Tag Archives: divination

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) Medicine, Myths, and Meaning

PawPaw leaf - as big as your hand!

PawPaw leaf – as big as your hand!

The PawPaw is a tree that is so wild and unique and wonderful, and yet, is often quite unknown–it is the only native citrus tree we have in the upper east East Coast and midwest areas. Like some of the other trees I have recently shared in this series, Paw Paw is an underappreciated and under-recognized tree. Within the bushcraft and permaculture circles, it is quite well known as an amazing tree to find, plant, and tend. One of the reasons that PawPaw is probably not more well known has, unsurprisingly, everything to do with the commercial viability of the fruits. PawPaw fruit is absolutely delicious but it only stays good for a few days after picking–so it would never survive the rigors of modern industrial agriculture.  You can occasionally find it at a good farmer’s market, and it is well worth seeking out! You can also seek it out in the wilds. And yet, PawPaw is the only citrus tree that grows in a north-eastern climate.  Read that sentence twice–yes, we have a native citrus tree that grows utterly delicious fruits that taste like a cross between guava, strawberry, and a banana.

This leads to the names for the PawPaw, which includes everything from Appalacian banana, Michigan Banana, Ozark Banana, Kentucky Banana, West Virginia Banana, to American custard apple, Quaker delight, hillbilly mango, and poor man’s banana. As you can see from some of these names, a bit of a stigma was once attached to PawPaw, which may be another reason it is not as sought out or well known.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a lack of discussion of PawPaw in the magical community–so, like so many of the underlooked understory trees (of which PawPaw is one), we will build a magical understanding of this tree by exploring its uses, edible qualities, medicine, natural history and doctrine of signatures (for my full methods, see this post).

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 (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Eastern Sycamore, Tulip Poplar, Tamarak, 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 of the PawPaw

The slender stem of a five year old pawpaw

PawPaw has a native range that spans from the edges of Texas and Oklahoma all across the southeastern US into Georgia and Alabama and upward into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  As a USDA Zone 5-9 fruiting tree, people have planted it as far as New England and the upper Midwest. Pawpaw is one of the few fruit trees that can handle full shade, and when I’ve found it in the wild, that’s typically where you find it: along quiet stream beds and river valleys, in damp and fertile flood plains, and deep in the shade of the overstory. PawPaw often spread by roots to form a dense clonal colony–thus, when you find mature trees, you will often find a large patch of them growing closer together.

PawPaw is an understory tree, typically growing between 25-35 feet in height with trunks somewhere between 8-12″ in diameter at full growth. The leaves typically grow only hear the ends of the branches so PawPaw may look a bit sparse compared to other trees.

PawPaw flowers have three sepals (petal-like leaves) that surround six maroon flowers. PawPaws are predominately fly pollinated, which means that you do not want to sniff the flowers, as they often smell like rotting meat (I learned this the hard way, haha!).  Don’t stick your nose in that maroon flower! The PawPaw flower would be classified as a “carrion” flower due to this unique odor–it creates a stinking, fetid odor to attract flies and beetles that would pollinate it.

The flowers appear at the same time that the new leaves are coming forth in early spring. I will also note that the leaves and branches also may have a slightly fetid smell, so do keep this in mind as you work with this tree.  It is kind of amazing that this stinky flower and tree can produce such delicious fruit!

After spring pollination, the green fruits grow to the size of your hand or more, eventually dipping down the tender branches and dropping from the tree in September or October. Here in Western PA, it is often late September that the fruit is ready to drop from the tree, just around the Fall Equinox. The fruits typically will fall from the tree while still green and ripen on the ground.  This is when you can find them–pick them up on the ground green and then sit them on a counter or in a dark paper bag until ripe.  Keep a good eye on them, as they will ripen quickly.  Once they ripen, eat them fresh or process them into fruit leather, jam, pies, etc as they only stay ripe a few days before spoiling.

PawPaw as Anachronistic Fruit and Tree of the Ancestors

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

The Underside of the PawPaw Leaf

This PDF titled “Anachronistic Fruits and the Ghosts Who Haunt Them”  by Connie Barlow of the Harvard Arboretum gives a really interesting natural history of the PawPaw as an anachronistic fruit.  While pawpaw and other fruits (including Osage orange, Persimmon, Honey Locust, and Kentucky Coffee Tree) were originally eaten and spread by the “megafauna” at the end of the Pleistocene, these animals went extinct at about 12,700 BC, likely due to overhunting by humans. These megafauna animals included mastodons, giant sloths, giant beavers, and spread PawPaw fruits by ingesting and then pooping out the seeds.

Barlow notes that PawPaw and other anachronistic fruits developed clonal spreading techniques when there was an absence of large megafauna seed spreaders. She notes that at the Arnold Arboretum after an old PawPaw died, the underground root network had hundreds of baby pawpaw spring up almost immediately.  When humans came into North America at the end of the last Ice Age, they would have taken up the work of the Megafauna and spread the seeds of these useful and edible trees. Thus, if you find a large PawPaw tree cluster in the wild, perhaps it was deposited there by ancient human ancestors of the land.  And, anytime you are planting a new pawpaw tree by root cutting or seed, you are connecting with that ancient legacy.  So this is an ancestral tree with ancestral connections.

Human uses: Food and Wood

Obviously, the PawPaw is a great wild or cultivated food. As permaculture, restoration agriculture, and food forestry take off, PawPaw has become a shining superstar for developing native perennial-based food systems here in North America.  PawPaw are particularly good for areas where you have rich soil with shade and water. In fact, one of the first things I did when arriving on this land was to plant 30 PawPaws in the understory, much of which had been logged, as part of my forest regeneration efforts. They haven’t borne fruit yet, but I know they will in the next few years, and I’m quite excited!

As I mentioned above, the fruits typically fall from the trees in the fall.  PawPaw fruits are usually higher than you can reach in mature stands, so you have to wait for them to fall onto the ground to collect. The fruits fall green and will naturally ripen on your counter in a few days.  You can also pick them from the tree, but only if the tree is ready to give of its fruit–in other words, if the fruit is easy to pick from the tree, it is ready (just like harvesting a wild apple). If the fruit does not want to come off the tree, come back in a few days and try again–it is not ready.

The fruits are delicious when eaten raw. They have large seeds (which you can plant, but you need to keep them moist or else they lose viability–so plant just after eating!)  You can also create custards, pies, jams, and jellies from your pawpaws. There are two real keys to pawpaw.  The first is that you have to process it fast: it’s really only good for a few days on the counter (or maybe up to a week in the fridge) before it goes rotten, so you’ve got to use it while it lasts!  This post offers some great tips for where to buy PawPaw products like beer, popsicles, and more.  The second key is that it is best used fresh, dried, or baked–so with the exception of my goose egg custard, I don’t typically cook it much, as you do lose some of the flavors of the fruit. Canning a jam can work, but it’s not going to be nearly as good as a fresh or frozen puree.

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

My happy pawpaw, growing along the path in the shade at the homestead

The fruit itself really tastes like a custard already, but I’ve found it particularly good when a bit is added to a duck or goose egg custard (I use the linked recipe and replace 50% of the maple syrup with the pawpaw for either duck or goose eggs). I’ve also made a nice fruit leather using a similar technique to what I posted for Autumn olives in the above-linked post.

Beyond its delicious fruit, PawPaw has a number of other bushcraft uses. PawPaw wood is very soft and fibrous, making it excellent for use in a bow drill set, both spindle and motherboard as well as for a hand drill (needs to be quite dry to use as a hand drill).  In fact, my first bow drill set (which I made at the North American Bushcraft School’s MountainCraft Gathering in 2019, taught to me by Jeff Gotieb ) used a PawPaw spindle.  PawPaw is one of the softer woods, considered good for a beginner who is new to ancestral fire-making.

As with any uses of any tree, I always suggest you practice reciprocation: make offerings, ask permission, and do something nice for the tree in return (such as planting its seeds or offspring).  If you are going to enjoy the tree’s fruits, make sure you give something in return.

Historical and Present Uses in Medicine and Magic

In truth, there is almost nothing that I can find on the magical or mundane uses of PawPaw in any of my usual herbal books or references in the different western magical traditions (western occultism, hoodoo, herbalism, etc). Thus, it does not appear that PawPaw has traditionally been used for magical practices or herbalism. This is pretty typical of the other understory trees that I’ve studied, but I think that they are really worth getting to know!

However, what search does yield fruit is looking at some of the publications coming out of the scientific community.  Even if PawPaw wasn’t used traditionally, scientists are now discovering some of the amazing properties of this plant. For example, Nam et. al (2018) found that PawPaw fruit contained at least some anti-cancer components and may be a useful anti-cancer treatment with future study.  In another study by Nam et. al. (2019), they found that alcohol extraction of unripe fruits contained considerable anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties, suggesting possibilities for anti-aging and anti-microbial applications.  PawPaw is also being explored as a possible food additive for domestic fowl production.

