Tag Archives: darkness

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Holly (Ilex Opaca) – Magic, Meanings, Ecology, and Divination

American Holly is one of the most wonderful trees for getting us through dark times.  And as the season of darkness is upon us once more, it is a good time to consider the magic, meanings, and mystery of this incredible holly tree!

American Holly has many names including white holly, prickly holly, Christmas Holly, Yule Holly and Evergreen Holly.  It is quite similar to European Holly (Illex Aquifolium) with similar leaves, berries, and an overall growth habit. The American Holly has larger, brighter leaves and berries, but the trees are otherwise quite similar. While I often argue against importing meanings and uses of European trees into American contexts (with Ash being a great case in point), in this case, I think that the myths and old-world understandings of Holly apply!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Beautiful holly berries in late fall

The native range for American Holly spans from Rhode Island and New England coastal regions down into Florida and across the midwest to Louisana and Texas.  It can be found throughout the south-eastern and Eastern United States, and beyond its native range, is widely planted as an ornamental, thus, is frequently found in urban and suburban areas. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled in a city or new area is a chance to connect with American Holly in some form: tree, shrub, or small bush!  In fact, it is so popular as an ornamental that you can find up to 1000 different cultivars. It is shaped into shrubs, trees, and even holly hedges.

In the wild, American Holly is primary an understory tree, thriving in shaded woods, along streams and creeks, and can handle both dry and wet conditions, but not flooding or wetland conditions.  It does prefer slightly acidic soil and sandy soil and will grow in full sun to full shade. If the soil is too alkali where it grows, the leaves will turn a brownish-yellow.

The American Holly is an evergreen tree that can grow to 40-60 feet tall.  It has evergreen leaves that grow in an alternate pattern with a leathery feel.  The holly leaves are fairly unmistakable and easy to spot because of their depiction in modern culture: they are 1-3″ long with spiny tooths coming out of them in a regular fashion.

It provides food for birds (cedar waxwings, songbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, bobwhites) and small mammals (turkey, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels). It is a nursery plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly. It also provides excellent cover and shelter for birds–we have an American Holly growing next to our house and every year, the cardinals make a nest within the densely packed branches.

The holly tree blooms with white (sometimes greenish-white) flowers in April-June that have four petals and a balanced fourfold shape.  You can tell the male from the female flowers because the female flowers appear in clusters of 1-3 while the males appear in clusters of 3-12.  Male and female flowers often occur on separate trees. These make way for green berries, who finally turn to the classic bright red as we move into the late fall (Samhain) and winter months (Winter Solstice). Only the female tree produces holly berries.

Human Uses

The Holly wood is a beautiful, strong, fine-grained white wood that can be sanded, stained, and worked.  It is often used for furniture, woodwork, carving, engraving, cabinetry, and other fine woodworking.  It is not in high commercial demand because hollies never get that large, but among folk artisans and woodcarvers, it is often sought out and used.

Holly (both European and American) is tied to the winter months, the dark half of the year, and the Yule season.  These traditions of “decking the halls with boughs of holly” were imported from the old world and then applied to the American Holly.  I’ve used Holly extensively as a natural decoration for Yule and it is just lovely on the mantle–it stays green and the berries stay red long after the plants dry out.  We usually have to trim our Holly to keep it away from the sidewalk–and these trimmings are all we need to provide delightful Yule decorations for our home.  With this said, the demand for holly decorations has caused a decline in wild-growing holly in some parts of the US; given this, it is wise to cultivate a holly or two in your yard if you want to have these decorations or source them sustainably.  As with anything else, commercial demand causes a decline of the species, and we very much want to attend to this issue when buying any plant matter at the store.

Edible and Herbal Uses

All of the Ilex species (which includes all Hollies) are somewhat toxic if ingested.  The berries of the holly are poisonous and will cause diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, and dehydration–so while you can use them on your mantle, you don’t want them in your stomach!  However, if you wanted to induce vomiting (emetic action) these berries are one thing you could use to do so as they are a traditional medicine in this regard.

The roasted leaves of the American Holly can be made into a caffeine-free herbal tea. This tea has a rich history, including drinking as a tea substitute extensively during the American Civil War when resources were scarce. The tea has some medicinal properties and was used to treat colds, although I couldn’t find too much more information on the specific medicinal uses, as it is not listed in any herbal that I own.  In fact, many holly species also have leaves that can be made into tea, but you want to make sure you identify the species properly. A good guide for this is Eat the Weeds, which offers a thorough discussion of how to make tea (with caffeine) with some holly species. They discuss how some communities have made a tea of the young leaves of the Gallberry holly (Ilex glabra) which can be a good source of vitamins and minerals.  Make sure you have the identification right on this holly though, because others (like the Yaupon Holly, lex vomitoria ) have leaves that make you vomit.

Western Occult and American Folk Magic Uses

Holly is, as mentioned above, inseparable the Winter Soltsice/ Yule and it has been tied for milleniua with bringing brightness into the dark half of the year. Holly was, of course, one of the seven chieftain trees of the ancient druids, and thus, a very magical tree throughout the world.

In the American Hoodoo tradition, as described by Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic,  Holly leaves are burned with other blessing herbs to protect the home and bring good luck into the home.  Placing holly above the door to the home also protects the home and draws helpful spirits.

In Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, she describes some of the mythology surrounding holly, including its connection to immortality.  In the old world, people were encouraged to bring the holly into their homes to ward against elves, fairies, and other spirits that could otherwise cause harm.  Holly’s bright berries and leaves also helped people with winter depression and help us get through the darkest time of the year. The holly was always required to be removed from the house by Imbolc eve or it could bring misfortune. In Ancient Rome, the Romans gave gifts of Holly during the five-day festival of Saturnalia, which took place at the winter solstice. These eventually gave way to the Christian imagery, which still uses Holly, in December. Even though Christianity has shifted many of the ancient pagan beliefs, the remnants of these can still be found even in modern-day celebrations here in the US.

The Holly King and Oak King legends are also powerful and enduring; both evolved from earlier indigenous and pagan depictions of the green man or the spirit of the forest/plants as well as the virility that is necessary for life to continue.  Paterson notes that the oldest depictions of the Holly King were of a wildman holly god, and Christian suppression later turned him into more of a “king” like figure without sexual virility.  Regardless of the shift of this imagery over time, the Holly and Oak kings rule over the year and are two sides of the god of nature and his cycles.  The Oak King comes into power at Midwinter (when we move from the lowest point to the highest), while the Holly King comes into power at Midsummer (the waning part of the year).  The Holly, therefore, represents the growth, light, and harvests of the rest of the season to come.  Many rituals in the modern druid tradition acknowledge the power of the ancient Oak and Holly kings as part of our ceremony.

Holly is one of the sacred trees in the Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The Holly, Tinne, is tied to the letter T and the Ogham letter that has three upright lines.  According to Steve Blamires in Celtic Tree Mysteries, the evergreen nature of the Holly tree can be tied to a “link” as in a link in a chain, which is one name for Tinne.  This shows Holly’s link not only with the oak (from the ancient lore) but also between our world and the otherworld.

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes holly as being firey and warm in the second degree.  Astrologically, it represents Saturn in Leo.  It is a very protective tree and is thought to ward against lightning and also against hostile magic and hostile spirits and otherworldly beings.

Divination and Magical Uses

Based on the ecology, folk uses, and history of holly, the following are three divination and magical uses for this incredible tree:

Darkness. Holly has long been associated with the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year, and seeing Holly come up in a divination reading may signal that a time of darkness is upon you.

Light in the Darkness.  Tied to Holly’s theme of darkness, however, Holly reminds us that there is always hope.  The triumph of the Holly king over the Oak king in the ancient myths ensure us that even when the light is all but extinguished from the world, the evergreen leaves and bright red berries will be a sign of coming out of this dark time and hope in the future.  Stay strong, for spring will return.

Protection in Dark Times. We are continuing to live in darker and more uncertain times, with more and more of us losing basic faith in our institutions, culture, and civilization.  It is certain that human civilization is on a dark path.  Thankfully, trees like holly can offer us basic protection from the hostile energies of this age.  And that’s exactly what she does!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the incredible Holly tree.  If you have additional information to add or stories about the holly, I would very much love to hear them!  Blessings to you, my dear readers!

Putting the Garden to Sleep: End of Season Activities and Rituals

Garden bed with scarecrow

The day before the first hard frost. Our garden is still bountiful as the Butzemann watches over all….As the darkness continues to grow deeper on the landscape, it is high time to consider how to put the garden to rest for the winter and honor the garden that has offered you so much bounty and joy for the season. I actually find this one of my favorite gardening activities of the year, both on a metaphysical and physical level. There’s something special about “tucking” your garden in after a productive growing season and knowing that the land will go fallow and rest as the cold and ice come. Here are both the physical activities and sacred activities that you can do to help put your garden to rest.

