nation (as it was already doing in England and many other former colonies).

 

It was during this transition that wood, according to Sloane, ceased to have its value as something to be lovingly crafted for daily living rather than as a resource to fuel industry.  In fact, it is during this age that we see billions of acres of forests, cut to be “coaled off” to make charcoal for iron furnaces, cut to run locomotives, and cut to literally pave streets for higher volume traffic among many other things. This is certainly what happened to “Penn’s woods” in Pennsylvania, where, by the start of the century, less than 5% of the forests remained in many of the Western counties surrounding the big steel factories. Sloane reports that one English paper during this time wrote, “The English criticized us, saying that the Americans ‘seem to hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down” because the land was literally being stripped bare.

 

But the shift in consumer goods and industry weren’t the only shifts away from this primary wood-filled economy. In the late 1800s, American farmers had walled up their hearths and instead added an iron kitchen stove. Wood was added to this stove as Sloan writes “without ceremony,” shutting it up inside the iron box that didn’t need much tending. This, of course, eventually led to our modern furnaces and use of fossil fuels for warmth. Sloane gives many other examples as well–how the incredible array of objects once made from wood (pails and spiles for maple sugar, meat pounders, churns, knives, sleds, mallets, forks, shovels, spoons, and much more–were turned into iron instead and sold to folks). Wood became quite unfashionable and quaint, something for an older generation and day and iron was now on the rise.

 

To me, the shift from wood to iron represents a profound shift in humans’ relationships with nature as a whole and with trees specifically. In the earlier economical model, wood was a primary resource whereby humans interacted with trees, managed them carefully, cut trees and shaped them for their immediate needs (shelter, warmth, tools), and understood those trees as a resource upon which we clearly depended. Damage to the forest resource would result in direct damage to the ability of those humans to continue to provide warmth, shelter, and tools–and so, wood was deeply respected, coppiced, and managed. Also in this earlier economical model, wood was known deeply and intimately. In the 17th century, Sloane describes how a chair might be made out of as many as 15 different woods, each having their own unique characters and properties. People could tell what kind of tree was being cut by the sound the axe made in the wood.  Each wood has its own unique personality; likewise, people were often tied to tree personalities.

 

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

With the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, wood became a secondary resource, cut and shipped “away” for use in some other location and the resulting goods coming back to humans in a new form (iron). Wood was no longer a resource upon which people primarily depended upon for survival–the invisible industrial processes and consumer economy masked its use.  If a forest is cut and shipped to an industry far away, it is of no real consequence to those who live nearby, for they have ceased depending on that forest for their needs. Rather, they depend upon, primarily, that far away industry. This is true of the many things for which wood was used: wood is purchased from a store (who get it from logging and a sawmill); heat is purchased from several sources (with a small amount of people still chopping wood); tools are purchased with handles, sometimes wood, from an unknown source; chairs are purchased of wood from a store, again, from an unknown source.  There is no reason to preserve and protect the local forest because all of your needs come from the store, who gets it from a factory, who gets the raw resources from all over (including that local forest).  This disconnection does much harm, in my opinion. And so, it was during this time of rising industrialization that humans’ rich understanding of wood and knowledge was lost and largely replaced by iron and industry.

 

Over 150 years now, we have a profound loss of understanding of the nature of wood and connection with that part of nature. Most people can’t identify more trees than they have fingers on one hand, much less understand intimately wood and its qualities.  I’ve seen this over and over again when I’m teaching herbalism or wild food foraging classes–identification skills are quite poor for most folks.  The bad news is that some of this knowledge may have been lost–but the good news is that the new movements in sustainable living, woodworking, permaculture, and bushcraft are encouraging folks to begin to learn the way of wood once more.

 

(I’ll mention here wonderful song by fellow OBOD Druid, Damh the Bard, from his 2015 album Sabbat. Its called “Iron from Stone” and it tells this same story of the changes in the landscape and the shift into iron (and the human cost of such a shift.))

Finding our Way back to Wood Again

 

For me, it started with a single, lovingly crafted wooden spoon, a spoon with soul.  A number of years ago, a druid friend of mine had gotten into carving and I decided to commission him to make me a magical serving spoon. This spoon was no ordinary spoon–it was harvested from cherry right off of his land only several miles from where I lived, carved with a spiral handle, and carved with an Awen in the center of the spoon. It was amazing, and after cooking with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed a lot more wooden things in my life.  This, of course, was many years before I had read Sloane’s work or really understood the historical aspects of the loss of knowledge of wood.

 

Instead, that first spoon offered an emotional connection, a soul connection: I loved the way the spoon felt, I loved the way my food tasted when I cooked with it, and I wanted more.  Soon after, he offered me a regular eating spoon for my birthday. After that, I found some really nice old carved bowls at a yard sale, carved by the woman’s grandfather. Then, I met a local wood turner at our farmer’s market with beautiful live edge bowls…over time, I replaced nearly all of my everyday eating bowls and such with beautiful wood–wood that requires care, love, and that brings connection.

 

I’ve watched friends’ delighted reactions as they come to my home and eat from my wooden bowls lovingly prepared food–it makes the meal so much more magical, meaningful, and connected.  Maybe, they, too, are connecting to the soul of the trees that are still very much alive within those bowls.

 

What I have come to fundamentally understand through this process is that the energy that goes into an object infuses that object. And it infuses us.  There’s just something different and sacred about the wooden objects that you don’t get from the standard stuff of unknown origin and manufacturing. Taking up the way of wood is a very simple thing to do–pickup some books on woodworking or take a class and start learning to carve or turn wood yourself.  Or, start keeping your eyes out for woodworkers and wooden objects as you go about life–farmer’s markets are a good place to find some of them!  If you want the wood in your life, the spirit of the wood will find you.

 

Caring for wood

An assortment of spoons and knives

An assortment of spoons and knives

Part of the reason I think that the wooden bowls are wonderful is that they require attention and care. The wood was once a living being, and the wooden spoons and bowls, in their own way, still have spirit within them. The more we interact with them, the more we can understand the wood and connect with that spirit.  The physical aspects of the wood and the spirit of the wood both need our interaction and care.

 

In terms of daily cleaning of wooden objects: you don’t just throw them in the dishwasher–the dishwasher would quickly ruin them. Instead, you wash them lovingly by hand, making sure water/liquid doesn’t sit in them for long and making sure that you dry them carefully once you are done washing them. It is no trouble to quickly wash your favorite wooden bowl after a nice meal!

 

Every three or so months, you’ll also want to re-seal them. I seal my wooden items with walnut oil or of a combination of warmed beeswax and walnut oil. I get a clean rag (that you can re-use) or paper towel (the paper towel can be used to start a fire after you are finished oiling your wood). Add a liberal helping of oil to all your wooden objects and let them sit for about 30 min. You’ll see which of them are thirsty and which are saturated. Give them a second liberal helping of oil.  If there is excess, it is no problem, as you’ll wipe it off. I usually let this sit a minimum of a few hours–even overnight. I check them again, and see who among the wooden things is still thirsty, adding a third layer. At this point, I let them sit, shine/buff them to take off the excess oil, and begin using them again.

 

I remember to tend my wood based on the solstices and equinoxes–as each grows near, I know it is time to lovingly oil my wooden items again.

