The Druid's Garden

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

Earthen Nature Spirit Statues with Cob September 15, 2019

An earth spirit statue in my greenhouse, freshly made with sticks and an oak gall

A lifetime ago, myself and a dear friend dug some clay out of a hillside.  We each took half of it.  My half of the clay was used to form an earthen statue, a guardian statue, for that same friend who was struggling with terminal cancer while still in his early 20’s. It had a wooden tree knot head, stones for its belly, a stick staff, and an earthen body.  My friend accepted it reverently, and it went with him everywhere, even till the end. As he struggled with his battle with cancer, it grew nicked and chipped.  The wooden head fell off, just as my friend’s brain cancer grew more serious. When he passed on, the earthen statue passed on with him, returning to the earth. This statue was an impermanent being; fashioned of unfired clay. It was brittle, yet, in its own way, full of strength. It was ephemeral, and yet perfect in its lack of permanence.  It was a spirit statue, channeled from nature, with a bit of spirit within it, there to help my friend on his journey.

 

I had forgotten about this small statue until quite recently.  I’ve been cobbing several times a week, working to get my back greenhouse cobblestone/cob heatsink wall done.  One day, I had just a little cob left over. Not enough to set more stones on the wall, but enough to play with.  I started to shape it and felt the power of the Awen and of spirit flowing through me.  I saw a vision of all of these earthen statues, shaped, with sticks, shells formed and strong. I saw them left, to break down quietly in the elements and return to the earth with her blessing. And then, I remembered that earthen statue that I made all those years ago to try to provide healing and strength for my friend. And so, I’ve been experimenting working with such earth spirit statues. After sharing a few of my photos with friends, several suggested that I write about how I make these and how I use them ceremonially.  So today’s post, part of my cob building series, looks at the process of making earthen nature spirit statues all from simple materials found in your local landscape.  This is something that ANYONE can do, regardless of artistic skill.  So let’s get muddy!

 

Ephemeral Sacred Objects

In earlier posts on this blog, I worked with the idea of building nature shrines and sacred spaces of all kinds.  One of the things I often stressed as part of that work was not bringing things into those spaces that might be harmful or damaging to the land.  So I suggested natural things, things like shells, stones, wood, bones–things that you gather yourself, from the land, and allow to return to the land.  Or I suggested things that would easily return to the land, like wood burned object, hand-dyed natural fibers, etc. These will break down quickly due to the elements, but that’s exactly the point.

 

Many earth spirit statues

As I have talked about over the last few weeks, Cob is a natural building material made of clay, sand, and straw.  When you make something from Cob, it’s not fired.  It will not hold up to water. It will break down in the snow, wind, rain, and ice. Why, then, would you make statues out of cob if you know they will break down? First, because there is a magic in impermanence, magic in the making.  When you know something is only going to be a certain way only for a short period of time, it holds additional value.  For example, when my strawberry patch starts to produce the best-tasting strawberries, I know there is a short window, maybe 2 weeks, where I get to enjoy them fresh from the plant.  The rest of the year, I might enjoy preserves, but never that fresh succulent strawberry right from the vine.  Sacred objects can be like that too–an object you carefully construct, with the full knowledge that it will be broken down, creates a different kind of relationship. A sacred relationship based on the immediate moment. Creating these statues asks you to be in a place for this moment in time, to simply be present, making these, working with the cob between your hands. Letting the natural objects find their own shape and in their own time.  And not rushing it.   For there is much magic in the making.

 

There is magic in the making, and there is magic in the placing. An earthen spirit statue’s goal is to return gracefully to the land.  If you want, you can work slow magic with these, on nature’s time and at nature’s pace, as part of this work.  Almost all of my earthen spirit statues are used for the purposes of land healing.  As I shape them, I speak my healing words into them, I work healing energies through my fingertips. I sing, I chant, I smile, I laugh. I put the energy of life and light into my statues. And maybe when they are done, I put some more into them ritually, adding the powers of the elements and the sacred animals of the druid tradition.  Then, they become like little healing shrines all to themselves.  Carefully wrap one and put it in your backpack while you are on a hike, leaving it in the nook of a tree.  Place one on a stone in a stream, knowing the floods will carry it away.  Bury one in a snowdrift in a logged forest to offer peace to the survivors.  Offer one to your local lady of the lake.  Place one in your garden to nurture your plants to grow, letting it become soil you will plant in.

Gathering Materials and Decorations

There are two parts to an earthen spirit statue.  Natural items, such as feathers, leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, roots, seeds, and more are one of those parts. Take a small basket into the woods, beach, bog, desert or whatever is near you.  Walk intentionally and slowly, letting small bits of nature speak to you.  If they call out, pick them up, and leave an offering in thanks.  Once you have a good selection to work with, its time to make your cob!