Do note that my timings are based on the temperate climate in Western Pennsylvania, USDA Zone 6A.  You can adapt appropriately based on your own end-of-season and seasonal changes.

Metaphysical Activities

Metaphysical activities support the garden and the downward/restful flow of energy that allows the land to be fallow before returning to abundance in the spring.  For millennia, our ancient ancestors all through the world did rituals and ceremonies to support the abundance and health of the land; these are intended in the same direction. (For some you can do later in the year, see this post).  Physical and metaphysical activities go hand in hand–everything that we do in the physical world has an impact on the metaphysical, and vice versa.  Thus, by working on both levels, we are able to achieve maximum effect.

Burning the Butzemann

In the Pennsylvania Dutch Tradition, the Butzemann is created at Imbolc and set out to protect your crops and land at the Spring Equinox–and we practice this tradition each year.  At the Spring Equinox, a friendly guardian spirit is invited into the Butzemann to guard the crops and flocks for the coming season. And at Samhain, the Butzemann must be burned to release the guardian spirit and offer thanks.  What we usually do is build a bonfire somewhere near or on Samhain.  Then we take our Butzemann to the fire and once again call the Butzemann by name (the naming tradition being very important) and speak of the good things that happened on the homestead and garden (e.g. you protected our crops well, we harvested 15 pumpkins, our flocks were safe from hawks, etc).  Then we release the Butzemann to the flames and watch it burn (which is always really cool).  This completes the Butzemann ceremony until Imbolc when a new Butzemann is constructed (from the previous garden’s materials and other burnable materials) and the cycle begins again.

Honoring the Soil and Compost through the Soil Web Ceremony

Garden shrine with fall bounty and freshly fallen oak leaves

Compost is a major theme this time of year, as so many things die to have their nutrients reclaimed by the soil web of life. Even perennials, including plants and trees, contribute to this great soil web of life.  Thus, it is very appropriate to honor the soil web this time of year.

For this, I like to do a “soil web” dance.  This is an embodied ritual that involves me dancing (barefoot if possible) on the earth, allowing my footsteps to be my prayer to the earth.  I may be moved to praise the soil web, the nematodes, the worms, the bacteria, the protozoa, and so much more.  My dance always involves dancing in the garden, through the paths, and eventually to the compost pile.  At the compost pile, I leave an offering (last garden harvest food and/or liquid gold are very appropriate here).  I may also make symbols with sticks with leaves as a shrine to the soil.

If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering (see below).

A “Rest Well” Chanting Ritual for Gardens and Land

Inviting the land into peaceful slumber is another way you can put the garden to bed on a metaphysical level.  For this, I particularly like using Ogham and chanting magic (with a drum if it’s warm enough).  I chant the following ogham (you can adapt these to your own ecosystem or needs)

  • Ruis (Elder) pronounced RWEESH: Elder is for endings, cycles, and resolution.
  • Phagos (Beech) pronounced FAH-gus: For preservation, sleep, history, and memory.
  • Quert (Apple) pronounced KWEIRT: Apple is for future abundance, blessings, and harvests.

So the chant would go:

Ruis – Ruis – Ruis
Phagos – Phagos – Phagos
Quert – Quert – Quert

And after this, you can start playing with the syllables of each of the three trees in any order, such as:
QUE–eee—iii–rr–tt – QUERT  QQQQ —EEERRRR —TTT
And so forth.  Just allow your vocal cords and body to explore this expression fully.

End your ritual chant with a focus on Ruis, as Ruis is the Ogham connected to the present moment.

As you chant, really envision the energy of each of these trees coming forth: the Elder coming in to help aid with the end of the season, for closing down, and for resolution.  The Beech carries the garden/land through the darkness of winter, where it is able to rest, the soil is preserved, and carries forth the memory of the past into the future. And finally, the Apple, which offers the promise of future abundance and carries a blessing to the garden/land.  Really project this energy as you chant.  As you feel the ritual is complete, start to wind down, ending with chanting Ruis very softly.

Garlic Ritual: A Land/Sea/Sky blessing

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

Garlic cloves ready for planting!

The garlic planting ritual is a really nice way of seeding a blessing for the entire season to come.  Garlic is the last thing to be planted in the fall in our ecosystem (at the time you plant garlic, your fall crops should already be being harvested).  And that garlic will stay in the ground for almost 9 months, being harvested in the heat of the summer.  In the winter, the garlic sets deep roots and then, as the spring comes, it sends its green shoots up into the air.

After you plant your garlic, honor your garlic with a simple land, sea, sky blessing. Gather up the following materials:

  • A bowl of hardwood ash (or compost)
  • A large bowl or bucket of clean water (rainwater, snowmelt, spring water, water from a local spring or creek) and a bough of a conifer (Eastern hemlock is what I use, but you could also use white pine, cedar, juniper, etc)
  • A flute or other woodwind instrument (or your breath)

You can put your items on the ground or create an altar for the ceremony.

Sprinkle the ash/compost on the bed and say, “With the blessing of the earth, may you root deeply this winter.  May your roots and bulbs be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Next, asperge the bed with water by dipping the branch into the bucket of water and flicking it all over the bed.  Say, “With the blessings of the sacred pool, may you be nourished and grow.  May your bulbs and roots be blessed, and through that blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.”

Finally, play your flute/woodwind instrument.  If you do not have a woodwind instrument, you can get down and blow directly on the soil, offering your breath to the soil.  When you are done, say, “With the blessing of the air, may you sprout in the spring and grow strong through the summer.  May your entire being be blessed, and through this blessing, bless this garden in the year to come.

Finally, cross your arms and bow your head. Say anything else that comes to mind at this point, honoring your garden.  If you created a “last harvest” meal, you can use this as an additional offering for the garlic.

Physical Activities

Physical activities are probably the typical things that people do in the fall–but some of these have a bit of a magical twist.  I’ll share the physical counterparts and how these are ritualized and connected to the work above.

Putting the Garden to Rest / Fall bed Prep

In the process of fall bed prep--the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

In the process of fall bed prep–the back bed got very weedy this year so we are sheet mulching it for weed suppression. We add a nice layer of our own finished compost. Chicken flock assists.

Fall bed prep can be any number of things.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we use sheet mulching/lasagna gardening techniques for our annual vegetable garden areas, and so this is the best time to build soil.  After the first hard frost (for us, usually mid-October), we clear away any weedy material and cut back annual plants (leaving the roots in the soil; they will break down and aid in soil compaction).

Then we do some sheet mulching–depending on the bed, this might include a layer of fall leaves and compost, a layer of cardboard (if the weeds got out of control) or simply a layer of finished compost.  If we are starting new beds, we always build them in the fall with layers of finished compost, hot compost/straw bedding (from chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea coops), and leaves.  You can also consider a winter cover crop (which doubles as fodder for your animals).   As you are doing this work physically, you can be doing the metaphysical work I described above.  (If you use this method, in the spring, all you need to do is use a broadfork or garden fork to aerate the bed!).

For perennial beds, we will do our final herb harvest of the season, tying up bundles of herbs in the house to dry.  We will trim back plants that die back during winter (e.g. echinacea, mountain mint, monarda, etc), and cover up plants that benefit from light cover (strawberries). We will also harvest any extra seeds from our refugia garden so that we can scatter them or give them away in the coming months or year.

Garlic is the one crop that you plant this time of year, and garlic can have its own special ritual, as I described above. I have instructions for planting garlic here.

Once all the summer crops and those that died back after the hard frost are removed, then you can do the “rest well” chant above. Obviously, anything that is still growing (kale, lettuce, etc) is covered and protected for the coming cold, and to extend the harvest season (for more on this approach, see Eliot Coleman’s Winter Harvest Handbook).  I like to use these last garden foods through Yule and finish them off for our Yule feast.

Making Compost

Chickens scratching it up!

Compost making is a great thing to do in the fall, as the winter will allow the compost to break down.  At the Druids Garden Homestead, we have chickens to do some of this work for us, but I’ll share a chicken compost and a non-chicken compost method.  Our method is to rake up as many fall leaves as we can and place these in a large pile near the coop (of course, jumping and meditating in them is also part of this!).  Then, as the snow and ice comes down, we layer another layer of leaves in the chicken run.  They don’t like walking on snow and ice, and this keeps them comfortable and occupied.  They scratch the leaves up, poop their nitrogen-rich poop, and are happy chickens.  When about mid-April rolls around and the ground thaws out, I muck out all of the chicken leaves (along with giving all of the coops a thorough cleaning, which gives us a lot of straw).  I layer the chicken leaves/compost with the straw in thin layers, piling this up as high as it will go.  You can add anything else here you like (non-weedy) such as coffee grounds and other fresh compost items. With a warm summer, this breaks down into an amazing pile of compost by late fall—just about the time you are doing your garden bed.