 

I’ll also mention here that wood, over time, moves and shifts as the seasons change and as time passes (no wonder wood has “a soul”!)  Sloane talks about this as well–how old barns move (even if the stone foundations under them do not, meaning that over a period of years, the barn grows less stable).  The same thing happens to wooden bowls and other wooden objects.  For a bowl, for example, if you had wood with a grain facing East to West, the bowl would slowly shrink on the North-South axis making the bowl more oblong than round as time passed.  In the summer, wood absorbs moisture and may swell and in the winter, it will shrink. Understanding this is all part of the character, and care, of wood.

 

Closing Thoughts

I believe that the small details matter–building these small, sacred, and simple acts into our everyday living can help us engage in more sustainable, sacred actions throughout our lives and reconnect with ourselves and the land around us. I think this kind of thing is like momentum forward–each small thing adds to the whole experience and moves us from a kind of “average” living that is given to us by corporations and industrialization to living to sacred living. Even small shifts, like the shift from using conventional tableware to something handcrafted, creates an energetic shift that reverberates. And when you think about how many times you encounter these simple objects each day, and the energies and spirits of those objects, this small shift really has profound implications.

 

Druid Tree Workings: A Seasonal Approach and the Breath of the Earth January 15, 2017

During a recent big snowstorm, I took an amazing ritual walk through the town where I live.  We were getting our first substantial snow of the year, and it was a full moon to boot.  And so, I spent a lot of time during that walk observing the trees-the snow was coming down so quietly and still–the tree branches were all accentuated by the gentle snow.  The conifers sheltered the ground below and kept the snow high on their branches. The deciduous trees, bare for the winter months, let the snow fall right through them.  This reminded me of the slowing down of the world, the quietude that comes in the depths of winter, and the changing nature of the work one can do with the natural world and trees during this time.

 

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Dormant tree by a frozen river in NY

Given this, I thought it would be useful to offer another post in my my Druid Tree Workings series. For those of you new to the blog or to this series, I am writing a series of extended posts on how to do deep work with trees. 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 and winter tree blessings. A lot of druids and earth-centered people want to do deep work with trees but there aren’t good guidelines out there for how to do such work. So part of what I’m doing is sharing some of my own understandings of working with trees on multiple levels.

 

Today, I’m going to discuss the importance of understanding how spiritual work with trees is seasonally determined and how understanding the nature of the seasons and their effects on trees can help you work more closely with them.

 

The Breath of the Earth and the Yearly Tree Cycle

In studying the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle on the planet (and mapping it out month by month), a natural pattern occurs. Atmospheric CO2 is at its height somewhere near the Beltaine and at its lowest point somewhere near the Fall equinox. This is, literally, the inbreath and outbreath of the earth.  As the trees bud out and plants bloom, photosynthesis begins and they consume CO2 as part of their growth and reproduction cycles. As the trees lose their leaves and the plants die back for the winter, photosynthesis ceases, and atmospheric carbon increases.  Below is a chart from Scripps Institute of Oceanography that shows this curve quite effectively (this is called the Keeling Curve, named after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who was in charge of the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii starting in 1956).

Keeling Curve (last two years)

Keeling Curve (last two years)

What we can see from this chart is, among other things, the breath of the earth. Just as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, the trees breathe the opposite, breathing with us, in unison throughout the warm season, and yet opposite to us. This natural breath is no different than our own natural breath–it just moves at the pace of the trees.  That is, like trees, it moves on a yearly cycle (and no, I’m not going to comment on atmospheric carbon levels at the moment–there is enough commentary out there about that).

 

I believe that this natural breath is part of why humans connect so deeply with trees and plants–they offer us balance, physically, in the form of life-sustaining oxygen.  And we offer them, physically, life-sustaining carbon as well as nitrogen in the form of our urine. Understanding this cycle on a seasonal basis, this breath of the world, also can help us do deep spiritual work with the trees and plants and understand the role of the seasons.  It is to this that we now turn.

 

Working with Trees through the Seasons: Deciduous Trees and their General Patterns

Several kinds of plants exist in most areas: annual, biennial, and perennial. Annual plants (like many in your vegetable gardens) drop their seeds in a single cycle and then die back, roots and all, at the end of the season with the coming of winter.  Biennial plants (like mullein or burdock) have a two-year cycle, often producing a basal rosette in the first year, and then sending up some kind of flower/seed/reproductive spike in the second year.  At the end of the plant’s life cycle, the seeds are scattered, the roots die back (as all the energy has gone into the seeds) and the new seeds sprout the following spring. Perennials live season by season; most perennials go into dormancy during the winter months, storing up energy and nutrients in their roots during the summer and fall.  Then they re-emerge from dormancy in the spring. Trees, obviously, are perennials, living through many yearly cycles.  Understanding the trees’ yearly cycle helps us understand when we might connect deeply with them spiritually.

 

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

Good night, dear trees! Sweet slumber.

I have found that all trees slow down in the winter months, although the nature of the work you can do with them differs. Deciduous trees are especially quiet for the first few months of winter, after their leaves drop (in other words, the period between Samhain and Imbolc or even the Spring Equinox, depending on the season and your location). They are, essentially, at rest for this part of the year; this dormancy seems to extend into the spiritual realm in many (but not all) cases. Just like a sleeping friend, trying to talk with them or work with them spiritually is not the best idea, with some exceptions.  For one, they are hard to reach and very slow, and for two, I kind of think its not very nice to wake up a sleeping friend. A lot of deep tree magic doesn’t work well during this time, with the exception of blessings before the season when the sap begins to run.

 

Deciduous trees remain dormant until their sap starts running (for my bioregion, this is typically, Mid February to early March, when daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing). This is when the deciduous trees become very active, somewhere between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox. Of course, unless you are tapping maple, birch, or walnut trees, you might not realize their sap is running–but even energetically, you can often sense a definite shift in the tree’s energy during this time. Maple sap runs earlier than birch or walnut sap, typically.

 

Exceptions to the Deciduous Tree Pattern: Witch Hazel, Oak, and Beech

 

I will now note a few exceptions to this general deciduous pattern above: witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are particularly active in the late fall and early winter due to their blooming during that time. They have a nickname here in the US as “winterbloom” attesting to the fact that they bloom right as nearly every other tree and plant in the forest thinks its a good idea to quiet down for the coming winter. Hamamelis virginiana, which is the species that I am most familiar with, blooms before and through Samhain and may persist in blooming past a number of frosts and cold spells.  Now these blooms aren’t exactly the flashy blooms of the apple or black locust, but they are fitting for the cold season. Other species of Hamamelis bloom in January, in the depths of the winter (I have yet to see these)! With these small trees, the very best time to work with them seems to be when they are budding in the late fall or early winter months.

 

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

Witch Hazel blooming at Samhuinn

As one Senaca legend suggests, Oak (Quercus spp.) seems to be another exception to this general pattern of trees going physically and spiritually dormant in the winter months. Oak, because he holds many of his leaves throughout the winter months, is more “awake” and available to commune with than many of his deciduous brethren. Oak seems to use brute force to keep the leaves through the winter months and loses the leaves just as the oak buds began to swell. The oak, literally, would not let go of his leaves even when they grew very worn and torn, which if you look at an oak in the springtime, this certainly is the case. In my bioregion, the oaks are the last to turn their beautiful shades of purple, orange, and gold–they are the final fall foliage, long after the birches, maples, hornbeams, cherries, and so on have already dropped their leaves.  This also demonstrates their lasting awareness through the winter months.

