Tag Archives: ecology

Sacred Trees in the Americas – The Magic, Medicine, and Uses of the Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)

One of the most majestic experiences you can have with trees is being surrounded by old-growth Tulip Poplar trees.  Tulips grow extraordinarily tall and straight, with thick gray trunks and spreading roots. You feel like you are in a cathedral, standing under these magnificent trees. The tulip trees get their name both from the leaves–which are shaped like a tulip and from their flowers–beautiful, large, showy orange and yellow flowers that look just like a tulip. You can find these trees easily in June as the showy tulip leaves begin to drop to the forest floor. They are also easy to spot in the winter–you can look up and see the remains of the tulip flowers, gone to seed, throughout the winter months–they look like little cups reaching up to the heavens, a beautiful sight.

We have one such grove of tulip trees in a local park near here–a local park called White’s Woods. Unfortunately, some township commissioners want to harvest a lot of these magnificent trees, so our community has been in a battle to save our forest for over a year now. What has amazed me about this entire fight, however, is how the tulip tree has become the symbol of the forest: people have gone to the woods, taking photos of the trees, hugging the trees, and more.  I have faith that we can win this battle to save our majestic tulip forest! 

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The incredible tulip tree with its beautiful tulip-shaped leaves and showy flowers!

The Tulip tree is known by many names–here in Western Pennsylvania (USA) we use the term “Tulip” (which is how I’ll refer to this tree in my post). Further out east and in the south, I’ve heard it called “Tulip Poplar.” In his book A Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane notes that it is also called “Whitewood”, “Yellow Poplar”, or “Popple.” It is also known as “fiddletree” and “canoewood” for reasons that will be apparent in this post. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. Whatever your name for this tree–let’s spend some time today getting to know the ecology, mythology, and magic of this most wonderful tree. The magnificent tulip trees throughout North America have much to teach us, if only we listen.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on 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, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include 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 Tulip Tree

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

The beautiful tuilp tree standing tall!

Despite the fact that they are commonly called a poplar, tulip trees are in the magnolia family, and thus, share some qualities with other magnolias, including the large leaves and showy flowers. The Tulip tree is characterized by an extremely tall and straight growth habit and is one of the largest trees in North America. The tree has a large range throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and upper Midwest (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana) and across the south, stretching along the coast and to the Mississippi (Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas) and into Florida. In extraordinary cases, they can grow up to 170-190 feet high, although the average is still about 160 feet tall. The Tulip has several key features that make it a really incredible tree: it grows fast; it has strong, light-colored wood; the wood is not brittle or weak like many other fast-growing trees; and it grows straight and tall. The base of the trunks often flare out and then meet the tall-growing trunk—this is why they are called “fiddle tree” as their root base and trunk can appear to look like a fiddle from the distance. 

The tulip tree is considered a “mid succession” tree from an ecological perspective. They are shade intolerant, so they grow fast and usually come into dominance 50-150 years after a forest regrows. As the climax species take over (hardwood nut trees: oaks, hickories, etc.), they will decline. Thus, you can use Tulip to help read the age of a forest and have a sense of a forest’s history. Here in Western and Central Pennsylvania, this is particularly useful: we had almost 92-98% of the forest cover cut due to industrialization from about 1880 to 1920. So we are in that 50-150 year range where we have many beautiful large stands of Tulip trees.

The other interesting thing to know about history is that the tulip is a very ancient tree representing older forms of tree life. The Tulip tree has an older, less evolved seed pod than other more recent trees, which also accounts for its unique flowers. We have fossils from ancient tulip trees from the upper cretaceous period (70-100 million years ago); from that fossil record, we know that it once was much more widespread but now only two species remain in the Liriodendron family: the North American Tulip Poplar tree and the Liriodendron Chinese, which grows in China and Vietnam. It is likely that many Tulips were destroyed in glaciation in the Pleistocene era.

The trees begin to flower in June here in Pennsylvania, but you might see flowering as early as April in much warmer southern states. The flowers range from light yellow to light green and have bright orange in their centers. I’ve seen photos of tulip trees with almost white flowers, but nearly all of them where I live are light yellow as the photos I am sharing suggest. The leaves also look like a tulip–the leaves grow in an alternate pattern and are 5-6″ wide, heart-shaped, and have four lobes looking like the points on a tulip flower. They are quite distinctive here in the Eastern US–no other tree has a leaf anything like Tulip, making them easy to identify. In the fall, they have brilliant yellow foliage that is brighter but the same kind of yellow as their flowers earlier in the year. Their bark is brown and has many deep ridges as the tree ages—they almost look like the ridges here in the northern Appalachian Mountains, running parallel along the landscape. Younger branches are smooth and reddish and later grow into the darker brown.

Tulip tree flower close up!

John Eastman describes some of the ecologies of these trees: they are often found with beeches and maples. I have also seen them here with Cherries and some limited hardwood nut trees (oak, butternut). Eastman says you can find them in bottomland forests, but here, we see them growing along wet hillsides and slopes. Birds including cardinals and finches, consume the seeds in the winter along with squirrels and mice.

Human Uses

Tulip tree is one of the most valuable hardwoods in North America due to its quick growth, straight growing habit, and strong wood. In the US, it is usually marketed as “poplar” but abroad it is sold as “American tulipwood.” It is used for instruments, like organs and pianos, and can also used as interior finish/veneer, used for wide floorboards, boxes, bowls, and more. It is comparable to White Pine and usually more abundant due to its distribution and growth habitat. It resistance to termites and thus, can be used for barn and house beams (I’m not sure I’d use this over black locust, but it is still a great wood!) The wood is nice to work and doesn’t split. Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes that in Pennsylvania, natives and colonists alike used it for canoes, boards, planks, bowls, dishes, spoons, doorposts, and joiners roofs because it was so easily worked and strong.

Tulip tree is well known in the bushcraft communities for a wide range of uses. Tulip inner bark (cambium) is an excellent emergency food (which I have not tried); the inner bark can also be used as an excellent tinder to make a nest for starting a fire using a bow drill, hand drill, or flint and steel (which I have tried). You can use a single tulip poplar downed branch to start a warm fire: stripping the bark for kindling and your nest, and then using the branch wood itself to start the blaze. You can also make a nice bow drill set from tulip poplar—it is harder than a beginner set (made of something soft like paw paw) but is a great for both a hearth board and a spindle. The inner bark also can be twisted into a rope or cordage. Tulip bark, when freshly cut, can be cut and peeled in the spring, so you can use it to make really nice bark baskets, arrow quivers, and more. It is also a very popular carving wood for spoons, bowls, and other functional crafts. I often will hike through the forest and look for downed tulip trees, eagerly ready to harvest their bark if the chance permits! Here’s an overview of some of the uses.

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest

A small grove of younger tulip trees in the early spring forest


Tulip poplar makes an excellent early to midseason food source for bees, and you can sometimes find honey from Tulip trees at local farmer’s markets.Tulip flowers also have some nectar that is in the cup that can be enjoyed directly—but best of luck trying to find low hanging flowers for your to enjoy. I’ve only had a chance to taste this very infrequently in my foraging travels because usually the flowers are 150 feet up the tree! Speaking of foraging, you might get lucky and find morel mushrooms near or under these trees as this is one of the common places they grow.

The Native Americans used this tree extensively for a range of uses as described by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. For example, one name of this tree is “Canoewood” which refers to the fact that many Native American tribes, including the Harriot in Virginia, used the massive Tulip tree trunks for making large dugout canoes (using fire-based methods). Captain John Smith in 1612 described these canoes as being 40-50 feet in length and carry 40 passengers.  This, most certainly, is how the tree got its name “canoewood.”

Tulip Poplar Medicine

The tulip tree is really a tree that keeps on giving and helping humans in so many ways, and that includes a range of medicinal treatments.

Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: New World Herbs notes that the tulip tree bark is used primarily for medicine. The bark is sweet, acrid and aromatic. Quinine, which is a very effective Malaria treatment, was made from the Cinchona tree—in the absence of Quinine, you can use the bark of the Tulip tree. Tulip tree contains salicylates, which, along with Willow and Birch, can be used for pain relief. It can also be used to support digestion, restore people to health after they are worn out with fever and tension, strengthen and calm the heart/cardiovascular system, and also supports arthritis. Other modern uses of this tree include using the leaves as a poultice for sores or scrapes. The inner bark can be used to support a healthy fever and to aid in digestion. The inner bark can help treat pinworms or other worm issues.

Traditionally, as Erichsen-Brown notes, the leaves can be crushed and placed on the forehead to help with a headache. The Osages collected the bark in the winter months for a range of treatments–the winter bark has a higher medicinal content. A bark decoction (strong tea) can be used as a dewormer for horses, as a powerful blood purifier (alterative), and for treating a variety of stomach conditions. The inner bark of the root is considered the most powerful, but any of the inner bark can work for these purposes.

The Magic and Mythology of the Tulip Tree

Tulip Roots -- this is about a 30 year old tree.

Tulip Roots — this is about a 30 year old tree.

The Tulip Tree does not appear to have any recorded uses within the traditional Western magical traditions: in consulting my giant pile of usual sources, I do not see it listed at all.  This is honestly the case with many Northern Appalachian trees I’ve been covering recently in this series–if they do not have an old-world equivalent or if they are also not located predominately in the deep south, they have no record of magical use.  This doesn’t mean that they aren’t magical–Tulip is a magical tree!  It just means that it does not appear to have use in Hoodoo or traditional Western Occultism. In a similar manner, the Tulip isn’t discussed in the Native American lore that I can find in any way outside of the utilitarian uses.

One small tidbit: the American poet, Walt Whitman, indicated that the Tulip Tree was the ““the Apollo of the woods–tall and graceful.”

Magical and Divination Uses of the Tulip Tree

Given the lack of sources on magical uses, we have to draw upon the doctrine of signatures, the historical uses of tulip, the ecology, and growth habits to explore some possible magical and divination uses for the tree.  Here are three possibilities:

Utility and Practicality: one of the things about the tulip tree is that it has a tremendous amount of utility: it grows fast, produces amazing food, shelter, and medicine, and it offers bountiful—yet—utilitarian gifts to all who seek them.  This is a tree that encourages us to be practical and to think about utilitarian uses rather than frivolous ones.

Mid-succession and Transition: I think that the fact that the Tulip is a mid-succession tree is important to its potential magical qualities. Trees often take on specific qualities depending on if they are first-aid responders / land healers, mid-succession, and pinnacle species. As a Mid-succession tree, Tulip occupies a very important place in the larger lifespan of a forest: it helps us move beyond the first responder trees, carrying on from their early work.  It holds space for a period of time, and preparing the way for what is to come. When I think about a lot of work that many of us do as land healers, permaculturists, herbalists, and druids—I think about us now as having this kind of energy. The past is gone, and with it, a lot of knowledge was lost.  We are in a very difficult time of transition and suffering for nature, but we are here to hold those spaces and help aid in the transition. Whatever is coming, we are not there yet, but we are holding space in this time and place for what is to come.  The Tulip tree tells us to stand tall and strong in this regard!