If you don’t have chickens, take fall leaves (preferably mulched) and add them in thin layers with other good compost-making things: manure, vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, all of the old garden plants that died back during frost (non-weedy) and anything else you have.  Keep your layers of leaves pretty thin, especially if you weren’t able to mulch them.  Note that some leaves break down really quickly like maple, where others (oak) take a really long time to break down.  This approach should get you a nice pile of finished compost by next fall.

For either, honor the compost by doing the Soil Web Dance.  You can honor your new piles or your finished piles (or general composting area)

Final Harvest of Summer Crops

Finished compost

The final harvest of summer crops for us comes in the days before the first hard frost.  Some things with a light frost can be preserved, but once we hit about 35 degrees, that’s enough to kill of almost all of the summer crops: peppers, nasturtium, tomatoes, basil, pumpkins, squash, beans, zucchini, etc.  Thus, starting in early October, we pay very close attention to the nightly temperatures, doing row cover as necessary.  But, when our first hard frost is imminent, we harvest the last of the crops: all the green tomatoes that will ripen on the counter for the next few weeks, beans, corn, peppers, basil, etc.  We like to cook a special meal with this (Samhain meal if possible, depending on the year) and make a special offering from this for some of the ceremonies above.  It is a great way to enjoy the last fruits of the summer season and also create a special offering food.

Gathering for Next Year’s Butzemann

As we are clearing the gardens and the Butzemann, we begin to think about next year’s Butzemann.  It is customary to collect some of the materials for use in next year’s Butzemann from this year’s landscape.  As we cut the gardens back, we gather materials that are stowed away in our shed till Imbolc.  I always like to leave an offering for any plant who is going to be part of the Butzemann.  For example, this year, the big patch of Mugwort spoke to me to be included for next year, so I have a large bundle of her saved for next year’s Butzemann.

Conclusion

Late fall is truly one of my favorite times because there is so much richness in how you can engage in sacred gardening and sacred action. I hope that this post has provided you with some ideas for how you might honor your soil, put your garden to rest, and start setting up physically and energetically for the season to come.  Blessings!

Transitioning into Deeper Darkness: Seasonal Activities and the the Golden Hour

Sun at sunset

Sun at sunset

As the light grows dim this time of year, as the days grow short, many people find this particular season a difficult one.  Without the light, our thoughts can spiral into the darkness, our spirits long for the warmer days.  The cold and dark are barely here, and there is so much winter ahead.  Just this week, I had three separate conversations with friends about this exact issue: it is a hard time of year, particularly the time between Samhain and Yule, when we know there is much more darkness to come.  It is a hard time this year, in particular, when so many of us are beyond stressed and burned out due to the unfolding events of the last two years.  It also was a strange year, in that we had temperatures that stayed well above freezing, which kept the leaves green–and suddenly temperatures that plunged very deep below freezing, which dropped all of the leaves in about two days.  I realized that there might be some benefit in writing about this time–not so much what is problematic but instead, how we might navigate it from a nature spirituality perspective.

I think that this time is one of the hardest of the year for many people.  We know that the cold and dark are on their way.  We see the death across the landscape as the bitter cold comes into the land.  It’s hard to have a flush, abundant garden one day and the next, find most of your plants have died.  This time of year forces us to come face to face with both darkness and death in ways that it is rare during the rest of the year.  And the more time we spend on the landscape, the more that this issue stares us in the face.   Here in Pennsylvania, it is also complicated by the end of Daylight Savings time, meaning that by the time you leave work, the sun has already set–and there are many days when you do not see the sun at all.

So, what is a druid to do?  I have developed a few strategies over the years that have helped myself and others, which I’ll share in the rest of this post!

Embracing the Season and Spiritual Activities

Late fall sunrise!

The first strategy is to embrace and honor this time for what it is–accept the cold, the frosts, and the death upon the landscape.  I have found that the more I fight against something, the harder it becomes to accept.  But, the more that I seek the good and the joy in it, the more enjoyable it becomes.

For this time of year, I have worked hard to find activities that I really love for the late fall and early winter. I have worked to develop a set of rituals and seasonal activities that bring me joy, that I can look forward to, and that sing to my spirit. The whole idea here is that it’s not just about saying “oh, the darkness and cold are here” but really creating intentional activities that make the most of these cold and dark times.  Your intentional activities may end up looking very different than mine–but I share these for a model of what you could do.  The more things that you have to look forward to and that you enjoy, the better this time of year becomes.

Gardening, Homesteading, and Harvest: Cycles and Looking Forward

If you do wild food foraging, or if you have a garden or homestead, there are a whole host of activities that come with this season–and you can embrace them, make them meaningful, and really look forward to them every year.

For those that do wild food foraging and live in a temperate climate, this is a perfect time to find the last of the nut harvests and spend time processing those nuts.  For example, one of my favorite of these is harvesting and processing acorns into acorn flour, which can be used to craft all kinds of sacred bread, cakes, and other delicious ingredients.  Acorn flour is a serious endeavor but it is just so worth it! Other nuts in my bioregion are hickories, chestnuts, and hazelnuts–each with their own unique sacredness.  This is flour that you can store in the freezer and pull out for sacred activity year-round.

The second activity that I really look forward to this time of year is putting my garden beds to rest.  I have worked hard to develop a series of rituals surrounding the end of the growing season: how to work with the annuals that have perished due to the frosts and freezes (saving their seeds, composting them, honoring their journey); bringing in the last harvests of the year, and also clearing the beds for next season.  I call this “putting the garden to bed” and it has become an important part of my homesteading activities each year–full of ceremony and honor (I can blog about this if anyone is interested!).  I feel like in doing these, I have a good closure to our season and the garden is a blank canvas for planning and planting in the future.

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At Samhain, we also burn our Butzemann, which allows us to have full closure for the growing season.  The Butzemann is part of the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, and it is a kind of magical scarecrow that guards the home for the whole light half of the year.  At Samhain, it is released through ritual burning, marking the end of the growing season.  But like many of the other activities here–it’s not just a closure moment.  You also start thinking about your next Butzemann, which you construct at Imbolc.  Right now, I have some amazing gourds and dried plants that I am letting sit over winter–I have big plans for these for Imbolc and for next season’s Butzemann.

What you can see from these three examples is that while they are all rooted in the moment of this time–in the growing darkness and cold–they are also rooted in the cycle and hope for the future.  The nut harvest and other foraged foods can be brought through the winter and enjoyed in the future.  The garden beds being put to rest allow for you to be ready to plant in the spring.  The Butzemann is burned, but the materials are started to be gathered for a new one, again, already getting you thinking of that cycle of the year and the promise of spring to come.

The Golden Hour and the Flame

Light and embracing the waning light is an important part of finding balance during this time of year. Because there is so much less light, you begin to pay attention to how to bring it, embrace it, and honor the light.  When there is an abundance of light in the summer months, these activities seem less central–but as winter sets in and the days grow so short, finding ways of bringing in the light is critical for balance and peace.  Thus, in the time of darkness and cold is to shift your emphasis from the waning sun to the inner and outer flames–through a physical embracing of the between times of light and fires.

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

One practice that everyone can do is to embrace the “golden hour”.  The golden hour happens twice a day–at dawn and at dusk.  This is a period of time about 10-20 minutes before the sun comes up when the light changes–either from bright daylight to this golden hue or from darkness to a golden hue.  It doesn’t last for too long, but if you go outside during this time, you experience a very magical moment.  It happens just after the really spectacular parts of the sunrise in the morning–the light evens out and then you are awash in a golden light.  It is particularly powerful when the leaves have changed on the trees–the whole landscape is just aglow in golden light. In the dark half of the year, the golden hour becomes quite accessible–it is easy to be awake both at dusk and dawn, and thus, you can make it a point to embrace the golden hour on the landscape. I find the golden hour to be good bookends for the day–watching the sunrise and sunset.  When we are in high summer, these are harder times to access (particularly those in the early morning) and so, it is really in the winter that you can get to experience this lovely time.  For me, I like to go out to my druid’s anchor spot and just sit and observe the land waking up or the land going to bed.

The second is to bring fire into your life in any way you can.  This might mean bringing in candles and candlelight living–take one day a week to use candlelight rather than electric light and see the difference in your own happiness and stability. This might mean making some candles or olive oil burners for the coming season. Or, this might mean embracing fires in your home.  For example, for us, we move from outdoor cooking and having regular outdoor fires to bringing our fires indoors.  This includes a whole host of seasonal activities including preparing the hearth, bringing in the wood and lighting the first fires of the season.  We have two wood burners in the house–a stove in the basement and an open hearth for cooking and joy on the first floor. Creating fires often and spending a lot of time with these fires can really help!

Whatever way you can, embrace these times of twilight, of limited light, and allow yourself to slow down into the rhythm in the dark half of the year.

Conclusion

I hope that these strategies and activities are helpful to you as we move into this time of deep darkness.  Part of the reason I do so much at this time of year is that I do find this time of year–particularly here in Pennsylvania after Daylight Savings Time ends–really challenging.  It used to be one of my least favorite times of the year, a time of year that I dreaded.  After working so hard to find rituals and seasonal activities that allowed me to embrace it, it is now a time of year that I always look forward to.  I wish you blessings in the coming darkness!.

