The Druid's Garden

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

A Celtic Galdr Ritual for Land Healing May 10, 2017

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

 

Background Information

Eastern Hemlock and the Wooly Adelgid

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

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

 

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

 

Galdr Magic

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

 

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

Duir Duir Duir

Dooo Ahhh Iiiirr

Du Du Du Du

Duir Duir Duir

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

 

Ogham and Tree Magic

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

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

 

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

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

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

 

Wassail

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

 

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

 

Land Healing

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

 

Ritual Setup

Roles:

Four Ritualists:

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

Participants:

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

 

Materials (created in advance):

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Signs for Ogham Ritual

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

 

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

 

Basket or bag for drawing fews.

Pre-Ritual Discussion and Practice

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

 

Step 1: Hemlock Tree Attunement

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

 

Step 2: Ogham Stave Drawing

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

 

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

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

 

The Ritual

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

1. Participants Ground and Clear

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

 

2. Open up a Sacred Space

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

 

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

 

Beith Galdr Leader calls east.

 

Straif Galdr Leader calls south.

 

Quert Galder Leader calls west.

 

Duir Warder calls north.

 

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

 

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

 

3. Participants take their places

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

 

4A. Quert Chants

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

 

4B. Duir Warders Reinforce Circle

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

 

5. Straif Chants

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

 

6. Beith Chants

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

11. Close the Space and Send out Energy

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

 

Duir Warder Leader thanks the north.

 

Quert Galder Leader thanks the west.

 

Straif Galdr Leader thanks the south.

 

Beith Galdr Leader thanks the east.

 

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

 

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

 

Additional Notes and Adaptations

 

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

 

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

           

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Tree Resins from Eastern North America: Harvesting, Crafting, and Incense Making July 31, 2016

Jack Pine Resin - Abundant and Amazing smelling!

Jack Pine Resin – Abundant and Amazing smelling!  I harvested this locally.

Burning incenses, particularly the burning of tree resins, has been known throughout the millennia as a sacred activity. Incenses are offered to the spirits, the land, the gods, the ancestors as a way of seeking communion and blessing. Today, most people who are interested in “natural” incenses gravitate towards resin incenses for their lasting effect, delightful smells, and natural origins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees: trees may be scored or drip naturally and the sap hardens, creating the resin (like Frankincense, Myrrh, Benzoin, Copal).  Others might be dried liquid from trees or fruit (like Dragon’s blood). When you burn the resin on a charcoal block, you get billows of incredible, sweet smelling smoke. Tree resins have an extensive history certain parts of the world, and are often highly revered by the cultures that produce them. For example, when I was in Oman in April (for a professional/work trip), I was amazed to see the frankincense trees and experience the fresh frankincense firsthand. The Omani people see frankincense as a symbol of their culture–it is burned in many public places; ground up and drank in water, and much more!I’ve already listed some of the most common incenses you can purchase–and, like most things, they come from considerable distances and far away places.

 

It is sad, I think, that we don’t do more to honor or local trees that produce incredible resin incenses here in North America, particularly in the Eastern part of the US.  While it is little known, we actually have a large variety of fantastic ingredients for incense making! They are not commercially available or discussed, but they are present and available in the landscape. It is possible that this knowledge has been lost because the native peoples of these lands, those who had the knowledge, were driven off to other lands and/or killed as part of this colonization. I believe that we can relearn and integrate ourselves into our lands more fully–and part of that is the sacred tree knowledge that we hold.

 

Given this, for a good number of years, I have been working to develop local incense sources and locally-based spiritual supplies (see my post on making your own smudge sticks, for example).  And so, in today’s post, I’m going to explore tree resins local to the Eastern USA, particularly the midwest/north-east/mid-atlantic regions, and sharing how to find these resins, how to harvest them, what they smell like, and how to craft basic incenses.

 

What is resin and what tree resins work best?

Tree resins are the sticky and dried sap of trees. In my area, this primarily refers to the sticky and dried sap balls and drips you find on conifers. Conifer resins are not hard to find and are often abundant. Pines, in particular, produce really nice amounts of resin (especially if they have a limb removed/broken and/or are damaged in some way) and most of their resins have a piney/lemony smell.  Spruces also produce nice resins that are typically easy to harvest; the spruce resins are more musky than the pine resins. If you can find it (and this is by no means an easy task), Eastern Hemlock produces the most amazing resin (however, in my visits to thousands of hemlock trees, I’ve only really been able to collect or find resin from two of them). I haven’t yet had a chance to collect resin from the Larch/Tamarak (there are few in this area) so I can’t speak to that specific tree.

