The Druid's Garden

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

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

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

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

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

 

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

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

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

 

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

 

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

 

Working With Trees

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

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Variety and Species

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

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

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

 

In plain sight

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

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

 

When others aren’t present

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

 

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

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

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

 

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

 

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

 

Acorns

Acorns

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

 

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

 

Moving the Seedlings

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

 

Offerings and Songs

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

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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!

 

The Wheel of the Year: Sustainable and Spiritual Activities for the Fall Equinox September 20, 2015

Note: This post is directed at those who live in the northern hemisphere; for my readers in the southern hemisphere, you can see my post on the Spring Equinox for activities appropriate to you!

 

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year....

Hemlocks entering the dark half of the year….

As the days shorten and we once again are faced with the coming of the winter months, we are reminded of the cycles that the sun provides to us and the promise, always, of new beginnings.  Each season brings its own spiritual and sustainable activities–and the Fall Equinox is so full of many things to see and to do!

 

The Fall Equinox sits on the gateway between the light and dark half of the year and after the equinox, we are in the dark half of the year once more. It is at the moment of the equinox that the light and the dark are in balance–and we, too, can seek such balance. In my region of the world, the Fall Equinox happens just as the weather finally cools down, just as the leaves begin to change, just as the air has a bit of a nip it didn’t have even a few weeks before. The goldenrod and New England Aster are in bloom but may be on the decline–and these plants, with some others, are our last sources of nectar of the year for honeybees and wild pollinators. The nuts and apples are dropping from the trees everyone is scurrying to get to them before the snows set in.

 

I love the fall–I feel like I’ve been in a frenzy all summer with gardening and foraging activities, where there is always so much to do, so much to put by, so many things you don’t want to miss. As the cold comes in, the world slows down a bit and we slow down with it. This is especially true when you are actively homesteading, farming, practicing herbalism, wild food foraging, or doing any other kind of activity that involves working outdoors and in nature.

 

Given this glorious time, we have many sustainable and spiritual activities we can do to encourage balance, sustenance, storage, and community.

 

1.  Spent time in (very) close observation of nature. Getting outside to see the amazing, incredible fall leaves and the quickly changing landscape is a must-do for this season. I would suggest that this is a good time to zero in on small details of the changing landscape–see the leaves individually, not just the whole forest or trees. One of the ways to get really close is to obtain a loupe (a small magnifying glass that is highly portable). If you take the loupe out into the land during this time, new worlds open up–you can do very close observation of fall leaves, flowers, and other things.

 

2.  Hold an Eisteddfod. In the Welsh tradition (and consequently, in the Revival Druid tradition), an Eisteddfod is a celebration and competition of the bardic arts: poetry, music, song, dance, and so on.  This is a wonderful way to enjoy the cool nights before the winter sets in. Getting some friends together, getting a big fire going, have people share stories and songs, offer  some prizes, open a bottle of dandelion wine or pass some freshly pressed apple cider and enjoy!

 

Pressing Apple Cider

Pressing Apple Cider

3.  Press some apples. Apples are a tree that humanity has held a very long and sacred relationship with–and cider pressing is an important part of that legacy. After a Wassail in the winter to ensure a blessing, the harvest unfolds in September with an abundance of apples! Its great to go out seeking apples–don’t pay for them. Wild apples can be found all over the place: ask your neighbors for their windfall apples, collect them from parks, find them along the road, and more.  You can get hundreds of pound of free apples just for looking and this will result in a mix of  varieties and flavors. In terms of pressing, you can make your own press, buy a press, share a press with friends, or even ask a local cider mill if they will press your apples (many will for a fee).

 

4.  Learn to Can. Fall is a very abundant time–September in my bioregion provides the largest part of the harvest, including the tomato crops, apples, pears, peppers, beans, eggplant, corn, and so much more. If you are new to canning and want to learn, I recommend you start by learning how to hot water bath can and leave the pressure canning till you have some hot water canning experience under your belt. The best way to learn is to find someone to teach you if possible. You will also want to get a book on canning, like the Ball Book of Canning. I use the Ball Book primarily for vegetable canning–their jam/fruit recipes are too high in sugar for my taste. If you want to can jams with honey, low or no sugar, also pick up Preserving with  Ponoma’s Pectin by Allison Carol Diffy.  Learning about Ponoma’s Pectin really changed the way I canned and made it much more appealing because its more fruit and less sweet.

