The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: White Pine’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings December 3, 2017

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

White Pine Towering in a Conifer Forest at Parker Dam State Park, PA

In the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend, there was a terrible conflict between five different nations of people. This conflict was rooted in cycles of pain, revenge, and chaos. A messenger of peace sent from the Great Spirit, the “Peacemaker,” sought to unite the five warring tribes. After convincing them to unite, they came together to make peace, but they still carried their weapons. The Peacemaker uprooted a White Pine tree and had them throw all of their weapons into the hole. He then replanted the tree, and the underground waters carried away the weapons. On the tree, the needles grew in clusters of five, to represent the five nations who came to find peace. The roots of the tree spread out in four directions, to the north, south, east and west; the roots are called the roots of peace. An eagle perched on top of the tree to watch over the roots of peace. Under the tree, the branches spread wide for all to gather. It is from this Native American story that we can understand why the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is called the “Tree of Peace” and why the White Pine carries such power here on our landscape. In today’s post, we explore the White Pine and his peaceful energy, examining the mythology, magic, medicine, and uses of this incredible tree.


This post is from a larger series on sacred trees that have included Sassafrass, Ash, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut. I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).


Ecology and Growth of the White Pine

The White Pine is a magnificent tree reaching up to 100 feet in height.  With beautiful green needles that have a soft, feathery appearance, it is one of our most iconic forest trees on the Eastern Seaboard of the US. The further north you travel up the East Coast, the more dominant White Pine becomes in the ecosystem. Here in PA, we have White Pine planted primarily in urban and suburban areas with fewer of them found in forests. Because they like it cold, you can often find them up on the ridges. Another reason we have less here is that White Pine doesn’t tolerate logging well; hemlock and other shade-resistant hardwoods (maple, cherry, beech, birch) will take the place of White Pine if they are cut.  But if you head further north, into New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and those areas, you will see that White Pine is an incredibly dominant tree.


White Pine grows tall and straight, with a massive canopy of feathered, soft needles stretching out from long and strong branches. You might find White Pines in clusters or planted in rows–she makes an incredible “cathedral” tree for sacred spaces and people to gather.  In fact, in New Hampshire, a place called the “Cathedral of the Pines” exists. For many years, White Pines stood in and around the gathering space. A tornado devastated many of the ancient pines in that place in the late 1980’s, but old photos show how incredible this sacred place was with the White Pines towering over all (and there are still some nice white pines there!) I have been to other places where White Pines were planted in a long line and have this cathedral appearance.


History and Early American Uses of White Pine

In New England, Eric Sloane writes that White Pine survived logging primarily because it made really poor charcoal; the “coaling” activities that were fueling industrialization at the turn of the 20th century decimated many other species and yet left intact patches of White Pine. This means that even where coaling and logging were dominant, we still have many old-growth forests with White Pines, a true beauty to behold. However, today, White Pine is now used extensively in construction, cabinet making, pattern making, and more; it is a soft, warp-resistant and light wood, meaning that these old trees are sought out for their economic value.


Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

Needles of the white pine that drop in the fall

According to Using Wayside Plants, by Nelson Coon (1969), straight White Pine trees were known as “mast trees” in British Colonial days as they were used as masts for ships. The emissaries of the king would go through the woods a mark the White Pines with the King’s Broad Arrow indicated that tree would be used as a mast on one of the British Fleet. This symbol told anyone else that this tree was the king’s property and none other could cut it. Interestingly enough, the “broad arrow” mark in some, cases, looks a ton like the Druid’s Awen symbol /|\.


In Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane writes about the White Pine as being one of the most important trees to early Americans, as from it, people could produce paint, tar, turpentine, firewood, building materials, lampblack, tanbark, resin, and pitch. White Pine was most frequently used for creating these products, followed by Pitch Pine. Sloane also notes that even though they are called “blackboards,” most early colonial blackboards were actually white pine boards that were sanded and painted black. Further, he writes that, in the 18th century, many houses in the MidAtlantic and New England were built from White Pine due to its soft, strong, and workable qualities. Early Americans also used the branches to make wreaths and to create ropes.


If you’ve ever read Thoreau’s Walden, you might recall that Thoreau built his house out of White Pine and interacts with white pine often.  He writes, at one point, about an old man who used to come fishing at the pond who used a White Pine canoe.  The White Pine canoe was fashioned from two logs, dugout.  The old man hadn’t made the canoe, and as Thoreau puts it, “it belonged to the pond.”


According to Using Wayside Plants, the cambium (inner bark) of the White Pine was used as a food both by Native Americans and colonists. The cambium could be powdered and used as a flour (or added to flour in order to stretch it further). White Pine seeds are very spicy and were used by Native Americans to cook meat (I will add that they are generally not easy to get–the squirrels always have gotten to them before me!) The material suggests in this section that White Pine is an incredibly useful tree to humans and has been in relationship with humans for a very long time.


White Pine in the Esoteric Arts

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

Beautiful trunk of White Pine

White Pine, being an American tree, doesn’t get any considerable coverage in the Western esoteric literature (although more generally, pine of other species does get such coverage). For example, in the Ogham, Alim is either translated as pine or fir (or “conifer” more generally).  In the Ogham, this symbol is often associated with healing, wayfinding (that is, finding one’s life purpose, finding a home, setting one’s feet upon the path), protection, and purification.


Hoodoo, an African American Magical tradition, looks at pine in a very similar way. In Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, Yronwode describes it as a as a spiritual cleanser. Pine needles (fresh) in a bath help offer clarity and remove mental negativity. Burning pine wood can be used to clear a new home of unwanted spirits. Unopened pine cones help bring in health and longevity. If you keep a pine cone near you, as long as it stays closed, it will bring this in. Yronwode writes that if the pine cone starts to open, plant it and get a new one. Pine of all kinds also are connected with abundance or finances. Its evergreen nature also means it draws in steady money.