 

There are a few non-confier trees that also produce a resin.  Black Cherry produces a resin that hardens and appears a possible candidate  However, I have tried burning this and it doesn’t burn and doesn’t really smell good. But I suspect that some other trees or plants may produce a nice-smelling and nice-burning resin. If any readers know of other plants that produce a nice resin you can harvest–please share and I can update my list.

When and where do you harvest resin?

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

You can harvest conifer resin anytime of the year.  Tree sap flows most abundantly in the spring, and it will often be dried a bit by the fall. I actually like to do a lot of my resin harvesting in the late fall months when I’m starting to look for Chaga mushrooms–whatever resin flows happened that year, they are likely dried out a bit by then and the cold can sometimes make it easier to break off the resin. Although when everything freezes, its hard to harvest the incense in many cases. But most months of the year you can look for it and harvest it.

 

In terms of finding conifers to harvest from, you don’t need to go into the deep woods.  In fact, some trees that are at local parks or along the street produce really good resin because they are often trimmed or damaged.  These damaged trees will ooze from a wound.  The spruce in the photo to the right is along my street and I go past it on my walk to work–that’s how easy it can be to find.  You can also find large patches of conifers in local parks or in forests, and those are well worth your look.  Really, if you just keep your eyes open as you are out and about, you will find abundant supplies of resin.  Just be prepared to harvest it!

 

How do you harvest resin?

Tree resins start out in a fresh form–they are extremely sticky, gooey, and delightful.  Whatever you get them on, they will stay on (so if you harvest with a knife, that knife will likely have resin on it forever).  You can use the resin either in its fresh form, or you can wait for it to dry and crystallize.  I have harvested both and both have their uses (see recipes, below).

 

I typically have a special knife (ok, it is an old butter knife) I use to harvest resin and usually harvest it into plastic cups, small glass jars, or plastic bags.  The knife is pretty much used just for resin–resin is really hard to get off and clean of anything else (requires alcohol, not water). The plastic bags or jars keep it from sticking. If you end up having to clean your tools, you will need to use a high proof alcohol to do so (even rubbing alcohol can work); conifer resins do not clean up or extract in water.  If you are harvesting fresh resin, and put it in a plastic bag, it will never evaporate and turn crystallized; so if you want the crystal stuff, let it crystallize on a tree and/or harvest it into a cup and let it sit somewhere in the sun for a long time.

 

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here....not sure I will ever get the bowl back!

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago after finding it in abundance on a white pine that was cut down. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here….not sure I will ever get the bowl fully clean!

You will need to be patient for the dried form of resin–if you see a tree freshly oozing, its probably necessary to come back in six months, a year, or more, and check it to see if it’s dry (how long it takes depends on the kind of tree). Usually, finding other trees around will allow you to harvest a bountiful amount of incense.

 

When harvesting, remember that tree resin is created when the tree is damaged: the resin essentially “seals” the wound of the tree.  Because of this, when you harvest resin, you want to only harvest from around and/or below the wound of the tree, not the wound itself.  For example, if a tree has had a limb removed, some trees (pines especially) will produce a mountain of resin to seal off the wound. I would not remove this resin, as it is protecting the inner part of the tree.  However, the tree could have produced so much resin that there is excess dripping down the side of the tree.  This is what I would harvest in abundance, as that is not actively sealing off a wound on the tree.  I hope this makes sense: we harvest carefully, and delicately, to ensure our tree brethren are not damaged in the process.

 

Some trees will also drip resin to the forest floor, which you can then scrape off of roots, lift off of the pine needles on the floor, or even pick up crystallized chunks.

 

Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions

Here are some of the tree resins that I have harvested and my description of their smell. All of these trees are easy to find and abundant throughout the Eastern US and parts of Canada:

 

  • White Pine – White pine, the chief of standing people, produces the most amazing incense.  It can be found typically whenever the tree has been cut or broken (like limbs removed). It is a very sticky resin till it dries–and it can take a very long time to dry out (I have some that I have been drying out for 4 years now…it is still partially gooey).  The smell itself when burning is really divine: light, piney, with a hint of vanilla scent; when it burns it almost reminds me of how some whipped cream frosting smells.  I think this is one of my favorite of all conifer incenses and is well worth your time to harvest.