 

5. Get to know your farmers Spending time at a farmer’s market can have you score big in terms of the bulk fruits and veggie that you want to learn to can or put in a root cellar. Even with my enormous and productive garden at my Michigan homestead, I still purchased bulk potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers because these “nightshade” family crops in bulk would screw up my crop rotations–they are heavy feeders. Now in my transition period renting in PA, local farmers are even more important! This time of year, farmers frequently have reasonably cheap bulk produce at the farmer’s market. Its a good idea to get to know the people who are growing your food, learn their growing practices, and support them in their work.

 

6. Establish a Pantry. In the earlier part of the 20th century, every household had a pantry, although today, keeping a pantry is a skill largely forgotten. Traditionally, a pantry is a place where we can store bulk dry goods and canned goods. There are lots of good reasons to start a pantry: first,  a pantry allows you to buy dried goods in bulk to save on costs. Second, a pantry allows you to safely store things away when they are abundant—this allows you to live and eat closer to the seasons and live more sustainably. Third, a pantry gives me food security, where I have a good amount of food in my house in case of emergency, disruption in shipping lines, big winter storms, and so on. For more information on how to establish a pantry, see this article.

 

7. Build a Root Cellar (or Root Cellar barrel). The compliment to the pantry, is of course, a root cellar. Root cellars take many different forms–I used five-gallon buckets sunk in the earth while I was in Michigan and also helped a friend build his own earthbag root cellar (which was quite a feat, but completely awesome when it was finished). Storey Publishing has an excellent book on different options for root cellars called Build Your Own Underground Root Cellar. The other option for a root cellar is a basement root cellar, where part of a basement is converted.  You can also find a wealth of information available online on any of these three root cellar designs.

 

8. Convert your lawn. I’ve been a long-time advocate of converting lawns to anything that isn’t lawn: vegetables, herbs, perennials, wildflowers, orchards, and more. Fall is a perfect time to begin a lawn conversion process because many of the materials that are useful for sheet mulching can be found in the fall (like leaves, dead material, etc). I have numerous posts on the subject to get you started, including a discussion of why to convert a lawn, a great example from Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm which was a fully converted front lawn, how to sheet mulch (two ways), and broader discussions of the need to regenerate our lands (which lawn conversion helps us do).

 

Anything is better than a lawn!

Anything is better than a lawn!

9.  Adopt and begin to regenerate an abandoned site.  In addition to beginning to work on our own sites, consider adopting another site–especially a site that has been neglected or that nobody else cares about. We have so many sites like these–places nobody wants to be, spaces abandoned and damaged–and one of the things we can do as a spiritual and sustainable practice is work to make that site just a little better than we found it. Scatter seeds, add nutrients, understand the history of the land and create a plan! (More on this practice in upcoming blog posts!)

 

10. Make some Acorn Bread. Another really fun thing to do this season is to gather up some acorns and make some acorn bread! I haven’t yet posted my recipes for acorns, but there is a great PDF from the California Oaks Foundation called Acorn and Eatem.  It has recipes, how to prepare acorns, and more!

 

11. Explore rocket stove technology. Consider building yourself a rocket stove for fuel-efficient cooking (indoors or out). I have built several of these over the years, and they always make a great meal–and a great project.  I’m amazed by how little resources they take to do any cooking, and in a time of resources that are growing more and more scarce, rocket stoves are a smart idea.

 

12.  Go Mushroom Hunting. Some of the most tasty mushrooms of the year, at least in my bioregion, can be found in the fall.  The Hen of the Woods (miatake) is a wonderful mushroom that only appears in the fall–it has both medicinal qualities and is a fantastic edible.  Others include late Chicken of the Woods, Puffballs, Cauliflower mushrooms, Honey Mushrooms, and more. If you are new to foraging, check out my two posts on how to get safely and ethically started.

 

13.  Make some Smudge Sticks. As the plants die off and the cold sets in,  you can make smudge sticks using up any remaining plant matter that you have locally available. Its a wonderful way to create some sacred smoke and a great craft to do with friends.

 

Amazing early fall harvest day!

Amazing early fall harvest day!

14.  Seek balance. The Fall Equinox is a time where the light and the dark are in balance–and we can seek balance in our own lives in a number of ways. One of the things I like to do during this time is to create a list of the things that I enjoy the most and that bring me the most satisfaction and benefit (being in nature, gardening, foraging, writing, reading, etc).  Then, I keep track of how much time I spend on those activities, and find ways of building more time for those things I love the most. This kind of activity keeps me in balance.  Other simple activities include hot baths, learning how to say no, or even just taking time each day to enjoy a quiet cup of herbal tea.

 

15.  Make some ink. With pokeberry, buckthorn, walnuts and many other berries and dye plants now available, its a great time to make some ink! I have instructions here for how to do so.