 

The final tree in my bioregion that I have discovered also has more active quality in the winter is the beech (Fagus Grandiflora)–who also holds her leaves until the spring. Like Oak, beech leaves change colors–usually to a rich brown–with the oaks at the end of the fall season.  Like oak, the beech holds onto her leaves throughout the winter (all beaches do this, while only some, usually young, oaks hold their leaves). The beech leaves grow very papery thin and crinkly as the winter progresses, but do not drop till after the tree is ready to bud for the spring. I think that the paper-like quality of the beech is important to note here–as I wrote about earlier on this blog, beech is a tree of knowledge and is synonymous with learning. It is, perhaps, fitting that most of the “book learning” which which beech is associated so strongly takes place in the winter months, when the crops have all been brought in and the snows fall.

Conifers and Yearly Cycles

Most conifers (pines, spruces, hemlocks, cedars, etc) and other evergreens (like wintergreen or partridge berry) have a very different pattern. They certainly do “slow down” for the winter months, but spiritually speaking, I have found that the are still quite accessible during the year. For example, I take multiple trips a year to see the Old Growth Hemlock Grove at Laurel Hill State Park (near Somerset, PA in South Western PA) and regardless of the time of the year, the hemlocks there are happy to greet me and work with me all through the winter months. I have now made it a point to visit that grove at least twice a year: during the warm winter months near the summer solstice and during the cold winter months at the winter solstice.  While winter and summer certainly offer different energy, the activity in that grove remains much the same. In other places along the landscape, much younger conifers, too, seem active and engaged in the winter months.

 

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

Awake, alive pitch pine trees at a pine barrens near Albany, NY

I don’t necessarily think the kinds of spiritual work you can do with conifer trees in the winter is the same as the summer, however.  I find a lot of this work as healing and inner work, like the trees working with me on myself and cultivating relationships with me, rather than “outer” work like a lot of the land healing I described in earlier posts last year. And different trees–by species and individually–offer different gifts, which is something else to keep in mind.

 

I say “most” conifers in my opening paragraph to this section because the Tamarack or Larch tree (larix laricina) does not pattern on that of other conifers, but rather, patterns after deciduous trees.  In the fall, it loses all of its needles and buds and regrows them in the spring, just like maple or apple.  The Seneca legend I listed above offers a good explanation for this, that Tamarack grew weak and wasn’t able to hold his needles to the spring and succumbed to winter’s fury (but Oak, who he taunts, can in fact hold them).  Whatever the reason, Tamarack is not a very accessible tree in the winter months.

 

Some Other Exceptions

I know this post is about trees, but I want to speak for a minute about the mosses and mushrooms in terms of winter energy.  Moss grows surprisingly well at the tail end of the fall and beginning of the spring season, and throughout most warm winter days. A trip to any winter wonderland is sure to have you in awe of the electric green moss, who is finally getting a lot of light for growth!  The mushrooms, too, can grow during the winter days. There is a layer of air not nearly as cold closest to the ground–and these small ones thrive in that environment–and the moss and mushrooms take every opportunity to thrive with the large ones dormant.

 

Moss at the winter solstice!

Moss at the winter solstice!

Conclusion

The winter is a good time to study up on your trees, to learn about them intellectually (drawing upon that energy of the beech tree!), and offer blessings of abundance.  Just last night, I was reading one of my favorite books that teaches me much about trees in my biogreion, Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman (he has three books in this series, all worth reading).

 

Reading about trees from an ecological perspective, understanding what their seasonal patterns are and the species that are connected with them can help you have a deeper spiritual relationship with the trees.  It is in the synthesis of knowledge and experience that we can grow our relationship with the land in deep and powerful ways.

 

I want to close by saying that what I’ve written above about sacred work with trees through the seasons are simply my own observations and experiences. With the exception of the Seneca legend, which helped me put a few pieces together I had already sensed, I haven’t read this in a book anywhere or had someone tell me: these are just my observations, over a period of years, working closely in this ecosystem.  I think that anyone who has an interest, given time and keen observation skills through the seasons, as well as developing inner senses, may gain a similar understanding of the seasonal changes and energetic changes in trees and plants in their own bioregion.  I hope that others in the comments will share their own observations and help grow this general knowledge.

 

Druid Tree Workings: January Tree Blessings and Wassail for Abundance January 6, 2017

Deep, in the darkest months of winter, a variety of cultures offered blessings to the trees for abundant harvests. A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about Wassailing at a friend’s orchard; since then, I’ve done wassailings each year and have built this as an important part of my yearly cycle as a druid.

 

Abundant harvests of apples!

Abundant harvests of apples!

Since learning about wassailing, I’ve grown interested in tracking down other kinds of tree and land blessings for abundant harvests, especially those taking place in January. I have uncovered some small tidbits that suggested that Native American tribes here in the the Northeastern USA offered maple blessings to ensure a long maple sap flow for the coming year in the dark winter months, however, I haven’t found any of the details of these ceremonies or when exactly they were held.  Also, I have recently gotten word of a few other ceremonies. One of my blog readers, John Wilmott, reports that in Scotland up into the 1980’s, January 6th was “herring and tattles” day, where the nets of the fishing communities are smeared with gravy and mashed potatoes and herring are flung into the sea; afterwards, people bless themselves through dancing. This isn’t a tree blessing per say, but is a sea blessing for those who depend on the sea for their sustenance (in the same way an oak tree blessing would be used by an acorn-dependent culture).

 

Today’s post looks at tree blessings from this broad perspective. Given the importance of treecrops and harvests of all kinds, I suspect that these tree blessings were once very common in many cultures, but obviously, many haven’t survived till the present day. However, the druid tradition offers some insights for those of us wanting to reconnect with our trees and do tree blessings. I thought that given the time of the year, I’d share a few ways that we can go about blessing trees this January!  So in this post I’ll cover both how to do a traditional wassail for apple trees, and also share a general blessing that can be adapted for nut-bearing trees, sap-bearing trees, fruit-bearing trees or general trees upon the landscape. But first, we’ll delve into a bit of why tree blessings are so important through exploring perennial agriculture and history.

 

Treecrops and Tree Blessings

Why we bless the trees is the same reason we bless many other things–to ensure prosperity, health, and abundant harvests.  While these blessings many seem like quaint celebrations now, simply nostalgic remembering and honoring of an old tradition, it is important to understand just how critical trees–and treecrops–were for human survival. In the time before factory farms and supermarkets, humans depended intimately on trees for clean beverages, nutrient and calorie dense foods, and foods that stored well for the winter months.