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

  • Jack Pine – Jack pine resin is a light colored, quickly crystallizing, extremely abundant resin (I have a photo of it at the opening of this article).  I had a spot in Michigan where tons of little jack pines were growing and I could easily collect a pint of it in about a half hour–it just crystallized all over the tree very quickly, was rarely sticky, and quite easy to harvest. In terms of smell, it has a very light aroma, piney with hints of lemon orange, very clean and excellent burning.
  • Red pine – Red Pine produces a lot less incense than some other trees, but it is well worth gathering.  Most of the time, I find small chunks of it on the trunk of certain trees because a little bug has burrowed in deep and the tree has responded by producing a chunk of incense (some of which can be removed or will remove itself by flaking and some of which should stay to protect the tree). The incense itself burns with a piney smell that includes almost an orange/cherry undertone. It is very light and refreshing.
  • Blue Spruce – Blue spruce resin can be harder to find, but it is well worth the effort.  It is usually found on the places where the tree is damaged (from being cut or trimmed, etc).  And when it is found, it is found in abundance.  It is an intense incense–it has a very skunky/musky, almost animalistic smell. Some people really like it and others do not–but I’d say, find some, harvest it and see what you think!
  • Norway  Spruce – Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a  skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines, and slightly different than the Blue Spruce.  They often also have an undertone of slightly citrus, slightly floral.  Different trees produce different amounts of the “musky” quality, which can get quite strong in some trees.

Trees that Produce Little Resin

The above trees are my staples for tree resin incense, but I also want to share a few additional trees. These are trees that only produce a tiny amount of resin, but it is worth keeping your eyes open for:

 

  • Eastern Hemlock Resin – As my blog readers know, I very much adore and love the Eastern Hemlock Tree.  Of the thousands of hemlocks I have visited, I have found harvestable resin on only two of the trees. One had a huge gash from logging and had produced some dried resin that I could harvest without damaging; the other had a gash from debris along a riverbed. The broken branches do not produce any resin, nor do cut stumps.  So, if you can find it, it is well worth your time, but it it is incredibly elusive!  The incense itself is extremely light and refreshing with a hint of lemon; it has a very clean smell and smells awesome.  It is comparable to white pine resin, but with more of a lemon/cirtus smell.
  • Eastern White Cedar: Thuja Occidentalis does not like producing much resin at all, but if you can find it, it is really nice.  I have found tiny little beads of resin sometimes on older trees’ trunks and larger branches. The beads burn well and smell very cedar-like, which you would expect.  Because of the lack of abundance of resin, I often burn the needles of this tree (which pop and crackle for quite some time).
  • Juniper / Eastern Red Cedar: thus far, I have not found a juniper tree with any amount of incense to harvest (although I am keeping my eye out!).  However, I burn the berries of this (they smell really wonderful, a strong piney/floral scent) and they also smoulder nicely.  So they have some resinous qualities themselves.

 

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Resins Not Recommended

I want to mention one other tree that produces resin, but that you don’t want to use–and that is Wild/Black Cherry.  Cherries do produce a resin that crystallizes and dries.  However, it doesn’t burn like a typical conifer resin (which smoulders nicely, producing billows of smoke as it boils and burns on the charcoal block); rather, it crackles and pops, it doesn’t want to burn, and when it burns, it kind of just smells like something is burning (dark, earthy smell).  You might be able to grind it up and use it with some other tree incenses, but I’m not sure I’d use it on it’s my own.  I’m still experimenting with it.

 

Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls

You can make a really nice incense from fresh resin in the form of incense balls. Note that if you harvest resin sticky, and then you put it in a bag, it will remain sticky pretty much indefinitely because it is not exposed to air. If you don’t want it sticky, best to let it dry out on the tree for some months and/or years. Trust me.