PawPaw’s Magic and Divination

Given all of the above, PawPaw is a really interesting tree to think about from a divinatory and magical perspective.

Death and Underworld. Certainly, PawPaw has connections to the world of the dead and the underworld for several reasons.  The most important being that it has a carrion-smelling flower, that literally smells like fetid flesh, and that attracts flies and beetles as pollinators.  The second way that it connects is also through the doctrine of signatures–the tree itself has very sparse leaves and a very open frame, showing the skeleton of the tree (the branches and trunk) rather than being covered by leaves.  This connection might allow you to use the flowers to connect with the dead, to speak with them, or to help them on their journey.

Strong Need to Move On from a Toxic Situation.  Tied to the carrion flower that is transformed into an extremely delicious–but short-lived fruit, this tree may also signal that something that has been going on for a long time needs to end.  Sometimes we end up in situations where we should have ended a situation (a bad job, a bad relationship, a bad living situation) a long time ago, and for some reasons (fear, stress, exhaustion) we continue to persevere long past our breaking point.  PawPaw can signal the need to move on–and the healing and rewards (fruit) that come when we let go of the toxic situation.

Transience.  Because PawPaw’s fruit is so short-lived and transient, it reminds us of the transience or ephemeral nature of things.  We can never get too comfortable or used to anything in life–the only certainty is the passage of time.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful and delicious PawPaw tree–and may you find many on your travels!  I would love to hear of your experiences with this incredible tree!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Tamarak / Larch – Larix laricina – Magic, Mecicine, and Mythology

A tamarak tree growing in a wetland

I remember when I first saw a Tamarack tree.  It was growing in a bog where I was hiking in late fall.  I looked at the Tamarack tree in its golden splendor and wondered if the tree was sick or had gotten too wet–was this confier dying?  It had knobby cones and branches, sitting there looking like it was in its death throes.  When I commented on it to my friend, she responded, No, that’s just the tamarack tree, a friend of mine said, and we examined the tree growing on the edge of a beautiful wetland.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, the tree was bare for the winter and only grew back in the spring. The Tamarack tree has a special place in the ecology in North America, especially as a mid-succession tree in very wet and swampy areas.

The Tamarack tree is known by many names: the Larch Tree, Eastern Larch, American Larch, Black larch, Red Larch, Hackmatack, Juniper cypress, Larch Tamarack. The term “larch” is an old German word like Hackmatack is the Abnaki word for “snowshoes”, suggesting one clear use of this tree.

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 (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include 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

Tamarack is particularly interesting from an ecological perspective for a number of reasons.  First, while Tamarack is in the pine family, it is quite distinct because it is deciduous (and is the only conifer that is deciduous in much of its range). Thus, it drops its needles in the fall and follows the maples and oaks rather than its pine brethren. It literally serenades the sun with a brilliant yellow-orange color before it drops its needles for the cold months of the year. Tamarack also is a mid-succession tree, growing in bogs and marshy areas, providing food and habitat, and eventually making way to the Eastern White Cedar tree, the pinnacle species.

Tamarak Needles

Tamarak Needles

As John Eastman notes in The Book of Swamp and Bog, Tamarack has early rapid growth for the first 40 years of its life—it puts on growth very early in the season (around Beltane) and slows down by Midsummer. It produces small oval-shaped cones that usually appear on branches that are between two and four years old. These cones will be wind-pollinated in the spring by pollen cones that appear yellow on the same tree, and eventually mature, open, and drop seeds in the fall.  As the tree loses its needles in the fall, these cones and branches look a little wicked and nobby, like an old woman! Like many other trees (Oaks) the Tamarack is strategic about seed production, producing bountiful seed only every 3-6 years. In the northernmost parts of its range, Tamarack may reproduce by way of the layering of lower branches on the ground and sending up a shoot.

As a mid-succession tree, Tamarack prefers nutrient-poor sites, including bogs, and its presence in a wetland may suggest it is growing at what Eastman notes is a “hinge line” or “transitional zone” between floating fen-mats in a bog and more grounded acidic bogs where plants like sundew grow. However, growing in such a wet environment does mean it develops shallow root systems and thus may be easily blown over by the wind. This bog environment also supports the germination of new Tamarack seeds—they often germinate on sphagnum moss. It also is frequently found with leatherleaf (promoting its germination through its ‘nurse tree’ status), and can be found with poison sumac, eastern white cedar (which succeeds it ecologically), shrub willow, and bog birch. Here in Western Pennsylvania, we often see the Tamaracks on the edge of acidic bogs that grow such wonderful and carnivorous plants like sundew and pitcher plants.

John Eastman also notes that in boggy environments, Tamarack is a “nurse tree” which allows it to produce shelter and biomass to allow other shrubs and smaller plants to grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions, particularly leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne Calyculata). Tamarack is also a favorite nesting site for Great gray owls as well as habitat for black-backed woodpecker, common snipe, common yellowthroats, and song sparrows.

Tamarak needles - underside

Tamarak needles – underside

A destructive pest—the larch sawfly (Pristiphoera Erichsonii) eats the Tamarack needles and has been responsible for destroying nearly all of the old-growth Tamarack trees in the Eastern US and Canada in the early 20th century.  Tamarack has slowly rebounded from this destruction and you can once again find healthy stands of Tamarack in many parts of its range. This sawfly is an excellent food source for blue ays, sparrows, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, grosbeaks, and sparrows. At least half of the seeds dropped are consumed by ruffed grouse, wild hare, red squirrel, gray squirrel, porcupine, and white-tail deer. These animals also consume the inner bark, which is nutritious (and also an emergency food for humans).

Human Uses

Tamarack is not a very sought-after wood these days, which is somewhat surprising, given its many uses–this is likely due to the historical loss of much of the Tamarack wood due to the larch sawfly and its inconvenient growth location in swamps and bogs.  Still, the wood is heavy, hard, strong, coarse-grained, and has excellent rot resistance, particularly in wet conditions or when exposed to water. It has been traditionally used for many applications where rot resistance matters: fence posts, telegraph poles, railway ties, building materials, ladders, floorboards, and various kinds of poles. In 1938, it was noted that it has been used extensively for building ships, especially for parts of ships that are directly exposed to water.

Tamarak Branch

Tamarak Branch

According to Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants, the Tamarack had a wide range of uses for the Native American people and early white Colonists of North America. The Ojibwe used Tamarack resin to seal boats (similar to white pine) and the bark to cover their wigwams. The roots were used to weave bags and sew the edges of canoes as the Tamarack root fiber is particularly durable compared with other materials. The inner bark was used as an emergency food by many, as nearly all conifers have nutritious inner bark. One of the things that Native Peoples often used tamarack wood for was boiling maple sap—it is a hot, fierce wood that burns brightly—exactly what you need for a good sap boil!

Turpentine can also be made from Tamarack trees. The trees were tapped, in a very similar method to maple tapping, and the sap collected–this is the process of making a “gum” turpentine as opposed to a “wood” turpentine (which is done with the stripped bark). After the trees were tapped, the gum is distilled to produce a volatile oil that was strong and mixed with paints and varnishes for lasting quality. This same sap was also used for all manner of wound healing in earlier times in North America.

Medicine and Herbal Qualities

Unfortunately, while Tamarack had a range of traditional colonial uses, it has limited coverage and uses in present-day herbals.

The best references to the medicinal qualities of the tree can be found in ethnobotanical sources. Erichsen-Brown notes that that the Ojibwe used the crushed needles and bark similar to how they would use white pine.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used the roots and bark from the trunk.  The fresh inner bark is used for poulticing wounds/inflammation; seeped bark as a tea.  It was used also as horse medicine; the inner bark was shredded and mixed with other feed grains to create a soft and supple hide.

Another shot of the tamarak tree

Another shot of the tamarak tree

The only coverage of the plant I could find in modern herbal sources was through M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal, which offers insight on the bark, which she notes is used as a laxative, tonic, diuretic, and alternative.  She notes that it has widely been used for treating issues with the liver, rheumatism, jaundice, or dysentery.  Her dosage indicates that 2 tablespoons of the decoction of the bark are necessary.

I have been experimenting with some of the Tamarack’s medicine in the form of salves for bruises (one traditional use) and they seem pretty effective.  I’ll keep updating this post as I try some of the other traditional uses and if I find more information.

Magical Uses in the Western Tradition

Part of the reason I spent so much time in this post on ecology and human uses is that–unsprisingly –there is no real tradition of the magical use of the Tamarack tree.  While this isn’t surprising (as many of the trees I am covering in this series lack such coverage), it does mean that we have to use the tree’s ecological functions to ascertain its magical meaning.  It is not found in the Hoodoo traditions, nor in the traditional western occult texts, nor in the PA dutch and other folk magic traditions. (It you have info I don’t about this, please share!)