PS: I have recently appeared on Rosalee De La Floret’s “Herbs with Rosalee” Podcast.  Please feel free to check it out below!  (Or here’s the link directly: https://youtu.be/RvjQgOMxA9E)

The Magic of the Understory

A path of evergreen mountain laurel at Laurel Hill State Park. Amazing to hike through in the winter, when the understory sings!

As you may have noticed, in the last month or so I’ve been working diligently on my “Sacred Trees in the Americas” series.  The truth is, I’ve worked through most of the trees that are well known and form the overstory of most of the forests in the US East Coast.  Trees like White Pine, Oak, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech, and Birch are dominant trees.  And when you do research on these trees, you find a rich tradition and lore from both the Americas and the Old World.  Recently, I’ve moved my attention to lesser-known trees like Ironwood and Devil’s Walking Stick, and have covered others like Witch Hazel (distinct and different from American Hazel) and Spicebush. There is a striking difference between the first group and the second:  the absence of magical lore or even herbal lore on these trees.  One of the things that strike me is that many of these trees form the understory, the less majestic but not less magical counterparts.

In mid-November of 2020, I was blessed with good enough weather to do a final overnight camping trip and two-day hike before the snows came. I really like hiking during the late fall and winter months; I feel you can really learn a lot about nature that is obscured in the summer.  The landscape is just as vibrant and dynamic but so different. During this hike, the major theme that came to the surface for me during this time was examining the vibrancy and life of the understory.  In my travels, I was walking primarily through Oak-Hickory mature forests (primarily 2nd growth trees at least 100 or more years old).  These trees were bare and yet the understory flourished.  The moss was an electric green color, dazzling in its intensity.  The moss waits all year beneath the full shade of the overstory and then when the leaves come down, it thrives.  Likewise, the three trees that really stood out to me were all understory trees. Witch Hazel in her winter bloom phase, with bright yellow flowers that look like little fireworks–that were literally lighting up the forest.  Rhododendron with her showy, deep green, waxy leaves and beautifully twisted trunks, looking more tropical than ever. And Mountain Laurel, much more subdued than Rhodadendron with smaller leaves and growing much less tall–but no less majestic. The Ironwoods bent over the streams and reached up into the skies, ready to burst forth when spring arrives again.

Electric green moss soaking in the winter sun

It struck me how the understory was thriving in the winter months with the absence of the overstory and how these plants had evolved to take advantage of the winter light.  The evergreen trees, the blooming witch hazel, the early-blooming spicebush, and the mosses and lichens were thriving in times of darkness and cold when everything else was cold and bare.

The metaphor of the overstory and understory weighed upon me as I hiked.  Everyone pays attention to the overstory, the majestic trees is where all the awe is, and certainly, where all the logging dollars come from.  We as druids are drawn to the oaks, the hickories, the ashes, the beeches.  These are impressive trees, standing tall, forming groves, offering us shelter and strength.  But yet, winter comes and these trees go dormant, they grow quiet, and they grow still.

And while the entire overstory was dormant, it is the understory trees that are bringing life and vitality in the winter months.  The understory trees are seen as less valuable and important both in terms of magical traditions and in terms of human uses.  But standing there in that forest, I realized how wrong that perception was.

Rhodadendron overlooking the stream

These understory trees are often overlooked in our lore and in our practices.  But they should not be.  They teach us the lessons that we desperately need in a world that is growing ever more dark and cold.  I–and many others–are under no illusion that our culture is far from a place of high summer or growth.  The cost of three centuries of industrialization and stripping the land of resources is coming due.  Samhain is upon us as a culture, and we are entering into a time that will be quite dark and cold for humanity.  I don’t expect that this will change for the rest of my life, but rather, things will likely continue on this downward trajectory (don’t take my word for it, pick up John Michael Greer’s Not the Future We Ordered or any other peak-oil/industrial decline book and read for yourself).

My own path of druidry has, in a large part, been figuring out how to inhabit the world as it is, accepting what I can and can’t change, and helping bring forth a vision of a better world for the future descendants. The questions I often ask myself are: How do I live in a world that is in decline, that is continuing to put all life at risk, and still stay sane?  How can I thrive in this time and bring hope and peace?  As I walked through this powerful, vibrant understory–I realized that nature had already provided such a powerful lesson in this regard: learn to take advantage of times of darkness.  Be opportunistic.  Bloom when everything else is dying and the heavy frosts set in.  Be flexible. Learn to become evergreen.

So to me, embracing these understory trees that manage to thrive–even blossom–in such a dark and cold time gives me hope.  Let’s consider a few of their specific lessons:

Witch Hazel in Flower, late October

Witch Hazel that blooms in the winter. I’ve written before of my thoughts on Witch Hazel and how this tree offers the critically important lesson of becoming a good ancestor, and the work of preparing the way for our descendants (physical, spiritual, or otherwise).  Witch Hazel offers hope.

Ironwood, a symbol of strength and endurance. The lesson of the Ironwood I just shared–this is literally the strongest tree in the forest with the absolute densest wood.  A wood that literally turns an axe aside when it is struck.  If that isn’t a testament to the endurance and strength needed as we move forward in this age, I don’t know what is!  And finally,

Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, with evergreen leaves and brighten the dark. I haven’t yet gotten to share my research on Mountain Laurel or Rhododendron yet–but it is coming soon.  These two understory trees add not only greenery and beauty to the forest, but they also brighten up dark places and bring light and hope back in.

Spicebush, blooming early and strong. Our spring entrant into the understory trees and plants category is Spicebush.  Spicebush has one of the earliest bloom times of any plant in this part of North America, often blooming while the snow is still on the ground and with other early entrants like Skunk Cabbage.  Spicebush flowers begin to set fruit just as the first leaves come onto the plant, allowing it to make the most of the late winter and early spring sun.  Rise and shine!

Electric Green Moss, teaching us to make the most of opportunity. One of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the many stories of the moss, and some human interactions–good, bad, and otherwise–within.  As I look at the beautiful electric green moss, which takes advantage of the opening up of the canopy to grow and thrive, I can’t help but think about the permaculture design principle: the problem is the solution.  Facing a problem allows us to consider inherent solutions that might yet be present.  The moss takes advantage of the winter to grow and thrive when everything else is dormant and dead.  That’s a lesson worth experiencing.

The understory might be overlooked in mythology and in the druid tradition, but if offers rich rewards for those who seek its wisdom.  I want to spend more intensive time considering, studying, the rich lessons that the understory has to offer.  I hope this has offered some insight to you!  What are your own experiences with the understory?  How does the understory change where you live?

Herbs for Visionary Work at the Winter Solstice

Plants are our medicine, our teachers, our friends, and help us connect deeply to spirit in a wide variety of ways including through spiritual work. Long before recorded history, our ancient ancestors used plants of all kinds. Ötzi, the ancient ancestor who was preserved in ice and who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with multiple kinds of plants and mushrooms, including birch polypore (a medicinal mushroom) and the tinder fungus, a mushroom often used for transporting coals starting fires.  I love plants, and I love the ancestral connections and assistance that they can provide. In more recent history, we can look to a variety of cultures that use plants in ways that help alter or expand consciousness.

What better time to do some deep visionary work than at the winter solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness? It is in these dark times that we can look deeply within, work with the spirits that guide us, and have insights that help us more deeply understand the world and our place in it.  It is in this darkness that we can go for visionary walks (including in the long and dark nights), do spirit journeying, and engage in other forms of divination or communion with the living earth.

What are visionary herbs?

Visionary herbs are those that can help us with deep spirit journeying, deep meditations, and the kinds of self-expression that lead to deeper awareness. There are at least two categories of visionary herbs.  One category is what are traditionally called the teacher plants, the ones that cause radical shifts in consciousness and awareness.  These are the plants with the strongest effects and include a variety of psychedelic substances including strong herbs and mushrooms. While these plants were once quite illegal (at least here in the states), laws in the last few years have really become laxer and allowed these plants to be more accessible. I’m not writing about this group of plants today, but there are certainly books and resources out there about them if you want to learn more.

The visionary herbs I’m talking about today are milder, legal herbs that can help us shift our consciousness and vision, but that are less potent. To me, the difference between the two is that the teacher plants will take you on a journey whether or not you want it and requires pretty much nothing on your part–once you take teacher plants, you are on the journey of whatever kind it is for the duration. The visionary herbs I’m discussing today are milder and are more like aids or companions. Many of these visionary herbs have spiritual and mental effects that may make you more open, aware, or attuned at the moment, and are tied to helping bring the subconscious and intuitive sides forward.