 

But if you harvest it sticky, and you have a nice clump of it, you can make some great incense balls. Collect the fresh resin itself (I usually do this in an old bowl). Then, I add any other ingredients I would like that are dried and/or finely powdered to the resin: sage, rosemary, mugwort, and so on (you can see a list of my common ingredients that are local and useful in my smudge stick post for some ideas). Eventually, you will work enough plant matter in that the incense takes form. You can test out small amounts until you get a good smell (my favorite is fresh white pine resin with rosemary and sage powder). Form your balls (with your hands or gloves; your hands will need a very good cleaning afterwards–use alcohol). Then, give them a final “roll” in some kind of powder to avoid stickiness.  You can also wrap them up individually in a bit of wax paper.  But what I like to do, is let them sit out for a while (a month or so) and then the outsides will eventually dry out.

 

To use them, simply burn them on a charcoal block.  Different mixes obviously will make different blends–try testing out a few different combinations and seeing which ones you like the smell of best!

 

Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin

The other way to work with the tree resins as incense is to harvest it after it has dried out.  Sometimes, you can find really nice dried piece of resin.  Most dried resins flake easily off of the tree and into your bag/jar.  I like to keep these incenses in a jar somewhere handy–they are beautiful and easy to use.  You might find that before burning them, you want to take a hammer and put them in a bag and mash them up a bit–otherwise, the chunks may be too large to be serviceable.

 

The easiest way to use this resin is simply to burn small chunks of it on a charcoal block in whatever amount you’d like.  Test a small amount first to see how much smoke you get.

 

The other way you can use it is to grind it up into a powder and add other ingredients (tree powders, powdered or finely chopped dried herbs, and the like).  You can see my incense on incense making for more information.  Any of the dried resins can be used in place of more traditional resin ingredients (frankincense, myrrh, etc).  As with all resins, they are not self-combustible, so you would be making again an incense to burn on a charcoal block.  If you used a LOT of woody matter and plant matter, and a tiny bit of resin, you might manage to make a combustible (self-burning) incense, but that’s a bit hard to get the balance right.  Some incense books (like Cunningham’s) use Saltpeter to get things to burn on their own–it is carcinogenic.  Use the charcoal block (non-self lighting).

 

Incense Papers

If you have access to really high proof alcohol (and by this I mean 95%/ 190 proof) another fun thing you can do is to extract the resin in the alcohol and make incense papers, which can be burned.  Essentially only alcohol will extract resins.

Grind up your resin (dried) or add your fresh (I find dried works better for this).  Cover it with your 190 proof alcohol (or as close to that as you can get).  Shake it every day or so, and let it sit at least two months.

The alcohol will extract the components of the resin and produce a resin tincture.

Then, you can drop a bit of this onto a sheet of paper (like Japanese rice paper or standard copy paper) and let the alcohol evaporate.  Then, burn the paper to get some of the scent! I am only starting to experiment with this, but the results are promising (I will probably post more on this in a future post, but wanted to share some initial thoughts here).

 

Energy and Tree Incense

One question you might have is: what spiritual or energetic qualities do these incenses hold?  For this, you need to go back and look at the specific tree.  Here’s a basic list:

  • Pines: Considered a “tree of peace” by some Native American tribes, it also represents longevity, life, immortality.  It can be burned for purification, healing work, and divination.  I see it as our “frankincense” and use it in pretty much the same way.
  • Spruces:  Considered a versatility tree that survives well in northern, cold environments; it can represent constancy, versatility, and determination.  I like to burn spruce for getting things going and keeping them going.
  • I have already covered Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Cedar extensively already (and some of the other trees in this post will get the same extensive treatment).

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve found this post on making tree incenses helpful! I am also working on a post on local, natural incenses, but I suspect it will be some more time until I can present that to you!  I would love to hear from you about trees to add to this list. We don’t have many wild firs growing around here–would love to know what they smell like as well!  Blessings on this Lughanssadh weekend!

 

Returning to the Hemlock Grove: Old Growth Forests as Sacred Sites July 20, 2014

This week I’ve been back in the Laurel Highlands of PA (my homelands) for a writing retreat for my research team for my university position. I was able to take a short break from our work today to spend some time at Laurel Hill State Park and visit the 6 acre old growth Eastern Hemlock forest there. Eastern Hemlock is one of my most sacred trees, and I know I’ve written more about it than any other tree on this blog. You might remember my blog post about the sacred Eastern Hemlock tree back in December.  If you do, you’ll remember that the Eastern Hemlock is under serious threat from the wooly adelgid, which is an aphid that feeds on hemlocks, sucking away their sap till they die. Many of the Northeastern US old growth hemlock groves (and hemlocks in general) have been lost to the adelgid.  So these remaining old growth groves, even small ones like at Laurel Hill State Park, are truly a rare sight to behold both due to the rarity of old growth forest and due to the declining numbers of Hemlock trees.