Magical and Divination Qualities of Tamarack

Addressing Stagnation. Tamarak’s medicinal and ecological function includes it growing and addressing a range of stagnant, watery conditions. In the body, stagnation leads to all kinds of illness and atrophy; in the wild, stagnation can lead to anaerobic bacteria formation (stinky, nasty piles of compost for example).  One of Tamarak’s key magical and divination qualities, then, is being able to address this stagnation and help get it flowing again.

Standing up to emotional challenges. Flowing from the first meaning, the second key meaning of Tamarack is helping you endure a stagnant emotional condition.  For example, perhaps you are in a difficult family circumstance that seems to keep repeating itself, you are dealing with cycles of abuse, PTSD, or other draining and long-standing emotional conditions.  Tamarack will help you stay the course during this time and offer you strength to endure (and not rot away in the mire!)

Surprise. A final divination and magical meaning this tree suggests is that while it is in the pine family and is a conifer, the tree does not follow the same pattern as most other pines–rather, in a surprising twist, it drops its needles after serenading the sun.  Seeing Tamarack in a reading may suggest to you that things are the opposite of what you expect and to be surprised with the outcome.

I hope that this post brought you happiness and joy as spring turns to summer. And perhaps you will have an opportunity to meet the wonderful Tamarack tree and share in her magic.  Blessings!

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

Daily Rituals and Daily Spiritual Practices

In my time as an Archdruid and now Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a set of questions I see often are questions surrounding the establishment of daily ritual or daily practice question. These are questions like: how do I figure out how to do something every day and actually stick to doing it?  How do I build daily rituals into my life? What are some daily rituals people do?  Why would I want to do daily practices?  Since these questions are so common, today’s post explores the idea of daily rituals and practices for druids:  I’ll share how to begin and some considerations and also share a number of examples of daily or regular practices that you can do to deepen our druid path.

Daily practice

Daily practice

The idea of a daily ritual is, of course, that you do something at the relatively same time every day and it becomes part of your daily routine.  We have tons of daily rituals that aren’t necessarily sacred, from feeding pets to sitting down for a meal to brushing teeth.  We may also have unconscious rituals, like laying in bed in the morning and reading a book or mindlessly looking at social media every time we pick up our phone.  Some of these rituals (brushing teeth) are obviously good for us while some (social media at the beginning and end of the day) may actually harm our mental health.

Daily rituals and practices within the context of spirituality can help us achieve some of our spiritual goals: attune with nature, offer us healing, improve our mental health, offer us grounding, and help us deepen our practice and our connection to core work.  Daily rituals that are established may help us when we have times of challenge or instability (hello, pandemic!) and offer support.  Daily rituals can also help us deepen our spiritual practices–you might think of daily rituals similar to how a musician practices scales.  The more we do our practices, the deeper we connect with them and the more they build both meaning and power over time.  One of the best things you can do is to find a way to engage in regular practices and ritual work, to provide some consistency and forward momentum to what you are doing.

Setting Ritual Goals and Examining Life Circumstances

What really helped me in establishing a daily ritual was to give the practice some serious thought and consideration before I began. I didn’t want to do daily rituals because someone else told me to do so.  I wanted to do daily rituals because I wanted them to enrich my life and offer grounding and connection.  Even if the daily rituals were recommended by a druid order or study program, I wanted to find the motivation intrinsically and be motivated not because I should do them but because I wanted to do them and saw a benefit.  These are the kinds of questions that you might find helpful in finding your own intrinsic motivation and discovering what you hope to gain from such a practice:

1. What do you want to accomplish with a daily ritual?  Articulating your goals will likely help you decide what practices might be appropriate.  Here are a few ideas for you:

  • Prayer or devotion
  • Connecting with nature
  • Improving mental health or clarity
  • Deepening spiritual practice
  • Staring the day in a positive / sacred way
  • Ending he day in a positive / sacred way
  • Preparing for sacred living
  • Preparing for sacred dreaming
  • Offering a daily commitment to your practice
  • Taking a quiet moment in an otherwise busy day
  • Simply feeling good

Come up with your own list of things you’d like to accomplish and go from there!

2. Does your tradition or order already offer a daily ritual or practice?  If so, this is a great place to start. Most traditions offer some kind of daily practice–a mediation, prayer, or energy working.  This connects you both to the tradition you are practicing and allows you to focus your practice in ways that are useful to continue to learn that tradition.

For example, in AODA we offer two daily practices and a weekly practice:  we encourage regular time in nature (at least 15 minutes each week) and we ask that all members perform a daily Sphere of Protection and also engage in meditation.  These three practices are at the heart of what we do and help strengthen one’s spiritual journey in AODA druidry, give connection to the order, and offer considerable spiritual benefit.  I always do these practices and have a few others I’ve added in over the years :).

3. How much time do you want to spend?  Do you have 5 minutes, 15 minutes or 30 minutes a day to spend?  My suggestion here is to have a basic practice that you can do regardless of whether you are in your normal routine, are traveling, have house guests, or whatever else it may be.  You can also have an extended practice one or two days a week.

Remember that you are in this for the long haul.  It is better to start small with something you can sustain rather than something that you will never be able to sustain long-term.  If you start small and have good results, you can always add more over time and feel good about your practice.  If you start big and can’t maintain what you are doing daily, it might make you feel bad and be a detriment to your spiritual growth.  Thus, small, slow steps are best.

For example, when I was doing a lot of work travel and often staying with others in various hotels, I tried a longer daily practice and found it difficult to maintain with the travel–and then it was harder to pick back up when I came home and my practices would fall off before I had to jump-start them again.  Since this happened with unerring frequency, I decided that I wanted a small daily practice that could be done in the bathroom at a hotel or while taking a walk in a city.  Thus, I kept it pretty basic (SOP, walking meditation, and some observation of nature), knowing that I could always do that practice regardless of what was happening in my day.  And I built in regular once-a-week larger practices that I could do when I had more time or was home.

4. What time of day is best for you?  Another factor here is to find a way to build your daily ritual into your routine at a time of day that works best.  For example, if you are exhausted at the end of the day and are non-functional for the last hour or so before bed, it’s probably not a good idea to try to meditate for 15 min because you’ll fall asleep (not that I have ANY experience with that, haha!).  A better option would be to build a daily meditation practice into your lunch break and/or morning routine.  If you are a busy mom and the only time you have is early mornings or when you take a bath, consider how you can build that in. You might have to test out a few things to see what works for you.

I will also note that some people are working in different traditions at the same time, and those traditions are not always energetically compatible (or it is too much to do it all together at once), so it may be necessary to split the practices.  If this is the case for you, you can do one set of practices in the morning and another in the evening.  For example, I also practice the Celtic Golden Dawn tradition, and I prefer to do those practices in the evening to compliment my AODA and druid practices in the morning.

5. Do you have existing routines that you could extend or daily practices that could be altered? Another way to think about building in daily spiritual practice is considering what you already do that is required and/or habituated and that you could extend into a daily spiritual practice.

For example, I am responsible for our morning animal/homesteading chores, which usually take about 30 minutes each day.  I have to do these chores rain or shine, snow or sun, because our animals need let out of their coops, fed, watered and tended.  This gives me a great opportunity to be outside and to take an additional 15 minutes a day to do my Sphere of Protection, drink a cup of tea, and do some light nature observation or meditation or a short walk on the land (pending weather).  This is what works for me now–what worked for me before I had such responsibilities was different, and thus, you should always recognize that if your routine changes, you may have to adapt to a new routine.

Testing and Habituation

So you’ve done the above and have developed a good plan for your daily ritual or practice–great!  The next thing you want to do is test it out.  Why?  Because what you have may not actually be workable, or only partially workable.  One of the things I see new druids do is use their enthusiasm and excitement to build in a ton of practices that they can’t necessarily sustain once that initial enthusiasm is over.  It is better to have a simple practice, 5 or 10 minutes a day, that you can commit to rather than an elaborate practice you can only manage to do once in a while. Thus, spending some time testing the practices to get the right timing, the right time, and the set of practices that work for your best is important.

I suggest trying out the practices for a few weeks or one lunar cycle.  Give yourself time to really dig into them and if they haven’t worked for you, try another set of practices until you find what does.  Developing daily work takes time and its important to give yourself time and be patient.

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Daily walks in nature provide room for discovery

Once you are happy with the practice, then you want to work to habituate that practice. Habits are things we form that become something we simply do (often without thinking) and we almost never miss.  For most of us, brushing our teeth before bed is a good example of this kind of habit.  You don’t really think about it most times, you just go into the bathroom and do it.  Ideally, you can get to that level of habituation with your own daily practices–they are just something you always do and benefit you.  But that’s not where many of us start, and it takes a while to get into that rhythm for two reasons: first, habits take time to form (the 21 days is actually a myth, research shows that it can take anywhere from 15 – 200+ days to form a lasting habit depending on what it is and your own circumstances).