 

Making Cob

And so, let us put our feet and hands into the earth and make our cob! For an introduction to our delightful material, you should look at the introduction to cob construction here, and how to make cob here. I will also offer basic instructions here, as they differ slightly from the instructions on my introduction to cob page. In a nutshell, cob is a combination of clay, sand, and straw.  This combination, in the right amount (1 part clay/silt to 2 parts sand) makes a perfect material for building earthen spirit statues.

To make your cob:

  • Dig down to the subsoil (see here for more details).  Fill up part of a wheelbarrow (1/2 or so).  Screen it, removing any rocks, sticks, or other debris.  The goal is to have just clay, sand, and straw.
  • Put your material on a tarp.  Make a well in the center of the soil, and then, add water.  Mix with your feet, putting your prayers, energy, and love into that material.  Dance with the spirits as you dance on your cob.  Take a side of your tarp and flip the cob, adding more water to make a good firm dough consistency.
  • If you want extra strength, you can add a bit of fine straw.  To add straw, take your scissors and carefully cut the straw up into 1/2 in pieces or less.  then sprinkle it through, working it in with your feet.
  • Pick up some of your cob.  It should hold its shape well and you should be able to work it.  Add more soil if its too wet and more water if it’s too dry and crumbly.
  • The goal is a nice firm but doughy texture that will hold its shape and that you can form.

 

Goose blessing of my cob

Make Your Statues

Make your statues however you see fit.  the easiest way is to create a cylinder by rolling the cob in your hands or on a solid surface. Then, find the natural objects you want to include.  Press them into the cob, shaping it as you go.  Stick some sticks coming out of it, shells, or dried turkey tail mushrooms (or similar small polypore mushroom). Let the objects speak to you, and let the clay speak to you. Make no thought if it is “good” or “right”; refrain from any value judgments. Your goal is to channel the spirits of nature, and they are not concerned with the physical vessel you are creating.  Don’t fuss over it.  Let it be complete, and make another.  And another, and another, until you feel you are done.  As you make, laugh. Get muddy. Sing to the statues, drum.  Call for the sacred powers of nature who might aid you.  Put happy, healing, and light energy into your work.  Let go.

 

Bless your statues

If you feel the need, you can do an additional blessing for your statues.  Draw upon the power of earth, air, fire, and water, and give a blessing to them–smudge them with incense, drip some beeswax on them or hold them to the flame.  Give them some water drips, smear them with soil.

 

More earth spirit statues!

Place your statues

Find a home for your statues in the nooks and crannies of the landscape.  They want to travel, go somewhere, send their healing energy out as they begin to break down. Put them in unconventional places.  Put the in places in need of light and healing.  Put them on nature shrines.  Put them in your druid’s anchor spot. Visit them and watch them break down, or leave them never to return. You can put one on your altar for a while, but make an agreement between the two of you how long it will be there so that you can return it at the right time (these energies are meant to move between you and the land freely). There is no right or wrong path, just you, the spirits of nature, and how spirit moves through you.

 

Papermaking III: Cattail Leaf Paper (A Learning Experience) December 11, 2012

In my quest for sustainable art supplies and things for daily living, I’m always experimenting with ways of replacing commercially produced materials with homemade ones.  And so, my papermaking quest continues. For earlier posts on papermaking, you can read about the basic process for recycled paper here and making cattail head paper here.

I had a friend recently ask me about making handmade paper from the cattail leaves in winter.  I was skeptical because of their toughness (and my lack of a Hollander blender, which is a industrial-strength blender that is a papermaker’s dream for preparing tough fibers) but I thought I’d give it a go and post the results here.  I’m going to walk you through my process and talk about what worked and the things I would change.  I will start by saying that making paper from any kind of natural material is a lengthy process, and the tougher the fibers, the more difficult the process.  This is why I posted about cattail seed/head fibers first–they are really simple compared to leaf fibers :).

The overall process of turning tough fibers into paper: For most plant materials, to create pulp, you have to break down the non-cellulose materials in the plant (usually through boiling in soda ash or lye).  This is usually a lengthy process. If you are cooking fibers, you want an enamel or stainless steel pot–an aluminum pot will react with the Soda Ash or lye that you need to use to break down fibers. A typical cooking takes about 4 hours.  Soda ash (Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda) can be used in your home.  It kind of stinks, but its not toxic.  If you are breaking fibers down with lye (which is needed for some really tough fibers) then you will need to boil your pulp outside because lye is toxic and releases some toxic fumes.  This is where having an outdoor rocket stove can be so useful!  After you boil the fibers down, you will rinse them, beat them, and then rinse them again.  At this stage, hopefully, you will have something resembling pulp!  So this is the basic process that I used for the cattail leaf fibers, although, as I describe, each time you work with a new material it is a learning experience.

