The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  The prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for. The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows February 25, 2018

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. 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, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

 

A Celtic Galdr Ritual for Land Healing May 10, 2017

The following is a land healing ritual that we did at the OBOD’s Mid-Atlantic (MAGUS) gathering last weekend (May 2017).  (For a wonderful review of this gathering, please see Dean Easton’s A Druid’s Way Blog!) This ritual was done by about 45 participants surrounding a small cluster of Eastern Hemlocks (Tsugae Canadensis) at Four Quarters in Artemis, PA. The purpose of the ritual was to raise healing and positive energy for the Eastern Hemlock trees who are currently suffering and being threatened by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, with a secondary purpose of inner work for each participant. To do this, we used a ritual structure using a combination of Galdr and Wassail/Tree magic. This post includes background information on the ritual, instructions, and the ritual itself.

 

Background Information

Eastern Hemlock and the Wooly Adelgid

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

The Eastern Hemlock (Tsugae Canadensis) trees are a keystone species throughout the Eastern US, and are the state tree of PA. To learn more about the Eastern Hemlock, you can visit my post on this tree’s medicine, magic, folklore, and more. Hemlocks are currently are under severe threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid is a non-native aphid that came to the US in the 1950’s and is substantially spreading in its range. The adelgid sucks the sap out of the trees, slowly killing the tree, with death of the tree typically resulting 5-10 years after infestation. Millions of hemlocks along the eastern seaboard have already been lost to the adelgid.  One of the “lines” of the spread of the adelgid is at Four Quarters farm.

 

After I did deep reflection and communion with elder hemlocks in an old growth forest in the region (at Laurel Hill State Park) over a period of years, and after talking with the hemlocks at 4Q during a prior visit, I had the sense that we should do a ritual to raise energy for them. However, the hemlocks were very specific: they wanted us to raise energy for them to do with it what they saw fit (as opposed to something more specific like eradicating the adelgids, etc). And so, this particular ritual sends them positive energy with no particular intention beyond those given in the Ogham trees we are invoking.

 

Galdr Magic

A Galdr (“incantation”) is a type of chanting or incantation in the Norse tradition. In the Norse tradition, Galdr is done through drawing runes and then chanting them for various kinds of blessings. Since we are druids, we instead chose to use Ogham (a Celtic tree divination system) and integrate existing tree magic (see next section).

 

The basic practice of Galdr is to draw a rune, and then take the word for the rune and break it into syllables or single sound combinations (with variations). For those druids used to chanting the Awen, the principle is the same, in that, we draw power and chant in a loud voice, just like we would with the Awen. This means that any Ogham Galdr chant should be powerful, meaningful, and energetic. For Duir (Oak), we might have something like:

Duir Duir Duir

Dooo Ahhh Iiiirr

Du Du Du Du

Duir Duir Duir

Galdr is flexible and each person who does it will likely do it a bit differently. The important thing is the repetition of the chant to raise energy (in our case, for land healing).

 

Ogham and Tree Magic

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

The second piece of inspiration this ritual draws upon is the Ogham, a tree alphabet that developed in Britain, Wales, and Ireland sometime between the 1st and 4th century AD, likely by druids or other Irish scholars. It was originally used to write the early Irish alphabet and can still be found carved into various stones and in surviving manuscripts up until the Middle Ages. Each ogham has an associated Celtic tree and today, we druids use this as a divination and meditation system to work deeper with the trees. And so, we’ve replaced the “traditional” runes in the Galdr with Ogham.

 

We have selected four Ogham for this particular healing work based on their energy:

  • Quert (Apple). This is the energy of love/support, wholeness, support, and health (this is the message we send to the trees).
  • Straif (Blackthorn in traditional ogham, blackberry in our more local ogham). This is the energy of cleansing, removal, strife, the power of fate, and pain (we are using this energy in an unwinding manner, so removing these things). In our ritual, the Straif leader had the participants do two kinds of energetic work: first, a guttural removal of pain and suffering (through voice) and then a more gentle healing and renewal after the pain was removed.
  • Beith (Birch). This is the energy of new beginnings, rebirth, and renewal (this is the energy we offer–rebirth, renewal, new beginnings)
  • Duir (Oak). This is the energy of strength, being rooted and grounded, protection, and knowledge, the knowledge of the oaks.