Connection to Ancient Ancestors: Because the Tulip is such an ancient tree, it can connect us with our ancient human ancestors, those whose ways and names are lost to the mists of time.  That reminder is in every seed pod and flower, and certainly, in the roots of these magnificent ancient trees.  They have survived an ice age, they have witnessed countless changes over hundreds of millions of years, and they stand with us today to share that ancient wisdom and bridge to tomorrow.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the Tulip Poplar tree! If you have any stories, information, or ideas about the Tulip tree, I would love to hear from you. Blessings!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

Spicebush leaf and berry in August in Western Pennsylvania

As I continue to explore some of the most important understory trees in the US East Coast and Midwest region, we turn our attention today to the amazing Spicebush (Lindera Benzoin).  Historically, Spicebush was an incredibly important plant, medicine, and spice both to Native Americans and early white settlers in the US and yet today has largely been forgotten in history. Spicebush is a native understory tree with a large range in North America, spanning from Maine to Florida and all the way across the south and Midwest to Texas and up to Ontario. While I’ve taught this plant routinely on my plant walks, and what amazes me is that nobody can even identify it, much less recognize how it might be used. Spicebush has an incredible flavor, medicinal value, and offers much in the way of magic and mystery. It certainly deserves a place in our consciousness and in our traditions.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. 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). For my methods, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include 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, 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

Widely distributed across North America, Spicebush is an understory tree that prefers damp soil and can grow in full shade, part shade, or full sun. Spicebush can grow up to 6-12 feet tall.  Spicebush reproduces by colonizing, thus, when you find it, it often grows in large patches in the forest understory. Here in the Appalachian mountains, you will find it growing in deciduous forests on damp hillsides, in wet areas where there are ephemeral springs, or along river bottoms.  When you see spicebush, it is often indicative of rich and fertile soil; it also prefers to grow in areas rich in limestone. Here on the Druid’s Garden Homestead land, we have it throughout our property as an understory tree with Oak-Hickory-Sugar Maple-Black cherry overstory.

Spicebush tree with berries

One of the key features of Spicebush is that it has an extremely early bloom time with fragrant flowers reminiscent of lemon. The clustered bright yellow blooms appear earlier than almost any other tree in our ecosystem. In Western Pennsylvania, it is typically blooming in early March, which is about the same time you start to see the Skunk Cabbage and Crocuses pop up and usually when the maple sap is running! You can often see this blooming sometimes while the snow is still on the ground (making it a very interesting counterpart to Witch Hazel who blooms in very late fall, from a bloom perspective). In the case of Spicebush, it blooms early so it can set its fruit early, well before the overstory trees bloom out and shade out the Spicebush. This is so characteristic of many of the other understory trees and bushes–all of them adapt themselves to be at peak in colder or darker times when light reaches the forest floor.

Spicebush is an important food source for wildlife. Larger mammals like whitetail deer, opossum, and eastern cottontail rabbit feed on the leaves, twigs, and berries. Many species of birds, both game birds, and songbirds, also feed on the berries, particularly in the winter months.  Spicebush is host to two butterflies–the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio Troilus) and the Promethea silkmoth (Callosamia Promethea).  The spicebush swallowtail lays eggs on Spicebush and then the larvae curls up the leaves to create a cocoon.

Foraging and Cooking with Spicebush

Spicebush is also known as Wild Allspice, Appalacian Allspice, Spicewood, Feverbush, Snap-bush, Snapwood, and Benjamin-Bush.  Many of these names are tied to the fragrant and amazing spice this bush produces for culinary arts. In fact, Spicebush has been seeing something of a renaissance within the foraging community in the last decade or so.  Even so, its more widespread use as a spice and food has not so far seemed to permeate beyond wild food foraging at present and into regional cuisine, which is honestly a shame.  In fact, Marie Viljoen who wrote the 2018 book Forage, Harvest, Feast makes the bold statement that if Spicebush were better known, it could form a cornerstone of regional Appalachian cuisine, demonstrating the power of this plant for cooking and culinary use.

Spicebush twigs and leaves can be made into a fragrant, slightly spicy tea that is reminiscent of a chai.  The tea is slightly spicy, slightly sweet, and quite pleasant to drink.  This is actually one of my favorite wild teas when I’m camping or foraging–just pick a few leaves and brew them up.  There are places I camp every year that are rich in spicebush and I always look forward to this warming tea on a gentle summer night.

The second way you can make tea when there are not leaves is by harvesting fresh twigs. To make a tea from the twigs, just brew them up with a lid on for 20-30 min (using low heat or even a crockpot to preserve the flavor).  The tea is similar to leaf tea: spicy, warming, and slightly sweet.

The real magic of the Spicebush from a culinary and wild food perspective is in the spicebush berry.  The green berry (unripe) and red berry (ripe) offer two different culinary experiences. The green berries are very sharp, lemony, and peppery and can be harvested anytime before they go red. The green berries are most intense when they are smaller and less plump. They can be used as a pepper substitute due to their very strong taste.

The berries go red in the early fall (you can see this from my images; the leaves start to yellow just as the berries go red). As they go red, you can begin to harvest them.  They will actually stay on the bush for 2 months or more, so you have a very long window for harvest. A good spicebush harvest can offer you several years of spice, which is pretty incredible.

I have found that the easiest way to preserve either red or green berries is to dehydrate them and then place them in the freezer. This prolongs their shelf life and intensifies the flavor. It is important to note that fresh spicebush berries can have a very numbing sensation on the tongue. By drying the berries, all the good spice is left with none of the numbing presents in the fresh berries. Once dry, you will taste that wonderful spice, very much its own flavor but with hints of allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, grains of paradise, citrus, and pepper, but you will also have your tongue go numb.  You can also use them fresh in curries and the like; cooking also can remove the numbness.

Marie Viljoen offers over 50 recipes in her Forage, Harvest, Feast that uses spicebush including combining it with citrus for refreshing drinks, using it as a seasoning in many diverse dishes, and using it as a dry rub on meats.  Here are a few recipes online to get you started:  foraged spicebush macaroons, acorn baklava with spicebush berry, a foraged dry rub (I’ve made a version of this and it is divine), a wild curry mix, and making a spicebush ice cream!

Traditionally, as Danie Moerman describes in Native American Food Plants, Native American uses of Spicebush were similar to what I have described above: spicebush was used by the Cherokee and Chippewa to make a beverage, including the stems to make tea.  The spice berries themselves were used to flavor opossum or groundhog. The Chippewa specifically used the berries to help mask or change meats with a strong or gamey flavor (p. 141).

Spicebush in Herbalism

Spicebush is infrequently Traditional Western Herbalism today, but historically, it was frequently used to treat a range of conditions. One of its names, fever bush, offers key insight into the nature of this plant.  King’s American Dispensatory and Cook’s Physiomedical Dispensary describes Spicebush bark and berries being used for medicine here in the Americas.  Spicebush is an aromatic herb being used primarily to treat fever (hence its name fever bush). A decoction (strong tea) was one of the treatments used as a diaphoretic (to support a healthy fever response and regulate body temperature).  It was used to treat all fevers including auge, typhoid, and rheumatic fevers. The berries were used primarily as a stimulant being used for a range of applications including supporting a healthy digestive system (carminative) particularly for alleviating excess gas. The berries can be distilled to create an essential oil of spicebush that is particularly useful for topical applications like bruises and rheumatism.

Spicebush in Magic, and Myth

Spicebush in the Magical and Occult Traditions. Like many of my other understory plants, powerful yet unnoticed and unremarked upon, Spicebush has no mention that I can find in this lore.  This includes within the Hoodoo tradition and within the broader Western Occult traditions. However, the Latin name offers us some insight. The reason that the Latin name of Spicebush is Lindera Benzoin is that the oil found in all parts of the plant (part of what makes it tasty, see below) contain benzoic acid, which is the same chemical compound as Styrax Benzoin (for anyone who has used Benzoin incense). Burning the leaves, stems, or berries can give you a benzoin-like aroma, making it a great local incense source (for more on creating incenses generally, see this post on the general practice and this one on local tree incenses). I believe this plant has the potential for a local replacement for anyone who is using Benzoin or other incenses.

Spicebush berries in hand

Native American Traditions. Beyond food uses, I was unable to find anything about mythology, herbal, or other uses by Native Americans for spicebush.  While Native Americans also used this plant for medicine and food, (see the Ethnobotany of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) the specific uses are not specified.  One note in this entry is that Spicebush growing is a sign of a healthy and rich forest.

Spicebush: Magical and Divination Uses

Based on all of my research as well as my own experiences, I want to share three possible divination and magical uses for spicebush.

Masking or illusion. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality has been used in culinary traditions for a variety of enhancements, alterations, and masking of strong flavors.  As suggested by the doctrine of signatures, this kind of quality can not only apply to the use of this tree as a culinary herb but also, as a magical one.

Enhancement. Spicebush’s strong aromatic quality also lends itself well to any workings where something needs to be elevated or enhanced in some way.  The spice of the berries literally take ordinary foods and turn them into something unique and extraordinary–and the same can be said of other ways in which you might bring this unique and wonderful tree into your life.

Acting Swiftly and being Early.  Another meaning of the Spicebush is the power in doing things early, swiftly, and ahead of time.  The Spicebush takes advantage of the late winter sun when the overstory is still bare to set fruit and prepare for the season.  Thus, she offers us a powerful lesson with regards to action and focusing on being prepared in advance.

Sacred Tree Profile: Wild Grape (Vitis Labrusca) Mythology, Medicine, and Meanings

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

I remember when I first spotted to Wild Grape patch from the dirt road. “Is that all wild grape?” I said to my friend in an excited voice. We pulled the car over, and sure enough, there were thousands of grape bunches on a patch of vines that stretched hundreds of feet, almost ripe. A week later, we came back to the spot with a larger group of friends–there were more than enough wild grapes to go around.  After giving thanks for the abundance and promising to return to the spot for some wassailing in the winter, I harvested almost 5 gallons of wild grape that day. We worked to press all of the wild grapes with a friend’s with a small fruit press, and converting those grapes into the most amazing jelly you ever tasted!

Wild Grapevines, most commonly on the US East Coast the Fox Grape (Vitis Labrusca) variety, are truly a wonderful vine to get to know. They offer a variety of wonderful fruits with medicinal and culinary uses, a whimsical and sacred presence in our forests, and important spiritual lessons to learn. Like apples, pears, and other stonefruits, humans have an extremely longstanding and healthy relationship with grapes.  This is, in no small part, the role of wine and other fermented beverages in human history.  Before we had modern medicine, the wine was not considered simply an alcoholic beverage but also an important medicine. Grapes, their fruit and leaves, are also an important food source.In today’s post, we will explore the incredible grapevine!  While I’m focusing my comments on the most common grapevine along the US east coast, Vitis Labrusca, the fox grape, or wild grape, you can apply the content of this post to all grapevines.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. 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. Other trees in this series include Devils Walking Stick, 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, 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.

Grapevine Ecology and Growth Habits

Ecoprint of the Wild Grape Leaf

Fox Grape is widespread along the US Eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and its range stretches through most of the eastern half of North America to the Mississippi.  Because of this, it is quite easy to find Fox Grape in foraging adventures, and when found, it is often abundant (although not always easy to reach if it is growing high up in the trees).  Fox grape, like other grapevines, is not a freestanding tree. Rather, it depends upon the support of other trees, most often in a symbiotic relationship, where the grapevines are growing with other living trees.  However, over time, the vines can strangle the trees, eventually pulling them down. You might see places like this in the forest–it often appears as a U-shaped bowl where thousands of grapevines are growing up the trees–and the center is a mass of grapevines that have pulled down smaller trees and continue growing outward.  Several other growth habits I’ve witnessed include wild grape taking over an abandoned pile of wood (imagine a very large brush pile covered in wild grape) or a huge amount of wild grape on the edge of a field/forest, taking up much of the edge space. Most commonly though, you will find a grapevine here or there, often climbing up into the host trees.

The woody vine of the wild grape is usually 10-40′ long with a base of several inches and up to 12″ in diameter for the oldest vines.  It uses forked tendrils (also edible) to slowly climb up adjacent trees where it uses its tendrils to anchor itself to branches and continue its ascent.  The bark is medium brown and usually appears shredded, with some of it flaking off over time as the vine grows in girth.  At regular intervals, the vine will have nodes where stems come out to produce leaves. The leaves are alternate and heart shape with three palmate lobes.  In the late spring or early summer, the wild grape will produce greenish-yellow bunches of flowers–they aren’t very showy, and it Is usually easy to miss them. The flowers slowly develop into green grape clusters and then, in the late summer or fall, the 1/2″ – 3/4″ grapes ripen to dark purple or bluish-black. Of course, this is the time to go foraging for wild grapes!