 

Treecrops offer humans enormous harvests for very little input; they can support both hunter/gatherer types societies as well as supplement agriculturally-based ones. Treecrops are simple to grow–you plant and tend the tree, or, better yet, you find the tree in the wild and honor it and harvest from it. Compare this to traditional agriculture, which requires a tremendous amount of input: hoeing/tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending young seedlings, watering and ensuring adequate soil, dealing with pests, harvesting, putting the food by for darker months, and saving the seeds, all to do it again at the start of the next season. Treecrops and other perennial crops don’t require all of this input; they don’t require us to till up the ground each year (disrupting the soil web); they don’t require us to water or fertilize (as long as we maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem). This is part of why permaculture design focuses so much on perennial agriculture (nuts, berries, perennial greens) as opposed to annual crops. Some fruit trees do benefit from pruning of course, but any visit to a wild or abandoned orchard will tell you that apples have no problems producing without our tending!  This is all to say that trees give of themselves freely, without asking much in return. It is no wonder that so many ancient peoples, from all around the world, have honored them.

 

Many cultures survived on treecrops as staple foods or supplemented their diets heavily with them: here in Pennsylvania,  for example, according to an old manual from the PA Forestry Department from 1898, a full 25% of our forests were chestnut before the blight, with another 25% in oak and 10% in walnut. That’s 60% of our forests in perennial nut crops that offered high calorie, abundant, starch and protein. This is not by accident, but rather, by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans, who used these nuts as their staple food crops.

 

In fact, many “acorn eating” and “acorn dependent” cultures were slowly driven out by colonization here in the US; however, acorns and other nut crops remain a critical food source for wildlife (and wild food foragers, like yours truly).  As a wild food forager, I can’t speak highly enough of the abundance of these treecrops.  Once you start harvesting nuts as part of your food stuffs, you grow to quickly appreciate how crazy abundant trees are in certain years–even with harvesting only once a week and leaving most for wildlife, I was able to harvest sacks of apples, hickories, walnuts, and acorns and enjoy them all winter long.

 

Acorns

Acorns

Two other tidbits about these treecrops. Sugar maple, and other sugary trees (birch, even walnut) also offered a fresh source of drinkable and pure liquid and also offer one of the only sweeteners available (other than robbing a beehive, which is not exactly a pleasant encounter!). So they, too, were blessed by native peoples. Finally, apple was introduced by colonizers from Europe, and in that culture, represented opportunity both for fermentation into alcohol and for fresh eating for winter storage. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t just spreading those apples across the US for fresh eating–rather, hard cider was what was on the mind of him and many others as the apple took root here in the US.  And with the apple came, of course, the apple orchard blessing.

 

We can see from some of the above is that treecrops are a critical staple both for Europeans and European settlers living in temperate climates as well as for traditional hunter/gatherer cultures (and for many wild food foragers and homesteaders today). Treecrops offer tremendous staples in any diet and are very worthy of blessing for an abundant harvest.  These dietary blessings are in addition to the trees’ ability provide warmth and shelter in nearly any situation!

 

The Timing of Tree Blessings in January

Like many things shrouded in long-standing tradition, the origin of the timing of these tree blessings, of various sorts, is not entirely clear, although most often, they take place either on January 6th or January 17th.

 

I have a theory from my own experience, however, and I’ll share it here. With exceptions like mulberry, nearly all treecrops have really good storage capacity, some six months or longer, enough to see you through a long and dark winter.  Apples, walnuts, acorns, pears–these all store extremely well, allowing people to make it through the cold dark months.  When these folks are watching their fruit and root cellars grow smaller and smaller, and those blessed apples and nuts are still there, storing well and filling the belly, it is no wonder that the tree blessings emerged in the darkest and coldest months of the year.

 

Another reason (and one commonly given) for the timing of Wassail in January is that this is also the same season in which pruning was done (as trees need to be pruned while they are dormant).  So while you are in your orchard anyways, it is a good time to honor the trees with a little wassail!

 

A final reason might have to do with the timing of cider fermentation–apple cider takes some time, and if you are pressing it and fermenting it around Samhuinn, it is likely ready to bottle and drink by early January; a perfect time to begin the cycle of harvesting again for the upcoming year.

 

The timing of these blessings has a few derivations.  Wassail takes place either on January 5th or 6th (the 12th night from the Winter Solstice) or January 17th (as is the custom in some places in south-western England and here in the USA).  Most of the literature on the surviving custom in the Southern Parts of England talk about this ceremony being done on January 17th specifically.  Both of these dates are called “old 12th night” by various sources. I would suspect, also, that the Native American tradition of blessing the maples comes around this period–as blessings are likely to precede a harvest (and the harvest of maple sap starts in mid-February at the earliest).

 

Given all of this, I’d like to propose that January seems like a very good time for all kinds tree blessings, especially for our fruit, nut, and sugar trees. Now that we’ve got some sense of the treecrops and blessings as well as timing and importance, I’m going to share two different blessings here that you can use on treecrops.

 

Wassail (Waes-Hael) for Apples and Pears

I’m going to share the details of the Waes Hael first, because we will use some of the key features of this surviving tree blessing ritual in the othe ritual I’ll present.

 

A good harvest of wild apples

A good harvest of wild apples

The wassail tradition, coming from Anglo Saxon “waes-hael” means good health.  There are actually a series of related traditions surrounding apples and their beverages that are called wassail. Wassailing, in general, took place on either on New Years or all of the 12 days of Christmas.  A drink was placed in a large “wassail bowl” containing mulled cider, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, sometimes cream, sometimes baked apples, and other things. This drink was brought around to others for their good health during the New Year (its where we get the song, “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen…”).

 

This same drink and bowl made their way into the Apple Orchard for the Apple Wassail (and in some cases, Wassail was also done for pear trees with perry, or fermented pear cider). The tree blessing ceremony, Apple Wassailing, which is centered around apple trees and focuses on blessing the orchard for abundant crops in the coming year. The goals of this ceremony, as passed in the traditional lore, are to awaken the trees, to drink to their health, and to scare away evil spirits which may interfere with a good harvest.  As in many old customs, there are many parts to the ceremony and a lot of derivation depending on what sources or places you are talking about.   Here is one version:

 

Supplies needed: mulled cider (wassail) in a wassail bowl; mugs; toast; noisemakers/drums

 

The Ritual:

1.  One tree is selected to receive the blessing for the orchard.  This is usually a large, old, or otherwise dominant tree with space to move about it, branches that people can reach, and accessible roots.

2.  People gather around the tree with noisemakers (drums, buckets to pound on, etc).   The first wassail song can be sung (we never knew any melodies for them so we made them up!)

3.  Cider is ceremoniously poured from the steaming wassail bowl into each participant’s cup.

4.  Participants pour an offering of cider from each of their cups on the roots of the tree and then drink to the tree’s good health.

5.  Participants bless the tree with an offering of toast, dipping toast in their mugs and then hanging the pieces of toast from the tree’s branches. Alternatively, a King and Queen are chosen, the king offers the queen his mug, she dips the toast in the mug, and then hangs the toast on the branches of the tree.)

6.  More wassail songs are sung.

7.  A lot of noise is made around the trees to scare away the evil spirits that may be lurking there.

In some traditions, the trees are also beat to ensure a good harvest.  I wrote about tree beatings a bit in my post on Walnut (and I will write about them again in my upcoming post about the sacred apple tree). Beating trees (which obviously damages them) can force the tree to bear more fruit as it is damaged and wants to produce more offspring.  Beating apple trees at certain times of the year also forced them to set fruit faster.  As a druid, I absolutely do not advocate the beating of trees (you can see my response below under the tree blessings).