 

16.  Prepare for the dark half of the year. A lot of people aren’t fans of winter and actively oppose it, but its going to come whether or not we like it to. Given this, approaching the dark half of the year as as much about mindset as it is about physical preparation. One of the ways to make it enjoyable is to ritually and mentally prepare yourself for the coming cold–make some plans for good “stay at home activities” like reading books, writing, artistic projects, learning instruments (for that Eisteddfod!) and more.

 

I hope that these suggestions are helpful as you celebrate the Fall Equinox. Happy Alban Elfed!

 

 

Ode to the Apple: Making Applesauce April 6, 2014

In a recent blog post, I talked about the apple as a sacred tree in that it provides us with bountiful, amazing cider. In this post, I’m going to walk through the art of making and canning applesauce. The applesauce I made when I was taking photos for the blog is hands down the best applesauce I have ever tasted in my life! I really like making applesauce because it connects me with the sacred apple tree (more on that in an upcoming post), its very healthy, and it can be shared and enjoyed with others.

Apples free from a neighbor's yard

Apples free from a neighbor’s yard

Finding Apples

The first thing you need to do for a good applesauce is to find your apples.  In my crazy quest last summer to pay homage to the apple, I tasted apples from literally hundreds of trees.  I realized then that not all apples are created equal.  A good applesauce requires a really delicious apple.  These apples a friend and I gathered from my neighbor’s house.  We have no idea what variety they are, but they are literally the most delicious apple–a little tart, a little sweet, excellent creamy flesh.  I used these apples to make my perfect applesauce.

Now you shouldn’t have to buy apples–lots of old apple orchards are out there, and most people (at least in this area) have apple trees in their front or backyards.  I have found that if you go ask to pick apples, most people will be happy to let you (especially if you offer some of the bounty in return).   You can also find apples in local parks and the like.  If you are gathering lots of apples, make sure you get some sturdy bags (we gathered with 50 lb feed bags – pictured in the photo above) because we were also going for bulk for making cider.  The other thing about making a good applesauce is that sometimes a combination of apples can yield the best results.  So I used a few kinds of apples for the sauce, but the bulk of them came from the incredible tree of the neighbor’s!  You should pick apples from the tree–pull gently and the apple will come off easily if the apple is ripe.

Lots of Apples!

Lots of Apples!

Besides being free, there are a lot of other benefits to gathering your apples wild.  First, they are almost certainly not going to be sprayed with pesticides–and since apples are one of the fruits that hold in the most pesticide, this is something you absolutely do not want to have in your fruit.  Second, you can find varieties wild that you can’t find in the store, allowing for very unique flavors (my friend and I found one apple tree that literally produced apples that tasted like cotton candy last year!)  Third, you are eliminating the use of fossil fuels associated with transporting apples over great distances (depending on your mode of transportation, you might still have some fossil fuel expenditure, but it shouldn’t be nearly that of a commercial grower).  Most of my apples were gathered within 3 miles of my home, or were gathered where I was already heading (e.g. I went to campus for the day, and stopped at the orchard on my way home to pick apples for an hour before heading home).

 

Coring and Peeling your Apples

You can core and peel your apples by hand. I used to do this until I discovered this great little device called an “apple peeler and corer.”  I found mine on Etsy for $10. I don’t actually know why anyone would do anything else–this is SO fast.  I can do enough apples for a huge pot in about 45 minutes–and its a lot of fun to use.  The one thing I will mention is that you want fresh, firm apples to use this little device. If they are too soft or mushy, they will fall apart and cause frustration.

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

Apple Peeler, Corer, and Slicer

The peeler, corer, and slicer works like magic, and it creates these awesome little apple spirals.  It also creates a great deal of apple peel, which I dehydrated and have been using for tea.

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Apple peeled, cored, and sliced!

Cooking Your Sauce

Now that you have some cored, peeled, and sliced apples, you are ready to start cooking down your sauce.  One word of warning – applesauce easily burns!  Stir it frequently! The one thing that can do you in is having too high of heat and ignoring your applesauce.  I bought a beautiful long wooden spoon from a local craftsperson at the farmer’s market, and I use that spoon to lovingly stir my applesauce so that it doesn’t burn.

To speed up the cooking process and make sure my apples on the bottom don’t burn, I usually use my immersion blender to chop up the apples  (otherwise, this can be a really long process!)

Apples being processed

Apples being processed

Now how much you want to cook your applesauce down is a matter of personal preference. I prefer really chunky applesauce, so I cook mine a lot less than some others do (the store-bought stuff is all way overcooked, IMHO).  Here’s what mine looked like about halfway through the cooking process:

Cooking down the applesauce!