The herbs I will share about today come from both teachings given to me as well as from my own experiences and connections with nature. Some of these herbs require you to build a relationship with them, while others will simply open the doors for you regardless of how long you have been acquainted. All herbs for any spiritual purpose work better when you have a relationship with that herb. Think about it like this–you meet someone, and you have a great conversation over a cup of tea. You think to yourself, wow, this person could be a great friend to me! That initial experience is wonderful. Ten years later,  you are sitting with your long-term friend and have that same cup of tea. The nuance and interaction is much richer–you can give each other just a look, or say a single word, and there is much more meaning. You’ve created a shared history together, and that history connects you on a much deeper level. This is why we build relationships with these visionary plants over time–the longer you have a relationship with a plant species (or even more ideally, the same lineage of plant or same plant), the depth of what you can do together grows.  When I say the same lineage of plant, what I mean by that is either the same plant from season to season (perennial plants) or the daughter and grandaughter plants born from the seed of your first plant.  These don’t have to just be plants you grow, but can be plants that you visit regularly.  Building plant relationships takes time, but it is time well spent.

Visionary Herbs for Awareness, True Sight, Memory, and Relaxation

So many different plants can go on this list, but for our purposes today, I’m going to share two plants from four different categories that I find are useful for visionary work.  You can agree or disagree, and in the comments, I’d love to hear your suggestions for plants that you have used.  I will also say that there are a lot of plants that *could* go on this list, but I’m only offering those that I have direct experience with over a period of years.

Herbs that Open up Awareness: Mugwort and Ghost Pipe

Our first set of herbs are those that open up our awareness and give us new perspectives and vision. Perhaps we need to see things from a new angle, rethink patterns of behavior and belief that have caused us difficulty, or do shadow work within ourselves. My favorite two herbs in this category are mugwort and Indian ghost pipe.

Mugwort: Artemesia vulgaris

Mugwort from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Long used as a dreaming herb and smoke cleansing herb, mugwort helps with any kind of meditative or subconscious work.  Within both psychology and the occult traditions, there is an acknowledgment of the multiple selves within us.  One interpretation is that we have a rational self, that self that is “in our heads” and that typically we are projecting when we are out and about in the world.  This is the thinker, the doubter, the one that can hold a career or do math. The second self we have is our intuitive self, the self beneath the layers of rationality (and there are many of those layers), perhaps the one that comes out during meditation, spiritual work, and other deep practices.  This is the self that is where our intuition resides and is a bridge to the many subconscious and unconscious realms within us. The third self is the spirit self, the piece of us that transcends death and that reincarnates, the self that is connected to everything else. Connecting with this self and other spiritual powers is one of the goals of most spiritual traditions and practices. I believe that channeling the awen through bardic arts or doing journey work are ways to help the intuitive self bridge to the spirit.  This long explanation is to say that mugwort is very, very good at helping us with this kind of work. Mugwort not only helps us have more vivid, intense, and lucid dreaming but also connects with those deeper selves, which leads to a more fruitful understanding of ourselves, our world, and our connections to all living things.

Indian Ghost Pipe: Monotropa uniflora

Ghost Pipe from the Plant Spirit Oracle

While mugwort helps bridge to the deeper selves, Ghost Pipe is particularly good for working with the rational self. The rational self is the product of a lot of outside influences: people’s external pressures about how we should behave, what we should do, what we should say, etc.  Sometimes, we end up living to the expectations of others rather than following our true path. Ghost pipe is very good at helping us slog through those layers and get to the heart of the issues at hand. Thus, ghost pipe offers us distance, perspective, and new understandings.  The best way I can describe this is with a metaphor of the forest and the trees. We live our lives on the ground, in the middle of the forest. Some of us might be walking a clear path in that forest, and others might be wandering (by choice or not). Ghost pipe helps temporarily lift us out of the forest and let’s us see the broader picture–it helps us expand our perspective.  I will note that due to overharvesting, Indian Ghost Pipe should be used *ONLY* as a floral essence.

Herbs that Aid with Seeing Clearly: Eyebright and Blue Vervain

Another thing that we need to do is see clearly.  Perhaps our own past experiences cloud our judgment.  Perhaps our past traumas and experiences prevent us from being able to clearly see what is before us.  Perhaps ongoing things in the world have put us in an emotional place and we need to break free.

Eyebright. Euphraise Officinale, Euphrasia spp.

Sometimes, the magic is in the name of the plant itself, and that is certainly the case with Eyebright.  On the physical level, eyebright helps strengthen the sight and the eyes, and many people take it as a healing herb for this reason.  But this same medicinal action happens on the level of our spirit, where work with eyebright helps us to see true.  We can see to the heart of things, to the heart of issues, and that true sight offers us new ways of being, healing, and inhabiting the world.

Blue Vervain. Verbena Hastada

Blue Vervain from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Blue vervain is a visionary herb that does essentially two things.  The first thing it does is allow us to let go of those things we cling to too tightly (e.g. things have to be a certain way, maybe a bit of OCD we are harboring) and instead, it allows us to go with the flow.  It thus connects us with that deeper, intuitive self by giving the rational self a bit of ease and relaxation.  Blue vervain works over time, so it’s particularly good to start taking it in some form and keep taking it for a while to get it to work for you in this way.  Once we are able to let go of the things we cling to, we are offered new visions and ways forward.  The second way Blue Vervain works is by putting us more in touch with our emotional side.  Blue vervain always lives by water–it understands how to help us navigate our difficult emotions and offers vision beyond them.

Herbs that Sharpen the Mind and bring Focus: Lavender and Rosemary

Sharpening our mind and our focus is something that we can all benefit from.  These herbs seem even more critical after nearly a year of long-term trauma from the global pandemic when many are now suffering the effects of overload, burnout, and more.

Lavender. Lavendula Spp.

Lavender is a herb that helps bring focus and clarity. It has a very gentle action that promotes the body to relax while the mind focuses.  This is an excellent combination for meditation and spirit journeying–bringing the mind into a place where it’s not going to wander while you are attempting your visioning work, while also bringing the body into a place of calm and tranquility.  Other herbs do this well too  (Lemon balm is another solid choice), but I think lavender is particularly good at bridging that mind-body connection that is necessary for powerful spirit work to take place.

Rosemary. Rosmarinus Officinalis.

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance.  If you are doing memory work of any kind, Rosemary is an excellent ally (including ancestor work, as linked above). Rosemary strengthens our memory and encourages us to use our memories in new ways, shaping them, and storing them.  Rosemary is particularly good for memory mansion work, using method of loci techniques that have been handed down by masters from the ages.  If there is a memory you want strongly to retain or a memory you want to bring back, rosemary is your guide.

Herbs that relax the Body and Release Tension: Kava Kava and Passionflower

Our final set of herbs can help foster a deeper sense of relaxation and allow us to go more deeply into sacred dreaming, meditation, or simply relax more fully.

Kava Kava: Piper methysticum.

Kava Kava is the only herb on my list that doesn’t grow in the US East coast, but I wanted to include it because there is nothing else like it–and because you can ethically source it from small farms effectively in Hawaii, thus supporting sustainable farming practices.  Kava Kava is a deeply relaxing herb, working on both the mind and the body. When you take kava in either tincture or tea form, it somewhat numbs the lips briefly. That same effect is later passed onto the body–not so much numbing, but taking away pains, deeply relaxing the muscles, and putting you into a relaxed state.  I like to use Kava Kava as part of my spiritual practice when I’ve had a long day and that day has really gotten into my body–I am carrying the worries of my day or my life in my physical body.  This means that I get literal aches and heaviness, and that makes it difficult to do spiritual work.  Kava helps me relax into myself and allows the spiritual work to flow.  (If you take a lot of kava, you will be impaired at driving, so please keep this in mind).

Passionflower: Passiflora incarnata

Passionflower is an outstanding nervine plant that helps our nervous system relax and thus, our bodies relax.  Passionflower is one of many nervines, but I find it particularly good for relaxation when the goal is spiritual work.  Part of it, perhaps, is that it is such an otherwordly flower–looking like the full moon on an enchanted evening.  But also, each different nervine has their own unique qualities–and passionflower helps one get into that place of calm so that the world of spirit can flow.  In a temperate climate, you can grow it yourself by keeping it as a vine in your home during the winter and then letting it grow wildly during the summer, offering it trellising.  Cut it back when the frost comes and bring it in for the winter months.  After a few years, your vine will produce many flowers and later fruits each year–which are an absolute delight!

Obtaining visionary herbs

Obviously, if you are going to use any of these herbs, you have to figure out the best way to obtain them. If you can grow them or harvest them yourself, this is probably the best thing you can do because it helps establish a deep relationship. I would pick one or two herbs that you really want to work with and cultivate them–even a pot on a windowsill can produce a beautiful rosemary or lavender plant! The alternative is to try to get them from an ethical, organic grower.  You don’t want conventional (read – chemically sprayed) herbs for any of your visionary work. The chemicals themselves can harm the spirit of the plant.  These plants are used to working with humans as friends and guides, and the spraying of poison on them really damages that relationship. So please, please be careful about ethical sourcing and chemical-free plants when you are sourcing herbs.  I would also be very careful of the “wild harvest” label, particularly for at-risk plants like kava or ghost pipe.  Wildharvested is often not sustainably harvested, so you want to be careful.  Places that are good for sourcing herbs are small farms like Black Locust Gardens or larger, ethical companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.