8.  The official ceremony is over, and people may enjoy a potluck with apple-themed ingredients (at least, that’s how we did it in Michigan!)

 

There are a few key aspects of this ritual I’d like to point out, for we’ll see them again in the more general rituals I’m proposing. First is the selection of a single tree that receives–and radiates outward–the blessing to all other trees.  This is important (for, after all, it is hard to bless each tree in the whole forest!) The second is a specially-prepared offering (ideally from its own fruit but lovingly crafted by human hands).  The third is raising energy through sounds around the tree to drive off any evil. Finally, there is this extremely long-standing tradition of beating trees, which I think we should mitigate in any blessing ritual.

 

Druid’s Winter Tree Blessing (With Variants for Oak/Nut Trees and Maple)

This is what we are looking for!

This is what we are looking for!

I think we can adapt the Wassail to bless many other kinds of trees in much the same way, also drawing from the druid tradition.  Here is an alternative blessing ritual that could be used for a variety of crops (I’m offering some variants here for those of you who would like to bless other fruit trees, other nut trees, sap-offering trees, or any trees).

 

Opening. Open a sacred space (I would use the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening or the OBOD’s Grove Opening for this).  This helps establish the energies for the ritual and really should be included.  If you are including the Energetic Blessing, including the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (as part of the Solitary Grove opening)  or some other way of invoking the three currents at the start of this ritual is a wise idea (you can learn the AODA”s SOP from John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook).

 

Honoring. After the space is opened, honor the trees with a simple blessing that establishes the intentions of the ceremony.  If you have poetry that is specific to those trees, it would be well to use it.  If not, a simple blessing like this one would work:

“Trees of life, of bounty, of peace, and of wisdom
Strong in your growth, your branches shelter us
Deep in your roots, you hold fast the soil of life
Many are your leaves, to share breath with us
Abundant are your [fruits, sap, nuts], that remove our hunger
Wise in your knowledge,  your teachings guide us
Quiet in your growth, you bring us the sun
Today, we are here to honor you
Today, we offer you blessings for the coming year
Today, we wish you long life, health, and abundance!”

For maples: You might add the following line:
“Oh maple tree, may your sap flow strong and sweet!”

For Oaks, you might add the following:
“Oh mighty oak, may your nuts rain down upon us!”

Make Offerings of Bread and Wine.  Offer the trees bread and some kind of fermented beverage. In the tradition of the Wassail, if these are home baked and home brewed, I believe it would be most effective. For fruit trees, offer toast with some fruit preparation (fruit fermented into wine or fruit jam); for nut trees, consider an acorn-nut bread (see Sam Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for more on harvesting and preparation). For maples, consider offering toast with maple syrup on it.

 

Make your offerings to the tree, much like the wassail ritual (pouring offerings into each participants’ cup and then letting them offer them at the roots) and offer the bread to the tree’s branches.

 

Radiate an Energetic Blessing. In one of my earlier posts on land healing, I described “energy” from the druid revival tradition, explaining the three currents (Solar, Telluric, and Lunar).  Here, I would suggest using words, movement, and visualzation to invoke these currents and radiate this blessing out to the land (those AODA members practicing the SOP should find this quite familiar):

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s trunk above you in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in orange light. Say, “We call upon the solar current and the radiant energy of the celestial heavens. May a ray of the solar current descend and bless these trees with the fire of the sun!”  All participants should envision a golden ray coming down from the celestial heavens, through the tree, into its roots.

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s roots in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in purple light.  Say, “We call upon the telluric current and the healing energy of the deep earth.  May a ray of the telluric current rise and bless these trees with the blessing of the heart of the earth!”  All participants should envision a green/gold ray arising from the heart of the earth and filling the tree with green/gold light.

 

All participants should visualizing the solar and telluric currents mingling within the tree.  Say, “We call upon the lunar current, the Awen, to radiate outward and bless this [forest/orchard].  With our blessing, may these trees grow heavy with [fruits/nuts] and be healthy this year!”  All participants should touch the tree and envision a glowing sphere of white light radiating outward from the tree to the whole forest.

 

End in Music, Drumming, or Song. You might end your ceremony with additional music, drumming, or singing for the benefit of the trees.

 

Close Your Space. Close out your ritual space.

 

Hug the tree. To mitigate the many tree beatings over the years, I would suggest ending the ritual after you’ve closed the space by giving the tree a hug.  Such a fitting ending to mitigate the many beatings that walnut, apple, and likely others faced to offer humans fruit.

 

Closing

I hope that this post was helpful for those of you considering doing a January tree blessing of some sort or another!  If you do these ceremonies, please write in and let me know how they go for you. Also, if anyone has any more information on tree blessings from other cultures (especially for abundance), I would love for you to share them here in the comments.  Finally, this year, a number of AODA members are wassailing all over the Americas on January 17th–we would love to have you join us.   Find out more in the AODA Forums on this thread. Blessings of January upon each of you!

 

Embracing the Bucket: A Colorful Compost Toilet for Small Space Living January 1, 2017

The Druid's Garden beautiful composting toilet! :)

My beautiful composting toilet! 🙂

A few months ago, I posted on humanure and liquid gold as ecological resources. Many are once again realizing that our own waste is a precious resource, not something deserving of a flush. As a quick review, humanure refers to human feces that has been composted down (usually over a two-year period). Liquid gold refers to human urine which can be used immediately (diluted to 10%) as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  This waste-cycling practice allows us to reconnect our own elimination cycle with the cycles of nature and bring nutrients back into our landscape rather into toxic municipal septic systems.  Working with our own waste is a very powerful practice for rejoining the cycles of nutrients and flows in the living landscape.

 

And so, as a follow-up to that post, I’d like to share the creation of a compost toilet for my small rental house (as part of my own experiments in rental house permaculture practice).  This post will cover overcoming challenges, basic plans for construction, decoration, and use. I also think this is a wonderful post for the civil new year, and the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” very much comes to mind!

 

Overcoming Mental, Collecting, and Composting Challenges

The idea of collecting and composting humanure includes several challenges we have to overcome: mental challenge and the physical challenge of collecting and composting your waste. I’ll explore each of these first before getting to the specific compost toilet construction and design.

 

When I mentioned that I was thinking about building a compost toilet to my family and certain friends, a number of them expressed a great deal skepticism and doubt, refusing to use it even before it was in place. Elimination is a very taboo topic. The idea of handling a bucket of your own waste, and doing anything with it, beyond flushing it “away” is mentally challenging.  For one, we have to overcome years and years of social conditioning about what “appropriate bathroom behavior” is–and that social conditioning suggests that the best thing we can do is to quietly do our business, to flush it, and move about your day.  There’s also the assumption that it will smell bad or be gross to do anything else.