Another thing to realize here is that a major change in life circumstances may lead to a necessary change in your daily practices–and that’s totally ok.  A new home, new job, move somewhere new, new baby or family member, or any number of other things may require you to re-evaluate what you do, when you do it, and how long you do it for.  And that’s totally ok.  Always remember that these spiritual practices are for you.

Finally, be prepared to be flexible.  I like to take a morning walk on our land, but I might shift to a cup of tea on the porch if we are having a downpour.  Recognize that small variations in your daily ritual (depending on weather, if you are sick, etc) are also ok.  This practice is for you and only you.

Examples of Daily Rituals and Practices

There are so many good rituals that you can do.  I’m going to offer a few options for you to spark your own ideas.  Remember that daily rituals don’t have to be formal–they can be simply time spent in nature, a quiet cup of tea with the moon, anything that helps you with your own spiritual practice.

Daily Prayers and Altar Work.  Daily prayers and altar work are probably what most people think of when they think of daily ritual work. Your altar can be a center of your spiritual practice and tending it each day and spending time there can provide you a focus for everything else you do.  Consider any of the following:

  • Leaving a daily offering for spirit/deity/guides/etc.  I like to offer spring water as I can then offer it to a plant the next day (double offering for the win!)
  • Burning incense or lighting candles for a period of time
  • Doing daily divination or tarot card draw
  • Offering prayers or speaking affirmations (e.g. I always say the Druid’s Prayer and the Druid’s Prayer for peace in addition to a prayer that I wrote that reminds me and affirms my path as a land healer and being in service to the living earth)
  • Doing short meditations
  • Daily ritual work, like the Sphere of Protection, mentioned above.

Altar work will often evolve as you do in your spiritual journey or may change as circumstances require.

Greeting the Sun.  Whether you wake up at dawn or later in the day, it is a useful practice to greet and honor the sun (similar to the idea in Yoga of the Sun Salutation, many cultures have done this work in honor of the sun, the giver of light and warmth).  This greeting takes no more than a minute but is a powerful way of connecting you with the giver of life for our beautiful planet.  I like to do a simple greeting.  I face the east and put my arms in the air and simply feel the sun’s rays on me.  I observe the sun’s rays hitting the leaves and landscape. If its an overcast day, I still honor the sun and clouds/rains.  I raise my hands to the clouds facing east and thank the spirits for the rains.  After raising my hands, I bow my head and cross my arms in honor, and chant an “Awen” (Ah-oh-en) for inspiration for the day.

Greeting the sun!

Greeting the sun!

Communing with the Moon. The phases of the moon present another opportunity for daily ritual.  You can get or make a moon calendar (my moon calendar is wood burned and in the PA Dutch tradition).  While you can’t always see moonrise depending on the weather and time the moon rises, you can take an opportunity to acknowledge the moon.

For this, what I do is brew a cup of lunar tea (using lunar herbs like violet, mugwort, ginger, passionflower, clary sage, or hibiscus) and take my steaming cup of tea outside (unless it is really frigid, and then I’ll sit in a window instead).  I hold my cup of tea so that I can see the reflection of the moon in the tea, and wait a few minutes, feeling the connection between me, the moon.  Then I drink the tea, saving a bit in the bottom to pour on the earth as an offering.

Tree energy exchange. Go to an accessible larger tree (accessible as in you can easily get there). Place your back to the tree and allow the energy of the tree to flow through you (particularly if you are feeling tired or depleted). If you have an excess of nervous energy, place your front to the tree and allow it to subside.  (You can tie this to my “tree for a year” challenge from earlier this year!)

Mindful Eating and Honoring the Harvest. I like to build this daily ritual in for at least one meal to help connect me to the living earth and have gratitude for what the land provides.  Choose a meal where you can be alone or eat in silence (which may not be possible every day!)  Ideally, take this to a nice place where you can look out upon the land or be in the sun.  Place your hands over the meal and express your gratitude in your own words (I like to express gratitude to the land, to the farmers who grew it, and to anyone who prepared, packaged, or shipped it. If you grew it, even better!)  Now, really be present with this meal and dedicate yourself to simply being present and enjoying it.  Chew each bite and savor the taste.  Engage with your senses.  When you are finished, offer gratitude.

A winter view from my own druid's anchor spot

A winter view from my own druid’s anchor spot

Observation and a Druid’s Anchor Spot.  Another really great way to honor the changing of the seasons and to connect with nature is the practice of the Druid’s Anchor spot. I think this is one of the most powerful ways of attuning deeply with a local place.   More on the Druid’s Anchor Spot can be found in this post.

Daily Divination. Using an oracle, ogham, or tarot deck can offer you insight into your day, offer themes for meditation, and be an excellent way to really learn a divination system.  Doing a simple one-card or one stave daily draw is a nice way to start or end a day and can be combined with many other practices.

Candle Meditation. One of my favorite daily meditations is a simple candle meditation.  This meditation not only encourages calm and rest, but it also strengthens focus and cultivates inner vision (which is necessary for most advanced journey or shamanic work).  I like to do a candle meditation before I go to bed, sometimes burning some mugwort to encourage vivid dreaming.   A dark room is best for this practice.  Light a candle and place it before you.  Spent time staring at the candle, affixing how it looks firmly in your mind.  As you do this, quiet your breath and settle into a comfortable position.  After you are calm, close your eyes and keep the flame burning in your inner eye.  Breathe and focus on the flame.  If you lose your focus, simply open your eyes, affix the candle flame in your inner eye, and close them again.  Even five minutes of this practice a day will yield results.

 

In conclusion, I also want to remind you that in addition to daily work, you might have seasonal work that varies by the season–you can read all about that here.

Also, dear readers, I hope that you will share additional ideas for how to build daily rituals into your spiritual practice!

Beyond Divination: Four Spiritual Uses for the Tarot

The Fool from the Tarot of TreesWhen people think of the Tarot, they often think of its primary use as a divination tool.  Tarot is an incredibly versatile tool, and now you can get hundreds of decks on practically any theme, choose from dozens of books to help you learn, and access a wide variety of free online resources.  Learning to read them as a divination method is as straightforward as picking up a book, drawing cards, and reading entries–and yet mastering them can take a lifetime.

I wanted to share a few additional ways that I’ve used the Tarot over the years to enhance my spiritual practice.  The Tarot has many uses beyond divination, and learning some of these can deepen your work with the Tarot even further. These methods can be tied directly to divination uses, help you learn the Tarot in a new way, or be used on their own. All images are from the 10th Anniversary Edition of the Tarot of Trees – if you haven’t yet checked out the new Indegogo campaign to preorder the new edition, please consider doing so!

Journeying with the Tarot

One of my favorite uses of the Tarot, and one that I think you can do with a wide variety of decks, is using the Tarot as a journeying tool.  For example, if you gaze into The Fool card from the Tarot of Trees above, you can see how that card was intended to lead you on a journey. Imagine continuing to travel that path that the Fool is looking down upon. You can envision yourself going off into the distant mountains and seeing who you meet there.  Perhaps you’d meet a higher self, other archetypes or individuals from the tarot, or other spirit guides.  The entire Tarot can work this way–creating a rich and meaningful landscape where you can explore the world of spirit. Deep journeying techniques often use an aid to help you go deep into this world (what this world actually is is subject to interpretation: some believe it is the imaginal world, the world of your subconscious.  Others believe that you are using your imagination to access and interpret something beyond you–a world of spirit. The practice works regardless of what you believe!)

A simple way of journeying is to open up a sacred space (see next entry for one idea) and then do deep breathing exercises to help put yourself in a receptive place so that you can focus on the journey at hand. Place the card in front of you, perhaps on an altar.  Focus for a few moments on the card, noticing the different features of the card.  Close your eyes and visualize the card before you (if you have trouble doing this, just open and close your eyes a few times till you can). Once you have the card firmly visualized in your mind’s eye, step into that scene, and see where spirit leads. You may meet new spirit guides, experience new places, and most importantly, have deep insights about yourself and your work in the world. I have a separate post on spirit journeying, and I will refer you there for more information on how to do this if you are new to it.

Finally, I will say that some decks and cards are better for journeying than others.  Some have what I’d call “gateways” into the cards, where your eyes are naturally invited in.  Certain simplistic themed decks may not work as well as more complex decks for this purpose, but every deck is worth a try.

Tarot and Holding Sacred Space

The World from the Tarot of TreesThis is a technique I developed when designing the Plant Spirit Oracle deck–I wanted to ritualize the use of the deck.  Thus, I realized you can use any deck (oracle or Tarot) to open sacred space.  In druidry and other neopagan traditions, we typically call the four directions/elements (OBOD) or seven directions/elements (AODA)–and while individual druids can modify these calls to the directions/elements as they see fit, we are always essentially drawing upon the same energy sources to open sacred space. While there is a benefit to doing so, as you develop deep relationships with those energies over time, it creates a static rather than dynamic system.  What I mean is that you are always drawing upon those same energies.