Wild grapes grow in a variety of soils and tolerate a range of conditions, but they prefer wetter conditions and have some flood tolerance.  They usually thrive in part sun conditions, and as they climb, they bring themselves into more sunlight, sometimes blocking out the light of their host tree.

Wild Grape History

An abundant harvest of wild grape!

The Fox grape has an interesting history. It is likely that in the 11th century when Leif Erikson and the Vikings were exploring coastal North America, they named the land they saw as “Vineland” because of the numbers of grapevines present.  Fox grapevines along with other Vitis species were later exported to Europe during the 19th century.  However, all North American grapevines carry the phylloxera louse that devastated many of the Vitis vinifera  (European) varieties of grapes but that the American varieties are immune to.  Europeans eventually overcame the phylloxera by interbreeding Fox grape with native European grapes to build resistance.  Thus, most of the grapevines in the world have a bit of Fox Grape in them.   The Concord grape was also bred from the Fox Grape in the 19th century in Concord, MA and after that other varieties such as the Niagara and Deleware were developed.

Wild Grape as Food

The Fox Grape is a very potent red grape variety, which has a skin that can be easily slipped off, offering easy access to the grape flesh and 4-5 small seeds in the center. According to Winker, Cook, Kliere, and Lider from General Viticulture (1974), the fox grape is known as “fox” because it has a strong, musky aroma that is earthy, sweet, and quite unique. These features make it highly sought out as a wild food.

In Native American Food Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Daniel Moerman describes the widespread uses of wild grapes by a variety of Native American tribes for food.  This included eating the fruit raw, using the fruit to make juice and dumplings, drying the fruit into raisins, and more.

Pressing wild grapes using a small fruit press

Today, as traditionally, wild grapes are used as a food source in a number of ways.  First, the small forked tendrils coming out of the vines are good for a trailside nibble–they are tart and fresh tasting (you could never gather many of these without harming the vine, so enjoy a few as you hike but don’t consider this a major food source!)

The leaves are a culinary delight: they can be steamed or marinated in oil and then used to make dolmas, casseroles, or other dishes calling for grape leaves.  You can preserve them in oil or even parboil and freeze them if you want a ready supply of grape leaves into the winter months.

Of course, the prime food source from the grape is the fruit itself.  In the late summer or early fall, keep an eye out for wild grapes that are ripe. Confirm that they are wild grapes (both poison ivy and Virginia creeper can produce a look-alike, identify the difference between the leaves and the size of the fruit). Usually, wild grapes stay on the vine a number of weeks if the wildlife doesn’t get to them first, giving you a long harvest window. As Sam Thayer in the Foragers Harvest notes–and this is important–when you are harvesting, you either need to process your grapes right away or ensure that you do not crush them. The grapes will immediately begin to ferment if crushed (as grapes do!). When you crush them, crush them gently because the seeds can be bitter and that bitterness can be transferred into the grape juice if the seeds are crushed.  Thayer notes that a small fruit press or jelly bag is good for this work–I’ve also found you can step on them in a clean bucket with clean feet!  Return any seeds or unwanted materials to the living earth.

One of the most important things to know about harvesting wild grapes, at least the Fox Grape variety, is that they contain a compound known as tartrate (a salt/esterate of tartaric acid, found in all grapes but high in wild grape). Different vines have it in larger or smaller amounts, in my experience.  After crushing, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly or the Tartrate can start to make your hands burn after about 45 min to 60 min.  After you have your juice, put it in the fridge or a cool porch for 24 hours in a large jar.  You will see a gray-brown sludge form at the bottom (usually about 1/4 to 1/3 of the total volume).. Pour off everything that isn’t the sludge and discard the sludge in your compost or outside (it is important to return any “waste” to nature.  If you don’t pour off the Tartrate, it will provide an “off” taste to your finished juice (or any fermented products you make with it).

Some wild grape juice needing to rest–more to process as you can see!

What is left is an amazing, very potent, and delicious grape juice.  You can mix it with other juices (it goes well with apple or pear), ferment it, make a jelly, drink it fresh, or anything else. At this point, you can use any recipes you want for those calling for Concord or Niagra grapes.  My favorite thing to do with it, since I don’t drink alcohol at all, is to turn it into the most incredible jelly you will ever taste!  A fruit leather (fruit roll-up) is another excellent use, especially when combined with another fruit like ripe pureed apple.

Wild Grape as Medicine

It’s important to remember that before modern medicine, wine (particularly red wine) was considered as much a medicinal substance as it was a culinary one. Due to the reservitol, which supports healthy heart function, wine has long been used as a medicinal drink and health tonic in many cultures.  As Matthew Wood describes in his Earthwise Herbal: Old World Herbs, herbs were often macerated (soaked) in wine, and then it was diluted with honey and water for medicinal use.  As Wood notes, in the late Middle Ages, distillation techniques invented which allowed wine to be turned into spirits, creating an even more potent medium for tincturing herbs. Wood notes several other historical uses of grapes including liquid drops from living grapevines being used on the eyes to help heal eye issues and the grape leaves (which are astringent) were used to address a variety of wet or damp stomach conditions.

Wild Grape in the Western Magical Tradition: Europe and the Americas

Vine or Muin is associated most commonly with grapevine, although grapevines are not native to Ireland, where the ogham associated.  Still, many contemporary uses of Muin tie it to the wild grapevine (I use it in the Allegheny Mountain Ogham as well). In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the word Muin is tied to the “highest beauty and strongest effort” in the ancient texts, suggesting that vine grows from tree to tree, connecting the forest, which offers one key interpretation of vine through the ogham (p. 147).

In the American Hoodoo tradition as described by Cat Yronwoode in Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, the grape is used for revealing adultery revealing spells and also for a very specific kind of curse lifting. If a man has difficulty urinating due to a curse, a rootworker cuts a grapevine to the height of his crotch and then bends it in a glass jar and lets it sit overnight. This will produce a liquid.  He should wash his privates with this liquid, which will cure him of the curse.

In The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that grapes have been considered magical substances by humans since before we had recorded history.  The ancient Greeks called the grapevine the “blood of the earth” representing their critical importance.  JMG notes that grapes are tied to the Sun in Pisces and are airy and warm in the 1st degree, moist in the 2nd degree. While grapes were used traditionally in love magic of all kinds, JMG notes that grapes are excellent at carrying the energies of other herbs or substances, which is part of why wine can be the base for many potions, baths, and washes (p. 115).

 Wild Grape in Native American Mythology

The Chickasaw Legend describes the Raccoon Clan, a clan of bright and well-adapted people, hanging large bunches of wild grapes up to dry for the winter months. In the History and Traditional Lands of the Huron-Iroquois Nations, the tale describes a large bridge constructed by the Iroquois over the Ohio river which broke after several explorers attempted to cross it. In a similar Senaca legend, the Lazy Man makes a grapevine swing and hangs out in his swing all day rather than doing anything productive like hunting. In The Origin of the Iroquois Nation, the spirits of the sky came down and gave each of the five Iroquois nations a gift. To the Onondaga were given grapes, squashes, and tobacco.  In a final Senaca legend, the Adventures of Yellowbird, at one point Yellowbird, who is a shapeshifter, is summoned by a neighboring chief.  In animal form, he runs to meet her but is stopped repeatedly by an invisible tangle of grapevines.  He knows these vines were put in his way by the chief.

The Magical and Divination Meanings of Wild Grape

Beautiful grapes!

Binding and Holding Fast. The first meaning of the wild grape is due to the very nature of grapevine–as vines grow, they grow around other trees and plants, in some cases, strangling them and pulling them down over time.  even the small tendrils can cause great difficulty to living plants.  This meaning is clear, both in the ecology of the plant as well as in some of the legends surrounding the plant.

Transmission of energy. Just as the grapevines connect multiple trees and the wine can be used to transmit the qualities of herbs, the grapevine as a whole offers a transmission of energy and is a worthy vessel for any sacred sacrament – herbs, magic, and more.  Wine is a carrier, it can help carry sacred energies of ritual and more.  You might consider how vine can be used as such a transmission source in your own practice–through the wood, through the leaves, or through food and drink that you create.

Dear readers, what are some of your experiences with the wild grape? I would love to hear your insights and thoughts!

Physical Land Healing: How do I know what to do?

Some years ago, I remember one influential druid speaking at a major event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.” From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t really seem to provide a meaningful way to respond to today’s problems ecologically because it’s largely based on assumptions that mitigate damage rather than actively regenerate ecosystems. This perspective as a whole teaches us how to be “less bad” and do “less harm” by changing from plastic to cloth bags, using less energy, or driving a hybrid vs. a gasoline car. Environmentalism teaches us to enshrine places that are yet “pristine”, to admire them at a distance where we can’t learn about them or effectively serve as caretakers of them. Environmentalism gives us the ethic that “the earth should be protected” while not really teaching us how to engage in that protection. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies we enshrine nature and look upon her from afar. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.  But where has that gotten us?  I think it is caused a lot of fear–people work to do less bad, to buy the right products, but don’t really get their hands dirty because they are too afraid to mess up.  But what about doing something actively?

 

Web of all life in a mature forest

And yet, the importance of traditional caretaking roles for humans in ecosystems is well documented, as explored in Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson). One of the concepts that M. Kat Anderson describes is the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness.” While in English, the concept of “wilderness” is positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild (the implicit assumption being that it is ready for resource extraction). The concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good. But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

Thus, today, as part of my ongoing land healing series, I am sharing strategies and deep ways of engaging with the land as a healer. These posts will be drawn from a number of sources, most especially my training as a certified permaculture designer and certified permaculture teacher, as well as my own experience in regenerating ecosystems in a variety of places.  The next few posts I share in this series will be about physical land healing and practices we can do to help regenerate and heal the land. For more on this series and my overall framework, I suggest reading this post.  This post explores the broad idea of physical land healing and helps us start to get into this work. Thus, the perspective I’m advocating for is an active caretaking one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility to the living earth. What we need—as a society and as individuals—are tools for being proactive and directly engaging in long-term regeneration: healing the land, healing the planet, healing ourselves, and rebuilding the sacred relationship between humans and nature. We need tools to help us regain our active status as caretakers of the lands where we live, to learn about them, and to learn how to heal.  We need this in part to begin to engage in the work of repair, and also because it is our collective responsibility to be good citizens and stewards of our earth.

 

Nature has the ability to heal and adapt over time, but we humans can offer key interventions that speed up this process, particularly through knowing what to plant and how to build and tend the soil. Plants are the cornerstone of much life. Much of the reason that we have such loss of animal and insect biodiversity is due to loss of habitat—thus, restoring habitat (which means, in many cases, restoring plants) can be a primary concern. Focusing on plants isn’t the only way to engage in land healing, but I think it is one of the most effective and accessible for many people to do. If you create the right conditions with soil and plant life, animal and insect life is sure to follow!

 

Physical Land Healing Primer: How Do I Know What to Do?

 

Tending the lands as active and contributing members of an ecosystem requires that we build our knowledge in very specific and deep ways. This is not knowledge that was likely taught to us, but it was knowledge that was once vital and common among non-industrialized people. Thus, it is re-learning and re-engaging with ancestral knowledge in order to help heal our lands today. This knowledge has many benefits beyond land healing, including helping us develop a deeper appreciation and connection, making us feel “part of” nature rather than removed from it, and learning a host of useful uses for plants (food, medicine, crafts, fiber, etc).

 

To answer the above question, first, I’ll cover a variety of different kinds of information that can help you focus on this key question: how do I know what to do? Obviously, I can’t tell you about the specific plants in your ecosystem, what roles they play, which are under threat, or what you should plant. I could tell you those things about my own ecosystem, but that would be of limited use to those readers who are not in my small bioregion (I will create such a guide in an upcoming post, however, for those that are interested_. Instead, in this post, I’m going to share with you some ways of learning about the plants in your ecosystem and how to begin to build ecological knowledge. After that, well look at how ecosystems function generally and some planning decisions you can make when figuring out what to do.