In the “Book of Sacred Magic by Abramelin the Mage“, a 15th century magic manuscript translated by S.L.M. Mathers, the Ambramelin describes the sacred place for which magic is to happen (what he calls the “operation”). In the many details he gives, he indicates that the floor should be made of white pine and swept clean.  Ambramelin does not specify why the floor should be of white pine, but given some of the other lore associated with it, one might infer it is for the purifying and protective nature of the tree.


Medicinal Uses of White Pine

White Pine, both physically and energetically, appears to be able to draw things out.  This is true not only of the pine pitch but also of the simple presence of pine.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine for people who have problems with breathing due to smoking. Further, Wood describes how White Pine was widely used by Native Americans (primarily, the bark was used medicinally) and adapted for use by colonists and early doctors in North America. Chewing the inner bark was used for respiratory infections (especially with sticky green phlegm) or used when an infection started to keep it from getting worse. Native Americans also used a “patch” of pine pitch to seal up wounds and prevent infections (White Pine, like Blue Spruce, is antiseptic and will also draw debris out of a wound). White Pine pitch can also be used on wounds that are already infected to draw out the infection and heal the wound. Wood also notes that the Ojibwe use White Pine bark (along with wild cherry and wild plum) to treat gangrene.


Pine is used as one of Bach’s flower remedies.  The essence of Pine is said to help with nervousness, allow for deeper contemplation/introspection, and help release any guilt or self blame. Pine more generally can be used as a “pick me up” by placing a few drops of pine oil or fresh pine needless in a bath for general tiredness, especially if one has been “burning the candle at both ends” so to speak.


Native American Mythology

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

Towering White Pine, Parker Dam State Park, PA

I’ve already shared what I believe to be the most important legend of the White Pine, the Iroquois story of White Pine as a tree of peace. Here are three other stories that give us some deeper insight into the White Pine:

In one Micmac legend, three brothers seek out a great magician, Glooskap, in order to be granted three wishes. The first brother wants to be exceedingly tall so that he would be admired by all of the women. The second brother wanted to stay in the forest, beholding its beauty, and never work again (a man after my own heart!). The third brother wished to live in perfect health till old age. The way to see Glooskap was fraught with trials and difficulty, but the brothers persevered and arrived. After sharing their wishes with Glooskap , Glooskap calls upon Cuhkw, the earthquake, and asked him to plant the three brothers feet in the ground. And they turned into three white pines. The first brother was the tallest white pine in all of the land, he towered over everyone. The second brother got his wish of staying in the forest as a magnificent tree. The third brother stood healthy and strong.


In a second legend, a Kwakiutl tale (from the Kawkiutl Indians in British Colombia) the Great Inventor took a girl for his wife. He puts the gum of the White Pine in his mouth and lays with her, and she is immediately pregnant.


In “The Origin of People“, a legend from the Shoshoni people of what is now present day Nevada, the animals (Coyote, Mouse, Woodpecker, Crow, and more) work to get pine nuts from people who have hung them in a bag on a white pine tree. They play games with the people to distract them, and finally, succeed in getting the nuts. They eat and eat the nuts and then there is but one nut left. The humans woke up and grew angry and chased them down. Coyote’s people relay the nut to the fastest runners, and finally, Crow bites the end off of the nut, hides it in his leg, and runs. He is shot and killed but his leg with the nut in it keeps going up into the mountains. Now, white pines grow there in the mountains but not where the people originally harvested them (only Juniper grows there now).


Sacred Meaning of White Pine: The Work of Peace

In summarizing all of the above with regards to the white pine, we might see that this tree is a powerful symbol and broker for peace in a variety of different ways.

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

White Pine and Hawthorn: Allies for Healing and Peace

The Work of Peace. The work of the White Pine in the opening story, especially here in the region where the tribes of the Iroquois once lived, makes it clear that this tree is powerfully associated with peace of all forms. Perhaps when we think of peace, we think of human relationships (and certainly, the White Pine is needed here).  But Peace isn’t just about human to human relationships, but relationships with the past of all kinds.


Human-human relationships. White Pine, as the story suggests, offers much to promote peace between humans. Given the contentiousness, seething anger, and intensity we have in these days, we might all spend some time with the White Pine to help facilitate peace among our friends, family, neighbors, community, and broader world.


Human-land relationships. I think its particularly interesting that while all of the other trees were cut down and coaled, the great White Pines largely remained intact. In my experience, these trees retain their roles as peacemakers for us today in order to rebuild human-land connections. Often on damaged lands, even if no other spirits or trees are open to communication, the White Pine will be the intermediary. When I first went to speak to the spirits of the land on my old homestead in Michigan, the spirits were angry at having the land so mistreated. The only tree that would speak to me was a towering White Pine in the middle of the land–this tree taught me much about how to build a relationship with the land, do repair work, and cultivate peace between us. This tree did this, all the while the stump of its partner white pine, oozed sap after being cut down next to it. Since that time, I have found the peacemaking qualities of the White Pine to be true–the peace-honoring nature of white pine makes it a good choice for a variety of land healing and repair work.


Peace within One’s Self.  Perhaps one of the hardest ways to broker peace is within one’s self. Healing and growth begins with making peace with the past and coming to a place of acceptance. Begin angry at yourself, not letting the past go, and continuing to hold onto old hurts is so common for us as humans.  It causes wars and tension between people, and certainly, it can cause pain and stagnation within our own hearts. The White Pine powerfully suggests to us that it is time to let it go. To heal, to renew, to simply stop beating ourselves up over what we’ve done, or to stop holding onto what was done to us.


The work of peace is difficult work, and to do this, we can look at three other messages that seem present in the White Pine based on my synthesis of the above material:


Drawing Out. It think its no coincidence that this tree’s sap has been used to draw out poisons, splinters, infection, and other kinds of things unwanted from the body. In order for the process of peace to happen, we must pull all of the old pain and festering wounds  and allow peace to flow within us. The White Pine, in its work of peace, does this for us.  Drawing out past anger, sadness, and pain so that peace can take place. This can happen on every level: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual.