Taking visionary Herbs

You have a number of options for working with and taking visionary herbs. I’ll list the options, and which herbs might be best for each option.  All of the herbs I’ve listed are safe and non-toxic, so you can do a lot with them.

Rosemary smudge

Smudges and smoking blends: Mugwort is commonly used in smoking blends and smoke clearing sticks (smudge sticks).  Lavender and rosemary also work great in smudge sticks or incense blends.  Here, the idea is that you burn the plants and inhale the smoke–either in the air around you (with incense/smudges) or by smoking it in a sacred way.  For smoking, a little bit goes a long way!

Teas. Many of the plants on this list make excellent teas: mugwort (brewed briefly, too long and it gets bitter), rosemary, lavender, kava kava, and passionflower are all good choices.  Blue vervain is a very bitter herb, so I suggest using it as a tincture instead.

Infused oils. Any of these herbs are great as an infused oil, which you can then rub on your body or temples for spiritual work.  See my instructions for how to create an infused oil here.

Tinctures. Any of the herbs can be made into a tincture with a long shelf life. Alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine make good menstrua for making a spiritual tincture.  Alcohol and vinegar have an indefinite shelf life while glycerin lasts about a year. The tincture is easy to make and I have instructions here.

Flower Essence. This is the only way I recommend using Indian Ghost pipe because of serious challenges with overharvesting this plant in recent years.  To make a flower essence, you’ll have to seek out the plant when it is in bloom (in my region, that’s usually late June to late August) and do a simple flower essence.  Here are instructions.

Conclusion

I hope this post has offered you some new tools for working–and embracing–the darkness during the period of weeks before and after the Winter Solstice.  There is something extremely magical about this time that allows us to dig in deeply with ourselves and do important work.  Blessings of the Winter Solstice!

The Lessons of Nature at the Winter Solstice

In the fall, I always feel like I’m fighting against the coming dark at the time of the winter solstice, and each year, I have to learn the lesson anew.  This year proved particularly challenging for a few reasons. After the time changes at Daylight Savings time, and the sun starts setting at 3:30pm.  It is down by 4:30 and completely dark by 5:15pm. As a homesteader, in preparation for spring planting and the winter to come, there always seems to be so much to do.  Bringing in the harveset, preparing the greenhouse, preparing and clearing garden beds, stacking wood, cleaning gutters, shoring up the hen house, and doing all of the necessary multitude of other preparations for the coming winter.  As the fall deepens, each day, the light continues to wane, and there is less light each day to work with. On many days when I go to work, I rise before the sun rises, I am on campus all day in a windowless office, and I leave campus after the sun has set–literally never seeing the sun, sometimes for days on end. These “lack of sun” issues were certainly heightened this year, by our region having the rainiest season on record.  Many of us in Western PA felt like summer never happened; an extremely rainy and cold July and August meant that the warmth never had a chance to seep into our bones. These climate changes are the new norm, but they certainly make it difficult to adapt! Finally, and perhaps most salient, I think the cultural darkness has also left its mark on many of us in 2018; it was a hard, dark year.  No wonder as the light wanes, I found myself really mentally fighting the coming darkness of the winter solstice.

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Snowfall at our homestead

But whether or not we want to face the darkness, it is now upon us, as it will be each year of our lives.  Earlier, I wrote about embracing the darkness at the winter solstice on this blog.  I’ve also written about enacting a winter solstice vigil during the darkest night of the year and about sustainable and magical activities for the winter solstice.  In re-reading these, I remind myself that the lessons of this year are powerful, and perhaps, each year, we must learn to embrace the darkness anew. So today, I offer three additional insights for the lessons of the winter solstice and thinking about embracing the darkness during this time.

 

Lessons of Darkness, Again and Again

The irony is that in my earlier posts about the winter solstice, they seemed so certain, so firm, as if I had found the answer that helped me embrace the dark.  The truth is, for this druid at least, there is no “one” answer to addressing the coming of the darkness.  I am in a different place as the wheel turns again, and the darkness of each year finds me in a different mindset, different life circumstances, different present time.  Such that, particularly for this holiday, learning how to work with the Winter Solstice must be learned and deepened each year anew.  Each holiday on the Druid’s Wheel of the Year offers us this same lesson–a chance to deepen our experiences with the magic of that sacred time.  For Alban Arthan, the darkness requires a different kind of interaction and engagement with the world–a time of quietude, slowness, of otherness.  And we must simply let ourselves be present in it and embrace it.  And for some of us, we have to teach ourselves this lesson again each year.

 

Perhaps, saying that we have to learn a lesson is not the right way of thinking about it.  It is almost like we have to come to a place of acceptance of this time, this dark, this cold.  There is something so joyful about the light of summer, and that light is so far away. As the light wanes to nothingness, those of us who are stuck indoors at jobs may notice that all of our “light hours” are gone during the working week.  Further, the cold and dreary days set in, and some days, it hardly feels like the sun is there behind the clouds at all.  Darkness requires us to step away from “business as usual” and re-orient ourselves to this time.  Culturally, this re-orientation is extremely difficult because the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in full effect. If anything, our lives are the most busy this time of year, yet nature is telling us hey, you’ve got to slow down.  I think this is part of why there is so much depression around the holidays: we are fighting our natural instincts. And perhaps that’s why each year,  it seems of all of the wheel of the year holidays, I find this one to be the most difficult to adapt to, to embrace, and to accept.

 

Indeed, my first lesson is that the darkness may always be difficult for many of us.  In the same way that nobody wants to have bad things happen in their life, experience pain or loss.  But like the dark, these things are inevitable, just as the darkness of the winter solstice is inevitable.

 

The Lesson of the Seed

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

In the last week, two seed catalogs arrived, reminding me that while it may be dark, planning for the coming season offers hope.  As I browse the seeds, thinking about their magic and life, I realize that we can learn a lot about embracing the darkness from starting seeds.  I think about all of the seeds of the self-seeding annuals, perennials, and nuts that the squirrels buried this past fall season: those seeds are there, covered in dark soil, awaiting the spring. Awaiting warmth, moisture, and a chance to grow. The darkness holds these seeds, preserves them, allows them to be in  a time of stasis before they spring forth.

 

In fact, many of the seeds of some of the most rare and medicinal plants require “cold stratification.”  The seed packets tell you to put the seeds in your refridgerator for a period of time, usually some weeks or months, for without this period of cold, the seeds will not grow. Black cohosh, a critically endagnered forest medicinal plant, is one such plant that requires cold stratification.  For years, I attempted to do just as the seed packets asked–putting them in the fridge in a damp paper towel for three months, as requeted, then planting them indoors with my other seeds and hoping they would grow.  For years, no sprouts happened. The seeds simply would not grow.  Last year, I stuck the seeds right in the ground in the fall, after clearing away and marking little areas.  Sure enough, in the spring this year, the seeds came forth and now I have several beautiful black cohosh plants growing on the property in addition to some live plants I had purhcased and planted.

 

I wonder: how many of our most sacred and magical ideas are just like that Black Cohosh, requiring that darkness and incubation period? There are seeds we plant that must have their own time of darkness and cold before they can spring forth into the light of day. We need the darkness, just as the seeds need the darkness.  We need the quiet, the slowness, the time for reflection and introspection, before the seeds of our ideas can sprout in the spring.

 

The Lesson of the Roots

Another aspect of nature reminds me of another important lesson about darkness. Roots on trees and plants are extremely sensitive and require darkness to live. If roots are exposed to air and light, they will almost immediately be damaged.  Enough exposure will kill the roots, thereby killing the plant. I remember the first time I was planting trees as a new druid.  I had no idea how sensitive roots were, and I had left a number of trees’ roots exposed to light and air while I dug holes.  These little planted seedlings struggled mightily, I hadn’t realized that I had damaged their roots by exposing them as such.  They eventually did live, but only after a tremendous amount of care: water, singing, sunlight, and sitting with them. This was certainly a powerful lesson for a new druid!

 

Roots go deep

Roots go deep

Even many root crops, like potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes, prefer to stay in the darkness and space within the soil.  When exposed to too much light, these crops go “green”; this greening produces Solanine.  Solanine is actually slightly toxic to humans, creating symptoms of nausea and upset stomach when consumed. How ironic that that which we want to embrace–the light–is so detrimental to the root crops.