 

Careful observation

There is no substitute for direct experience. Start to learn how to identify plants, insects, animal tracks, and go out into your local ecosystem and see what is there. How many plants are there? Where do they grow? How robust is the ecosystem that they grow in? Are they native and stable populations, or are they out-of-control (invasive) populations? The question of “how do I know what to plant” must be asked and answered as locally as possible–what your lands need depends on what they are lacking, and you figure out what that might be.

 

Building ecological knowledge

The more ecological knowledge you have, the more effective you will be at any of the land healing strategies we’ll be covering over the next few weeks.  Ecological knowledge allows you to know what plants may grow well in a particular area, which are native and under threat, and how to identify what is already growing.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Books and classes. Ecological knowledge can be found everywhere: books are a great place to start, especially books that talk about plants in relationship to one another and consider whole ecosystems. John Eastman’s collection of books are particularly useful for the eastern US regions—his books cover not only what plants look like, but what ecological roles and functions they play and also what key species depend on those plants. Learning from classes and teachers is another fabulous way to build your knowledge. Online resources, particularly materials from state extension offices and other organizations, are other good ways to learn. Visit your local library and see what resources are there to get you started.

 

Organizations and lists. You can also learn a lot from looking at organizations that specialize in creating lists of endangered plants, insects, and animals. For example, The United Plant Savers has a list of plants currently endangered or nearing being endangered that is specific to ecosystems along the eastern USA–this list, I find, is a good place to start. When you study this list, you can see that the plants fall into a couple of different bioregions and a couple of different groupings. Similar organizations offer these kinds of lists at the local or global level (such as ICUN.org). I have found my state’s department of conservation of natural resources website and state extension office to be a very useful place to learn about what animals, plants, fish, and insects are endangered where I live. This allows me to focus my efforts in particular directions.  E.g. if we know that over 70% of the world’s amphibians are under threat, I can focus my efforts on building wetland environments to do the most good if my own ecosystem supports that.

 

Ecological and Natural histories. I would also draw your attention to ecological and natural histories of the area–what exactly grew in your region, in the various biodiverse microclimates, before the present day? Are there areas that have been either protected (e.g. old-growth forests) or replanted that you can go visit and learn from? History can be living, or it can also be found in books. A few years ago, I found an old, hardbound report from the PA Department of Agriculture’s forestry division published in 1890.  They had a list of the makeup of PA’s forests with percentages of trees that allowed me to know exactly what trees were here once, and what trees had thrived here, prior to the clearcutting that happened in the 1800’s. I compared this to what I find in the forests now, and have a clear sense of what kinds of nuts and tree seeds I want to bring back (hardwoods like oak, hickory, walnut, butternut, and chestnut top my list–especially chestnut, which used to comprise almost 30% of our forests.

 

Overcoming fear

I also want to speak here about fear. The “pick up the garbage and get out” narrative, unfortunately, creates this idea in our minds that all we can do is harm.  When I share these strategies through writings  I suggest using your mind and your heart to help navigate the complexities of this.  In terms of using your mind, as long as you research carefully, stick with native or naturalized species, and target areas that really need your help (see below), it’s hard to do something wrong.  You don’t have to start by healing every damaged patch of soil.  Rather, pick one or two places to target your energies, pick one or two species of plants to work with and start there. It’s also important to use your heart. Trust your intuition here, listen to the voices of the land and her spirits, and know that your heart is in the right place.

 

Fostering Ecosystems

Of use to you, regardless of where you live, is understanding some basic information about ecosystems, ecological roles, and the different layers of plant life that make up a typical ecosystem. We now consider these things in turn.

 

The Soil Web of Life

Before we get into higher forms of life, its useful to know a bit about soil and the soil web of life. Soil is the building block upon which nearly all life on earth is based and is a complex living system. A single teaspoon of rich soil from a forest or garden can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Healthy soil contains bacteria and engages in complex chemical conversions to move nutrients into plants, store carbon, and more. Generating only three inches of topsoil takes almost 1000 years using natural processes. The soil web of life also often includes mycorrhizal fungi and fungi hyphae, networks of what are essentially mushroom roots that help plants move and uptake nutrients, moisture, and plant health. Given this powerful web of life, soil is one of the most sacred things, it is that upon which everything else is based.

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

Unfortunately, our soils are currently under risk. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 1/3 of the world’s soil is already severely degraded and most of the world’s topsoil could be gone in as little as 60 years[1]. Conventional Industrialized agriculture uses chemicals in place of natural processes and contributes to soil pollution, agriculture runoff, overgrazing, and soil depletion. Soil and soil health is now a major concern for long-term sustainability and human food systems and thus, is an excellent area to consider regenerative work.

 

Soil building techniques include composting (including vermicompost, humanure, city composting), sheet mulching, chop and dropping (of nutrient-rich/dynamic accumulator plants, like comfrey), and hugelkultur bed creation.  These techniques help us build rich soil quickly to help regenerate the soil web of life.

 

Ecological Roles

Just as each micro-organism in soil has its own ecological role, so, too, do many plants. As you learn more about ecology, you’ll start to understand that a healthy ecosystem has a variety of self-sustaining systems; each plant has a particular role. This is why you often find the same groupings of plants in the same area–they form a “guild” that all work. Our goal can be to help cultivate these self-sustaining plant guilds and re-introduce plants that were once part of these healthy ecosystems. Here are some of the common roles that plants may play:

  • Nectary plants. These are plants that provide nectar to bees, butterflies, flies, bugs, and hummingbirds. Nectary plants are often the primary food source for a host of invertebrates that provide pollination and forage for larger animals and birds up the food chain.  In the US East Coast, these would include goldenrods, asters, monarda, mints, and more.
  • Nitrogen Fixing plants. Some plants are able to feed the soil by bringing nutrients from the air into the plants. Legumes, lupines, and clovers, for example, are nitrogen-fixing plants; they take nitrogen from the air and store it in their leaves and roots.
  • Habitat Plants. Plants may offer habitat to animals, birds, or insect life. Some of these plants are very specialized, as in the case of the monarch butterfly larvae, which needs common milkweed to thrive.
  • Animal Forage plants. Some plants are useful for animals to forage; certain animals depend on plants (or their nuts, seeds, flowers) as primary food sources.
  • Dynamic Accumulator plants. Some plants with deep roots (like trees or comfrey) are able to bring nutrients from deep in the soil and store them in bioavailable form.  Chopping and dropping comfrey leaves (cutting them at least 5″ above the base of the root) can let you compost in place.
  • Biomass / Mulch Plants. Soil building takes time, and each successive layer of plant matter on the surface of the soil helps build soil. As the dead plant matter breaks down, it holds in moisture, adds carbon, and adds nutrients to build a new layer of soil. Some plants can also be used as a “living mulch” during the season (comfrey again is one of the popular ones).  Other plants produce leaves that can be shredded and added to gardens, mimicking forest ecosystems.
  • Soil Compaction Remediation Plants. When we are looking to regenerate something like an old farm field or lawn, soil compaction is an issue. The soil becomes so hard that it is difficult for many different plants to take roots. Certain plants have deep taproots and can help break up compact soils to pave the way for other plants. One set of annual plants that are very good at doing this are Daikon radish and purple-top turnips. After one season, they rot away and allow new plants to grow (and you can harvest some for good eats!)
  • Medicinal, Craft, and Useful plants. Of course, humans also can find many of their basic needs fulfilled by plants. We have medicinal plants and herbs, fiber plants that can be used to create clothing, dye and ink plants, and plants that can offer us methods of building shelters, fire, fine crafts, and more.

As we can see, one plant does not make up an ecosystem. Rather, it is groups of plants, functioning in multiple ways, that contribute to a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Resilient ecosystems are able to better fend off disease, produce more food, and produce more habitat than those that are impoverished.

 

Ecological succession

Nature is ultimately is engaging in ecological succession to move towards the pinnacle ecosystem (an oak-hickory forest is a common pinnacle ecosystem) with lots of steps along the way.  I’ll talk more about ecological succession in an upcoming post. One of the key decisions you have to make is what kind of ecosystem you want to help establish.

 

Permaculture design typically recognizes seven kinds of plants in terms of the height of the plant (called the plant horizon) which determines how far along you are in terms of ecological succession. For example, in a mature forest, seven layers (especially on that edge of the forest) is present: the tree canopy (overstory; tulip poplar, white pine, oak); the understory tree (shorter trees; shade tolerant like hawthorn, pawpaw or hemlock); shrubs (blueberry, spicebush, brambles); herbaceous (stoneroot, ferns, blue cohosh); groundcover (ramps, wintergreen, partridgeberry); vining (groundnut, wild grape); and the root zone (which has itself different levels). Fields, edge zones, and the like may not have all seven layers. Logged forests or those that lack ecological diversity also likewise might not have all seven layers.  One of the things you might want to think about is how far along ecological succession is in the area you might want to work with (e.g. is it a broken-up sidewalk, a logged forest, a weedy patch in a ditch behind your apartment, etc) and what your goals are for ecological succession.  E.g. if you want to keep a meadow a meadow, you might not want to plant towering oaks!

 

Polycultures over Monocultures

Things like cultivated fields, lawns, or even patches of invasive species often are what are called “monocrops.”  Monocrops are single groupings of plants (e.g. a lawn of all grass, a field of all soy, etc).  These do not create healthy ecosystems or represent healthy places.  Focusing on transitioning monocultures to polycultures is another aspect of land healing.

It is also critical to note that a healthy grouping of plants in a forest or field or anywhere are sets of plants that often work in conjunction (using some of the ecological roles I shared above). We call these plant groupings “guilds.” Other plants may provide beneficial shade, provide a strong trunk for a climbing vine, and so on. And I’m only talking about plants here–there’s also fungal activity and the soil web of life, animal foraging, insects, weather, microclimates, and much more, all working together.

 

Putting it All Together: Where can I start?

Now that we have some background information about soil, plants, and ecology, we can put it all together to return to the initial question: what should I do? As complex as these systems may be, they also break into a few distinct considerations we can use when selecting what actions and plants we can consider for direct land healing.

  1. Do you need to remediate the soil?
  2. What is your final vision for helping to heal the space? (e.g. do you want to focus on regrowing a forest or are you focusing on a field?)
  3. What are the plants’ needs for soil, light, water, and temperature?
  4. What does the plant offer (food, nectar, etc)?
  5. What is the plant’s endangered status more broadly and/or its specific population locally? How can you select plants that can support rebuilding endangered ecosystems?
  6. What is the distinct context you are planting? You should consider both long-term growth and other people’s potential actions.

As I work through this process in more depth, I’ll be sharing a lot of examples and ideas along the way.  Blessings!

 

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[2]Dalby, Simon. “Biopolitics and climate security in the Anthropocene.” Geoforum 49 (2013): 184-192; Mastnak, Tomaz, Julia Elyachar, and Tom Boellstorff. “Botanical decolonization: rethinking native plants.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 2 (2014): 363-380.

 

 

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?

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of land.  How the town had serious stormwater issues, and more vegetation could help slow the water from entering the stream as quickly. But how her neighbor, and the borough, refused to allow any deviance from the 6″ high law, and wouldn’t listen to any reason.  Yet, she was doing her best to not only heal this small patch of land, but do good for the larger ecosystems in our county.  In other words, my friend wasn’t just thinking about her small patch of land, but how that patch of land might be interconnected with other ecosystems and cycles more broadly–and how decisions she made there had impact beyond her.