Cleansing and Purification. Also associated with the power of peace is the work of cleansing and purification. Once the pain of old wounds is drawn out, the site must be cleansed and purified for the work of peace to continue so that nothing else can work its way back in. White Pine does this work, and does it well, both on the physical body as well as the mind and spirit.


Wayfinding. After peace has been brokered, the question of where to go next is an important one. What happens to the solider when there is no longer a war to fight? What happens to a person when he or she finally lets go what has been occupying his or her heart for years?  This period of time can be confusing, disorienting, and potentially very scary–but White Pine is here to help us find our way and to see a clear path forward.



White Pine is an incredible tree with much to teach us in an age with so much pain, suffering, bad blood, and relational difficulty. As an evergreen, Pine tells us the work of peace is never ending–it is work we must continue in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, and in our hearts. When you see a White Pine, stop and enjoy his towering presence and his peaceful energy–and know that he is there to help broker peace in the many different ways we–as people, as a society, and as spiritual beings–need it.


The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part II: What to do During Your Druid Retreat August 12, 2016

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Following the path of the sun and the moon we can learn much about the work of a druid retreat in our lives. The daylight is where we typically live–it is bright, it is loud, people are about, lots of activity is taking place. The daylight offers us a particular way of seeing the world, of interacting in it, and while everything is bright and illuminated, it is so bright that we see only what is there. We scurry about, we live our busy lives, the sun blazes down upon us.


Retreat allows us to transition out of that sunlight for a bit and have respite. As the retreat grows near, the sun begins to set, and things begin transitioning. You set your goals for the retreat; you pack your bags, and you do some initial spiritual work. Then, the retreat occurs: night is here,the incredible full moon and blanket of stars provide a different kind of vision and illumination. The sun may allow your physical body to cast a shadow, but the moon shows the shadow of your soul. You spend time in that darkness, exploring what you need to explore, letting go of what you need to let go of, scrubbing your lightbulb (discussed in part I of this article) clean so that shines upon the world clean. As you begin exiting the retreat, the sun’s energy begins to rise once again, and dawn approaches. The stars slowly fade (always there, but not always visible). You transition out of the retreat and returning once more to the sunlight once again to live your everyday life–rejuvenated, healed, and whole.


Last week, I introduced the idea of the Druid Retreat, discussing what it was, preparation for the retreat, decisions to make about the retreat, the possibility of fasting, what to take and what to leave behind, and herbal allies for your retreat.  This second post talks about the retreat itself: what do do leading up to the retreat, what to do when you get there, and how to transition back into everyday living.


Dusk: Leading into your Retreat

As I’ve hopefully illustrated above, transitioning in and out of your retreat is just as important as the retreat itself–we must help our bodies, minds, and souls enter into the sacred space of retreat and then exit peacefully again.  This requires some work on our parts, of course.  Here are the things I do to transition into this retreat space.


Setting goals and intentions for the retreat. It is a wise idea to articulate some basic goals for your druid retreat prior to actually going to the retreat.  They might be really broad (personal healing, spiritual rejuvenation, etc) or they might be quite specific (a new life path for myself; clarity on an important decision, etc). Before your retreat, spend some time in meditation and consider what you might need out of the retreat at this time. Write your goals down and have them accessible somewhere during your retreat.


When I am preparing for the retreat, I find that a series of meditations and nature walks will help reveal what is weighing on me or what needs I have concerning the retreat.  Keep a pen and paper handy, craft your goals, and return to them at least once or twice in the days and weeks leading to the retreat to have a clear vision for your retreat.


At the same time, don’t let the goals limit the scope of your retreat. Understand that these are some starting places for you–but the spirits will likely have their own work they want you to do.


Preparing physically for the retreat. If you are going to be fasting, or even if you are taking my advice of “eating lighter” during the retreat, I find that being mindful of my eating for a few days prior to the retreat can set my body up for deep healing work. By this I mean I avoid meat, fried foods, heavy foods, too much dairy and the like, and stick to light, fresh foods for the three days prior to my retreat. I find that this makes my body feel less heavy and more ready for the deep cleansing work. Part of this is that the heavy, greasy foods ground us firmly in the daylight of our lives, and we don’t want that kind of grounding during retreat.

The forest is calling you deeper....

The forest is calling you deeper….

Slowing down. Imagine a train moving at 100 miles per hour suddenly having to stop on the tracks.  That could cause a crash!  Because our lives are so busy, sometimes, going into retreat is kind of like trying to stop that heavy train immediately. A safe way is to slow the train down, to break, to make sure it pulls into that station carefully and purposefully. Given this, I try hard to “slow down” a few days before my retreat. No frantic running around, making sure tasks get done with grace, and so on. This helps me ease into the transition of the slow time that is key and present as part of the retreat.


Dusk turns to Night: The Preliminaries

Finally! Your retreat has come and you are ready to begin the work of the retreat…if you only knew what that work was to be! I have a few things I like to do on retreats, and I’ll share them here to help provide structure for your own retreat.


Slowing Down. Let your train fully come to a stop at the station; let the sun fully set and the moon and stars to illuminate once more. Once you arrive at your retreat, I would suggest spending the first hour or so decompressing, unpacking, setting up, and so on. Take your time with this–there is no rush. There is nowhere else you need to be but here, present, in this moment. Pay attention to all of your senses (how often do we do this?) and simply enjoy the work of setting up camp, unpacking, whatever it is that you need to do first.


Deep Breathing. After you allow yourself to slow down, do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation.  Let yourself settle in, let the slower rhythm weave into your bones.  Let your body and mind know, gently, that you can slow down and relax. Sit by a tree and breathe deeply, simply being, for a time, letting the stuff in the outside world slowly fall away. Once you’ve done some of this initial work, it is time to begin the more serious spiritual work of the retreat.