If you were going to adapt this ritual, you could choose different ogham based on your purposes. These were specifically selected for the needs of the Eastern Hemlocks in this region and the willingness of these other trees/plants to lend their support.

 

Wassail

The third piece of inspiration this ritual is using magic from the old orchard Wassail traditions (for more on Wassail, see here). In this tradition, a single apple tree was selected as a representative of all of the apple trees in the orchard or local to the area. Around the central tree, people circled and enacted various rituals (such as offering it spiced cider, toast, and bowing to it). In this way, the tree was able to accept the blessing and then channel that blessing to the entire forest.

 

Our ritual was around a central hemlock tree in the evening as the sun was beginning to set. The central tree was the “receiving” tree and served as a proxy for all other hemlock trees.  The final act of this ritual is channeling that energy down through the roots to the other Hemlocks at Four Quarters and beyond.

 

Land Healing

The broader framework for this ritual comes from some of my earlier work on this blog on healing the land using various energetic approaches.  Druids, and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, can take an active role in healing the land and regenerating human-land connections, both through energetic healing and ritual as well as through active land regeneration, scattering seeds, and permaculture design.

 

Ritual Setup

Roles:

Four Ritualists:

  • Quert (Apple) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Water/West Energy)
  • Straif (Blackberry) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Fire/South Energy)
  • Beith (Birch) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Air/East Energy)
  • Duir (Oak) Warder Leader (Also connected to Earth/North Energy)

Participants:

  • Quert Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 5-10 participants)
  • Straif Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 15-20)
  • Beith Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 25-30)
  • Duir Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 5-10, including those who are mobility challenged, and those tending outer fires)

 

Materials (created in advance):

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Ogham Signs. Ogham signs can be held by ritualists.  The signs we created have each few, the common name, and the ogham name. This will allow participants to easily find their group.

 

Ogham Fews. Ogham fews should preferably be from the wood or material represented (this is why we are using local ecosystem adaptations for Straif). We had created 30 Beith fews, 20 Straif fews, 10 Quert fews, 10 Duir fews for particiapnts to draw.  Participants also get to keep their few at the end of the ritual.

 

Basket or bag for drawing fews.

Pre-Ritual Discussion and Practice

Pre-ritual discussion and practice can take place just before the ritual, but can also be done at a separate time (not too far before the ritual, however).

 

Step 1: Hemlock Tree Attunement

For our ritual, participants first drank a bit of Eastern Hemlock needle tea and sitting quietly with the trees; this allowed participants to connect with the trees on a physical level and begin to create a spiritual connection.  This simple tea can be brewed up by collecting needles (old or young) and small branches and pouring boiling water over them and letting them sit till they are cool.  At that point, add a little raw honey and strain.  In the case of our ritual, participants drank the Eastern Hemlock tea and sat with the trees quietly for about 10 minutes before coming back and drawing an ogham few (see step 2).

 

Step 2: Ogham Stave Drawing

After drinking the tea and spending time in quiet listening with the hemlock trees, participants each draw an Ogham few for the ritual (participants should draw by feel, not by sight). In the case of our ritual, participants drew their ogham fews at an afternoon land healing workshop; this allowed them to attune with the energy of that particular few prior to our evening ritual.

 

Step 3. Forming Groups, Pre-Ritual Discussion, and Galdr Practice.

At the start of our ritual, later in the day from the Ogham draw, each ritualist held their signs (with the Ogham symbol) to form their group. Each ritualist held a separate pre-ritual discussion where they explained the specific Ogham and energy that group is working with. Each group practiced their Galdr chant prior to the ritual. Ritualists each design their own Galdr chant and allow participants create variations. In order to do this work, ritualists do prior work with the tree energy they are invoking (through meditation, sitting with them, etc).

 

The Ritual

All participants gather in a large circle around the central hemlock tree. Fires are tended so that we can see in the waning light (fire tenders are part of Duir group). All ritualists memorized the script in advance so we had no impediments, need for flashlights, etc.

1. Participants Ground and Clear

         Duir Warder leads participants in three breaths to ground and connect with the energies of the sacred place.

 

2. Open up a Sacred Space

Duir Warder declares the space open (by the power of star and stone…)

 

Straif Galdr Leader makes offering to the outsiders to ensure that we don’t attract unwanted guests, but also to deal with those “outside” aspects of ourselves that might resist some of the healing work we are doing within.

 

Beith Galdr Leader calls east.

 

Straif Galdr Leader calls south.

 

Quert Galder Leader calls west.