 

The web of life

The web of life

The earth, on the largest level, is an interconnected system and web of life.  As we move further into climate change and ecological destruction, we are starting to see how true this really is: what people do in New York City can have a strong effect on the melting of glaciers in the North Pole and Greenland. What acid mine drainage pollution goes into a river in Western Pennsylvania makes its way to the Chesapeake River and the Gulf of Mexico. Indingenous peoples in the Pacific are being driven from their homes due to rising oceans from glacier meltwater on the poles. This concept—that earth is a whole and interconnected system—is critical for understanding land healing both locally but more globally as well. Today I want to talk about ecosystems and interconnectivity as critical concepts in relationship to land healing. Thinking in terms of systems, and ecosystems, is more challenging for us because these are often large scale and not localized. And yet, for doing good land healing work, its important to reflect upon these larger levels and understand the broader systems present.

 

This is a new post in my land healing series, which is now sprawling several years with many posts!  For other posts in the series, you can see A Druid’s Primer on Land healing I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, as well as rituals and more rituals, and finally, refugia and permaculture as physical land healing practices.  Last week’s post explored creating a healing grove for long-term land healing work. Those aren’t required reading for this post, but certainly offer many different perspectives on land healing.

 

In today’s post, we’ll explore two interrelated ideas critical for land healing: ecosystems (and systems in general) and interconnectivity.  After exploring these concepts, I’ll share some things to consider from a physical land healing perspective.  Next week’s post will look at ecosystms and land healing from a ritualistic and awareness building perspective.

 

Ecosystems and Land Healing

On the broadest scale, Earth is made up of many smaller ecosystems.  An ecosystem is a biological community of organisms that are interconnected and depend on each other for life; ecosystems include both the biological community as well as the physical environment. Many different ecosystems exist; with several major types: forests, grasslands, desert, tundra, freshwater, and marine. These can be broken down into much more specific ecosystems based on the latitude, geology, soil composition, water composition, altitude, topography, and larger climate patterns.  Regardless of where you live on earth, you will live in one—or on the border of more than one–ecosystem. It’s useful to learn what your dominant ecosystem is where you live, so that you know what a healthy ecosystem looks like.

 

For example, here in Western Pennsylvania, we live in a forest-dominant ecosystem that has several different types.  In my region, it is either considered a “Northern Hardwood” forest, made up of Beech, Birch, Sugar Maple, Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine). Or, it is an “Oak-Hickory Forest” made up of Oak, Hickory, Tulip, Red Maple, and prior to the 20th century, American Chestnut.  Each of these ecosystems are carefully evolved: the species of plants, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects live in careful balance with each other and all are necessary for the broader functioning of an ecosystem.  If we remove just one species, particularly a keystone species (say, Eastern Hemlock through logging or American Eagle through pollution), its not just that species that suffers, but every other species in that ecosystem. (This information was freely available through my state extension office.  Anyone living in the US will have a state extension office, and they will offer many free publications and materials on these topics. Other countires often have similar offices focused on conservation and public education on natural resources. Field guides and other books on natural ecology may also be useful here.)

 

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

This interdependency is critical for understanding land healing: all life depends on other life for survival.  In many cases, that life has very specific needs.  A well known example is the monarch butterfly that needs various species of milkweed in order to survive: it has adapted to an abundance of milkweed, and now that milkweed is in short supply, its numbers are radically declining. Just like the monarch, all life has these needs.  Part of the reason “invasives” can be damaging (such as the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid) is that they aren’t part of the ecosystem, and they do not have the check and balances that native species have to live in harmony with each other.  Thus, all life depends on other life, and healing one part of life (even energetically) can help heal other parts of life.

 

Understanding Interconnectivity

Ecosystems teach us a powerful lesson about interconnectivity. Interconnectivity is everywhere, but the enormity of how it functions ecologically is hard to wrap one’s head around.  I like to think of it in a few different ways to make it manageable. One is through the hydrologic cycle:  as I write this, I have a glass of spring water (from the spring on our property, which is our primary water source) that I am drinking.  Where did this glass of water come from?  From the ground and land surrounding my home.  But where was it before that?  Perhaps this water soaked in through the last few spring rains, and those had melted from a glacier and moved from the artic across the land.  In otherwords, these same molecules of water that I am drinking right now have been cycling through the earth for potentially billions of years.  Thus, how we heal–or harm–water in one place will cycle in many other places.  This is part of why I like to focus on water as a land healing practice: unlike earth, which remains stationary across the course of our lives, water moves and the water we heal or bless in one case can make a major impact across the globe.

 

Another managable way to think about this interconnectivity is within our own bodies, each a complex, interconnected system. If we engage in unhealthy behaviors (smoking cigarettes, eating poor food, being sedintary), our bodies as a system can handle that for a while.  At some point though, these poor choices will have done enough damage to our body’s system that they will be disasterous.  You don’t see the effects from one bacon cheeseburger and one lazy day on the couch.  But 30 years of bacon cheeseburgers and lazy days on the couch significantly harms the body’s whole system.

 

Using Interconnectivity and Systems for Land Healing

From an ecosystems and ecology perspective, humanity has been metaphorically eating bacon cheeseburgers for three meals a day and sitting on the couch for 30 years, and that long line of bad choices is coming due. The whole earth, as a whole system, is starting to break down. The need for healing is everywhere, it is so extreme, it is overwhelming at times.  We certainly can’t physically heal that whole ecosystem on our own, but we can understand it, and we can use the principle of interconnectivity for great effect.

 

As with all land healing, there are energetic ways of healing and there are physical ways of healing.  In the remainder of this post, I’m discussing physical land healing using these concepts.  In next week’s post, we’ll consider some ritual work and spiritual ways of working with these concepts.

 

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort: nectar and medicine

On the most basic level, when we think about physical land healing, thinking in a ecosystems approach is really helfpul  Thus, its not about individual plants but rather how to support an interconnected web of life.  One of the ways that I find helpful when I’m doing this kind of thinking is to use some terminology and categorization from permaculture design:

 

  • Dynamic accumulators: plants that enrich soil, by deep tap roots that bring nutrients up from the ground, possibly also from the air
  • Nitrogen fixers: plants that “fix” nitrogen in the soil by pulling it out of the air.
    • Some examples: Most legumes and clovers.  More info on these can be found here.
  • Nectary plants: plants that provide nectar or pollen for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.
    • Some examples: St. John’s wort, goldenrod, apple trees.  Here is a more complete list.
  • Habitat and forage plants: those that provide other kinds of habitat (such as the milkweed for the monarch) or forage for wildlife.

When we are replanting a space, like a lawn, its useful to think about how these plants may work in conjunction with each other to form an interconnected web of life.  Not just that we are planting plants that may look good, but plants that can help serve different functions and work together.  This is how we start thinking on a larger (eco)systems level and considering the role of interconnectivity.  In addition to this, of course, there are many other considerations to supporting a healthy ecosystem: clean rainfall, removing pollution, supporting a healthy soil web of life, building soil fertility, and much more.  But these concepts, at least, help us start to think about the ecosystem as a system, rather than plants as individuals! In permaculture, we call these “guilds” where the goal isn’t just to, say, plant an apple tree, but plant a whole ecosystem that helps support that tree and all the life around it.

 

And you might be saying, but what about the animals, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on?  I would respond: if you plant it, they will come.  The whole idea of focusing on plants is that we are building habitat, food, shelter, and places for wildlife–and its that life that bring the other pieces of a more complete ecosystem.

 

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

Someday, my trees will be abundant like this!

As a simple example of how this can work in practice, we recently planted two apples and two pears in the back of our garden (on the northern side).  The garden is on a bit of a slope, so part of the role of these trees is to establish good root systems to help hold in the soil in addition to our swales.  But the other idea, here, is that we want to create an ecosystem as part of our garden and support the trees for us and for wildlife.  So rather than just planting apple trees, we did (or are planning to do) the following:

  • Wood chip inoculated mulch around base of the trees
  • Comfrey plants so we can “chop and drop” for extra nutrients; comfrey also functions as nectary plants for bees
  • A variety of nectary plants to support insect life and that are also medicinal in nature: St. johns wort, wood betony, lupine, red clover
  • Nitrogen fixing plants: red clover and lupine

Now, rather than having just some apple trees for good eats, we have a whole mini-ecosystem that supports us with food and medicine, brings good insect life to the garden, and supports life.

 

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the major take aways are these: earth as a whole is a single interconnected system, and as land healers, we can work with any part of that system energetically or physically and help offer healing.  We will always be working at a local level, within one or more ecosystems, but through doing so, because earth is all interconnected, we benefit all of the earth through our efforts.

Sacred Tree Profile: Cherry (Prunus Serotina)’s Magic, Mythology, Medicine and Meaning

Butterfly on choke cherry

When most people think of cherry trees, they think about plump, juicy, red or purple cherries from cultivated cherry trees.  However, here in the USA, we have a variety of wild cherries that are an interwoven and rich part of our landscape. An enigmatic tree found throughout the eastern part of North America and South America is prunus serotina, the wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry tree. Most people interact with this tree not in its living form, but through the beautiful reddish-brown heartwood that this tree produces, and that can be frequently found in their furniture and flooring.  And yet, this tree has so much more to offer than just beautiful wood! While I’m targeting my comments today about the black cherry, many of the material found here can be about *any* cherry tree local to you, including domesticated cherries.  Many other kinds of wild cherries may also be found along the US East Coast region: prunus avium (the wild sweet cherry) and prunus virginiana (choke cherry). Black cherry and other wild cherries of the prunus species are truly American trees and hence, should be considered as part of our magical landscape here in the USA.

 

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more. I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees. Thus, this series provides research and insight on the many trees here in the US East Coast.  Previous trees in this series include Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.  And now, let’s learn more about the Black Cherry!

 

Black Cherry Growth and Ecology

Black cherry is a medium-sized tree, often found on the edges of forests. When it is young, it can be shade tolerant, but older cherries prefer to have more sunlight, and thus, you can often find them along the edges of forests, pushing the forest into new areas. Cherries are prone to being blown over by strong winds because they primarily have lateral/fibrous (spreading) root systems rather than a deep tap root. Cherries can live between 150 and 200 years.  They are commonly found in the ‘dry’ or ‘mesic’ forest habitats more broadly. Here in Western PA, they are a very common tree, often growing in mixed oak/beech hardwood forests or hickory/oak forests, but also found on the edges of hemlock forests.

Identification of the tree depends on its age. Leaves are typically about 2-5 inches in length with fine tooth and an ovate-lacerate shape (elongated oval with points). Young cherry trees have a dark, smooth bark which is banded with lighter brown lines that are horizontal.  Older cherry trees have very dark gray/dark brown or almost black bark that is highly textured, but you can still see the bands (see photos).  A strong almond scent (very unique to cherries) can be smelled when leaves are crushed or branches are broken–more on this later in the post).

Younger and older black cherry trees

Birds, butterflies, and moths feed and grow on black cherry, including the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, who lays eggs individually on the black cherry leaves.  Other caterpillars who depend on the trees include the red-spotted purple caterpillar and the coral haristreak caterpillar. Unfortunately, it is also a favorite of the destructive eastern tent caterpillar, which can make large nests in the tree and strip trees of leaves. Usually, the cherries can bounce back the following year after a serious Eastern Tent Caterpillar issue. When the cherry is in bloom, it is a nectar source for many insects including bees, wasps, and butterflies. When the cherry is in fruit, it is a food source for many animals and birds including raccoon, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, and more.

 

Wood and Other Uses

The wood of the cherry is well known, as it is a common wood used for interiors, furniture, tools, flooring, and more. Cherry is a beautiful, reddish brown wood with a straight grain. It is a favorite of woodworkers as it is delightful to work with and beautiful when polished.  It is not as hard as oak, near as soft of maple, making it a wood that is firm yet beautiful to work with.

The berries, when using methods I’ve described before on the blog, can be made into a great ink or dye; it offers a purple/blue color. It doesn’t have a good light fastness (like most other natural berry dyes) but in my experience, if you use alum as a mordant, it can improve the light fastness. The berries are almost always in abundance, but they can be difficult to reach on high up trees.