Cleansing.  I start my retreats with some kind of cleansing activity before opening up the space officially. There are so many ways you can cleanse, but for retreats, I like to do this in a few ways.  A glass of fresh spring water (or nettle tea) with a pinch of salt combined with a jump into a mountain stream, a cool shower, or bathing in cool water with a pinch of salt and vinegar.  I follow this usually with a full on smudge session.   You may also find it appropriate to cleanse the retreat space itself (this is good if its a rental cabin or something that a lot of people are coming in and out of; totally unnecessary if you are camping in the woods).  Once you have done whatever cleansing that you feel is necessary, you can go ahead and setup the sacred space and intentions for your retreat.


How to setup the sacred space for your retreat. Setting up the sacred space for healing as part of your retreat is also an important step. This might be something as simple as the following:

  • Start by stating my intention for the retreat: personal healing, rejuvenation, etc.
  • Call upon the four directions and four elements for their guidance
  • Make an offering in gratitude to the land and spirits of the land for hosting
  • Cast a circle around the space for the duration of the retreat


If you have a way of opening up a sacred space or grove, you can use that and keep it open for the duration of the retreat.  For me, I will use the AODA’s solitary grove opening, with some additions at the end like setting my intentions for the retreat and making an offering to the spirits of the land.  This opening ritual can be done, and the space open, for as long as the retreat goes on.


And that’s an important distinction: the retreat itself takes place in an open grove for the duration of the retreat.  The entire retreat is a ceremony, a ritual, a spiritual act.  Understanding this, and setting this up intentially, helps you do the work of your retreat.


Moon and Stars: The Work of Your Retreat

So at this point, all of the preliminaries are over with. Everything that you needed to do, you did do. This is usually when people start looking around and saying, “Ok, now what?” The work ahead is much less clear, and much more specific to each individual who is on the retreat. People who have been doing spiritual work: meditation, journeying, quiet jaunts in the forest, for a while likely don’t need me to tell them what to do at this point.  The spirits will do that for you! But those of you who are new to this kind of work, still fresh upon the path, might find the following suggestions really helpful.


Vision Quest Shelter

Vision Quest Shelter

No agenda. Its generally better if you go into a healing retreat without an agenda. You may find that you are lead to do different kinds of things, unplanned things, when you got there.  Its better not to plan it out, but let things unfold as they unfold.


Intuition. The most important advice I can give for what to do when you get to this point is let your intuition guide you.  You might get the idea of doing some things you would normally not do (screaming, dancing naked, cartwheels) or things that seem odd to you (placing stones in a ring around a tree).  Don’t evaluate or judge what you feel led to do–just do it.


Spirit Communication. All of us have the capacity to hear messages from the land, from the spirits, from whatever conception of divinity you hold. Maybe these messages come in physical form–animals, branches banging on a tree, the babbling of the brook. Maybe this comes from prayer to the divine. Often, these messages also have inner components.  I spoke about inner planes communication and messages with trees quite a bit in my Druid Tree working series, so I’ll refer you there for more details.


Being and Observing. One critical thing to do is to simply lay by the fire, or out in the snow, and simply be there, slow down, simply inhabit yourself and be present in the moment. We spend so much time darting from place to place, putting out fire after fire, that we don’t just get to sit.  A retreat should include a lot of sitting and being.  Ask questions, see how the land responds (and it will respond on its own time, which can be hours or days after a question is asked)!  The value in sitting for a number of hours (especially around dusk or dawn) is that you will see the forest in ways you will never see it if you are wandering about.  Sitting still means you will see animal movements; you will blend into your surroundings and become one with the forest.  There are incredibly deep insights and values in this kind of quiet observation and communion.


Staying put or Wandering. There are different beliefs about whether you should stay put or you should wander about during a retreat–and to you I say, try a bit of both.  When I went on my vision quest, it was very important that we setup our sacred space and then stayed put in about a 30 foot area of space.  This allowed nature to send messages to us, to sit in stillness, focus, and quietude.  And while I loved this, I also love the discovery of wandering through the forest (which will make noise, and not allow as many animals to visit and bring messages).


Looking for Signs and Symbols. Learn to read the messages that the land sends.  A book called Animal Speak is a nice one to bring along, although I don’t usually take too much stock in what books say about animal messages.  Usually, animals come for a specific reason and that reason might be very unique to you and your spiritual path.  So if a deer comes, its likely coming to you for a specific reason that you will understand and/or need to interpret.  Use your own intuition to interpret the signs you are given, and perhaps supplement with some resources.  Pay attention to directions and time (e.g. a hawk flies in from the east at dawn is a different message than the hawk spiraling overhead in the early afternoon).  You might also use divination systems here, but I find the retreat will usually provide the messages you need.


Signs and symbols  in wildlife during the retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the retreat

Pilgrimages.  If you are in natural places, taking a journey to a particular special spot is also a great thing to include in a retreat. For me, these are often healing or mineral springs (of which we have many in this area).  Perhaps you want to plan a hike and journey as part of your retreat (although I’d recommend foot journeys if at all possible–technology, like riding in a car, can disrupt the energy and flow of your retreat).


Inner Journeys. Inner journeying work is certainly another important part of spiritual retreats. Spending time in an inner sacred grove, or inner realms is an important part of the retreat.


To sleep or not to sleep. While I am on retreat, I prefer cat naps during the hot parts of the day (like afternoons, in line with most of the animals ) to full on sleeping at night; I try to stay up at least one full night out in the wilds, observing and being present.   I find that this gives me perspective and new insights.   If you are going to stay up all night, do it without a campfire or light–just let your eyes adjust to the darkness and be present in your surroundings.


The lifepath experience and answering hard questions. Sometimes, it is useful to review your path, in its entirety–how you’ve gotten here.  Think about the different things you’ve experienced, the different decisions that you’ve made, your soul’s spiritual journey, the key aspects of your personality.  You might also work through some questions, the kinds that we usually don’t get to spend enough time with:

  • Am I happy with my path? If not, what could I change?
  • What am I holding onto that I need to leave go of? Why am I not letting it go?
  • What makes my soul sing? How often do I engage in those kinds of things?
  • What do I think is ahead for me on the path?
  • What is my life’s work? How do I know it?
  • Who am I, as a person?
  • What are the things that are the most important to me? Why?