 

Even if we can wrap our intellectual minds around embracing the bucket (as it makes a lot of sense, as I detailed in my earlier post), we still have to emotionally accept it and overcome that conditioning. After visiting various ecovillages, homesteads, and sustainable living centers, I had already had first-hand experience in using composting toilets, and with that experience, I decided they were pretty cool and worth pursuing.  But more than that, I knew that getting a handle on my own waste streams would allow me to deepen my own nature-based spiritual practice and directly work to regenerate the land by returning nutrients rather than discarding them. So the compost toilet was in line not only with my desire to honor and regenerate the land, but in line with my spiritual ethics.  So these things, along with some positive direct experience helped me to overcome some of the mental barriers, especially emotional ones.

 

Yep, that's a bit hard to avoid....

Yep, that’s a bit hard to avoid….

But what about the emotional and intellectual barriers folks coming to my house who have never used one before?  How could I get them to embrace the bucket? The truth is, based on where I was putting it, even if they didn’t use it, they were going to come face to face with it in my bathroom (see photo). Perhaps pooping in a “fun” toilet would make the difference. I decided that I would create the most beautiful, inviting, whimsical and incredible toilet they had ever seen.  I wanted to create something that people would be excited and overjoyed to poop in.  Heck, I wanted to create something that I wanted to be excited and overjoyed to use! In other words, I would create an artful toilet that was inviting and fun to use, not a plain old seat with a bucket!

 

With the mental challenges considered, there is, of course, the physical reality. Most of us hopefully don’t have a problem with the elimination of waste, but rather the collection of waste and the composting of the waste. The collection is, for a renter, the much more simple of the two. Simple compost toilet boxes, which are a wooden box, lid, and bucket with cover material, are really quite elegant to use. In fact, in my bathroom,  I had a tiny bit of room for a simple compost toilet collection bucket (inspired by the “lovable loo” and the Humanure Handbook).

 

My friend's composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

My friend’s composting facility (compost delivery was in the dark, so sorry about the poor photo)

The composting itself was my final main hurdle. I live in a small house with a tiny yard that is rented; I can’t be composting my own humanure on land I don’t own (especially less than 10 feet from my neighbors). And so, I don’t have the option of storing it outside.  And I certainly don’t want to store it in my scary and often-flooded basement.  I seemed stuck–how to proceed? Then, a friend of mine told me she was building a humanure composting system just outside of town on a small piece of land she is working. She invited me to make contributions, both because more nutrients is a good thing and because she was having difficulty getting her pile up to the desired temperature. This is community building and teamwork at its best. Since her location is only a few miles outside of town and I got that way often to visit the woods or my family, I realized that it was time to embrace the bucket!

 

Constructing the Toilet (Collection)

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

The compost toilet is simply a box with a collection bucket!

My very first attempt at a composting toilet was going to be very simple: a bucket with an attachable lid designed for 5 gallon buckets. The fact that I had a tiny bathroom contributed to this early choice–there wasn’t really anywhere for the compost toilet to go if it were bulky (as the photo above shows). Some time ago, I had ordered a small lid/seat that would fit a five gallon bucket and was excited to try it out. My excitement immediately dwindled upon attaching it to the bucket.  Sitting on it reinforced my dread: it was small, uncomfortable, and not user-friendly.  Nobody would want to poop on that little seat; heck, even I didn’t want to poop using that little seat. So with this plan scrapped, it became obvious that building a more functional composting toilet was in order.

 

It turns out, building a more functional and comfortable basic compost toilet is a really simple thing: it usually has some kind of outer box that holds the bucket in place, offers a lid, and has a regular toilet seat that is reasonable to sit on to use. Lucky for me, a wonderful man, who I’ll call the Philosopher, has recently come into my life and he has some impressive construction skills (skills that I am sorely lacking).  Witnessing my concerns about the bucket seat I had purchased, the Philosopher offered to build the compost toilet.  The following few paragraphs include his instructions and measurements (although note that this toilet was built specifically for my small bathroom, so you might want to change the measurements).

 

Here is a list of the supplies:

  • 1/2 sheet of plywood (if you are painting it, you can get a sheet that is finished nicely on one side and not as nice on the other); if you are staining it and you want the grain all the same you’ll need more than 1/2 a sheet.
  • 3 five-gallon buckets (assuming off-site storage).  Two of these are collection buckets (so you have a spare) and one is for storing your cover material. Sometimes, Asian restaurants may have these available for free as they often purchase soy sauce in 5 gallon buckets.
  • Toilet seat (the one pictured was less than $10; you can also get this used)
  • Two hinges, wood screws, wood glue, clamps, and basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, table saw)

The following is the cut sheet for the compost toilet based on the height of the bucket and the space I had available in the bathroom.  This assumes one standard half-sheet of plywood.

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

Cut Sheet for Composting Toilet (one half sheet plywood)

The box was constructed by having the four sides rest on the floor and adding the bottom of the box inside the four sides. This is to prevent screws from digging into the floor.  The top of the seat, since it has to lift off and bear weight, sits on all four sides.

Box and bucket before painting

Box and bucket before painting

To get the hole for the bucket, the Philosopher simply traced the outside of the bucket onto the lid and cut it open with a jigsaw. He assembled it all and brought it back to my house for cat inspection. The felines approved.

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of the box

Cat inspection of painting process

Cat inspection of painting process

Painting the Toilet

After the basic construction of the toilet was complete, it was time to paint–I knew these artistic skills would come in handy! Part of it was that I wanted it fun, colorful and inviting. The second part of it was that I wanted the toilet to be educational–so when you used it, you understood the nature of what your contributions.  After working on some sketches, I was ready to begin.

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

Starting sketches and using a plate to trace my outer image

The toilet seat I decorated was a wooden one the Philosopher purchased at the hardware store for less than $10. It had a seal coating on it that I had to sand off (do this work outside with good ventilation and use a mask). Once I had the toilet seat sanded, I began painting the seat, the box, and the rest!  I wanted messages that were inspirational but not overtly intense, so I wove them into the box throughout, making it fun, whimsical, and inviting.

Painting Process

Painting Process

I used regular acrylic paints to paint the seat. I knew that a good seal was critically important for protection and cleaning, so I used three coats of clear acrylic sealer (which also needs to be done outside). This would allow me to clean the seat and protect my paint.

 

I wanted whimsical designs and messaging, things that allowed people to understand more the cycle of waste and nutrients as well as invite them to try it out.

Finished lid and seat!

Finished lid and seat!

After painting and sealing, we put the toilet together and admired our work. What began as a simple idea in our minds turned into a masterpiece both of us could be proud of!

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Waste Not (front of Compost Toilet)

Close up of lid and seat!

Close up of lid and seat!

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Close-up of nutrient cycle painting on inside lid

Top of toilet inviting you inside....

Top of toilet inviting you inside….

 

The toilet was now ready to use–but first, I’m going to cover a few considerations for compost toilets as I generally understand them.

 

Preparing to Use the Toilet: Some Considerations

You’ll need to gather a few materials and make a few considerations for your compost toilet, specifically, how much of your business you are going to be doing in the compost toilet and what your cover material will be.  These are two related considerations: cover materials vary in absorbancy, and that will determine how much urine you can add to your toilet.

 

The first is finding a carbon-based cover material. Currently, I am using sawdust from the Philosopher’s father’s woodshop (free resource, and he doesn’t use treated wood) as well as partially composted wood chips from my parents’ house (free resource from local tree work).  In the future I’d also like to experiment with shredded fall leaves.

