Tag Archives: hemlock

The Allegheny Mountain Ogham: An Ogham for the Northern Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA

By Dana O’Driscoll, The Druid’s Garden Blog (druidgarden.wordpress.com), Copyright 2020.

The Ogham is an ancient alphabet, used to write early Irish and later Old Irish. The inscriptions that survive of Ogham, some 400 or so primarily on stone, are found throughout Ireland, Wales, and England. The inscriptions are thought to date from the 4th century and onward, although how old the tradition is is subject to some disagreement. In the modern druid tradition, the Ogham has also been associated with divination, and many druids use Ogham as a means to connect with sacred trees in the landscape. However, for people living in places outside of the British Isles, making local Oghams allows them to connect both with some of the roots of our tradition in druidry but also wildcraft and localize their druidry. This Ogham is designed for the Northern Appalachian mountain region in the United States while being rooted specifically in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania.

The Northern Appalachian Mountains range from the Mason Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and into Eastern Canada. This Ogham is specifically based in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania (Laurel Highlands and Pittsburgh Plateau regions), so some adaptations may be needed for people who live at other parts along the Appalachians. This Ogham would be most appropriate for druids living in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Virginia, but could easily be expanded outward.

When creating this Ogham, the selections are based on the following criteria:

  • Prominence: I selected trees that are abundant and widespread. Abundance varies from region to region, however, so you might want to make your own adaptations. The reason to use abundant trees is twofold. First, abundant trees have a considerable impact on the ecology and landscape. Second, for people who want to make their own Ogham, it is helpful to be able to find all of the trees. (This is why trees like pawpaw and chestnut are not on this list, even though they are important to this region).
  • Equivalency: In over half the Ogham fews, we have equivalent trees in the Allegheny mountains to the traditional Ogham (like Oak, Elder, and Birch). But there are also other very abundant trees that should be included in any North American Ogham like Hickory, Cedar, and Maple which have no equivalents in the British Isles.
  • Ecology: How the tree functions in the ecosystem is another critical factor for developing a regional Ogham, especially when looking for equivalents to the original Ogham fews. Does the tree grow quickly and help regenerate damaged parts of the forest? Is it an understory tree? Nitrogen fixer? How does the tree interact with other life in nature? Additionally, a preference for native trees is present.
  • A final factor is the health of the trees and tree species. Ash tree populations, including all mature ash trees, have been decimated on the US East coast due to the Emerald Ash Borer—thus, I’ve replaced Ash as the Ash here in the US cannot hold the energy that it traditionally did in the British Isles. Eastern Hemlock is also under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but at the time when I wrote this, the Eastern hemlock populations are still strong in Western PA—but may not be where you are located. Considering the health of the trees can help make decisions on Ogham inclusion or exclusion.

For each of the entries, I have also included possible alternatives when they made sense. Alternatives can be used when you can’t find the trees or if you feel drawn toward other options. Finally, you are also most welcome to adapt this Ogham as you feel necessary to your own bioregion. Pronunciations are based on those described by John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook.

This page includes the quick guide, a visual overview of the Allegheny Ogham, an in-depth discussion of each tree, as well as various means to use the Ogham in druid practice, including through the Bardic, Ovate, and Druid arts.

Allegheny Mountain Ogham Quick Guide

Original Ogham Allegheny Ogham Appalachian Tree Keywords Pronunciation
Birch (Beith) Black Birch

 

Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) Beginnings, rebirth, purification, regrowth BEH
Rowan (Luis) Sassafras Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Protection, Judgment, Discernment LWEESH
Ash (Nuinn) Shagbark Hickory Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) Interconnection, Magic, Connections NOO-un
Alder (Fearn) American Sycamore American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana) Bridge between spirit and matter; spirit, transitions, individuality FAIR-n
Willow (Sallie) Black Willow Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) Change, cycles, fluidity, receptivity, flexibility SAHL-yuh
The Second Aicme
Hawthorn (Huath) Hawthorn Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) Patience, restriction, danger, protection OO-ah
Oak (Duir) White Oak White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) Power, strength, durability, grounding DOO-er
Holly (Tinne) American Holly American Holly (Ilex opaca) Courage, Challenge, Opposition CHIN-yuh
Hazel (Coll) American Hazelnut American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta); Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginaia) Creativity, Inspiration, Awen, Artistry, Fine Craft CULL
Apple (Quert) Apple Apples and Crabapples of all varieties (Malus spp.) Celebration, Love, Harvest, Contentment KWEIRT
The Third Aicme
Vine (Muinn) Wild Grape Vine Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia). Vitis spp.