Self-Expression. After some of your inner work is done, you might also find that retreats are an excellent space for engaging in some of the bardic arts: music, poetry, song, dance, visual arts.  For me, I bring along my flute and typically my watercolors, and that way, if the opportunity presents itself, especially on later days of the retreat, I might create something beautiful.  Often, when I’m on retreat I am given new songs for the flute and that’s pretty incredible as well!


Journaling and documenting your retreat. Some people don’t want to write during their retreats, but I have found that this really helps me “continue the ceremony” long after it ends in the physical world, and it allows me to return to the ceremony again and again and make sense of what I have experienced.  If you want to do this,  make sure you devote adequate time to  during your retreat to journaling about your experiences as soon as you can after they happen–write while you are still in the alternative perspective of the retreat.  What happens is that when we are in ritual space (and retreat is an extended ritual) we are in a particular frame of mind.  As soon as we remove ourselves from that ritual space, we cease to be in that frame of mind, and things are quickly lost from our minds.  Write everything you want to write before you close your ritual space and return to the mundane of everyday living.


Dawn: Closing the Retreat and Continuing the Ceremony

Just as you worked to ease into the Druid Retreat, you will also want to ease out of the retreat–daylight can be harsh if we are not careful.


Conclusions, Insights, and Next steps. As you are nearing the end of your retreat, take some time to write down the insights and conclusions you gained.  Maybe that’s a set of spiritual practices, maybe that’s something you need to do for yourself, maybe its an actionable list of items.  Or maybe it is none of these things, but a sense of tranquility and calm, of completeness.  Whatever it is, you want to do your best to preserve that mindset–that state–those feelings and words.  I usually give myself at least 2-3 hours for this kind of work. I am a visual artist and an avid writer, so I will usually do something visual to represent my retreat and also write extensively in my journal.  These tactile experiences help start to bring me back into my normal rhythms.


Gratitude. Express gratitude to the land, the spirits, those that helped you on your retreat.  Sometimes they may ask for something in return–do whatever it is they ask gladly.  After all, they held the space for your healing.  I also make it a point that once I’ve returned from my retreat, I write notes of gratitude and give them to anyone who helped make my retreat possible (kid/pet sitters, significant others, etc).


Closing the Retreat.   Since you’ve just spent some serious time in a sacred space, you can close out the sacred space as befitting your tradition (I would use AODA’s solitary grove closing for this).  A simple closing works like this:

  • Announce your intentions to close the space
  • Give thanks to the four directions/quarters
  • Make an offering to the land/spirits/diety
  • Take down the protective circle/sphere/etc.


Grounding Activities. At the end of the retreat, especially one with light-ish food choices or fasting, you will want to start bringing yourself back into the patterns of everyday typical living.  I find that it is helpful to eat something a bit more hearty at this point to help me return. Maybe that’s some eggs and cheese, or a piece of turkey jerky–something that will help me ground.


Transitioning Back in. Be careful about how you transition back into your everyday living.  I’ll share a story here to see why this is important.  A number of years ago, I went with a friend of mine to a week-long earth-centered spirituality event.  We had a long drive back to Michigan.  I spent a lot of time both with others but also alone.  It wasn’t a solitary retreat, like I’m talking about here, but it was certainly a different kind of energy and space.  After we left, we stopped at a highway rest stop and went in for some food and a bathroom break.  I entered the rest stop, and was greeted by a wall of plastic encrusted food, screaming children, several TV screens, a sad guy at the cash register, music blasting–it was all too much for me.  Normally, I had no difficulty navigating such a space (I’d hardly be a functional human being in American society if I did) but after being away for 7 days, I was completely in shock.  Panicked.  I had to leave, and then I was greeted by more concrete.  Finally, I found a little patch of grass and closed my eyes, laying on it.  I felt better.  I had never experienced such a shock, but it taught me something really powerful: the transition needs to be managed with care.  Even if we are “used” to it, we need that transitory time.


A Transition day. If at all possible, given my discussion of transitioning above, I would suggest ONE EXTRA DAY, at home, or even 4 hours, at home, to transition back from your retreat.  Ideally, you need time just to process once you’ve returned, and to reflect and integrate.  I realize this is not possible often, but it is ideal!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

The Ceremony Continues

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about this kind of work comes from the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition, and it is worth sharing here.  Your ceremony continues well beyond the time that you were in the woods, in retreat.  They believe that for another 7 days, the ceremony continues on.  If you go home and begin talking about everything you experienced and learned, you can “talk the magic out of it.”  And so, I would suggest that you keep quiet about the ceremony and the insights you learned.  They are yours, and yours alone.  After the seven day period is over, you might find it appropriate to share bits of the experience with others, but never share much.  There are many things from my own retreats and vision quests that I have not, and will not, ever share–there is magic in silence, tremendous magic in silence (a great discussion on this topic can be found in John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge book).


Retreats as a Regular Spiritual Practice

A full blown druid retreat might be harder  to facilitate regularly, but I would say try to do one at least once a year if possible.  Even if you can’t do a full blown druid retreat, I have found that there is great benefit in a mini-retreat: an 4 or 8 hour retreat, where the same things can happen, but in a condensed time frame.  You aren’t going to get the deep insights you would get with a longer period of time, but even a short while away from things will do tremendous amounts of good in your life :).


Closing thoughts

I hope that this post series was inspirational for you and that you consider planning a druid retreat–even a short one.  I also wanted to let all of you know that I’ll be doing some retreat work myself in the second half of August and will be spending a week in the Hudson Valley taking my Permaculture Teacher Training course. Given this, I will not be posting new posts for the next two or three weeks, but I will return after my PDC Teacher training with an extended series of posts on Permaculture for Druids and some other spiritual gardening topics :).  Blessings!