 

Now, absorbency is also important.  From a good friend who was living in a camper and moving around the country, and using her compost toilet full time, I learned the following: sawdust, woodchips, and the like aren’t very absorbent.  If you are going to be doing all of your business in your compost toilet, something more absorbent is necessary.  Peat moss or sphagnum moss was her choice, although she acknowledged that that’s the best she could get on the road consistently, and she didn’t prefer it for environmental reasons but didn’t always have access to anything better.  She said if you only use sawdust, you are likely to end up with a bucket of soup, especially if you aren’t able to dump it very often.  (I’m interested in hearing from other readers if they have experiences using other more sustainable-yet-absorbent possibilities–I’m also going to try shredded newspapers/office paper combined with some other available materials and see what that does).

 

Cover material for the toilet

Cover material for the toilet

I am currently solving this absorbancy problem but collecting urine separately and using it for plants and offerings back to the land (as I described earlier in my first post on the subject).  I have also seen this design: a separate urinal (for liquid gold) and toilet (for humanure) in many of the more elaborate compost toilet setups (like at Sirius Ecolvillage where I did my Permaculture Design Certificate). These two human wastes have very different uses and necessary treatments.

 

Further, if you are changing your bucket out at least once a week, the solid droppings don’t stink once covered up at all–its really quite amazing. However, urine will go to ammonia the longer it sits, exposed to air, if its not properly absorbed.  So I have found that using my compost toilet with the sawdust mainly for solid deposits (allowing for some liquid during making a solid deposit) doesn’t’ lead to any smell and the sawdust works well.

 

Another consideration is what happens to the toilet paper.  From a report from friends, toilet paper takes a lot longer to break down than humanure and you are sometimes left with only bits of TP with otherwise well composted material. Given this, many people don’t include theirs in the bucket.  But to me, this makes more waste, and helps with the absorbancy issue. Also, its possible to get recycled and undyed toilet paper, and that makes even little bit better. Volume here also matters: I am living alone with occasional visitors, and having a family of four would require much more buckets and volume (but also faster turnaround time as the buckets fill up).

 

In the end, a number of factors will impact how you use your compost toilet.  I’m in some ways making it out to be rather complicated, and it really isn’t.  What it ultimately comes down to is this: have some cover material, do your business, cover it up, and go about your day!

 

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

The edge of the bucket goes right up against the wood to prevent accidents!

Using the Compost Toilet

Using the toilet is really easy.  You’ll need to do the following:

  1. Start with a layer of cover material on the very bottom of the bucket. I add about 1″ of sawdust to mine when starting a new bucket.
  2. Do your business. 
  3. Add a layer of cover material, covering your deposit. Fully covering the deposit ensures that you can reduce odor. But not all the TP needs covered; people often use way too much cover material, so keep this in mind.
  4. When the bucket is full, transport to the compost facility (backyard, friend’s land, wherever). Make your deposit at the compost pile (see below) and then clean your bucket.
  5. Repeat the above steps!

Composting and Storage

Here are some good instructions for how to build a composting facility for your humanure (this comes from the Humanure Handbook folks, which I would highly recommend for more details and information).

 

For my friend’s facility, the process is really simple. She built two potential piles that are both enclosed (to avoid having vermin or her pet goats in the pile). One pile is “active” meaning we are adding to it, and one pile is “composting” meaning that we are waiting while it composts down. She is using a piece of wire square of fencing (rigid) to keep critters out that covers the pile, then a thick one foot layer of hay to help keep the pile insulated during the cold winter months.  She also is using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the pile.

 

To add deposits, we simply remove the wire square of fencing and then remove hay/insulating material from the pile, add the bucket to the pile, cover the pile back up with hay. Then we rinse the bucket with Castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s works well) and use a small toilet brush–adding all the liquid back into the pile. In the summer months, she has a water barrel there for that purpose, but in the winter months, we bring a gallon of warm water with us from home to rinse.  Then, the bucket simply goes back to your compost toilet to collect another 5 gallons of resources!  The Humanure will be very occasionally turned, and then added to perennial trees, bushes, and shrubs after composting down for two years.

 

I hope this post was inspirational and informative, and I believe it is a great way to start this new civil year. I know that 2016 was a hard year for many people, but I think its important to focus on what we are able to do, here and now, and find our way forward in harmony with the land. The problems we face ask us to creatively engage with our world, to embrace it with consideration and care, and I know that all of us, in our own ways, will continue to do that into the future.

 

Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil December 17, 2016

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences.  I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to underpreparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences.  This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all night vigil.  At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!

 

In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). Its a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun.  While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all night vigil.

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work.  The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on.  The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history.  The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons.  The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world.  And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old.  New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires.  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd.  Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice  (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.

 

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions.  So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.

 

All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil.  The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun.  Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe.  Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful.  Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay.  Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed.  Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!

 

The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.

 

Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense.  A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil.  Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry.  This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil.  I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire.  There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.

 

Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived).  What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably of natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets).  Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag.  All of these things can help you get through the cold night.  Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

Outer Preparation: A Good Fire.  There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night.  Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions.  If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK.  But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness!  If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above).  The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind.  This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer.  If I had had this kind of setup during my first  vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks.  The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available.  I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay.  A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks:Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year.  I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12 quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.

 

Outer Preparation: First Aid. Its not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization.  Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.

 

Outer Preparation: Seating.  If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind.  Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year.  To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp.  I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp.  Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.

 

Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil.  A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought.  It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump.  The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition.  Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider.  In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire.  The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.

 

Inner Preparation: The Mindset:  In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil.  If you fall asleep, is that ok?  What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.

 

Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to its limits.   Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours.  Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important.  Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time.  You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness.  The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn.  I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment.  My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun.  I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.

 

We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5pm on the night of the Solstice.  Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.

  1.  Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space.  In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
  2. The Vigil Opening Ceremony.  There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
    1. We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
    2. We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
    3. We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
    4. Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
    5. In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
    6. We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.

It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons.  These choices should be honored.  Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night.  There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony.  A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case.  This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

In my experience, there  are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of fesating and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark.  The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest.  I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the ewvening.  Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.

 

Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:

 

Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy.  Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm.  Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm. 

 

Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night.  The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song.  People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.

 

Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths.  As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.

 

Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.

 

Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep.  One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated.  So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others.  This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world.  There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.

  1. A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land.  They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
  2. Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
  3. Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
  4. Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns.  Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
  5. Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
  6. Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land.  I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land.  So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.

 

Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space.  Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!

 

A Druid’s View of Cartography: Rewriting Maps and Nature-Human Relationships December 11, 2016

This fall, I took a number of weekend hiking and camping trips into different parts of Northern Pennsylvania; to navigate these new areas, I found myself often referring to both physical maps as well as using my GPS for guidance.  As I navigated using various maps to new locations, one striking thing occurred–I noticed the the ways in which nature is (mis)represented on these “everyday maps.” By everyday maps, I mean the kinds of basic navigation maps that are common: Google Maps, Bing Maps, GPS maps, and physical printed car maps and atlas maps.  Today, I’d like to offer a druid’s perspective on cartography, do some local “remapping”,  and offer some alternative perspectives to every day mapping.  I’m also going to offer some resources for those interested in tracking how land use has changed over a period of time.