Adding the element of a Tarot deck or Oracle deck creates a more dynamic calling, where you are essentially using the deck to create a dynamic map of energy that is spirit led. That is, rather than calling in the energy of earth, air, fire, and water, you can draw a card for each of the quarters and those cards would lend their own energy.  In terms of the tarot, you can choose to do this with just the major arcana or use the entire deck. In essence, you go to each of the quarters, draw a card, and invite that energy to hold that quarter for you. I also have a post on this technique, so check it out for more details!

Tarot and Archetypes for Understanding, Meditation, and Reflection

Five of Pentacles - Tarot of TreesAnother powerful way that the Tarot can be used is an extension of the Tarot as a divination tool. The first 22 cards of the Tarot are the Fool’s Journey. This is where the Fool (card 0) goes on a journey through the major arcana, meeting many different figures and having different experiences (Justice, Death, Strength, The Star, etc), and coming to a deep sense of realization and self-actualization during the experience (The World). These archetypes in the Major Arcana are closely aligned by those in use by other authors exploring self-development processes, notably, Carl Jung and Joseph Cambell. Jung’s work on archetypes and dreams, for example, helps us look deep within ourselves to see how common archetypes play out or manifest out of our subconscious. I find that you can do similar kinds of work using the Tarot as a focus.

Draw a card from the major arcana (or the full deck if you prefer) and spend some time with that card. Consider using discursive meditation, freewriting, or other reflective techniques to think about the role of that archetype. For example, if I drew the Hermit and wanted to explore it, here are some of the questions I might consider: How does energy like the Hermit play into your life? In what ways have you felt that you need hermitage? In what was has hermitage benefited you?  Do you have people who have filled this role or are you moving into this role?  These kinds of reflections and meditations can be powerful and give you deeper insight into yourself.  One of the ways that I originally learned Tarot was doing just this

Tarot and Bardic Inspiration

Two of CupsIf you practice any of the bardic arts (storytelling, poetry, music, dance, visual arts, etc) you might consider using one or more of the cards as inspiration for your work. For example, you can do a dance focused on the Queen of Cups and embodying her, or a poem dedicated to the three of wands. The reason that I ended up painting the Tarot of Trees those years ago was this exact inspiration–as I was learning tarot, I wanted to do my own inspirations.  That ended up going in a direction I didn’t expect–painting and self-publishing my own tarot deck (and later, oracle deck!)  But the original intention of my work was to explore these ideas as a bard, as a visual artist, and to really think about how I would translate them into the new theme. How could I translate, say, the brashness of the Knight of Wands into a tree? It was great fun–so let the awen flow and be inspired! It also allowed me to develop my own meanings and understandings for this work.

Thus, thinking about how to use the Tarot as a catalyst for your own work could be a great avenue into new possibilities as a bardic practitioner.  Perhaps you compose a series of poems around the major arcana or do a series of paintings.  Perhaps you can create a dance, a story, or a song.  You can even decide to create your own deck (I have a post about creating your own tarot or oracle deck if you are interested!)

Conclusion

Dear readers, I hope that these inspirations give you some new ideas for how to work with Tarot beyond divination meanings. If you have other ways that you use the Tarot, please share it in the comments.

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

How to Create Your Own Tarot or Oracle Deck for Personal Use

 

My local ogham-like oracle system :)

My local ogham-like oracle system 🙂

Ever since I self-published the Tarot of Trees, I get a fairly regular stream of people who are interested in creating their own oracle decks and want to know how to do it. So in today’s post, I’ll share the process of developing a variety of different oracles. Some were published oracles, like  The Tarot of Trees and my forthcoming Plant Spirit Oracle, while others were private oracles just for me, such as the Ancestor Oracle and my ongoing East Coast Ogham project and tree spirit project. Through these projects, I detail the process for how you might create your own. We’ll talk about the act of creation itself, as well as options for if you want to get it out into the world (self publish, print on demand, etc).

 

In today’s post, I’m going to focus on oracle decks that you make just for you–without the intention of mass-producing them. I’ll share various options for your deck and my own experiences in making many such decks.  In next week’s post, I’ll share details about how to make an oracle with the intention of getting it published or self-publishing).  I’m splitting up these posts for a very good reason. If you are making your own deck that is only for you, you don’t have to worry about a lot of considerations that go into printing and mass production (funding a print run, marketing, standard printer die-cut sizes for cards, etc). If you are making one just for you, you can do whatever you want, however, you want it.  If, however, you want to publish your work (either through a publisher or through self-publishing means) then you have to pay attention to certain considerations–which I’ll cover at some point in the next month or two!

 

What is an oracle? Why create one yourself?

An oracle is a set of cards, stones, or other objects that allow you to ask questions from spirit.  Typically, oracles have a theme (e.g. plants, angels, divinity) and through various imagery or objects they can offer you messages.  Many oracles work on the principle of the archetype–which is simply a recurring symbol or theme that is common to the human experience.  The maiden, mother, and crone are three such archetypes, as are the fool and the magician from the tarot.  When you are creating your own oracle, you can choose what kinds of symbolism and energy you might want to connect with.

 

There’s a lot of differing opinions about what you are connecting to with when you connect with an oracle deck.  Again, I think this depends on the person.  Some folks may find that they want it to remain a mystery.  Others believe they are connecting with their higher self or subconscious.  Others believe that they are connecting with some form of the divine or greater spirit, god/goddess, or universal energy.  For some people, these questions matter deeply and for others, they really don’t care where the messages come from as long as they are helpful.  While it doesn’t matter what you believe to create your oracle, it can be a useful exercise to consider what the source(s) of the energy is that you are drawing upon.

My Tree Spirit Oracle – a project I’m still working on!  I got this printed through a print-on-demand printer to see how it would look.  More on POD next week!

Self-created oracles have a certain kind of power that you can’t get from an oracle someone else created.  A self-created oracle is yours, and only yours.  You choose what goes into it.  You create it yourself. You choose your symbols and meanings. You are the only one involved in visioning for it, choosing the archetypes or meanings, choosing the media, choosing how it is used.  Tremendous power exists in self-determination.  You will learn a lot about yourself and what you value through the process of creating your own oracle.  At the same time, recognize that it can be a considerable undertaking, sometimes over a period of time (particularly if you are searching out objects for your oracle).  It may also be limited by your artistic skill, but there are ways around not being able to draw (e.g. fancy lettering, collage, etc). But it is certainly something worth doing as a “next step” for divination work.

 

Setting Vision and  Intentions

For creating your own oracle deck, I have found it helpful to start by meditating and exploring your own intentions. Each person is unique, and an oracle we create is likewise unique, that should in some way reflect upon who we are as people and what our needs for divination are. Some of the questions you might ask to help you set your intentions are:

  • Why do I want to create my own oracle?
  • What kinds of questions do I want to ask?
  • What questions do I ask of my current oracles regularly?
  • What do I like about the oracles/tarot decks that I already have worked with?
  • What don’t I like (or is missing) from the oracles/tarot decks that I already have?
  • Do I have themes or media that I’m particularly drawn to?
  • Do I want to be able to add to my oracle over time?
  • How big do I want my oracle to be? (e.g. simple yes/no/maybe questions or deep understandings?  The more cards/objects, the more complex of questions and answers you can ask).

Once you have some sense of these questions, it is likely a good time to start making your own oracle. If you don’t have a sense of these questions, you might want to meditate on them for a time and return to the oracle project at a later point. Oracle ideas have a way of sneaking up on you–you may one day be struck with the awen (inspiration) and be ready to go after months of not being sure what to do. That’s ok–these things are rooted in spirit and they work on their own time and in their own way.

 

The Tarot of Trees

Your Oracle: Established Meanings or New Ground

Planning is your first step, and a multitude of options exist for you designing your own oracle.  First, you have to decide if you are going to use an established set of meanings (runes, ogham, or Tarot) for your basis for creating an oracle or if you are going to create something entirely new and unique.  This is an important choice.  Here are your two options:

 

Using and adapting an established oracle/tarot system.

Choosing to use something that is already established (runes, tarot, ogham, etc) gives you a basic blueprint of how to proceed.  Your major work using this approach is interpretation and manifestation. Your planning, then, has a lot to do with how you interpret the existing body of meanings to your specific theme and plan. If you are going to start with a set of established meanings–then those meanings will be a guide as you plan your deck. In this case, the plan is already before you (e.g. 78 cards, 4 suits + major arcana in the case of the tarot, 22 ogham staves in the case of the ogham, etc). Your job is simply to interpret those archetypes how you see fit.