The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part I: Why We Go on Retreat, Preparation, and Herbal Allies August 7, 2016

Each of is like a light bulb. No, not one of those new-fangled compact florescents, but rather, one of the old style standard bulbs with the firmament and all.  When we go out into the world and do good, through healing work, through engaging in people care, earth care, or fair share–the inner light of our souls, the inner light of our bulbs, burns brightly, illuminating all of those around us.  As we work through our lives, read the news, hear of suffering and violence, experience tragedy, loss, suffering, and violence–our light bulbs get stuff sloshed on them.  They grow dim, dirty from the world and its evils.  As I wrote about two weeks ago–life seems to be getting harder, with more sharp edges, and so many of us are on edge throughout. Our light bulbs get mired in the everyday grime of living and being in the world. It is important, then, that we maintain the integrity of our light bulbs so that we can do the good work that we are called to do. This isn’t the first time I have shared this metaphor on this blog (and it was taught to me by the brilliant Jim McDonald), but it is one that I find so useful and important that I keep on returning to it.


And so, once in a while, we need something more drastic to give us a boost and allow our inner light to shine forth.  And today, friends, I will be writing about a key practice that helps us do just that: the druid spiritual retreat.  It is this kind of retreat, even for only a few days at a time, that can leave us refreshed, whole, and ready to go back into the world with our lights shining brightly.


This will be a two-part post series: the first part will introduce the retreat, explain how to set one up, and explain some decisions to make (to fast or not to fast, solitary or companions), options for how to hold the retreat, herbal allies for your retreat, and so on. The second post, next week’s post, will explore how to ease into the retreat, the work of the retreat, and easing back into everyday life–the ceremony continuing on well beyond the retreat itself.


Introducing the Druid’s Retreat

Into the forest...

Into the forest…

One of the ways I think about the druid’s retreat is like this: your everyday life, you are hiking a path in a forest. There, you have a long way to go, you rest, you find mushrooms, you see what is before you on the path, you adapt, crawl over fallen trees, and more. What the retreat does is allow you to leave the forest of your everyday life and instead, sit on a mountain cliff, above that forest, looking down at all below. It allows you a different perspective, a broader view, where you can see the everyday patterns in a new light. It allows you to look at the interplay of the different trees, the meandering of the river, the mountains beyond the valley. When you return to that forest path, as you most certainly will do, you have more wisdom about it because you have seen it from a different perspective.


In the Tarot, the Hermit card teaches us much about the idea of a spiritual retreat. The hermit has gone off to seek solitude and illumination. He spends much time wandering the land, by himself, and coming to an understanding of life’s great mysteries. Of course, when he returns, he has much knowledge and illumination to share with others. The tarot is ultimately a deck of archetypes, and we see this same arch-typical story of hermitage, of solitude, of retreat encapsulated in mythology, stories, and religious lore from around the world–Jesus, Buddha, Thoroeau, even fictional characters like Obi Wan Kenobi–all retreated and had deep insight and wisdom to share. Another tarot card that is fitting is that of the hanged man–gaining a new perspective offers much in terms of insights, healing, tranquility, and more.  It is when we are able to get this new perspective–from the mountain far away from the valley of our life below–that we gain insight into what to do next and the next part of our journey.


Retreats are serious business, for this reason.  They can facilitate inner and outer transformations, allow us to have a new perspective on old problems, clear out old things that no longer serve us, jump-start a new set of spiritual or creative practices, help us clear out old patterns and establish new, more positive patterns, in our lives, among many other things. All of this is deep work, potent work, magical work, that we cannot take on lightly or without clear intent.


Breaking the Everyday Patterns

The principle of a retreat is simple: you get away from your everyday life (your home, your family, your work, your other demands) for a period of refreshment, rejuvenation, and seclusion (alone or with select others, see below). Where to take this retreat is a critical thing: I have learned that its near impossible to do this retreat in your everyday living space, because both things/stuff and patterns have a way of creeping in. Your stuff holds energy and puts particular kinds of demands upon you.  For example, your computer is there, beckoning for you to turn it on, maybe browse Facebook or your favorite blogs.  Your bathroom is there, in need of a good scrubbing.  Your phone is there, everything else is there, your pets, family and/or kids. These things are necessary, perhaps, and part of your daily rhythms.  But they work against us when we need to go on a retreat because they pull us back into the experiences of everyday living.


Likewise, the patterns of everyday living that we establish are critical for our overall “getting things done” and forward momentum, and our spaces are conducive to supporting and encouraging those patterns. Sometimes, we can get stuck in cyclical patterns, especially cyclical patterns associated with being in indoor spaces that harm us. Getting away from our patterns are also an important part.


Stephen Harrod Buhner writes beautifully on this topic as follows, “The daily cares that occupy so much of our time, the demands of work, of social conventions, of family, and of things that we feel we “have” to do often accumulate, filing up our time, taking our attention, becoming toxins to the soul.  The incessant mutter of the television, the continual sounds of technological civilization, the chatter goes on continually in our heads–these things fill us up with distractions and take us away from who we are and who we knew we were to be when we began this journal through life.  As our lives unfold, each of us is often channeled into paths that are not part of living a fulfilled life.  Fasting and retreat in wilderness allows the inessentials of life to be stripped away, allows our souls to detoxify.” — The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.


But there’s another aspect to this pattern breaking:  by removing ourselves from the situation for a time, we break the everyday patterns that no longer serve us.  The patterns that no longer serve us, that perhaps we want, and need to, be rid of for our own health, happiness, and fulfillment.  Those are another aspect to the patterns we remove when we go on retreat.


Finding a Retreat Space

The space for your retreat is really critical to the overall success of the endeavor–and I consider it one of the more difficult pieces to determine.  A good space facilitates a successful retreat; a poor space (where there are other people, noises, distractions) can really harm your overall retreat and goals and end in frustration.  The important thing is that the healing retreat be secluded, preferably from other people, certainly from life’s demands. Preferably, it will have no Internet service, no cell service, and no television!  The idea is to get away for a bit, have quiet, and be able to be fully present with nature.