 

But there is a deep lesson here about darkness and why we need this winter solstice time. Our own roots–that of our spirits, that of our creative practices, that of the core of our beings–are in need of the same kind of darkness.  Our roots are our grounding, the place of spirit and of the soul.   If the dark offers us a time for quiet contemplation, for rest, for rejuvenation: all of this is necessary if we are to bring any fruit into the world.  Fruit will not happen without strong roots, and strong roots do not happen without darkness.  Otherwise, we are just producing Solanine.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The seed needs dark soil to spring forth.  The roots cannot be exposed to light without damaging or killing the whole plant.  Potatoes go green in the light.  Maybe we are the same. The roots of our being are found only in the times of darkness: within ourselves, in our dreams, in the promise of a new beginning, in the quietude that can only be found in rest and open time.  We need the darkness as we need the air to breathe.  Blessings to you on the upcoming long night–may your spirit soar.

 

PS:  I’ll be taking a few weeks off of blogging for some travel and deep spiritual work over this period of darkness.  I will resume blogging again in mid January!  Blessings of the snowy white pine and sheltering Eastern hemlock upon you!

 

PPS: Larisa White, who is a fellow AODA druid and fellow OBOD Mount Haemus scholar, is working on a World Druidries Survey for her 2020 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture. If you haven’t already taken it, please consider spending time taking her survey!  Here is a link.

Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

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

 

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

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

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

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

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

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

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

 

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

 

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

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

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

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

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

 

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

Embracing the Darkness at the Winter Solstice

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

The period of time around the winter solstice, when the light of the sun is weak and our days are so short, is a period of difficulty for many. Darkness is something that we fear in industrialized cultures; it is something that we work to drive away through our own inventions and ingenuity. We instinctively feel the need to light up our lives every waking moment–our houses at night become as bright as the sun, the various screens projecting intense light, keeping us up and wired late into the night. If a room’s lights aren’t bright enough, we call them “dim” and see this as a deficiency, working to make them brighter. Even as I’m walking down the streets of my town at night, motion sensor lights blind me as I walk past people’s houses on the sidewalk. Consciously, automatically, and unconsciously we are continually working to drive away the dark–and in the process, fighting the natural cycle of the seasons.

 

For a moment, in the span of time reading this blog post, let’s consider an opposite approach–that is embracing the darkness this time of year. Before we continue, I’d like to suggest setting the right mood.  Start perhaps turning your screen down to a lower brightness setting, turning the lights off, and if it’s getting dark or is already dark, perhaps lighting a candle to get in the mood. Ok, that’s better!

Our Problem with the Darkness

Our problem with darkness likely stems from a lot of different sources–major religions being one of them. Many of the major world religions have spent literally millennia emphasizing driving away the darkness with holy light, in ascending beyond this world, and in associating the “light” with the good.  These same religions have taught us that anything associated with the earth, the dark, or the depths of the earth are somehow corrupt and not good–and that is now woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness and our culture’s mythologies.  Think about how many stories you know where something dark and evil comes from below! I think it is this reason that we are driven to turn on the lights at the first sign of darkness, to quest to drive it away.  This “obsession” over the light, however, blinds us–by denying the darkness we deny part of our own souls

Another reason that we fear darkness, I think, is the secret fear fear of losing the ability to see. Works like Blindness Jose Saramogo, epitomize this fear–that of not being able to physically see or going unexpectedly blind.  I have watched a good friend of mine go blind due to medical complications over this last year, and its been tremendously difficult to watch her struggle with it–the darkness in her eyes has literally turned her whole family’s world upside down.  Seeing such a good friend struggle with blindness, I think, is a lesson to me as to why we work so hard to drive away the dark.  The hidden fear of losing our sight–either temporarily or permanently–is one that perhaps resides in each of us.

Modern technology also hasn’t helped our relationship with darkness–new CFL bulbs, computer monitors, phones, ipads, and so on all function on a blue wavelength–the same wavelength of the morning sun. This tricks our bodies into thinking its early morning even when its late evening, reducing the production of melatonin which allows for restful sleep (its so bad that we can now buy melatonin in pill form to force it into our bodies–but our bodies should be producing it).  Physically, we need darkness to stay in good health.  Darkness helps cue sleep and a host of other beneficial hormones that help us regulate our sleep patterns–and sleep is one of the keys to a long life.  The lack of darkness is attributed by a number of researchers to be at least one cause of the rise in depression and obesity in many industrialized nations.

Finally, the holiday season and the associated frenzy that goes along with it also doesn’t help our relationship with the darkness at this sacred time of the year. In ages past, people slept more and rested during the dark months.  In temperate parts of the world, when the darkness came was after the last of the long harvest season was finished. They would fatten up on the last of their fresh stores this time of the year, and enjoy each others’ company, burn yule logs, and take this as a time of rest. But we are now in the throes of a massive holiday rush–running, buying, doing, parties, activities, the frenzy of the holiday season each year growing in intensity.  I’m weary just thinking about it, even as I have worked to distance myself from it.

Embracing the Darkness

Living by the seasons and with the seasons means shifting our mindsets and practices to align more closely with nature’s rhythms–and darkness is part of that cycle. The darkness in this season functions much like the “hanged man” in the Tarot–we draw the hanged man when we are in need of a new perspective. Darkness, even darkness in familiar spaces and ways, gives us that perspective fully and powerfully.

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

Jessica Prentice has done some of the best research and writing I’ve seen on the importance  darkness–her writings have certainly inspired this post. Her book, Full Moon Feast, describes humanity’s relationship to the dark and cold months of the year beautifully and compellingly. She notes at least one African tribe that sleeps for 14 hours in the darkness, and who uses that extra time for visionary and spirit work. Without this darkness, she says, our souls are robbed of this opportunity to engage in a deep level with our souls.

I think maybe that’s part of the challenge we face–the frenzied culture works hard to keep us always going, going, going, doing, doing, doing, and time for deep introspection and reflection is generally not encouraged. The darkness asks us, individually, to be with only ourselves and our own thoughts. It is this darkness where we can commune with spirit, in waking dreams or in sleep, in meditation, and in visionary work. Part of this is because darkness functions through visual sensory deprivation–but when our external visuals shut down (as in meditation, dreaming, journeying), our inner visuals have the ability to be developed and honed.  It allows us time to sort through things, it gives us space and distance from everything that surrounds us, and allows us rest and quietude.

And darkness serves us as a negative space to compliment the other spaces in our lives–the middle points as well as that of the light. We appreciate the light all the better if we are not always in it.  It gives us balance and perspective. Darkness, furthermore, allows us to have some sacred distance between ourselves and the many inventions that our lives are full of–distance from electronic devices, from artificial blinding lighting, from television, and so on.

As the darkness came across the land, starting at Samhuinn, I have worked to embrace the darkness and live more fully present in it during this time. Some of these were full immersion, while others were just steps to reduce artificial lighting–but all were meaningful and helped me get into better tune with the season’s time of low light and darkness.  This has led to a number of activities and insights that I’d like to share today that can help you do the same.

Candlelight Evenings

One of the most simple, and yet profound, shift you can make is to shift from electric lighting to candlelight evenings.  These are evenings where you light your living space using oil lamps or simple candles (instructions for candles are here, and I’m working on a post forthcoming about easy olive oil lamp designs using recycled/rancid olive oil).  Besides being an earth-friendly practice, its not that hard to do at all, and you’ll find that you quickly adapt to this lifestyle.  Your eyes adjust, your rhythms change, and the world seems to slow down.  Peace and tranquility are present in these candlelit evenings.  Sleep comes much easier, and stays much longer. Its almost hard almost to put into words how profound of an effect this can have on your living this time of year–or any time of the year.

After switching to candlelight evenings earlier this year (and doing occasional ones in years past),  I along with friends and family who were visiting and who took part, noticed a substantial increase in our sleep and restfulness as well as our general well being. I would say to give one evening a week a try for a while and see how you like it–I first started doing the candlelit evenings occasionally, and now I do them nearly as they have really improved our quality of life. I have even done some painting and artwork in candlelight, and that has given it a really different kind of quality than artwork done in full daylight or electronic light.