The cherry pits (seeds) are also often harvested and eaten by wild critters. If you visit the base of an older wild cherry tree, you will often see the little half-cups of the seeds, dried and brown. If you are interested in natural crafts, these can make nice beads (with a tiny hole bored or drilled into them).

Cherry Leaves and Cyanide

Cherry is an interesting tree because while the fruit is edible and medicinal, and the inner bark is also medicinal, most of the rest of the tree is extremely toxic. Cherry foliage and pits contain hydrocyanic acid. You can smell this when you crush a leaf or cut a part of a cherry tree–it has that distinct bitter almond smell. The leaves have the highest concentration of hydrocyanic acid, and as the leaves wilt, they produce cyanide. This makes the leaves extremely toxic to humans and many livestock animals, such as goats or sheep.  In fact, we had planned on getting goats for our homestead here for fiber, milk, and for clearing brush, but after we learned about the toxicity of the cherry leaves (which we have everywhere on the property) we decided not to do so and went a different route with our animals.  This is because one handful of wilted cherry leaves is enough to kill a full size goat!  Needless to say, Cherry’s toxicity is not to be trifled with.

Foraging for Cherries

Thick bark of an older black cherry tree

At the same time that cherry’s leaves have such poison, black cherries are delightful and abundant to eat, high in antioxidants and nutrients, and an excellent wild food. Sam Thayer notes in the Forager’s Harvest that you should harvest the berries only when they are overripe, that is, a deep purple color.  I will also note that in my experience, different trees may produce slightly different tasting berries, some more or less bitter than the others.  If you are going to forage for them and you have some choice, I suggest tasting various trees! The variety in different trees can be quite distinct, with some tasting almost like a commercial cherry and others being nearly inedible and very bitter. So, once you find a tree that you can eat raw, you have found a good tree to turn the fruit into jelly or other tasty treats.  Even if a cherry tree has a little bit of bitterness, you can usually use sweetness to counteract it and allow for an enjoyable tasty tree.

Like many other fruits in the rose family (including apples and peaches), cherry pits also do contain hydrocyanic acid, and those, should be removed during or before preparation.  You can cook them slightly, mash them down, and strain out the pits, which is probably the easiest method of removing them.

This bitterness of any wild cherry can be reduced with the use of sugar, but any jams or jellies that you produce from it will still have some bitterness if your fruit started off bitter.  I have found that the bitterness is pretty tasty combined with meats or fish and add dimension and complexity (and bitter foods are healthy for our digestion). A simple recipe, offered by Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Wild Asparagus book is a cherry jelly.  He suggests adding apple juice to the jelly to improve the flavor.  Take any number of quarts of black cherry and add 1 cup of water.  Take unripe apples and slice them and add them (or add some pectin as per package instructions).  Simmer this for 30 min then strain.  Take 2 cups of cherry juice and 2 cups of apple juice, and add 4 cups sugar (you could also add less sugar by using Pamona’s pectin; I prefer to can with honey using this approach).  Boil till it jells and then hot water bath can using standard fruit approaches (10 min for half pints, 15 min for pints, etc).

In Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon notes the difference between serotina (wild cherry) and virginiana (choke cherry) are as follows: chokecherry has more pointed leaves, bitter/acidic fruit, and shorter fruit clusters  He notes that while both can be made into tasty jellies, the choke cherry produce more bitter fruit.  I have also found this to be the case, and often, the serotina and virginana are growing right next to each other!  Sam Thayer recommends another approach to working with black cherry. After harvesting them, he puts them in the fridge for two days.  This reduces the astringency and bitterness, and then you can make jellies or fruit leather.

Cherry as Medicine

In Matthew Wood’s Earth Wise Herbal: New World Herbs, Wood notes that in the 19th century, wild cherry was considered an “indispensable” medicine by both pioneers and Native Americans; he suggests that it was likely one of the most commonly used herbs native to the US during that time period.  Wood notes that wild cherry works as a sedative, particularly for the circulatory system.  It is particularly useful for coughs due to irritation, coughs that linger on after an infection has passed, and those that have fluid or mucus in the lungs, such as through bronchitis, pleurisy, etc. He recommends collecting root bark if at all possible, and preferably in the spring when the cyanogens are lowest. He notes that while the bark does contain trace amounts amounts of cyanide, it is not enough to cause any health issues, particularly when it is used medicinally and for short term issues.

Prussic acid in found in wild cherry trees are particularly useful for coughs and many herbalists use it as a their go-to cough syrup remedy.  For this, you want the inner bark from any wild cherry. This is to be used for acute conditions short term only, but it is very effective. A simple cough syrup is to boil down 1/2 cup of the chopped inner bark of wild cherry for 30 min in 1 pint water.  Then, strain it and let it cool. Add raw honey at this point to taste.  Usually, I will freeze this in ice cub trays, then you can keep using it as needed and keep it till you need it.  Alternatively, you can simply make a strong tea of the wild cherry bark that you dry.  If you have a wild cherry nearby though, no need to dry it in advance–just harvest it fresh and prepare it as needed!  I have used this recipe many times myself, and it is just as effective as over-the-counter medicines.

Euell Gibbons gives another recipe for wild cherry cough syrup in his Stalking the Wild Asparagus book that I really like: 1 cup red clover blossoms, 1 cup white pine needles (preferably new growth), 1 cup mullein leaves, and 1/2 cup inner bark from the wild cherry.  Boil all of this in a quart of water covered for 20 min.  Strain and add 1 pint honey, then can it.  (I like this recipe, but I’d omit the honey and can it without, then add the honey later.  Raw honey is amazing, but heat removes much of the medicinal virtues).

 

Magic of the Cherry Tree in Global Traditions

Cherry does not seem to have much of a place in the traditional western magical traditions, particularly those deriving from Europe–which makes sense, as cherry is a North American Tree.

Leaves of cherry tree

In the European traditions, when it shows up, it does not often show up as a tree of power.  For example, in Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire, the book describe the Battle of Godeu (or the Battle of the Trees) and in this battle with Hades, while many trees fought valiantly (oak, hawthorn, heather, holly) many others, including the poor cherry tree did not fare so well and was broken during the battle. This battle is told in the Book of Taliesin as well.

What information there is about the cherry’s power suggests that cherry is tied to love, emotions, and romance, something that is consistent both from Europe as well as from folk magic here in the US.  Culpepper notes in his Herbal that cherry is a tree governed by Venus. In the American hoodoo traditions, according to Cat Yronwood’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, cherry is used primarily in love-drawing spells for drawing love, romance, or enticing someone. Thus, in American Hoodoo, it is frequently used in love-drawing mojo bags, oils, dressed candles. We see this same association in an old book, Grimories, who talks about using the “essences of the cherry tree” when when desires another. Interestingly enough, Native American talking sticks can also be made of cherry, and when they are, they are also tied to expression, emotion, and love. Yet, Cherry trees do not feature prominently in the stories that I have been searching (and that I usually share as part of these posts). Occasionally, someone eats a cherry in a story, or, someone notes that cherry is not good for making bows. But the tree has no distinct magical connection in the mythology of the Americas that I can ascertain.

In another American classic grimore, The Long Lost Friend by John George Hoffman (1820), which is one of the premier books in PA Dutch Braucherei, the cherry tree is used to help cure the “poll-evil” in horses. The Poll Evil is an inflamed back of the head which can burst (today, this is treated with antibiotics). The full charm involves breaking off three twigs from a cherry tree, one in the morning, one in the evening, and one at midnight.  You wrap these in pieces of your shirt, then clean the poll-evil with it.  Then you have to poop on the twigs while the twigs are facing north. Then you stir the wound again with the dirtied twigs a day or two later.  Yep, good stuff :P.

One of the places that cherry tree is very dominant is in Japan, and Cherry has different meanings in eastern societies.  Japanese cherries, or “sakura” symbolize the concept of “mono no aware,” or the understanding that life and things are transient, impermanent, and that a small amount of sadness or wistfulness can be had at their passing.  Cherry blossoms, which bloom en masse in Japan are thus symbolic of “mono no aware” and encourage people to reflect on the transience of all things.  We also see the tie to love from myths like “the Holy Cherry Tree of Musubi-no-Kami Temple” where a magnificent old cherry tree encouraged people to build a shrine dedicated to the “God of Love”.

Meanings and Magic for North America

So to summarize all of the above, we can see three distinct meanings for the Cherry tree, based on its ecology, medicine, uses, and mythology:

Cherry tree as a drawing love and romance.  The American traditions are strongly consistent in this, showing that cherry here in the US has the power for love: to bring it, to help it last, and to foster romance.

A small grove of cherries on the edge of the homestead

Cherry tree emphasizes the fragility, impermanence, and ephemeral nature of life.  The Japanese tradition is strong here, but so is, frankly, the fact that cherry can produce such a noxious poison.  The leaves of the cherry tree wilt and cause livestock (or people) to die who consume them.  That ecology sends, to me, a very strong emphasis on the idea that life is fragile!

Cherry, likewise, sends the message that the same aspects of nature can be both healing and destructive. Cherry is a tree of extremes: both one of the best natural medicines we have native to the Americas while also being one of the most destructive poisons we have.  Much of nature is like this, and this is a powerful natural lesson. The ocean is a very good example of this: the ocean can provide food and medicine, but also tidal waves and tsunamis.  I think every part of nature is truly like this: and cherry so beautifully emphasizes this lesson.  Nature is.  It is not good, it is not evil, it simply is.  I can be harnessed as a powerful tool, or it can harm or kill you.  Part of that depends on your own knowledge, and part, on the conditions at hand.

Druidry for the 21st Century: Druidry in the Anthropocene

Druidry is rooted in relationship and connection with the living earth: the physical landscape and all her plants and creatures, the spirits of nature, the allies of hoof and claw, fin and feather. The land and her spirits are our primary allies and energies with which we work as druids. The question I keep coming back to is this: how do I practice a nature-centered path in a time when nature–those of the hooves, fins, feathers, and claws–are going extinct and dying all around me? How do I practice druidry when everything that I hold sacred and love  is under severe threat, and when it is likely that in my lifetime, I will witness severe ecological collapse in multiple ecosystems.  How do I practice druidry with my “eyes open” to all of this, and honor nature in this great extinction event, and still say sane? How do I do this “druid” thing, given these challenges?

 

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

Druidry in the 21st century is a complex topic, and I’ve been trying to work my way into it in different ways on this blog. I started this by thinking about how druidry offers coping mechanisms for those of us faced with the many challenges of our age: that is druidry offers refuge in dark times. I think it’s critically important to acknowledge that first and foremost, we need self care to do it well.  While all humans need self care in these dark times, our spiritual relationship with nature requires it. I followed this up with a post about the future of human civilization (Druidry for the 21st century) and made the argument that one way druidry may serve the future is through developing and providing paradigms and mindset shifts.  The idea that druidry is the seed of something different; that druidry offers us new paradigms and hope; paradigms to replace the thought processes and civic ideals currently driving post-industrial civilization to the brink of global collapse.  These are two useful responses, but they certainly aren’t the end of this conversation–not by a long shot.  So today’s question is a serious one: What can druids do about what is happening to all of nature now and what will continue to happen in the foreseeable future?

 

Today, then, I’m going to talk about death.  I’m going to talk about nature and relationship, and I’m going to talk about extinction. Maybe you want to stop reading at the words “death” and “extinction”; these are things we don’t talk about.  These are things our media refuses to cover. These are things overwhelming to even well meaning people, people who love the land, people like you and me. These are things that bring tears to my eyes when I read them or think about them.  But it is necessary that we honor and acknowledge those parts of nature that are no longer with us; that are dying and may never return because of human indulgence. To avert the eyes is essentially allowing a loved one to suffer alone.  If your grandmother were dying in a hospital, would you ignore her, or would you go visit her? (For more on my idea of “palliative care” and why witnessing is so important, see here and here).  If your sacred companion on the druid path–nature–is suffering and dying, can you really pretend everything is ok? I don’t think I can just go into my woods and do some woo-woo and get healed by nature and call that druidry.  Druidry is not a one-sided relationship.  If we want to gain our strength, wisdom, peace, and healing from nature, we must also offer something in return. I believe that now–in the 21st century, in the Anthropocene, nature needs us just as much as we need her.