Nature, too, is a critical component of the Druid’s healing retreat.  You want to be somewhere where you can easily commune with nature without distractions.  You need to be able to be in nature, and hear her messages.  You want to be in nature that is whole, pure, and not damaged in some way (retreat is not typically a time for land healing work, but a time for inner healing work).


Otherworld forest...

Otherworld forest…

Here are a few models for the healing retreat:

  • Go to a friend’s secluded cabin, yurt, etc.  Ask friends if they have shares in hunting lodges or know of a place you can go for a few days.
  • Backpack into a secluded spot and stay a few days; bring minimal supplies and tent
  • Rent a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere far away from others (*rustic* cabins are hard to find; you may have to do some searching and use non-Internet sources.  Most of the cabins I have been finding on the web are luxury / glamping cabins–not really necessary or needed for retreat).
  • Go into the woods with minimal things (maybe like a tarp); vision quest style.  I did this when I went on my vision quest a few years ago–a tarp, a sleeping bag, a jug of water, my flute and drum, and a journal were my companions.  It was perfect.
  • Plan a “walkabout” journey where you wander for a time on a trail (or do an all night walkabout).  If you do this during a full moon, in a semi-open space, you may not even need a light.
  • Get in a boat/canoe/kayak and do a river trail or go to a secluded lake; camp along the edge of the river and float for a day or two down the river.


Before the Retreat

Timing and planning. Take at least 24 uninterrupted hours for your retreat, although several day retreats are even better (I like to do a 3 or 7 day retreat)—and for those who are insanely busy, ask friends to help with watching children or pets, take a vacation or sick day from work, etc. The key here is to make space for your healing retreat.  So you need to plan it in advance, line up your ducks in a row, and be prepared for the distance and space necessary for a healing retreat.


Food. If you are going to eat (see fasting, below) I would suggest cooking in advance for the retreat unless cooking is a healing and nurturing activity for you. Then you can focus your energies only on the retreat and not worry about feeding yourself during it.  I will say that even if you plan on eating, I would keep the meals very light: fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds.  Too much food, especially heavy meats, have a way of grounding you firmly in the physical realities–and the whole point of retreat is to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the everyday.  So do plan your food carefully with this in mind.


Vision quest altar

Vision quest altar

Consider packing and bringing the following items with on your retreat:

  • A journal for personal reflections and discovery.  I believe this is the most important thing to bring on your retreat!
  • Spiritual objects of significance to you
  • A blanket or something to sit on (I have a nice sheepskin that I like to take into the woods; it was a gift from a good friend)
  • Ritual items (candles, incense, whatever tools you will need)
  • Musical instruments (a drum, if nothing else, is a great idea).
  • Offerings for the land (my favorite offering blend that I make is a combination of tobacco that I grow myself (including leaf, stem and flower) + wild rose petals + lavender flowers.  It smells great).  Urine is also a great offering!
  • Medicine making and harvest equipment (if you will be doing any wandering, foraging, etc.  I always do this on my retreats)
  • A forest hammock (this is an important part of my retreats–I have a great hammock with tree straps that will easily attach to any tree. It is good for resting, looking up at the stars at night, and simply “being” present (and keeping the ants and critters off of you).
  • Things to keep you warm (hand warmers, etc) if the weather is cold.
  • Extra shoes and layered clothing, especially if you are going to be outside.
  • Bring really good water.  I know this kind of sounds silly, but our bodies are made of water, and most of the water that is available is not good water–its stored in plastic, chemically tainted, shipped from who knows where, bottled and chemically ionized or whatever.  I would suggest that you find some really good water (like spring water, locally sourced if possible) and bring that with you for drinking during your retreat. What you will find is that really good water does something to you–it makes you feel more alive, you feel extraordinarily refreshed after you drink it–it works on many levels.


Leave the following stuff behind:

  • All electronic devices. Bring your phone in case of emergency, but turn it off and do not look at it or check it at all during your retreat. The world can survive without you for a few days, and you can survive without it (that’s one of the patterns that is useful to break!).
  • Unnecessary stuff.  Minimal packing is good for retreats–you don’t need fancy hair dryers or five pairs of sandals, or whatever.  The more you bring, the more that stuff weighs you down.  Think about needs over wants here.  Its not that I’m saying to be uncomfortable, but I am saying that minimal packing is ok!


Herbal Allies for Your Retreat

If you are interested, certain herbal allies may aid and strengthen the work that you do on retreat.  I have found that working with a series of plant allies can  extend the work that I are doing on various levels. Here are a few of them:


  • Hawthorn.  Hawthorn is a plant that helps us clear our lightbulbs, to get the grime off, to return to our heart spaces and engage in our own deep healing work.  It is particularly good for retreats. I usually take this as a tincture (berry, or berry/leaf/flower) and/or tea.  You can even rub the tincture on your heart for added effect.
  • Stinging Nettle.  Stinging nettle is many things, but in this context, we are focusing particularly on its regenerative properties for the nervous system and adrenals.  Part of what we do on healing retreat is physical regeneration work and nettle is quite good at this work.  Cold nettle tea is also a good diuretic, which helps flush toxins from the body and does healing on the kidneys.  Stinging nettle: I would not go on retreat without it!
  • Wood Betony: Wood Betony is another plant that works on the central nervous system, and is a tonic nervine plant.  Most of our nervines have very specific qualities, things that they do better than other nerviness.  In the case of Wood Betony, it is good for those who live in their heads, who over intellectualize, over think, and suppress instinct.  Culturally, we are all in this place–privileging our minds over our hearts, suppressing emotions and intuitions, and learning to work in more of a heart space. It is for this reason that I believe that this is always a good plant to take on retreat:  combined with the others on this list, it will allow for powerful transformations!