 

Mapping as (Mis)Representational

Cartography is the science, study, and practice of making maps.  Cartography is a basic system where we can understand our physical landscape and spatial relationships within that physical landscape. We use maps to represent our spaces (especially on a broader scale than we can typically see), to share information about those spaces, to better comprehend them, and to navigate those spaces. In our most basic sense then, the practice of cartography is one of the important ways in which we interact–and represent–our natural world and the things we build within it.

 

Like any representation, however, maps are inherently ideological. Brian Harley, a geographer and map historian, first argued this point in depth (see The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography).  In The New Nature of Maps, Harley argues that maps have social, political, and ideological purposes in addition to representational ones. In other words, maps have power and that power can be used to shift ways of thinking and seeing.  Mapmakers can choose to represent the world from a certain angle with their shading, coloring, and legends. He explores how maps, throughout time, are often created with political purposes in mind and the person who creates the maps has a tremendous amount of power.

 

Shifting this perspective to our “everyday maps”, we can certainly see this true in how nature is represented. Even the kinds of simple maps with the label of “woods” or “forest” implies that that’s actually what is there. If the representations of nature we create are accurate, then we we can have a clear sense of how many spaces are dedicated to nature, how many spaces are being occupied by humans, and in what ways.  We can explore the balance between humans and nature and the edges in which they interact. However, if the representations we use in our mapping of our lands are inaccurate, they can seriously misrepresent nature and our representation of our relationship to the natural world.  It can make it look like there is more nature present than is the reality.

 

Re-Mapping Natural Areas

So let’s now explore how representations of “natural areas” within everyday maps are grossly inaccurate and do some additional kinds of mapping work.   I’m going to use a map of my own town where I live because I know it well and have visited the green areas on this map.  I would encourage any of you to do the same exercise with the map of your own immediate surroundings.

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Google Map of Indiana, PA

Above is a screenshot of the kind of map we often see when getting directions from major GPS services and/or web services.  One of the key features of this map is color coding: business areas are in a light orange, roads in white with highways in bright yellow-orange, housing and urban areas in various shades of light gray and light brown; gray for unspecified areas. A key feature of this map, and of many consumer maps, is, of course, the “green” areas which at first glance seem largely representative of more natural areas: parks, forests, and the like.

 

When we look at the green areas on this map, one might be led to conclude that in this area, nature (which is obviously associated with green) is still present in some form or another in about 15-20% of the spaces in and near town.  Let’s now carefully explore the “green” areas on my map and do a bit of more specific mapping to show how mis-representational they can be.

 

Here’s my first attempt at remappping:

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

More Accurate Map, Indiana PA

 

What we can see from my revised map is that not all green areas are “green” at all.  Most of the green areas are nothing more than lawns and highly disturbed spaces.  I’ve broken my revised map into the following areas: parks that are primarily lawn/open/mowed spaces with some limited trees, natural areas that are mostly forests, athletic spaces like tennis courts and baseball diamonds, golf courses, and cemeteries.

 

As a druid and one actively seeking to develop alternatives to lawns, the idea that a forest, a cemetery, and a golf course could be labeled in the same color is inherently problematic. These spaces aren’t the same and shouldn’t be labeled as such.  On the most basic level, lawn spaces spaces consume more than they produce and represent nature in a place of damage and suffering, rather than healing and growth.  These places certainly don’t offer habitat, forage, or shelter for insects, amphibians, or animals. Meanwhile, forests, unmowed meadows, rivers with riparian zones, and the like certainly offer habitat and health of the land.

 

But this representation is only one of many more accurate representations we could do.  Let’s try a second one:

 

Human Disturbance Map

Human Dominance Map

 

An alternative is to look at the “green” spaces in terms of who dominates the surface of the land–do people, houses, buildings, roads, cemeteries, agricultural fields, and lawns (human constructs) dominate, is there a mix, or places in a natural state dominate? On this map, I’ve also indicated what areas dominated by nature have substantial human disturbance. By disturbance I indicate things that directly harm and damage the ecosystem — in my case, I’m referring to the typical resource extraction activities (gas wells, logging, fracking, strip mining, etc). These human-driven activities that are, unfortunately, a regular part of our state and local park system here, and are represented on the map.  These go well beyond simple trails but include massive clearings, gas well pumping, regular visits to the wells by heavy equipment, and more.

 

This new map offers a completely different view of town. Now we see that my town still has one forested area, but that forested area has significant human disturbance.  And to give some other representation to the human disturbance in the park to the north west of town, this is what that disturbance looks like (also courtesy of Google Maps):

Gas wells in the forest

Gas wells in the forest

The question I have, when mapping in this way, is this: what spaces do we have left on a larger scale that are actually free of human harm and damage?  As I’ve written about in a few other posts, even our national forests are under substantial gas and logging pressure; these so-called “green” areas on the map are highly disturbed and contested areas.

 

The two mapped alternatives I present above are both simple, and I’m sure others can expand and explore even more mapping options.  I can see these kinds of maps being useful for arguments about conservation and protection–about giving nature some space in which to thrive. I can also see this as a useful strategy for mapping our own lands and spaces, the ones we directly control and/or own. How much space have we given to nature to grow as she wills?  How much space is fully dominated by us?  In our agricultural spaces, how much land is being used in regenerative ways or large-scale industrial ways?

 

If you are interesed in using this as a tool, the way I created the maps was quite simple: I went to Google and took a screenshot of the map.  Then, I went into Photoshop (you could also use Gimp if you don’t have Photoshop) and pasted in new colors for the areas (sometimes also using the selection tool).  You could also do this by coloring or using marker patterns on top of printed maps.  This could be a great activity to do with children in teaching them more about how humans and nature interact.

 

Maps as Tools to Understand Nature

Beyond consumer maps, other maps offer much more accuracy and precision that can more accurately help us, on a larger scale, see some of these human-nature relationships.

The best mapping service in the USA for these kinds of questions is the United States Geological Survey, who regularly maps many issues of environment, land use, and more (I hope readers will share other services like this from other countries in the comments section!)

Here is a link to the USGS page on environment and health issues.  Their system takes some getting used to, as it offers a ton of data in there once you learn to navigate it. For example, here is a map that looks at the land cover of the USA, zoomed in on my region).  Red shows the “development” density; yellow and brown are farmland, green implies tree canopy or farmland:

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

GIS Land Cover Use, Indiana PA

The most useful map they have, in my opinion, is the historical maps that allow you to view maps of land in the US prior to the current date.  Its kind of like Google Earth but for history.  You can access it here. Not all areas have the 1963 maps (which is usually the furthest back they go) but you can learn a lot about your land and its history by viewing the maps.  For example, my friend Linda found out that her land she is now farming intensively used to be a swamp!

Here are a few other interesting maps:

 

 

I hope that today’s post has been inspirational and useful to think about as we navigate the world and our surroundings with our human-created maps. If you have any other resources to share, I would love to hear them and hear about your own experiences in re-mapping spaces near you. I have found that thinking about these things has certainly helped me better understand the representations of nature that I see when using everyday maps and just broader issues of land use in general. Maps are tools, flawed ones, but tools that we can use to better understand our world and our place in it.