 

The Tarot of Trees took this approach–I made a tarot deck. I changed some of the meanings and adapted the suits to fit a seasonal and elemental approach, but ultimately, the suits and cards are familiar to anyone who works with other Tarot decks.  There’s still a lot of room for flexibility and creativity in this approach but it does give you some structure, which is helpful to many people.  In the case of the Tarot of Trees, I focused on one tarot card at a time, starting with the majors.  I meditated on each of the traditional meanings and then envisioned what that might be when translated to a tree focus.  I read different interpretations of the cards. Thus, while some of my cards were fairly classical (the 3 of swords) others, like the Wheel of the Year (Wheel of the Seasons in the Tarot of Trees) or the Heirophant, went off in interesting directions.

 

Creating an entirely new oracle system.

The alternative is to go off in a completely new direction and create an entirely new oracle that is specific to you and that does not use an existing framework. This allows you to create something entirely unique, with your own symbology and meanings. Deeply personal oracles that are self-created have real power because they speak directly to you and are created by you. I highly recommend you do so at some point on your spiritual journey! In this case, your work is very different.  Not only are you creating the oracle itself, but also the entire framework and system for meaning. Let me give you two examples, which will help illustrate this process.

 

The Ancestor Oracle Deck is one such example that I’ve created (not the only one I’ve made, but the only I’ve shared publicaly on this blog prior to this post). In this case, I wanted to create an oracle deck that evolved as my own life did–I wanted to create an ancestor deck that I could connect with and use at Samhain, and I wanted to be able to add ancestors to my deck as loved ones passed on as part of my own mourning process. Obviously, since this deck was so personal, I would never publish it or share it with anyone else (and I’m even careful about which cards I photograph).  This deck had a very specific and meaningful purpose for me–a tool to use for divination, but also for my altar, and my mourning work as I lose someone important.  In the case of creating this deck, I did some pre-planning.  In the weeks leading up to Samhain, I opened up a sacred grove and invited my ancestors in. I reflected on each of them, and began to keep a running list of three things:  who they were, what they meant to me, and what core symbolism I might use to represent them. In the weeks following that, I created the deck itself and made the imagery (see link above for that process). I made a lot of extra cards for that deck, as I know that my collection of ancestors will grow as my dear ones pass. After I made the initial deck, I also spent some time with Ancestry.com, doing my DNA test, and learning much more about my distant ancestors.  At this Samhain, I’m going to be adding some of those more distant ancestors that I’ve been connecting to–my oldest tracable ancestors, for example, and some of the core family clans.  The deck itself has also helped

My ancestor oracle

I used a very different approach to create the Plant Spirit Oracle (PSO).  Unlike the Ancestor Oracle, which I planned out in advance, the PSO was extremely inductive.  I didn’t even know I was creating an oracle till I was about 7 or 8 paintings into the process!  I was doing some serious journey work with the Celtic Golden Dawn system.  As part of that system, you work with elemental groves and journey between those groves.  Each journey introduces you to a guide.  When I started the process, I met a plant–black cohosh–and she showed me a painting as part of my journey.  I painted it.  I kept doing these pathworkings every few weeks.  I’d meet plant spirits, and gain an image of what to paint, and use the painting process itself as a meditative tool.  Sometimes I would have to journey further to get the meanings or have the meanings revealed to me through meditation, even after already getting the image of what I wanted to paint. For this oracle, I did not plan it in advance, but once I got later in the process and had most of it complete, I did figure out an overall organization for the deck that worked with what I had and created a few cards tht “filled in” the gaps of the meanings I needed,  I would say, it was almost an intuitive and spirit-led approach.

And so, some general principles we can take away from these two examples:

Like most things, multiple options exist for how to proceed for designing your own oracle. One is the intuitive or inductive approach, where you simply work with one card or object at a time and use intuition/spirit to get you where you are going (my example of the Plant Spirit Oracle).  The other approach is and one is the plan-ahead or deductive approach (which is what I did with the Ancestor Oracle).  Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks, and they really will depend on who you are, the vision you have, and how you are most comfortable proceeding.  You might also find that a bit of both is the best approach–planning what you know you want to include, and leaving the rest up to divine inspiration as you create.

If you are coming into this process with a fairly strong vision for your oracle, it might pay to plan it in advance.  That is, it might pay you to sit down and map out what the meanings are that you want to create, the kinds of things you need in your oracle, what you want it to look like, and maybe even ideas on how you’ll read it and use it.  A map (visual) or outline can be helpful as you plan, think through, and revise before beginning.

If you are not coming in with a strong vision, then I suggest you simply look to the world around you for inspiration and use your core spiritual practices to get you there.  As you are in the act of creating, you may come across experiences or things in nature that resonate–write them down, collect them and help build them into your oracle.  Or you can create or adapt a specific set of practices just for oracle creation.

 

Whew!  There’s a lot to think about when it comes to which path you want to take to creat your oracle.  Now, we move into the next phase of creation.  You will need to make decisions about what (matter) and what the meanings will be (spirit).

 

Matter: Options for Making Your Oracle

You can make your oracle literally out of anything–collage or found images, photography, hand-paintings, small objects like bones, wood burned slices of wood, stones, acorn shells and much more more. Even if you have you have not honed your drawing or painting skills, there are still lots of other options for you. I’ll cover some of those options here and offer you some ideas to get you started.

Paper-based options

 

A handpainted “mockup” deck of the PSO to figure out how to best use it!

Paper-based options are good for oracles–a heavy paper (like watercolor or bristol) stands up well to repeated use, and paper-based oracles can travel easily. Here, play around with some potential ideas till you find something you really like and start to make the cards.  cards can be any size or shape (and feel free to get creative here–round oracle cards are a thing). Make a few mock-up cards and see how the awen is flowing. If you are thinking of going this route, here are some options for you.

 

  • Pre-cut cards.  If you look online, you can easily find different sizes of pre-cut cards that are ready to go.  These include various kinds of colors, thicknesses, etc.  Using these as a starting point is a great way to go–get some stamps or markers, or your printer, and away you go!
  • Watercolor backgrounds and Lettering:  An oracle can be made just of watercolor backgrounds and lettering (see the watercolor background technique in the Ancestor Oracle post).  Anyone can make these backgrounds, and if you put them on a good watercolor paper, you can end up with a really nice place to start for images or lettering.
  • Lettering is an art form in and of itself and does not require the same level of skill as drawing. I would suggest checking out this list for books that can inspire you.
  • You could use a handmade paper technique where you use recycled papers or natural materials.  Again, handmade paper techniques are easy to learn and require no drawing ability.  Then put some nice lettering on your cards and away you go!
  • Handpainted cards:  Create fully handpainted cards.  Paint them at the size, or patin them larger.  I did both for the Plant Spirit Oracle:  I made a “mockup” deck work out the meanings and uses for the Plant Spirit Oracle.  I also had larger 11×14″ paintings for each.  For the Ancestor Oracle, I made only one card, and that was handpainted.
  • Collage techniques.  Gather up some inspirational magazines, glue, and some heavy cardstock and go to town! You can create wonderful, intuitive collages (similar to a vision boarding technique).  You can do these very intuitively–light some candles, put on some quiet music, and put yourself in a good place.  Then, go through the magazines and material and pull things out that speak to you.  Cut them, and assemble them into cards with words and pictures.  An oracle is born!
  • You can do digital art and then do a one-shot print run (such as through makeplayingcards.com).  Or you can print them out locally or on your home printer.  I did this for my Tree Spirit Oracle (which may or may not become a deck I release).
  • You can carve vegetables or various kinds of blocks (wood, linoleum) and create a printed deck (I’ve always wanted to do this, but haven’t gotten to it yet.  But I did make a set of cool elemental garden flags some time ago!)
  • You can also do basic stamp techniques with natural materials like leaves, etc.
  • There are papers you can get that turn colors when exposed to the sun. Use these with natural materials to create amazing and accurate prints. Look for “sun print paper” or “sun-sensitive paper”.
  • Doodles/pen and ink.  Zentangle techniques are meditative and fun and again, something anyone can do. These done intuitively with words or images would make a really cool oracle!

These are just some of many, many paper-based media options.  Play around and see what speaks to you.  Browse places like Deviant Art or Instagram to get ideas of what is possible and what may speak to you.

Object and Wooden options

Because of the prevalence of oracle decks, sometimes we forget that other materials also make great oracles.  Thus, your oracle does not have to be paper-based but rather can be made of objects of all kinds.  Objects give you a different kind of interaction, a much more tactile interaction, and can be a lot of fun to put together.