Cooking down the applesauce!

At this stage, I added a bit of freshly ground nutmeg and cinnamon to the sauce.  I also added a little honey for added sweetness–but my apples were pretty sweet, so not much was needed.  Once I had it tasting exactly how I wanted it, I was ready to can!

 

Canning Your Applesauce

Standard hot water bath canning applies here–you hot water bath can your applesauce for 15 min. One of the important things to remember is that applesauce EXPANDS A LOT during canning, so you want a full 1″ of headspace on your pint jars.  I have not had applesauce explode on me yet, but many people I’ve spoken to about it have!

When you are finished, you will have some of the most amazing applesauce you have ever tasted.  It is likely you will be unable to eat the drivel that they call “applesauce” in the stores ever again. And you’ll be one step closer to self-sufficiency and more sustainable living!

 

Enjoying your Applesauce

Canning any kind of food preserves that food at its peak freshness, saving it for you to savor in the cold, dark months of winter.  As I finish this blog post, I eat a bite of my most delicious applesauce straight from the jar, and look back with fondness on those wonderful apple-filled months leading up to Samhuinn.  I think there is real magic in making and preserving applesauce–apples are such an abundant gift from the wild and we can preserve that gift for years to come.

 

Wassail – An Ancient Rite of Orchard Blessing January 27, 2013

Sarah and I near the apple tree before our ceremony!

Sarah and I near the apple tree before our ceremony!

Last weekend, I was honored to be invited to a friend’s orchard for an old-fashioned Wassail ceremony (you can read more about my friend’s orcharding and sustainability work on his blog, The Fruit Nut).  Wassail  (or Old English waes hael, literally meaning “be healthy”) is both a drink of mulled cider and also the actual blessing. Wassailing, which traditionally happens on January 17th, is an ancient English ritual that focuses on blessing the trees to ensure an excellent harvest in the coming year. The tradition originated in Southern England, where villages performed ceremonies to bless the apple trees and scare away evil spirits that may plague the tree. I’m not sure how old the tradition is, but the fact that the term originates from Old English gives some indication of the age of the ceremony.

 

Like many ancient traditions, wassailing recognizes the important, symbiotic relationship of humankind to nature.  As a tree blessing, this tradition allows us, as humans, to express our appreciation for the fruits of the harvest and also our role in the physical and spiritual care of our trees. Wassailing also recognizes that the physical realm and spiritual realms interact, and we need to be sure to understand and aid in the relationship between them. I will also add that wassail is a wonderful “introduction” to more earth-centered spiritual thinking; at our Wassail, we had many people who were earth friendly/sustainability oriented and they really enjoyed it as much as some of the more druidic-leaning folks (and these communities cross quite often, at least here in Michigan!)

 

Wassail script

Wassail script

And so, here is the outline of our Wassail ceremony, for those who want to start their own tradition!

  1. Earlier in the day, our host Trevor determined the tree that gets the blessing for the whole orchard.  The tree was one of the largest in the orchard and had good space around it so that we could stand in a circle during the ceremony.
  2. Just before dusk, we gathered in a circle around the tree, each participant with a cup of steaming, mulled cider. Each participant also had a script so that he/she understood what was happening.
  3. Trevor explained the history and purpose of the ceremony, and also his desire to continue Wassail as a tradition into future years
  4. The “king” of the ceremony, our host, held out a cup of cider while the “queen” dipped two pieces of toasted bread into the cider, then hung the toasted bread on two branches of the tree as an offering.
  5. We then drank of the cider and poured a little on the tree’s trunk and around its roots.
  6. Next, we bowed three times, like we were picking up bushels of apples and hailed the tree.
  7. We sang a wassail song (many varieties exist, but the one that we used was something like this: “Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow, Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills, Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah”)
  8. Finally, we spent a good long while drumming to raise positive energy for the tree and to ward off evil spirits.  Imagine–15 or so people drumming into the night, dancing and spiraling around the tree!
  9. After that, we went back to the house and enjoyed a potluck dinner.
Trevor ladels out hot mulled cider

Trevor ladels out hot mulled cider

I’d like to see druids more involved–and initiating–such tree blessings. I think its wonderful that we can continue old nature blessing traditions and develop new ones as the need arises.  The trees in our world today, at least here in America, often get no such honor.  Through these kinds of celebrations, we can shift our consciousness and recognizing the importance of maintaining a physical and spiritual connection with the natural world upon which our food systems and lives are based.