 

Hemlocks (courtesy of Wikipedia)

I have spent most of my childhood and adult life in forests that are actively being logged or recovering from logging, intensive farming, or other kinds of over-use. I wrote about the experiences growing up in such a logged forest in my post “The Mystery of the Stumps and the Spiral Path: The Story of How I Became a Druid”  and about the magic of the stumps of the Eastern Hemlock tree in my post about medicinal reishi mushrooms.  These spaces are so common in our landscape, and they have a sacredness about them, but they also have their scars.  It is through their scars, often, that they teach the lessons we are meant to learn from them.  The stumps, rotting with age, share their stories in a different kind of way.  The old stone fences, remnants of rock floors and walls deep in the forest, abandoned mines or quarries, or barbed wire growing through the middle of old trees tell of the land’s past uses and inhabitants.  The trees and plants have their own stories to tell, when they are willing to share them. Everywhere I go, these tales of the landscape greet me, remind me that humans have been here and have used (and often abused) this land in various ways.

 

A month or so ago, I took in a rescue hen; she had clearly been abused by her previous owner, and when she saw me at first, she fled to the other side of the chicken run and hid. When I first let her out to free range, she darted away, running in fear and literally threw herself against the chicken wire in an attempt to escape me. Over time and with lots of tasty treats, she’s learned to associate me with food and protection, and now comes when I call to her.  I think many who have taken in rescue animals experience this kind of transition and the gradual building of trust. Its the same kind of relationship I find myself having with the forests recently logged, or lands under stress, which unfortunately are so many lands in this particular point in human history. The trees, plants, and spirits of those places aren’t always open to you and may very well associate you with those that did the damage.  If you go in with expectations, taking things without asking, or demands, they will close themselves off to you. Building relationships with these kinds of forests or other landscapes take time, and even after a lot of time, sometimes these spaces are forever altered. You can still build a deep and powerful bond and, as I’ve said, learn many lessons from these places. I wrote about some of how to build such relationships in regards to my own land here.  But what I discovered today was that, at least for this one old growth forest, things were very, very different.

 

I have only been to one other old growth forest, this one in a local park in Michigan made primarily of oak and cherry.  I have never met an old growth Hemlock tree.  I have never felt so welcome in a forest as I did walking into that old growth patch–the trees were clearly expecting me. I felt like I had returned home, that I had been there many lifetimes before, with these same trees, visiting them throughout the ages.  That I had visited those who had grown there even before these wizened elders, whose nutrients made up the current stand of trees. And since this is in my home region, in my beloved Laurel Highlands, the homecoming was on multiple levels.

 

When I stepped into that old growth Eastern Hemlock grove today, I cried.  I was overwhelmed with the serenity, the history, and the magic of that place.  The ancient ones held their people’s history, and they histories of so many more long forgotten.  I could see those stories clearly written on the bark of each tree.  I could hear their songs through the swaying of the branches in the gentle breeze.  One hemlock bid me to come closer and asked me to pull off some dead bark partially hanging from its trunk.  I did so, and when I walked away, I turned to see that I had revealed the ancient and wizened face of an elder, so clear in that trunk.  I sat and listened to those trees, I spoke little in return. I learned much in that forest, even in a short time, and some of it is not to be shared with others.  I expect, however, that if you visit this or other old growth groves, you’ll too receive powerful lessons and messages that will resonate deeply within you. I didn’t take any photos of this sacred place to share with you; I find the electronic equipment disrupts the energies of such places.  I simply sat, spent a great deal of time listening, and did what I was asked to do.

 

 

I could see the tell-tale moss covered massive hemlock stumps  on one of the back edges of the old growth grove.  This forest came so close to losing all of its elders some time ago, but this small six acre patch remained, and now it is protected in a park area of over 4000 acres.  The energies changed toward the back of the grove, grew more distant, more wary, as I approached the area where the stumps were.  The energies where the stumps were felt more like the energies of those many other forests who still remember the loss of their elders through logging or farming, those places where only the stones hold the memories of what had once been.