  • Found natural objects: sticks, stones, shells, and feathers can make a great oracle deck.  Put different gathered objects together in a bag, assign meanings, and you are ready to roll.
  • Stones: Collect or purchase different colored stones.  Paint them (or not) and assign meanings. You might also want to tumble them or leave them as is.
  • Bones.  In the hoodoo tradition, throwing the bones is a very common divination practice.  I have a friend who has a wonderful bone set–she collected them all herself, over time, and she also created a great casting cloth (see below) for her bone set.
  • Wood and sticks: You can do a lot with different kinds of wood, either slices of wood cut with a miter saw or sticks cut just with little hand tools. You can slice off one end of a stick and give meaning or symbol. Wood rounds make excellent sets for runes and other things. Woodburning these works best (see a photo of my ongoing East Coast Woodlands Ogham project for a simple example).
  • Clay:  You can do natural pottery (fired in a hot bonfire), air dry clay, or polymer clays like Sculpey or fimo.  You can shape things with them, or roll them out, use a little circle to cut out shapes, and then press other things into them (like stamps, old buttons, etc).  I would recommend you think about the portability of clay objects–how heavy will they be together?

 

Spirit: Developing Meanings and Uses

The spirit of the oracle refers to what it means and how you use it.  Meanings and how you gain those meanings are obviously central to any oracle deck. Developing an oracle, even if you plan it in advance, requires working with it to finalize the meanings and develop your understanding and relationship with that oracle.

Developing meanings

I began talking about how to develop meanings above, and I will continue that discussion here.  The first way of developing meanings is through lots and lots of research. My East Coast Ogham project, for example, is mostly a research-heavy project where I explore the different history, folklore, herbalism, physical uses, and mythology surrounding trees here in the eastern part of the USA and then derive my own meanings for it. That project has been a labor of love, and when you see a sacred tree post from me, that’s part of that project.  (Thus far, I’ve covered Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak as part of that project!).  I’ve made many more tree stick oghams that aren’t yet researched.  Each of these trees requires many hours to research, but the process is so rewarding.  In the end, this oracle will probably take me the longest of any I’ve created–but it will be all hand-gathered and from the heart.

 

The second way of developing meanings is through spiritual work such as meditation, nature observation, and sprit journeying. That’s how I developed the Plant Spirit Oracle. I did extensive journeying over a 4 year period and through those journeys, received not only the design of each card but their overall meanings. I already shared that process above a bit.

 

Another way of developing meanings is by meaningful personal association.  This was how I developed the Ancestor Oracle.  I had ancestors, I wanted to think about their role in my life and what messages they might have.  Sometimes, I had done spirit journeying work with them, and other times, it was simply what I remembered of them, stories I had been told, or what they meant to me personally.  For example, in the Ancestor Oracle, I have a card for “The Conservationists.”  I honor those who worked to create the beautiful state and national parks that I so enjoy as a druid.  This included many of the members of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built cabins, created paths, and really built our national and state park system here in PA from the ground up. I created that card several years ago and each Samhain, I honor those as one kind of ancestor of this land. I was only a few weeks ago I was camping with my family, and we were staying at Parker Dam State Park staying for the weekend in one of those CCC-built cabins.  My mother mentioned to me that my great-great uncle had been a member of the CCC.  How delighted I was to find this out! Now the card takes on additional meaning, as now it also represents at least one ancestor of my blood. These are the kinds of personal and meaningful associations that can develop over time, even after you finish your oracle.

Ancestor oracle

The final way is if you are working with an existing framework (tarot, ogham, runes, etc) and making it your own.  This is what I did with the Tarot of Trees. To do this, I first started by working with other tarot decks and books and just learning how the Tarot worked.  I took my own notes and as I used these decks, I intuited my own interpretations over time.  I painted the first card of the Tarot of Trees–the Tower–to better understand this card through meditation (I do a lot of meditation through my bardic arts).  Then I just kept going.  The general idea here is that you need to understand the system you are working with enough to interpret it and adapt it in whatever way you choose.  You can also add cards or subtract cards–this is your work.  For example, in the Tarot of Trees in the 3rd edition, I added a 79th card to the deck, “regeneration.”  This card, for me, was about hope and life.  I did this after studying permaculture design and feeling empowered about the potential role that humans could play in regenerating the earth.

 

Regardless of how you create your meanings, the final thing to remember here is that meanings and oracles evolve.  Even with original meanings, you have to work with the oracle to figure out the fine details of the meanings, the ways that different cards might interact, and the ways that you interact with your creation.  Allow for flexibility and time for these meanings to develop and understand that this is a process.  Keep a journal of what you understand the meanings to be, and allow yourself to

 

Developing Ways of Use

So you have an oracle and you have some basic meanings. Congratulations! The final thing you need to consider is how you can ask questions: that is, how do you draw objects or cards when you ask questions? How might you arrange them in a logical fashion?  You have lots of options here as well.

  • For cards and objects, you might consider different kinds of spreads.  You can invent your own spreads for use with your divination system or you can use previously created spreads that you like. For example, a commonly used spread in the Tarot community is the Celtic Cross spread. Experiment with your oracle, see what kinds of placement and meanings speak to you.  I suggest you start simple and then work your way to more elaborated spreads and readings.
  • You can also use different kinds of casting techniques.  These are particularly useful for objects like runes, bones, stones, etc.  Perhaps you craw one after another out of a bag.  Perhaps you cast the entirely of your oracle on a casting cloth, where different positions and directions on the cloth mean different things.  Perhaps you draw 4 then drop them on a table, seeing which directions they point and how they interact.  If you google “Casting cloth” you will see a lot of possibilities for existing casting cloths that can help you be inspired to create your own.
  • Consider interaction: how do different cards interact with other cards?  how might they

 

Tree Spirit Oracle

 

 

Use your Oracle

Oracles are meant to be used, either by you or perhaps by you reading for others.  The process of creation continues as you use your oracle, develop deeper meanings and relationships between the different cards/objects, and develop a deep connection between it and yourself.  I’d like to conclude by suggesting that you allow yourself flexibility in adding and adapting your oracle even after you consider it “done” as you never know what new meanings or messages spirit will have for you.

 

As a reminder, my sister and I are working to get the Plant Spirit Oracle released by early next year!  If you are interested in the PSO, please visit the Indigogo crowdfunding campaign.  We have lots of levels and extra perks.  Please check it out!

 

Using an Oracle or Tarot Deck to Establish Sacred Space

Plant Spirit Oracle

As some of you may know from my posts on Facebook and Instagram, in early 2020, I’ll be releasing the Plant Spirit Oracle as my second self-published divination deck (if you want to support the project, see link in the right sidebar with the Oak image). I described the Plant Spirit Oracle project a bit in an earlier post. For today’s post, I wanted to share a ritual space strategy that I developed as part of the PSO project–how to use a tarot or oracle deck to establish a sacred space.

 

The idea in a nutshell is that rather than calling in th elements or powers in a more static way, you can use an oracle deck to draw upon them in a more dynamic way. Thus, each time you create sacred space, you will be asking the cards to help you select the right energies for the space.  I’ve been using this in my own practices for about a year and it works beautifully. While the Plant Spirit Oracle is used and mentioned below, you can adapt this to be used with any oracle or tarot deck that you enjoy using–I have instructions at the end for how to do so.  Most sacred space openings use one set of energy (e.g. calling air, fire, water, earth, and spirit) and the energy is always the same for any sacred space. This approach allows for the divine/spirit/nature (through the use of the divination deck) to call forth specific energies for a specific need–thus, spirit helps you create the specific sacred space you need. Thus, each sacred space you create using this method is different and unique to your specific circumstances.

 

Tje following segment on how to use the approach is adapted from the fourth chapter of the Plant Spirit Oracle book. While the first three chapters of the book focus on how to use the PSO as a divination tool, the last two chapters offer deeper work.  The fourth chapter focuses on the ritual, magical, and spirit journeying approaches to working with plants in the PSO.  The 5th chapter focuses on herbalism practices–thus, working deeply with the sacred plants both on the outer and inner planes.  And without further delay, here is how to establish sacred space with an oracle deck!

 

Excerpt from the Plant Spirit Oracle Book: Establishing Sacred Space with the Plant Spirit Oracle

To do many of the deeper activities with the PSO as described in this chapter, you will want to establish a sacred space in which to work. You may even find it useful to establish a sacred space when using this oracle for meditation or divination purposes. Creating a sacred space can help you get into a more receptive mindset and clear away (and keep away) negative energies that may interfere in your work.  It also helps you create a mental shift, shifting you from “everyday time” to “sacred time.”

 

Preliminaries: Setting up a physical space is an important part of establishing sacred space. If you are indoors, you might set up a small altar with candles, incense, herbs, and so on. This is also a place to put your PSO deck for use during the ceremony. If you are outdoors, find a quiet space you are drawn to, and, if you feel led, make a small natural altar from stones, sticks, flowers, and such. Lay out a cloth and your PSO deck in the center of the space.