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

    Ghost pipe with a bumble bee teacher

  • Mugwort. Mugwort has been known to many cultures and traditions as a dreaming herb.  I have found that it certainly stimulates good dreams, but also good visions while we are in shifted spiritual states, trace states, in deep retreat/vision quest, and so on.  Consider mugwort like a guide to your unconscious and sub-conscious–mugwort expertly leads the way on the path into the deep recesses of the soul.  There, you can do the work you need.  Mugwort tea is a bit bitter, but you can take it internally.  You also get the exact same effects if you burn it (like a mugwort smudge or mugwort-infused incense).
  • Indian Ghost Pipe. I have written about Indian Ghost pipe or Ghost flower before, and this is a *fantastic* plant ally for your retreat.  The principle of Ghost Pipe is simple: it provides us distance and perspective, both physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.  Ghost pipe helps us get into the retreat space and stay in that space, giving us the “up on the mountaintop” perspective we seek during retreat. Ghost pipe can be found and eaten, tinctured, or smoked in a herbal smoking blend. Beware, however-this is a delicate plant, a sacred one, and you need to cultivate a sacred relationship with it. Please take only what you need of this most sacred plant and treat it with the utmost respect.


Now, you can take these plants internally (as described above). You can simply make a tea beforehand and take it with you on the retreat, for example.  But you can also just have them with you, maybe in a little medicine bag, or find them and sit near them.  They will do their work on whatever system you need: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Trust your intuition and work with them accordingly.


The alternative is to find the plant allies you need while you are out on retreat.  Foraging and seeking the plants–the ones that you need will be there, waiting for you, when the time is right.  If you know how to see them, if you have your mushroom eyes on, they will come to you.


The Retreat-Fast

Another option you can add in is the fast for your healing retreat. I have done fasting retreats (and recently completed a seven day fast about a month ago combined with 3 days of retreat). What I found was that fasting adds an additional dimension to the retreat, a very intense dimension, and one that must be prepared for.  A lot of us have never fasted, and a lot of us have never gone into the woods alone.  Combining these things all into one 3 or 7 day journey might be too much for a person the first time.  So consider fasting as an option, but don’t feel you have to do it.


A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

A beautiful, moss covered knoll visible from my vision quest spot

One of the things that happens when you fast is that you get really weak, so consider a “staying put” and “quiet” retreat if you are going to do a fasting retreat.  E.g. if you lug 50 lbs of equipment into the woods and fast there for 7 days, you will still have to lug that equipment out–and that might not be possible for you after 7 days of fasting.


With these caveats, I have found fasting to be an incredible part of retreats, especially retreats where healing and/or releasing is a primary goal.  I would highly recommend that before you take on such a fast, you read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Transformational Power of Fasting: The Way to Spiritual, Physical, and Emotional Rejuvenation.  This book describes water and juice fasting, including short fasts and extended fasts.  Buhner argues that you can detoxify spiritually through fasting and achieve higher levels of consciousness and awareness (which works partially because food grounds us; fasting puts us in a ceremonial space or deep intuitive space). He argues that because so many of our emotions are wrapped up in food, and because our bodies hold those emotions inside, fasting, and shedding some weight during fasting, can help us clear up emotional trauma. Finally, there are the physical benefits.  Here’s one of the things he writes:


“When you are empty, you are ready to be filled.  And you cannot be filled with what you want unless what has been in your way is allowed to pass out…the residual toxins, the side effects of shallow food, have to emerge from the deepest recesses of the self and exit.  Some of these things as they pass out of you might be frightening, some difficult, many boring: some are surprisingly easy to let go of, and some are joyful. ..You are intentionally entering a new territory, intentionally deciding to suffer, not to eat.  You are allowing yourself to empty so that something else, a better food, can fill you up.”


Now how he describes these transformations are, in themselves, a journey worth taking in book form!  So read it, consider your options, and go from there.


Retreating with Others

I have done healing retreats with others and by myself, and there are benefits to both. Most of what I’ve described in this post assumes a solitary druid healing retreat.  But I wanted to share another model: the retreat with companions.  A dear friend of mine who is a Zen Buddhist often does these kinds of retreats–a group of people, together, support each other with mindfulness practice days.  These retreats are often interspersed with group sharing, teaching, and a lot of quietude.


A healing retreat with others–the right others–can add much to your experience.  But it is fundamentally a different experience than a solitary retreat, and you will likely do different kinds of work. With that said, there is room for others on this retreat if they are the right kind of others, those who will help heal and rejuvenate rather than drain us. If you are going to take a friend on a healing retreat, make sure you establish in advance what the retreat will be about (e.g. a full day of solitude with no taking; specific work to be done at the retreat).  If you are going to plan this kind of retreat, here are a few suggestions:


  • Have a structure planned out in advance. (E.g. daily retreat times, no talking, ritual planned at night + one shared meal).
  • Have goals for the retreat and a goal-setting session early in the retreat.  The goals may be inward focused (healing and guidance) or outward focused (healing of the land).
  • Consider if one person will function as the “retreat” leader or if all will be equal participants.  A retreat leader is a space holder–their function isn’t so much spiritual healing or journeying, but rather, focuses on facilitating the retreat energetically, physically, spiritually).  A retreat leader may be needed if there are a lot of inexperienced/new people at the retreat.  But if there are those that are experienced, one may not be needed and the group can function cohesively and all can get their own work done.
  • Have a feast at the end of the retreat (perhaps combined with an eisteddfod!)
  • Consider group journeys–physical and spiritual.  Visiting healing springs, etc, are always a nice idea!
  • Consider group healing work.  This is where I would do my most serious land healing work with others–on a retreat weekend dedicated to that purpose!


The important thing is to establish and maintain structure prior to beginning the retreat–this will allow all participants to get the most out of the retreat.



Going deep into the woods, wilderness, away from it all has tremendous benefits.  We are coming up on the Fall Equinox, which is a really good time to consider a retreat as we move into the dark half of the year.  As I mentioned above, this is my first of two posts on druid retreats. I’ll be posing the second half next week. In the meantime, blessings upon your journey!