 

 

I have recently written about finding sacred spaces that are welcoming and working with existing natural sacred sites.  I wanted to write this post to encourage you to seek out the old growth forests, the hidden gems in our damaged landscape.  You can find a list of all of those over 10 acres here, but look close, see if you can find such trees in your area, even individuals or small groves like this one.  They are well worth the time spent finding them, and when you find them, if you are able to enter them reverence and awe, you will see what sacred places they truly are.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) – Magic, Mythology, and Qualities January 2, 2014

            This is the second in my series of posts about magical trees native to the Americas.  In this series of posts, I explore the lore of sacred trees, describe their magical and mundane uses, edible qualities, medicinal qualities. Other posts in this series include Walnut, American Beech, Sugar Maple, Eastern White Cedar, Hawthorn, and Hickory.  This post focuses on the mighty Eastern hemlock tree. The term “hemlock” refers to both a tree (tsuga) with edible and medicinal qualities as well as an extremely poisonous plant (poison hemlock, conium maculatum found in watery areas)–so please don’t get them confused! I’ll be focusing on one type of hemlock tree today, the Eastern Hemlock (tsuga canadensis, also known as the Canada Hemlock or Hemlock Spruce), of which I have much deep experience.

 

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

I’ve always been close to the hemlock tree—in the heat of the summer, I find shade beneath her soft branches.  In the cold of the winter, she offers spaces where the snow isn’t deep, dry places to sit, and a warm trunk to lean against.  She towers over all the other trees in the forest, showing me a way forward and helping me get my bearings when I am lost.  When I attended the OBOD East Coast Gathering for the first time four years ago, there she was, greeting me as I entered the forest, as she greets me as I enter nearly every forest of my homeland of western PA. Even when I enter meditations, the hemlock is there to greet me in my inner grove. I even discovered her in Michigan lately, in state lands along the edge of Lake Huron–which was a treat and honor.

 

Hemlock is a tree who, due to her longevity,  holds our histories and stories–as the author of The Hemlock Tree, and Its Legends from 1959 suggests in this segment of poem:

“A monument of bygone days,
I’ve kept the place where now I grow;
And, over all my head did raise
Above a thousand years ago

“What mighty changes in that space!
What revolutions on the earth!
What strange events have taken place!
What wonders! Since I date my birth!

“Of these I have laid up a store,
And at your service they shall be;
When you would think on days of yore
Come sit beneath the Hemlock tree.

“In every branch I have a tongue,
I have a voice in every breeze;
And when I speak to old or young;
My aim is to instruct and please.”  (pp. 16-17)

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

            

About the Hemlock: Hemlock trees are majestic, long-lived conifer trees. They are found in cool, wet, and dark forests throughout lower Canada, parts of the Midwest, and throughout the East Coast. They are often found near bodies of water, for they like it cool and damp. Hemlocks will always be found in a cooler microclimate—this is how you can tell cool vs. hot areas of a forest (which can be useful for say, mushroom foraging). They are very shade tolerant and like humidity, but do not do well where it is dry or hot. Hemlocks can also handle snow and ice much better than other kinds of conifers—their flexible branches and feathery needles allow snow to sit, their branches to bend and bow, but not break. This creates shelter below.

 

Eastern Hemlock trees are the largest native evergreen conifer in the Eastern USA. The Eastern Native Tree Society has measured hemlocks over 170 feet tall with trunks up to 5 feet across.  These sacred trees often live to 400-500 years (assuming they aren’t logged, which unfortunately happens frequently in their growth range), with the oldest ones living up to 1000 years. While they start off as understory trees (trees that live in the shady understory of a forest) they eventually become the tallest tree in the forest, pushing out from the shady understory and dominating the landscape. On the mountain where my parents live in South-Western PA, you can literally look at the hemlock grove situated at the bottom of the mountain, and the hemlocks are nearly eye level with you while the other species of trees (birch, maple, beech, hickory, and cherry) grow far below.

 

Hemlock trees form an important part of the web of life, by providing forage and shelter for deer and other wildlife and oil-rich seeds (found in their cones) for birds. The tree produces male and female cones on the same branch. The hemlock tree, with its unity of the masculine and feminine on its branches, teaches us an important lesson of balance. Its needles further emphasize the druidic principle of three—the needles spend three years on the tree before dropping to the forest floor and adding to the rich hummus there.