A few tips for candlelight evenings are as follows:

  • If you have animals or children, observe them carefully around open flames. My two cats took some adjustment, but both now know they cannot go near the flames.  I’m assuming children could be likewise taught to respect fire.
  • A good stock of candles is a necessity and it pays to source them carefully.  I wouldn’t go buy new candles because the cost can quickly add up and we don’t want to create additional consumer demand for “stuff”. Thrift stores always carry them cheaply, as do yard sales and auctions.  I recently got a HUGE box of candles of all sorts at an auction and this box will probably last me for at least several years. If there is a local beekeeper, they will likely offer beeswax (in candle form or just in block form that you can turn into your own candles). Beeswax is extremely efficient and burns beautifully when compared to paraffin or even to soy.  It also smells amazing.
  • Be aware, however, that some really old candles have leaded wicks–we recently discovered one such candle in our stockpile and quickly put it out after it started dripping little molten silver balls into the wax.
  • To maximize candlelight for reading or delicate work (like painting), I would suggest an alternative to the “lots of candles” technique.  And this is to use an old-style candle lantern that directs the light all in one direction (here’s a photo of one from Wikipedia–I’m traveling and forgot to take a photo of mine!)  I bought an old metal scoop at a yard sale that has a flat base and works for this purpose–and even a tin can cut in half would do just fine for shorter votive candles.  The point here is that you can carefully direct candlelight to be more efficient for your needs.
  • Likewise, good candle holders are a must–but make sure they are not made of wood, as forgetting about one can lead to a fire hazard (I speak from near-experience)!  A good candle holder has a handle so you can take it with you and a dish for catching wax.  The little ones that are meant for dining tables are much less useful when you are walking around your house.
  • Old oil lamps are not hard to find, they are really efficient, and worth having around.  I got to know these well with the amazing amount of power outages I experienced while living on my homestead in the Detroit metro area!  The issue that I have had with these practical lamps is that they burn kerosene or lamp oil, and both of these are derived from fossil fuels.  They are also really stinky when they burn–kerosene is insufferable, but even the more “refined” oils are kinda smelly.  And other oils for these are not easy to use–they won’t typically burn olive oil or other vegetable oils that are more sustainable due to the fact that vegetable oils aren’t as flammable and don’t draw well through the wick. However, there are alternatives to this for oil burning–you can purchase little vegetable oil burners, or you can make your own. I’ve been experimenting with using rancid olive oil (leftover from herbal oil infusions that sat on my shelf for too long) and various olive oil lamp designs–I’ll be posting on this in an upcoming blog after some more testing and development!.

Night walks and Night Rituals

A second way of embracing the darkness is to do simple night walking and dark night rituals. Taking a walk in the dark–on any piece of land, without a flashlight–can teach you a great deal.  Full moonlight on a clear evening provides not only ample light, but so much light that you can see a moonshadow (and don’t you know, the sun shows the shadow of your body, the moon, of your soul!). Even waxing or waning moonlight, however, can be sufficient for walking without lights (note that the brightness of the moon varies based on where you are living–its much brighter in the tropics than it is in the northern-most and southern-most parts of the earth). Try it–its amazing. When I had my homestead, each night near the full moon, I would take night walks–walking around the pathways of my property. Even though I  knew the paths so well in the daylight, in the night, they surprised me, opening up mystery and wonder. Now, I walk the streets of my town at night, without light (its a very safe town) and really enjoy the experience (although its hard to get your eyes adjusted because of all of the lights from the cars).

A step up from this is to do darkness rituals, such as the one I’ll describe below.  The idea here is that you create a ceremony that honors and embraces the darkness in some way–there are lots of ways to do this.  This past week, a friend and I did both did a night ritual and night walk as an early Winter Solstice celebration. Above my town is a mountain that has a park–the park includes an overlook, the highest point in this area.  Its a bit of a steep climb, but well worth it.  We bundled up (it was cold that night), took skins to sit on, took two flashlights as backup, and set out about an hour or so before sunset to climb the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun went over the horizon. We then opened a sacred space, and sat, watching the town lights come on all around us and watching darkness fall. Several deer came to greet us, and we simply sat in the darkness, taking it all in, doing personal visionary work and meditation as we each felt led.  The moon came out (she was only in her first quarter, but our eyes were adjusted and she shed plenty of light) and as our eyes adjusted, we gained deep awareness and insight.

A part of me, inside, was afraid of making our way back down the mountain because parts of it were very rocky and steep–but we did, easily, using nothing but moonlight to guide us the entire 30 minute walk home.  There was no need for our backup flashlights!  I think this was me battling my secret fears–the fears we all have–of trying to move about in the dark.  But you really do get your “night eyes” and the world is very bright, even in the darkness! When we came out of the park, we were blinded by the headlights of the cars–it was really intense. But regardless,  my fear was laid to rest, and I learned a valuable lesson about the darkness.  It took care  to make it down the mountain to avoid roots and rocks on our path, but it was a delightful experience, and we experienced that path so much differently than in the day.

I did something similar, but in the opposite direction, on the Summer Solstice–in that ritual, my mother and I drove out to a secluded overlook in the hour well before dawn to see the rising of the sun upon the landscape.  It had a very different energy, one appropriate for the Summer Solstice!

Darkness Vigil

Going along with my night walks and night ritual above, you do a simple darkness vigil. And by this, I mean sit in the darkness for a period of time, longer than you are comfortable with, preferably for at least an hour or more and definitely outside if you can manage it.  I really like doing this at dawn or dusk because if you are outside, this is when the animals are on the move–if you are sitting still somewhere, they will walk right by you oftentimes. I would suggest that prior to your vigil, you open a sacred protective space using whatever methods or traditions that you typically use (I use either the AODA’s Solitary Grove Ritual without any tools or just the Sphere of Protection for this purpose).

The idea here is to do this without fire or light–sit in the darkness itself. The light, even candlelight, creates a different relationship with the darkness on the land–and you want to bring it in fully.

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

It’s cold this time of year for many of us, of course, and to address that, I use the “hot rock” method that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The method is simple: you  heat up something that has good thermal mass (a rock, brick, or fire iron).  You can heat it by placing it close to an actual fire (I would place mine on top of my woodburning stove); alternatively, if you don’t have an actual fire, you can place it in an oven. Then you wrap it in an old towel, and take it with you.  It holds the heat well for quite some time–usually a good hour or more.  I usually stick this in my lap if I’m doing a winter vigil, keeping my hands on it and pressing it against my belly. This, warm layers of clothing and something to keep the cold off of your butt (like a skin or yoga mat) will really help keep you warm.  You could, of course, also use hand warmers, but they have a lot of chemicals and plastic–the hot rock method is heavier but no less effective.

 

Of course, the question you might be asking is – what do you actually “do” at one of these vigils?  There are lots of things you can do.  Start with your feelings–explore what you are feeling and work through it.  Pay attention to the land, especially the movements of animals, wind, trees, sounds, and the like.  Ask questions, aloud, and see what animal or plant messengers answer.  Take in the darkness, and use it to work on a soul level with your own darkness, hidden spaces, fears, dreams, the things that are unspeakable in the bright light of the sun.  Open yourself up to it and see what comes.

Lunar Tea infusions


This is an idea I learned from Rosemary Gladstar–the lunar herbal infusion. An infusion is a tea, specifically of delicate plant material like leaf or flower, where the hot water is poured over the tea, covered, and allowed to seep for as long as you’d like (sometimes overnight for the strongest medicinal extraction).  You can do this and then allow your infusion to sit in the moonlight or in the darkness overnight.

I have made a few teas by boiling water, pouring them over herbs in a mason jar, sealing it up, and then sitting it in the moonlight for the evening.  I have been using this method using plants that gain deeper awareness and insight: Indian ghost pipe, lemon balm, and hawthorn being one such recent combination that had meaningful effect on helping me shift my senses and embrace this dark time. Another good combination is bay, lemongrass, and peppermint.  (You can also use cinnamon here as well, and its a very powerful visionary herb, however, it is a demulcent herb, so it will thicken up your brew–excellent for a sore throat, but a little weird if you haven’t drank it cold before). You can use these infusions as part of your night walking, night rituals, or any other spiritual practice. Think of it like drinking the moonlight!

Electronic Light Mitigation

If you are going to use screens (TV, computer, phone, etc) at night or use light bulbs, there are better ways of using them that pay homage to the darkness. Various dimmer programs exist for computers–my favorite program is a free program called F.lux. It automatically adjusts your color and brightness as the evening progresses, so even if you are on your computer later at night, its not blazing blue light at you. It makes a world of difference–I’m writing this now mostly by “computer candlelight” thanks to f.lux.

Its worth paying attention also to the kind of lightbulbs that you use: the older ones often are more yellowish or cast a yellowish hue  is better on the eyes.  Lower wattage and lampshades also help. I also have an old-school lava lamp that creates really diffused light–I often use this for providing some low light to my main living area, and supplement it with candles or oil lamps for moving about the house.   Its not much different than a good oil lamp!

Activities in the Dark

Another thing I like to do is to do various activities in the dark that are traditionally done in the light–exercise or yoga, for example, is delightful in candlelight or no light.  I also enjoy playing my panflute in the dark–no need to see, and the darkness makes the music more beautiful. Even eating a meal in candlelight or near darkness can be a special treat–the shutting down of the visual senses allows for the other senses (including inner senses) to be emphasized.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that you find these suggestions enlightening (or perhaps, dimming?) as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice.  I think that a lot of us see the wheel of the year as a string of rituals and celebrations–and it certainly can be that–but it can also be more.  Really to embrace and live in that energy of the season can make a world of difference–we go from fighting against it, and wanting it to be over, to really living in the present moment with it.  I’d love to hear of your own suggestions for embracing the dark season this year.

PS: I’ll also direct your attention to my posts on the Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice, for those of you in the southern half of the planet) and sustainable activities surrounding those days–I’ve finished that series of posts, but they are still some of my favorites :).