 

The Hard Stuff

So let’s start with the hard stuff. Scientists are clear that the world’s sixth extinction-level event is underway. “Biological annihilation” is the phrase used to describe what is happening–since 1970, at least half of the world’s animals are gone. That means that we had twice as many animals living on this planet in 1970 than we do today. This isn’t some far-off future prediction. It has already happened. It is continuing to happen as you read this. It has happened in the time that you have been present on this earth. Here’s a list of the “recently extinct” species–those who have gone extinct primarily since industrialization. There are many more who are not on this list because they weren’t discovered or documented before going extinct. A 2017 study, examined 27,600 land species and found that all species were showing huge amounts of population loss, even among species of the “lowest concern” with regards to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s guidelines (which sets guidelines for endangered species).  This study suggests that 80% the traditional territories of land mammals have been eradicated, making way for cities, people and shopping malls–this is the “biological annihilation” that they speak of.  The study also indicates that this trend will likely increase in the next two decades with the rise in population and continued rising demands on the earth. Another piece of this comes from the work of Bernie Krause, who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra (which I discussed a few years ago on this blog).  Krause’s work focused on recording nature sounds, and he demonstrates that the sounds of nature are simply vanishing, along with the life and species.  These issues are also not limited to vertebrate species–another study, released in October, showed a 75% decline in insects in protected ecological areas in Germany.  The problem isn’t that change is happening; the problem is that it is happening so quickly that natural evolutionary processes (processes that allow species migrations and adaptations) cannot occur.  And so, how do we honor those animals, plants, insects, trees, amphibians, reptiles and so forth that have passed, many unnoticed?

 

One more piece here, that I think is critical to consider. All ecosystems have what is called a “carrying capacity.” That is, given the resources available (sunlight, soil, plant matter, water, weather, etc) the land can reasonably sustain so many lives of different kinds: so much insect life, so much plant life, so much animal life, so much human life.  Ecological collapse refers to when an ecosystem suffers a drastically reduced carrying capacity–that is, the ecosystem can no longer support the life it used to because of one or more serious factors.  These factors are usually compounded and may include the loss of a keystone species, general pollution or degradation, deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, you name it.  Its like a domino effect–sometimes, all it takes is one core species to go.  Climate scientists call this the tipping point–think of it like a chair.  The chair is being held at 45 degrees, and just a fraction more, and it will crash.  It is almost certain that we are heading into a nose dive of ecological collapse.  Ecological collapse doesn’t just affect all of nature–it affects humans too.  So while we should care about even one life, a single species, we also need to be concerned deeply for all life.  This will happen in our lives–how do we spiritually prepare to support nature when it does?

 

Now, put this in context. While we practice druidry, while we enjoy nature’s benefits and her healing, this is happening. When we are honoring nature, celebrating the wheel of the seasons, this is happening. Its happening in every moment of every day. This is part of our reality, as nature-honoring people.  Given that this is the reality, responding to this should also be part of our druid practice.

 

Exoteric / Outer Works: Refugia

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

Druidry is about nature and relationship.  Its about your relationship with nature both exoterically (that is, in the material world) and esoterically (that is, in the world of spirit).  In the case of this information, I think it’s really important that we develop a range of responses, both esoteric and exoteric.  In terms of the outer world, I’ve long advocated on this blog a very wide variety of things that can aid the land in healing, regeneration, and growth.  I think that each of us can do something, and that something varies based on our life circumstances.  All of us can attend to our ecological footprint, consumption behaviors, transit, energy use, and all of the usual things.  I think that’s part of just being a druid–living your practice.

 

To be more specific to the material above, however, I’ll share what I consider to be my key method for responding this kind of extinction level event: building refugia. Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader changes that destroyed most habitats. Pielou describes specific isolated pockets of life that survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so forth, while the rest of the land was covered in ice. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America stripped bare by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions. In the 21st century, in the time of human-dominated land use, things are not as different as you might think from our glaciated pre-history. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can be found in the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation in the US or the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland in the US. Many areas that aren’t lawns or farmlands are subject to other kinds of stresses that create inhospitable lands: pollution, resource extraction, deforestation, and so on.  Refugia allow us to create small pockets of biodiversity–which is going to really, really matter in the next 20-30 years.

 

Refugia are all about individual action.  While no average person has control over what much of what is happening in the world around us, even in the landscape around us locally, we can create refuges for life. Refugia are small spaces of intense biodiversity, critically important during this time of mass extinction and habitat loss. Cultivating refugia allows us to put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands. That is, refugia is that they are little arks of life, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again. A network of refugia created by 21st century druids may be the difference between extinction and thriving for many diverse species.  What you do can make an incredible difference–it could save a species.  I have written more about how to create a refugia garden here and here!

 

Esoteric / Inner Works: Honoring the Fallen through Ritual, Shrine, and Sound

Given the state of nature and that we practice a nature-oriented spiritual practice, I think it is necessary to directly honor the massive loss of such life through rituals, shrines, moments of silence, psychopomp work, and other practices.  I would argue that this work should be a regular part of our practices as druids. I’m going to share two ideas here, and next week, I offer a larger set of suggestions on psycopomp work for the animals and the land.

 

Ringing the Bell/Sounding the Bowl

After reading the Great Animal Orchestra, I thought it would be very appropriate to honor the loss of life through sound.  Since we are missing the sounds of that life, and the world is growing silent (or replaced by human sounds), I wanted to create space in my rituals to honor the loss of life.  There are lots of ways you might do this, here is mine:

 

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

Anytime I open a sacred grove to do ritual, I have begun with a simple sound ritual to honor the life that has passed.  I have a small singing bowl, and I go to each of the quarters and ring the bell in each direction.  Sometimes I do this silently, and sometimes I say some simple words, like “honoring those who have passed on in the east.”  I allow the bowl to resonate until it is completely quiet again, and then move on to the next direction.  I’ve found for typical OBOD or AODA grove openings, this is best done just after declaring peace in the quarters.

 

You don’t have to do this in ritual; you can do it anytime.  I like doing it in ritual because it is in ritual that I’m drawing upon the land and her energies, and I want to honor and acknowledge the suffering of the land before I ask for anything else (that’s why I do it early in the ritual rather than after I’ve called the quarters and established the space).

 

Honoring the Fallen Shrine

I also maintain two shrines–an indoor shrine and an outdoor shrine–to honor the many lives that have passed.  I often will do my sound ritual above and leave small offerings (like my offering blend).  These shrines are simple–a pile of stones outside on a stump, I add bones and other things as I find them on my walks.  Indoors, I have smudges I make special for this shrine, usually of rosemary (for remembrance), bay laurel (for passage), white cedar (for eternal life), and white pine (for peace) and I burn these regularly.  I sometimes print out pictures of animals or other species, and add other things of significance.  Like most things, it is the intention of this shrine that is critical.

 

Council of All Beings and Other Rituals

At least once a year, if not more frequently, I also like to engage in ritual (group or solo) to directly honor and support the land.  One of my favorite things to do with this comes from the work of Joanna Macy (who has many great ideas for group rituals and group healing and processing of what is happening now).  She has a ritual called the Council of All Beings (the link will take you directly to the ritual).  I like this ritual because it allows us to give voice to those who do not normally have it, and it helps all participants get into a frame of mine that acknowledges and honors other life’s suffering. I think its important to engage with this not only for ourselves, but with others–talking about it, sharing what we do, and working on doing some things together.

 

I also think that general land healing and blessing ceremonies are useful and important to do regularly and help energetically support the land and her spirits during this time. I wrote a series on land healing; this final post links to all others.

 

There’s so much more to write and say here, but alas, I think this post is long enough.  Dear readers, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts–how do you answer the many questions I’ve posed in this post?  I would love to hear your ideas and stories.

Walking the Path of the Ovate: Building Localized Ecological Knowledge

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Rocky Maine Shore at Sunrise

Everything changes in this wild place. The ebb and flow of the tides drives the ecology on this rocky shore. The landscape abruptly changes its appearance based on proximity to the sea and elevation. Firs and spruces dominate along with a groundcover of laurel and blueberry. Even old friends, like birch, maple, and beech, take on new skin. The mountain peaks offer a desert-like climate where air and fire dominate. I am in this wild place, letting it seep into my bones, into my breath, into my spirit. Desipte the books on ecology I’ve purchased, I really have no idea what I’m seeing, no real knowledge of the deeper mystery of this land and shore. Books cannot teach that kind of wisdom, only time and experience can. My eyes physically see, but I am seeing without any real understanding of what it is that is before me.

 

Industrialization has taught us that local context is only a marketing tool, a demographic base through which to sell products. We have eliminated much of what made local contexts unique and have replaced them with the same worn-out stores selling the same worn-out products. But nature has her own wisdom. Nature teaches us that the local context is sacred: it is what gives us distinction, it is what gives uslife, it is what roots us in a place. My localized knowledge base, rooted in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA and in the wilds of South-East Michigan, offers me a familiarity and comfort with the plants and animals I know. These are plants and animals that I have developed relationships with over a long period of time. When I enter a forest in my home region, I see my old friends and that relationship deepens. With that deep knowledge of my own ecosystem, an opportunity to visit a new place allows me begin to understand differences, subtle or major, in new ecosystems.

 

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality and connecting with nature through walking the path of the ovate, our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls. These landscapes literally become like a skin that we wear, a skin that comes with us wherever we go.

 

Building Local Knowledge

Indigeneous peoples were woven so closely into their landscapes: their land forms, their bodies of water, the local plants. They ate the fish and animals they hunted, they ate the plants they gathered, they made medicine from what was around them. These elements of their surrounding shaped every aspect of their daily interaction and their culture. They preserved the land and tended the wilds because the land sustained them fully. They understood their landscape in ways no modern human, living indoors, can do. And so, much of that knowledge is lost at present. Certainly, some places in the world, that knowledge still exists–but in places, like where I live, long colonized by those who would seek to destroy native peoples, only fragments remain. In truth, it is likely that modern humans in current western society can never have the deep knowledge, developed from infancy and shared across generations, that humans living in other times or cultures had. But, we can build a start, and we can work to connect once again.  In generations to come, we may once again have that kind of deep knowledge of our world. Part of this connection, to me, is the most sacred work there is to do in this world. And part of this is building our own ecoregional druidries and localized understandings.

 

Stone stack along the sea shore

Stone stack along the sea shore

When we want to learn something today, especially about our local ecosystem, I have found that in person teachers are often hard to find (and if they can be found, expensive).  Books, then, become our teachers, and we can gain much knowledge of the landscape and our local ecology. The knowledge contained in books today was the kind of knowledge we used to have human and non-human teachers teach us: how to identify plants, how to use them for food or medicine, and so on. But there is no substitute for lived experience, the viceral and sensual experience of life–neither of which books can give us. There is no substitute that tells us that the ramps grow in this vally on the eastern side of the mountain where the emphermeal springs open up. Bridging the gap between book knowledge and direct experience is part of what walking the path of the ovate is all about–it is not just about the study of plants, animals, ecology, it is about connecting with that spirit of the landscape, weaving yourself into it, and reconnecting.

 

A basic knowledge identification skills and plant families can lead to many more deeper understandings, magical understandings, understanding the spirit of things. Now that I can identify many plants with ease and know some of their basic features, growth patterns, and uses, I want to understand them deeper. Who do they like to grow next to? What insects live on them? For the trees, what is their wood like? What do they look like at the different seasons of the year? What medicine and magic do they hold? And so, I wonder, wander, and walk through this landscape. A loupe (jeweler’s loupe) in hand offers me a more detailed perspective of the flowers. The more time I spend in the land place, the more I want to simply experience it.