Hemlock grove

Hemlock grove

 

If you have ever entered a grove of hemlocks, you will find this to be the darkest, shadiest part of the forest. But it has a different quality to it, a deeper quality. This is because hemlocks cast very dense shade; their canopies filter out different kinds of light, creating a “blue shade” (different from a “green shade” created by deciduous trees).  Mosquitoes do seem drawn to this kind of shade though, especially in the hot summer months!

 

Risks and Challenges: Hemlocks are currently under significant threat from Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an aphid-like sap sucking insect that has decimated hemlock populations in the Appalachian/East Coast region of the USA. Wooly Adelgid was brought through careless actions from Asia; where it does no serious damage to Hemlocks there. Here, however, our hemlocks are not adapted to resisting this insect. The hemlock is an important reminder of the delicate balance of our ecosystems, and our need to preserve and protect our native lands.

 

Despite their longevity, hemlocks have low tolerance for pollution, roadside salt application, root system disruption, or wind exposure. Another lesson the hemlock teaches us is that the right conditions must be present for long, healthy lives, and exposure to things that are supporting us, rather than harming us or disturbing our tender roots.

           

Hemlock branch with snow

Hemlock branch with snow

Native American Lore: I have studied  Native American lore for understanding the Hemlock tree mainly because the western herbal and esoteric traditions don’t speak of the trees I am studying. In fact, I couldn’t find any mention of hemlock in any of traditional magical herbal books that I own–yet we know this tree has lore and traditions very much important to understanding the tree’s sacred qualities.

 

The Hemlock tree features prominently in Native American legends, particularly those of the Seneca and Micmac peoples. In examining the native tales, several themes emerge with regards to hemlock trees. These themes can teach us about the sacred relationship that humans have had with the hemlock tree in the past, and what magical qualities this tree embodies:

  • Hemlocks as a means of warmth and heat: In the Seneca story “Okteondo and his Uncle” and “Hótho,” the hemlock is featured as a means of warmth. In “Okteondo and his Uncle” hemlock boughs are used in the story to keep warm at night—both for shelter and for sleeping upon. In “Hótho,” the cold (Hótho) attempts to conquer a man who is out hunting. The man builds a fire and makes a huge kettle of hemlock tea—while the cold pressed in around him all night, the fire and the tea kept him warm and allowed him to overcome the cold. In the Micmac story “The Adventures of the Great Hero Puloweach, or the Partridge” Pulowech encounters two evil magicians who attempt to roast him to death in a cavern.  Their fires are fed with hemlock bark. Puloweach ends up roasting them with his own blazing hemlock bark fire.
  • Hemlock as an aid to magical transformation: A Haida legend, “How Raven Brought Light to the World,” raven transforms himself into a single hemlock needle, which is drank by a young woman who then grows pregnant with Raven. Raven transforms himself into a tiny human infant, and is born into the world. An Aleut legend, “Princess Raven” likewise, has raven transforming himself into a hemlock needle, which is willingly swallowed by a princess and the princess grows the wings of a raven and the two become one. In the Seneca legend, “A Little Boy and his Dog, Beautiful Ears” a house is built of hemlock boughs. The mother who lives in the house seems to go crazy and burns her house down, but then uses the ash of the hemlock and throws it into the air to summon a snowstorm to cover her children and keep them warm.
  • Hemlock magically growing from a needle and offering aid: In the Micmac story “Of the Surprising and Singular Adventures of two Water Fairies who were also Weasels and how they each became a Bride of a Star” two sisters are taken away to the land of the stars and given husbands. They wish to return to the earth, and they are told to lay still and sleep. When they awaken, they are back on earth, at the top of a majestic hemlock tree. In several Seneca myths (including “A Raccoon Story,” “Mink and his Uncle,” and “Uncle and Nephew,” characters in the story use hemlock trees grown through magical means as an escape route. In “A Raccoon Story,” a young man is caught on a cliff and has no way down—he pulls a hemlock needle from his pocket and sings to the needle and a mighty hemlock grows to save him. In the other two tales, stranded individuals (another one on a cliff and one in a deep ravine) vomit, find a hemlock needle in the vomit, and sing the tree into existence to save them. (I’m not sure what the significance of the vomit is in these tales…any ideas?).
  • Hemlock as Holding the Winter at Bay: In “How Conifers Show the Promise of Spring”  the White Pine, who the Seneca and other tribes view as the chief of trees and first trees, calls his tribe to stand with him when winter comes. Hemlock (as well as red pine, cedar, cypress, juniper, spruce, balsam, and even the oak) all answer his call and overcome the difficult winter months. (BTW, this is one of my favorite Native American myths featuring trees, and well worth reading–especially if you are a conifer or oak tree fan!)