 

Duir Warder calls north.

 

Quert Galdr Leader offers circle words to open up the space (“The circle of our lives….”)

 

Duir Warder and Duir Participants cast circle as a group, walking around the outside of the participant circle.

 

3. Participants take their places

Due to our declining light and the many root systems under the trees, all participants went into place in their three concentric circles around the hemlocks prior to the Galdr beginning. (If you had more light, you can have them circle up one at a time after the previous group finishes their chant). Quert was the first circle, Straif was the second circle (encompoassing Quert and the Hemlocks), Beith was the third circle (encompassing Straf, Quert, and the Hemlocks), and Duir was the final circle (Duir spread out along the outside edge, and did not link hands like the other groups).

 

4A. Quert Chants

The Quert (Apple) group, with signal from Quert Galdr Leader link hands and begin to chant, circling the tree desoil (sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands (signaling the next group). They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

4B. Duir Warders Reinforce Circle

As Quert begins their chant, the Duir Warders begin their own chant to reinforce the circle and hold the space. They continue to chant while the remaining Galdr chants take place.

 

5. Straif Chants

Straif begins their Galdr chant, links hands and circles the tree widdershins (anti-sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands (signaling the next group). They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

6. Beith Chants

The Beith group, with signal from Beith Galdr Leader begins their chant, linking hands and circling the tree desoil (sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands. They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

7. All Chants end. When the energy is sufficiently raised, Quert Galdr Leader raises hands (with her group) which is the signal for all other Galdr Leaders and participants to raise hands and end the chant.

 

8. Duir Channels Energy. As the chant ends and the quiet settles back in, the Duir group comes into the center (coming through raised hands) and touches the hemlock trees (central trees). They channel the energy raised in the ritual into the central trees, sending it down into the roots, and radiating it outward.

 

9. All participants form large circle again. After this work is done, Duir Warder Leader invites participants to form a large circle once again.

 

10. Grounding. Beith Galdr Leader leads a grounding activity (in our ritual, this involved deep breathing, putting our hands on the earth for a time, and having participants literally shake off some of the excess energy).  This is a powerful ritual and grounding is certainly necessary!

 

11. Close the Space and Send out Energy

Quert Galder Leader: “It is the hour of recall….let us thank the quarters…”

 

Duir Warder Leader thanks the north.

 

Quert Galder Leader thanks the west.

 

Straif Galdr Leader thanks the south.

 

Beith Galdr Leader thanks the east.

 

Duir Warder Leader and Duir Participants unwind the circle and Duir Warder Leader declares space closed. (Note, we found that the channeling of energy itself into the roots unwound the circle so this last step wasn’t used during our ritual as that work as already done!  But otherwise, it would be a necessary to do it.)

 

Post-Ritual Discussion. Each group had a post-ritual discussion. Part of this was to allow the Ritualists to ensure that all participants were grounded (especially new folks). But it was also an opportunity for each group to share their experiences and compare notes.  Don’t skip this part!

 

Additional Notes and Adaptations

 

Three Concentric Circles of Healing. Just as this ritual uses three moving and concentric circles of people surrounding a tree for land healing, it also works on three levels with participants. The ritual was intentionally designed to foster A) healing for the trees, B) healing/energy work for each group and C) healing/energy work for each participant. Participants draw their fews, which puts them in a group that is most appropriate for the energy they need to work with. Each person in the ritual thus has their own ritual and own experience. Each group works together to enact their part of the ritual, thus having a shared experience that is unique to the group. The whole group, likewise, works for the good of healing the land. It is for this reason that the pre- and post-ritual discussions are so important—they are part of the ongoing part of the group and individual ritual. Each participant, likewise, is important and necessary in this ritual and has a role to fill (compared to some, where participants are more passive observers).

 

What happened at the MAGUS gathering is that after the Galdr, people talked a lot about the ritual and had to “uncover” what each other’s roles were.  A number of rich discussions ensued surrounding the ritual at our gathering, and it kindled a number of connections and insights.  I remember four of us sitting at a table for a meal and realizing we had all been in different Galdr groups, and so each of us shared about the ritual and the work we did, the group work, and our personal experiences.

           

Adapting this Ritual for Multiple Participants. This ritual could be adapted to a much smaller or larger group. A group as small as four could do it (with four ogham drawn, and each participant representing one of the four sacred trees). This ritual could also in theory be done by a solo practitioner with some heavy modification (although I’d have to give it some thought in terms of how that might be done!)