Harvesting Leaves:  If you are a home papermaker and lack any equipment heavier than a typical home blender, you absolutely do not want to attempt anything with with tough stalk material (like stalk of phragmites or the stalk of the cattail).  They are too tough and difficult for you to use.    So I decided just to harvest the cattail leaves (many of which are brown and dead by my pond).  I harvested enough for a test batch (and in this first photo, you’ll see that I also harvested some other reed things I don’t know the name of but I plan on trying to make paper from at a later point.)  I will also say that if you are serious about making this paper, harvesting is the easiest part.

Harvested Fibers

Harvested Fibers

Soaking and Preparing Leaves for Cooking.  I brought the leaves back inside, I pulled out any that were rotten or otherwise looked dark or partially broken down  That left me with a bunch of leaves that I tore up and added to a pot of water to soak overnight.   Here’s the first thing I would change–the fibers I ripped were WAY to long.  I left them about 5″ long, thinking that they would break down further with beating and cooking.  Uh, no, they don’t. So I would suggest taking scissors to them and chopping them up to 1″ and 1/2″ pieces. This will save you trouble later.

Fibers in pot before soaking

Fibers in pot before soaking

Cooking fibers. After a full 24 hour soak, I was ready to cook my fibers.  I cooked them on high for 4 hours with a half a cup of soda ash (Super Washing Soda).  It stunk up the house, but that’s how it goes when you are making paper :).  Here is a shot of the fibers as they are cooking. The fibers will get less hard, and more pliable.  They’ll also get a lot darker.  Once the fibers cool, dump the water and rinse the fibers a few more times.

Cooking fibers

Cooking fibers

Beating fibers. After your fibers are cool, you can go ahead and beat them a bit. Cattail leaves have some stuff inside of them that isn’t good for paper (it makes things kind of sticky) so its always necessary to beat them after cooking them.  I started with a little wooden mallet, but I quickly shifted to using my rubber boots and jumping on the whole stack because, hey, its cold outside in Michigan in December and that little mallet would have taken an hour.  They spurt water too, so stomping them is best.  This is really where you start to see the pump taking form.

Mashing Fibers with Mallet

Mashing Fibers with Mallet

Better mashing of fibers

Better mashing of fibers

Rinse fibers.  At this point, I took my fibers back into the kitchen and rinsed them.  I was done for the day, so I left them sit on the counter soaking in more water overnight.

Rinsing fibers

Rinsing fibers

Cutting fibers. Now, if I had a professional hollander blender, I could avoid the beating fibers and rinsing and cutting, and just stick the things in the hollander blender.  But I don’t have one, so fiber prep is a lot of work.  I found that my fibers were WAAAAYYY to long to make a good pulp, and there was no way a regular or immersion blender or household tabletop blender could handle them due to their length. This left one option: cutting them up.  If you took my advice and cut them up earlier on, it would be easier than doing this at this stage.  It might even be possible to blend them, which would be a really good thing.   But here I go, cutting up my fibers!

Cutting up fibers

Cutting up fibers

Making the paper. At this stage, after about 6 hours of gathering, processing, cooking, beating, I have some pulp.  Honestly, the pulp isn’t that great because its too fibrous and not too pulpy. I think if I had cooked it down in lye and cut it shorter, I would have had a better fiber.  The lye breaks it down more than the soda ash.  But I went with what I had. I pulled four sheets with just the cattail fiber (which didn’t couch well, but dried really interesting) using the methods I described in my earlier post.  The fully cattail fiber paper doesn’t hold together well either–but that really has to do with the size of the fibers and the fact that I couldn’t get them any smaller.  For half the batch, I decided to add some abaca fiber (commercially prepared) to make it more pulpy and that paper looks great.  Here are some final photos.

Solid cattail fiber paper

Solid cattail fiber paper

Solid cattail paper in the light

Solid cattail paper in the light – see how it has patches that are not fully covered?

Cattail paper with abaca fiber

Cattail paper with abaca fiber

Cattail papers with abaca fiber

Cattail papers with abaca fiber

Closing thoughts:  I think that cattail leaf fibers in the winter, when they are dry, represents a challenge for papermakers (especially if you aren’t going to blend the fibers with anything else).  I would instead go with the cattail heads, which are much more straightforward and which you can get throughout the fall, winter, and spring. At the same time though, all the work was worth it because the final paper with abaca pulp is nice.  The fully cattail leaf paper is a bit flimsy, but I can see using it in a mixed media project, but likely not on its own.  The stuff that has abaca fibers holding it together is really, really nice and I could use it for all sorts of things.