 

Visiting Somewhere New

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

Konza Prarie Recently Burned (March 2018)

When I spent time at Acadia National Park in Maine last year, and recently in the Konza Prarie in Kanas, one thing was clear to me: despite studying field guides that helped me identify plants, to really know either landscape, like I knew my own ecosystem, it would take a lifetime. Prior prior to this, I’ve had no exposure to Maine’s craggy and rocky coasts. I had no experience with the burned out prarie stretching into the distance. Intellectual knowledge in my field guide offers a stepping stone, but true understanding, this weaving into the landscape, would take years of regular interaction and time spent in nature.

 

While in Maine, I spent numberous hours in the same spot, on a place called Otter Cliff, first observing the spot at low tide, and a different day, watching high tide come in. I watched the way that the various seaweed adapted to the incoming waves, how different species lived at different heights and were exposed to different wave action. A field guide tells me that I’m seeing bladderwrack, rockweed, wormweed, barnacles, and mussels. But yet, nothing but observation can teach me how the waves crash into the bladderwrack, or how it feels in my hand, or how it is adapted to move with the waves that would rend my own flesh from my bones against the rocks.

 

And this is what visiting a radically different ecosystem can do. You are out of your comfort zone, the plants and animals may be similar, but not exact. It is an extremely good time to study plant families (like through the book called Botany in a Day). Even if you can’t identify the specific plants, you can certainly identify their families, which teaches you new and important skills. This newness and challenge leads to rich rewards, new learning, and growth.

Bladderwrack along cliffs

Bladderwrack along cliffs

 

Different regions also have different elemental balances. For example, I live in a land that is dominated by earth and water. The mountains, especially higher up, often have clouds and mist. The forests remain quite damp and the damp-loving trees like Eastern Hemlock are abundant, especially in dark forest valleys where the streams and creeks flow. On the Maine coast, this land is dominated as much by earth and water as it is by air–the winds, of which we have very little, are ever present here as the waves continue to crash on the rocks. High up on the granite-top mountains, fire and air dominate and life barely holds on. In Kansas, fire and air dominated the landscape–particularly fire–due to the recently burned prarie.

 

Visiting a new number of ecosystems has me realizeing just how much power nature has–I understood her power in the Alleghney mountains in PA, but I have no idea of her power in other places. And the homecoming, of returning back to the place where I belong, is powerful and meaningful–all the more so becuase you are back in familiar territory, where the plants and animals and ecology is familiar, safe, comforting.

 

Weaving with Your Landscape

So, too, as we go deeper into nature-based spirituality, should our landscapes weave into our bodies and souls.  They become like a skin that we wear, literally, that comes with us wherever we go. We know the call of the birds, we know just how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction.  We understand the ebb and flow of the creek and know how the water runs over the stones. The longer we are in the land we are of the land, till we are one in the same.  This is what druidry, I beleive, is really about–becoming woven so deeply with your own place.

On Being an American Druid

The quintessential image of a druid is a group of people, all in white robes, performing ritual inside an ancient circle of stones.  This image is probably the most known and pervasive of all visuzaliations of druidry, and for many, it shapes the our perceptions of what druidry should be. But taken in a North American context, this image presents two problems.  First, we have no such ancient stone circles and two, another group has already claimed the quitessential white robe, and its not a group with which we want to associate our tradition.  This kind of tension, along with many other unique features of our landscape, make being an American druid inherently different than a druid located somewhere else in the world.  In the case of any spiritual practice, context matters, and context shapes so much of the daily pracice and work.    And so today, I’m going to answer the questions: What does it mean to be an American druid? What strengths do we have? What challenges do we face?

 

Stone Circle

Stone Circle

For this discussion, I am drawing upon many sources: my work as the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), an American-Based Druid order, where I mentor druids and develop our curriculum; my experiences as a long-term member of the East Coast community of OBOD Druids (which now has two gatherings near where I live, ECG and MAGUS); and finally, many of the conversations and comments on this blog.

 

Key Differences

I want to set up, first, some key differences between the North American and UK contexts to help frame my overall discussion. In the UK, druids practice a religion that is inspired by their their ancestors who lived on that same soil. In the US and Canada, nearly everyone who lives here is the result of colonialization, where the Native Peoples were killed, forcefully removed, and their lands stripped from them. Given this tragic history, druids in North American have a very different cultural relationship to the land. Further, the United States was founded mostly by radical Christians who were generally quite intolerant of other faiths; this has long-lasting implications for the acceptance of non-abrahamic religious practices. North America also has considerable ecological diversity as it spans a much wider space (not to mention, druids are much more spread out!) Given radical differences in the contexts in which we practice druidry, it makes sense that American Druidry looks inherently different than British Druidry. Our changing context changes everything: our symbolism, our interaction with the land and her spirits, the way we think about sacred sites;  our relationship to our own history; our place in our own culture; and more.  Let’s look at some of those differences and think now about how druids can, and do, respond.

 

 

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

Ecology and Symbolism

North America is a massive continent with an incredibly wide range of diverse ecosystems and a single “one size fits all” approach simply isn’t going to work here.  The diversity is, of coures, a blessing: we can experience many different ecosystems and climates by simply taking a quick trip somewhere new.  But the diversity is also a challenge for us, particularly in connecting to traditional symbolism. The druid tradition draws upon things like the Ogham (a set of sacred trees located on the British Isles) and traditional sacred animals (such as the Salmon, Stag, Bear, and Hawk).  Talking about four sacred animals (that don’t live in all parts of the US) or even thinking about holidays based on a certain timing wheel of the year based on certain seasonal changes, is simply not relevant to druids living in diverse ecosystems. Rather, druids here developing adaptations: their own unique druidries.  This prompted me to write about ecoregional adaptations of druidry through a re-envisioning of the wheel of the year through a local ecological approach, considering the role of localized symbolism, and considering the role of rituals, observances, and activities in this localizing practices. Other “traditional” druid herbs, trees, and so on simply don’t fit for a lot of the ecology in the US. Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, mistletoe doesn’t grow on oak, blackthorn doesn’t exist, and I’ve never seen wild heather. But I do have maple, sassafrass, spicebush, witch hazel, and so many amazing plant allies that I’m getting to know–and I’m thankful for the opportunity!

 

Spirits of the Land and Ancestors

Another key difference with the land has to do with the ancestors. On one hand, the native peoples who had such a deep spiritual connection to the land are largely no longer present and those that are present are struggling to keep what remains of their own ecological knowledge, rituals, and practices.  This information is largely not available to others outside of their communities, and out of respect, it shouldn’t be. This presents problems not only with ovate and ecological studies of plants and herbs, but also, challenges in connecting to the land spiritually. I’ve had many druids tell me that they had difficulty connecting to certain pieces of land, that the land and her spirits were “closed off” to them, and so on. We can only rectify this situation over a long period of time and through working on this land, healing it, connecting with it, and learning about it.  In other words, we have a lot of work to do, and taking up this work is a great honor and a great challenge.  But we are in a unique position to do so–to work to heal those wounds, as best we can, with time, courage, compassion and will.

 

Another ancestral challenge is the legacy of many non-native ancestors. For some of us, like myself, my ancestors were directly involved in the pillaging of the abundant resources of Pennsylvania in the name of “progress” to build up American industry. The forests were cut down, the streams were poisoned from mine runoff, the cities grew clouds of smoke and smog, you name it. I talked about in my “Coming Home” post from a while ago. This is, of course, still very much occurring, and again, offers us challenges with connecting to the land–not only do we not have an ancestral tradition of nature-based spirutality on this soil, but we have an ancestral tradtion of taking from the land and stripping it bare.  Again, I see this as a tremendous opportunity for healing work to be done.  We can choose to continue in this ancestral legacy, or we can step aside from it and take a new path.  The practice of permauclture design offers us tremendous tools for regenerating land, healing ecosystems, and honoring soil–we can show the spirits here that we are inherently different than that previous legacy that was left.  And this is very exciting work.

Sacred Spaces

Earlier this year, I had written quite a bit on establishing sacred spaces as an “American” challenge because of the history of colonization and genocide (and I think that other non-UK druids living in former British Colonies face similar challenges).  You can’t just walk or drive to your nearest ancient stone circle, raise some energy, and feel all druid-like here in the states.  In reading OBOD’s coursework, particularly the Ovate grade, so much of OBOD druidry focuses on connecting to stones, connecting to those ancient sites, and it leaves a lot of North American druids scratching their heads and saying…hmm.  What do I do?

 

Again, the problem is the solution. One of the things that a lot of us are are doing is working to establish our own sacred spaces. I’ve written about this numerous times over many years on this blog in different ways. On a personal level, we might consider how we create stone cairns, creating stone circles and other permanent outdoor sacred spaces, creating various shrines to butterfly/bee sanctuaries to full blown establishing sacred land. And of course, there are also the larger group projects, like raising stones with 200 people at Stones Rising! This is all to say–yes, we need our own sacred spaces here in North America, and yes, we  rising to the challenge and building them. I think this puts us in an inherently different kind of space with our druidry here: we are literally building it with our hands, hearts, and spirits. We are working to connect to this land, as her current people/inhabitants, and honor both the land and those that came before by seeing our land as inherently sacred.  And someday, we will be those ancestors who built the stone circles that others will come and celebrate in.

Healing the land...

Healing the land…

History and Culture

Another key difference between American druidry and the druidry of other places is cultural.  I see this in at least two ways.  First, there is the issue of broader cultural acceptance. I remember conversation between John Michael Greer and Philip Carr Gomm at OBOD East Coast Gathering  in 2012 about the how druidry in the UK vs. the US we percieved (this was archived on Druidcast in Episodes 68 and 69). Those of us listening were absolutely floored to hear Philip describe a story of a town was going to put a highway in, and they brought in a “local druid” to consult about its energetic impact on the land. This would never happen in a million years anywhere in the United States. And in fact, a lot of druids have to remain completely secretive about their spiritual practices, their holidays, not only at work but also with their own families. This issue, and seeing so many struggle with this here in the US, prompted my two-part series on being your authentic self, particularly, for those who aren’t able to be in the open (path of the moon) and those that are working towards more openness (path of the sun).

 

The second cultural issue goes back to that quintessential image of the white-robed druids inside the standing stones.  In the US, images of white-robed people in the forest at night lead to only one conclusion: the Ku Klux Klan. Many American druids express discomfort, heavily modify their white robes, or, simply refuse to wear white robes at all.  At least one American-based druid order, the AODA, is moving away from white robes entirely given the cultural climate present in the US.  And I see this is a good thing–I see it as a direct confrontation to the pervasive racicsim and intolerance in our culture.

A Way Forward

What I hope this post has described is that Druidry in the Americas is inherently different than in other places in the world.  These differences aren’t detrimental or problems, they are simply differences. I think that American druids have an incredible opportunity: we are building a tradition for ourselves, here, rooted in this place and in this time. We are building our tribe, our relationships with the living earth, our sense of identity, our own sacred spaces.  We are reconnecting with the knowledge of all of our ancestors–of our land, of our tradition, and of our blood.  We embrace challenges for what they are–opportunities–and make the most of those opportunities through our own creativity and enthusiasm!

 

Towards that end, we might think about some of the key work before us as American druids:

  1. Developing eco-regional druidries that fit our ecology, seasons, and local cultural traditions
  2. Developing a deep understanding of the local plants, animals, and trees that inhabit our  landscapes: their roles in the ecosystem, their medicine, their uses, their magic
  3. Honoring the previous ancestors of the land and working to keep the legacy of tending the land alive
  4. Thinking about druidry as inter-generational and helping to build the “next generation” of druidry
  5. Offering energetic healing to the land and acknowledgment of what has come before
  6. Learning how to directly heal and tend the land and bring it back into healthy production
  7. Building our own sacred sites and energetic networks
  8. Enjoying and embracing the ecological diversity that makes this land outstanding

I think there is more than this, but this is certainly a start!