 

Adapting this Ritual for Multiple Purposes. I believe that this ritual could be adapted using other Ogham trees for other kinds of healing purposes, including purposes beyond land healing. If anyone does such adaptations, please let me know here in the comments!

 

PS: Please note that this ritual was designed by Tsugae Canadensis (Eastern Hemlock) and made manifest by myself (Dana O’Driscoll) and Cat McDonald (you can find Cat at the Druid’s Well) with additional input from John Adams, Elmdea Bean, and Nicole Sussurro.

 

PPS: I know I said I was taking a short blogging hiatus for a few weeks, but everyone at the gathering wanted to see this ritual, and my blog was the best place to post it and archive it.  I’ll return to regular posting in June as promised :).

 

Black Birch Tree Information and Recipe for Sore Muscle Rub / Massage Oil and Birch Tincture February 26, 2013

Black Birch (Betula lenta) is one of my all-time favorite trees.  In the forest where I grew up, I we had thousands of black birch trees.  Any time there was a thicket (or if someone would cut a part of the forest down), the birch trees would quickly spring up and grow thickly.  This is exactly why the ancient Celts began the Ogham with Birch (beith), and why birch is considered a tree of new beginnings–they are the first to spring up and heal the forest.

 

On smaller trees, the black birch has a lovely black bark with little white flecks.  When you break off a branch, it has a medium green inner bark that smells–and tastes–of wintergreen. This birch bark has wonderful properties, both magical and medicinal. The inner bark has methyl salicyclate, which is used primarily today for muscle pain (note that muscle rubs like Ben Gay have about 30% methyl salicyclate in its ingredient list!); black birch tea is also good for colds, soreness, and cleansing of the body. Magically, birch is connected to the element of water, and is a tree of renewal, rebirth, regeneration, protection and cleansing.  Its also very good for calming the emotions.

 

I brought the black birch back with me from a recent visit to the forest to which I belong in PA to make two other recipes- a black birch tincture and birch water. But when I recently saw Jim McDonald, a fabulous herbalist, for a consultation and I mentioned to him that I had collected a number of budding birch branches, he gave me this recipe and it is turning out amazingly awesome, so I wanted to share it.

 

Black Birch Sore Muscle Rub / Massage Oil

For both of the recipes, you want to use small twigs or budding branches from the black birch tree.  Late winter and spring is the best time to collect because the sap is running then and the tree is renewing itself after a long slumber.

Here are my branches–I added about 1 cup of oil, and I used about 2/3 of what you see here to make the oil.

Birch Branches!

Birch Branches!

Get 1 cup or so of neutral oil as your base. I wanted something that had some good shelf life, so I purchased sesame oil.  Almond oil would work too, but it has a shorter shelf life.  Olive oil has its own unique scent, so I’m not sure how it would work.

Sesame oil I used (two bottles)

Sesame oil I used (two bottles)

The goal is to get as much of the inner bark, finely chopped and exposed, into your oil.  To do this, I cut up the smallest branches with scissors to get them into 1/2″ or so pieces and then used my mortar and pestle to expose the inner bark and smash them up a bit.  On the larger branches, I took a good sharp knife and simply scraped the bark off.  Both methods worked very well!

Mortar and Pestle

Mortar and Pestle

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

I filled up a mason jar with the birch bark scrapings and small branches until they reached the top of the oil.

Adding bark to oil

Adding bark to oil

I sealed it up and I’m letting it sit for three weeks (minimum) but not more than 5 or so weeks (I let mine sit too long, like 9 weeks, and it went bad and I had to get a new batch started).  After only a few days, the oil is already beginning to take on the scent of the black birch–I can’t wait till it is complete!  After the time has passed, I will strain it and jar it up and use it for back-rubs, massages, sore muscles and the like :).  My second batch, after straining, worked soooo well! I’m adding a little coconut oil and it will be a wonderful sore muscle rub.

Birch in jar!

Birch in jar (prior to straining).

Black Birch Tincture

The process for making the tincture is actually quite similar; the only difference is that instead of using a neutral oil, like sesame, you use grain alcohol. Everclear or vodka can be used.  Even after a day, you’ll be able to taste and smell the tincture; the tincture goes to this lovely green color (similar to the inner bark) and smells just awesome.  Give it a month or so, and you will have an amazing tincture!