 

 

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

In addition to the mythology, Hemlock branches were used for ceremonial purposes, including ceremonial clothing and in the construction of sweat lodges (according to the Makah legend)

 

 

Wood Uses: Hemlock wood, which is soft and light colored, is often used for building crates, used for wood pulp, and as railroad ties. It was important in the settling of Pennsylvania, where it was used for building log cabins and for roofing and framing.

 

Arts and Crafts: The bark of the Eastern Hemlock has been used in leather tanning due to its high tannin content. Hemlock cones, small and plentiful, can also be used for natural arts and crafts. It produces a soft wood good for wand making—you can find many wands, ready to use, on the lower branches (the wood goes a grayish white and becomes very smooth on the tree). The inner bark of a Hemlock, when boiled, can produce a pink dye.

 

Hemlocks, like other conifers, produce sap (resin), which can be burnt by itself as a delightful incense or mixed into other blends. In my experience, hemlock resin is a bit harder to find–it is not as plentiful as some other conifer trees (say, like white pine who oozes from every crook and crannie). If you find a wounded hemlock, specifically wounded on the trunk, this is usually where the resin will be found. The resin is very light smelling when burnt—it has a clear piney-smell with lemony undertones, very refreshing.

 

Herbal / Medicinal Qualities. Matthew Wood covers Hemlock in his Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants book. He describes hemlock has warming and astringent qualities, and comparing this to native American lore, we can see that this is an incredibly warming tree (with much association with fire). In the 19th century, Wood describes how, it was also known to treat the kidneys, lower back, tendons, and ligaments.

The other important medicinal aspect of hemlock is that its dead wood is a host to reishi mushrooms (which I blogged about earlier this year). Reishi is one of the most important medicinal mushrooms we can find in these regions. Even in its death, the hemlock continues to produce its healing.

 

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

Food and Forage: Hemlock needles, especially young needles, make a fabulous tea. The inner bark can also be dried and ground up for a thickening agent or flour. The hemlock bark, when rubbed on the body, can help hunters mask their scent when hunting. Here are a few recopies that I’ve used and enjoyed:

 

  • Hemlock Needle Tea:  Hemlock needle tea can be brewed any time of the year, although the green needles appearing in springtime make the best tea. This tea, like all conifer teas, is  rich in Vitamin C. To make the tea, take 7 small branches of hemlock. Crush them up a bit with your hands or use a mortar and pestle. Steep the needles in 1 cup boiling water and wait 15 – 20 minutes. Enjoy hot or over ice. Sweeten the tea to taste with sugar. You can also combine it with other tree teas: white pine, black birch, or maple sap water (maple water and hemlock branches were used by the Iroquois as a beverage). The tea will not be dark—it will stay like a ghostly tea drink—but it is flavorful and warming. (You can also use hemlock in my sacred tree brew as a substitute for white pine).
  • Hemlock Tips: In the springtime, hemlock trees will produce light green tips (like most other conifers). You can nibble on these tips as a trailside snack (they have a slight pine/lemony flavor).  I have read that you can also use them to add interest and flavor in an beer brew, using the same kind of recipe one would use for spruce tip beer (I haven’t personally tried this since I don’t really drink, but its good to know!)

 

Closing thoughts about hemlock:  Hemlock continues to be a tree that amazes me—each time I am in the presence of the Hemlock, I am transformed, warmed, and aided.  Seek these trees out, and see what other lessons they can teach.  Find them in the summer or the winter–they will always be ready to speak their tales.

 

References: 

  • Trees of Michigan, Linda Kershaw, 2006, Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn WA.
  • Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, Matthew Wood, 2009. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
  • Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Daniel E. Moerman.  Timber Press, Portand, OR, 2010.
  • The Hemlock Tree and its Legends.  Robert Bradbury.  Philadelphia, PA: Black Horse Alley, 1959.
  • The Book of Forest and Thicket: Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern North America, John Eastman. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole books.
  • First People – The Legends. http://www.firstpeople.us/  (individual legends linked above).

 

*Special thanks to my mother, Bonnie, for taking these fabulous photos of hemlocks for me!

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