 

The Great Soil Web of Life

Opening a Sacred Space

 

Step 1: Clear yourself and the space. Begin by using a technique to clear yourself and the area around you. For example, you can use a smoke cleansing (smudge) stick of dried herbs. Clear yourself and smudge the space. If you don’t have a smoke clearing stick, you can burn some kitchen herbs (Sage or Rosemary) on a piece of charcoal. Alternatively, make a strong tea of herbs (Sage, Rosemary) and then asperge yourself and the area by flicking drops of the tea around with a branch or your fingers. If you are outside, you can use a branch with leaves or pine needles to asperge the space. You can also use music, like ringing a bell, sounding a drum, or using a singing bowl.

 

Step 2: Declare your intent for the ceremony. Indicate to the spirits why you are establishing this sacred space. Are you working with the oracle for divination? Finding your plant spirit ally? Journeying? Let the spirits know. Here is an example: “Sacred plant spirits, I call to you to assist me in doing a plant spirit journey to learn deeper wisdom from the Reishi.”

 

Step 3: Shuffle your PSO deck. As you shuffle, keep your sacred intent for the ceremony in mind.

 

Step 4: Call forth four plant spirit allies. Now walk to the east with the oracle cards in hand. Hold the deck up to the east and say, “Spirits of the East! Powers of the Air! I call to you to reveal my eastern guardian.” Draw a card from the PSO and speak the plant’s name. Then say, “I thank you [plant] for your protection and wisdom this day.” Set the card down in the east as you move to the south.

 

In the south, repeat the above: “Spirits of the South! Powers of Fire! . . .”

 

Move to the west and repeat the above: “Spirits of the West! Powers of Water! . . .”

 

Move to the north and repeat the above: “Spirits of the North! Powers of the Earth! . . .”

 

Move to the center of your space put your deck on the ground. Say, “Spirits of the land beneath me, spirits of the interconnected web of all life, I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit below. . . .”

 

Stay in the center and raise your deck to the sky above you. Say, “Spirits of the skies above, the celestial turning wheel of the stars. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit above. . . .”

 

Hold the deck to your chest and say, “Spirits of the spark of life, of the hope of regeneration. I call to you to reveal my guardian spirit within. . . .”

 

As you do all of this, you are physically creating a circle of cards around you (leave them for the duration of the ceremony if you feel so moved).

 

Step 5: Envision a circle of plant protection. Stand in the middle of your space and visualize the energies from the seven cards creating a powerful protective sphere of plant matter around your space. When you have this firmly visualized, say, “I thank the powers of nature and the plant spirits for their protection and healing.” Gather up your cards (or leave them in place, if you are not doing divination or do not need the full deck). The sacred space is now open.

Closing a Sacred Space

Once you have completed whatever work you want to do with the PSO, you should close out your sacred space. Closing out the space helps you return to normal space.

 

Step 1: Make an offering. Make an offering to the plant spirits who have helped you hold your space.  If you do not have a physical offering, you can offer these words or your own:

 

“By bramble and by seed; by star and by thorn; by root and by bud, I honor you, great spirits of nature. Earth mother, plant spirits, thank you for your wisdom and guidance.”

 

Step 2: Thank the four directions and plant spirits. Now, move to the north and thank the plant spirit who protected the space, saying, “Spirits of the North, powers of Earth, and [plant spirit], thank you for your wisdom and protection this day.” Move to the west, south, and east, and repeat, phrasing appropriately.

 

Step 3. Return energy of the plant protection circle to the earth. Return to the center of your space and once again focus on the energy of the plant protection circle that you created. Envision any remaining energy moving out of the sphere and into the earth, for her healing and blessing.

 

Step 4: Close your space. Cross your arms and bow your head, saying, “I thank the plant spirits for their wisdom and blessings.”

 

 

Example Sacred Space Opening

Let’s say that you want to do a harvest ritual at the fall equinox to honor the many gifts you have been given, make offerings to spirit, and focus on the quiet of the winter that is to come.  You decide to open up your space using the PSO (or other divination deck). Before beginning your ritual, you clear your mind and focus on the intent. Then, you do the opening ritual as above and you get the following cards at each of the seven directions:

 

There is a clear energy being brought into this space from drawing these particular cards. In the East, we have Spruce, which focuses on openness, journeys, and travel. In the south, we have Catnip, which focuses on opposites, contrasts, or separation. This energy may be helping us overcome those things (depending on the working), or bringing in that energy.  In the west, we have Burdock, which is all about recovery, rest, and fallow periods. In the north is Comfrey, which is about resources, wealth, and personal action. The three center cards are Above/Oak: masculinity, strength, and wisdom; Below/Sweet flag: clarity, concentration, and insight; and bringing it all together is Within/Apple: abundance, comfort, and harvest. These energies, in their different positions, would lend you their strength–bringing in the openness, wisdom, and separation from the “always-on” mentality to allow you to rest; enjoying the resources that you were given; enjoying the abundance of the season. These cards would not only offer you a ritual space but some commentary on the nature of the ritual work you might want to do. They offer you a message on what to focus on as you proceed with your ritual.

Adapting this Practice for Other Oracle/Divination Decks

You can use this same sacred space opening and close with any other oracle deck.  With that said, I suggest you choose carefully.  An oracle deck with weird or dark energy will bring that same kind of energy into a working–which might be appropriate for your purposes or might not.  Each oracle or divination deck has a mind of its own, and may or may not be open to this kind of work.

 

Conclusion

Regardless of what deck you use, this is a very accessible, and yet, deep way to craft a magical space for whatever purposes you might need.  As I mentioned in the opening, the crowdfunding campaign was released this week to fund our print run.  If you are interested in supporting the PSO, please visit the Indigogo page.  We have original art, readings, and the chance to preorder book and deck sets!  As always, thank you for reading and for your support. I hope you find this helpful–and blessings upon your journey this harvest season!

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

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

 

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

 

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

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Recipes and Treats

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

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

 

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

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

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

 

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

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

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

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

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

 

Birch in World Mythology

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

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

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

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

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

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

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

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Weather Prognostication and the Wooly Bear Caterpillar

In the last week, I’ve seen almost 50 wooly bear caterpillars. These caterpillars are also known as “wooly caterpillar”, “bear caterpillar” and “wooly worms” (latin: phyrrhartica isabella). These fuzzy, brown and black caterpillars come out just as the weather grows cold. I often find hidding in woodpiles or garden mulch getting ready to hibernate till the spring. The cold seems to summon them forth–you see nothing of them all summer, and then, a few weeks before Samhain they are everywhere. And, dear readers, they are here with a message.

 

These caterpillars, not unlike other famous wildlife in the area, have long been known to predict the harshness of winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar has more brown than black, that means the winter is mild. But, if the caterpillar has more black than brown, the winter will be tough. Here’s a graphic I made to share this wooly bear caterpillar prognostication!

 

The more advanced version of this was taught to me by my grandfather, George Custer, who said that you can “read” the beginning and end of winter with the caterpillar. The brown and black do matter, but the more black at the beginning of the caterpillar, the harsher the beginning of winter will be. The more black at the back of the caterpillar, the more harsh the end of winter will be, and the more prolonged.

Here’s some live examples from photos I’ve taken over the last few years.  This wooly was from last year (and did, in fact, predict a terribly harsh and cold winter!)

 

 

This is a wooly I just found this year–I’m hoping this little guy is right and that winter will be mild and very pleasant!

 

There are stories about where this tradition originated and how it was popularized in the mid 1800’s (you can read more here). This particular folk tradition appears to exist all along the Appalachian mountains, anywhere that the caterpillar typically lives. And the wooly bear is not the only weather prognosticator in this region; we also have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog 45 minutes north of where I live who also does weather predictions about winter and the coming of spring.

 

I think that embracing these kinds of folk traditions is an important part of rewilding our druid and nature-based spiritual practices. These kinds of locally-based traditions get is more intune and aware of our surroundings.  And folk traditions, whether rooted or not in reality, have tremendous power.

 

Before modern weather prediction, humans relied on a large number of subtle cute from the land and clouds to know what kinds of weather was happening and what to expect both short term and throughout the winter.  Preparation for winter, effective preparation, was critical to survival.  Being able to read the land in this way was a skill that many people once had. I don’t think a lot of us realize how much we see without understanding.  A book ( Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty).  really helped illustrate just how much I didn’t know, and Gatty’s book is a great place to start regaining this lost wisdom.  Gatty shares a lot of information about how to read the landscape, the clouds, the trees, and so on to establish prevailing wind patterns, read the weather, and get from one place to another. His is a rather scientific and observational approach. I like to combine his approach with more esoteric approaches, like the wooly bear’s weather predictions. The combination of these things can help us be more aware and prepared in our environment.

 

The Wooly Caterpillar!

The Wooly Caterpillar!

 

I love seeing the wooly bear caterpillars this time of year. Yes, they say, winter is coming. And yes, you need to prepare. I think its great that they live in my woodpile–just what I need to be attending to before winter comes. I hope that you, dear readers, are settling in. The caterpillars tell me that winter will be fairly mild this year.

 

(I’d also be delighted to hear about other folk customs of similar animal/insect divinations if you have any to share!)