 

Freedom, Honesty, Prophecy MUHN
Ivy (Gort) Blackberry Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) Entanglements, Slow Progress, Determination

 

GORT
Reed (Ngetal) Cattail Cattail (Typha spp.) Swiftness, Speed, Transformation, Healing NYEH-tal
Blackthorn (Straif) Black Locust Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) Upheaval, Fate, External Forces, Unavoidable Change STRAHF
Elder (Ruis) Black Elder Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) Resolution, Endings, Permanent Change, Otherworld RWEESH
The Fourth Aicme
Fir (Ailm) White Spruce White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana) Vision, Understanding, Perspective AHL-m
Gorse (Onn) Eastern Hemlock Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Hope, Potential, Learning, Possibility UHN
Heather (Ur) Mountain Laurel Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

 

Spiritual Power, Spirit connection, Energy, Creation OOR
Aspen (Eadha) Tulip Poplar Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes) Hard work, Endurance, Courage, Bending rather than breaking EH-yuh
Yew (Ioho) Eastern White Cedar Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis); Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) Legacy, Things that abide, Wisdom from Experience, Eldership EE-yoh
The Forfedha
Grove (Koad) Grove of Trees All trees in a forest Balance, Community, Conflict Resolution, Communication, Listening KO-ud
Spindle (Oir) Black Cherry Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) Obligations, Honoring Commitments, Persistence OR
Honeysuckle (Uilleand) Sugar Maple Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) Hidden meanings, secrets, subtle influences, mysteries ULL-enth
Beech (Phagos) American Beech American Beech (Fagus grandifolia);   Eastern Ironwood Wisdom, Learning, History, Ancient Knowledge, Memory FAH-gus
Ifin (Pine) White Pine White Pine (Pinus strobus); Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) Vision, Awareness, Making Amends, Self-work, Guilt EE-van

 

The First Aicme

Black Birch – Beith

Allegheny Trees: Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Original Ogham Tree: Birch

Pronunciation: “BEH”

Meanings: New beginnings, a fresh start, turning a new chapter in your life. Spring and the promise of things to come. Renewal, rebirth, and purification.

Ecology: In the Allegheny Mountains we have three dominant species of birch: White Birch, Yellow Birch, and the Sweet Birch / Black Birch. Any of these specific trees are excellent representations of Birch for Ogham. Birch is easily found in areas where trees were logged; many times the first trees that will come up in a large thicket are birch trees after logging. You can also find birch trees along rivers and in mixed deciduous forests. Black and Yellow Birches can be found mixed in Eastern Hemlock forests as well.

Alternatives: Birches of various kinds are quite widespread in the Northern Appalachian region. No alternatives given.

Sassafras – Luis

Allegheny Tree: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Original Ogham Tree: Rowan

Pronunciation: “LWEESH”

Meanings: Discernment about current events or people, using your best judgment, and protection from harm. Positive finances and financial futures.

Ecology: Sassafras tree was widely imported to Europe after early colonization of the US and was, at one time, believed to be a ‘cure-all’ for illness in Europe. Sassafras is a widespread and a quintessential “American” tree. It has fragrant roots and leaves that are used widely as a food and medicine. Sassafras trees grow in groves and propagate primary by sending new roots off of a mother tree to create a small grove of babies surrounding the tree. Due to the history and use of Sassafras, it has long been associated with protection.

Alternatives: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) or Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a good choice for individuals living north of the native range of Sassafras.

Shagbark Hickory – Nuinn

Allegheny Trees: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Original tree: Ash

Pronunciation: NOO-un

Meanings: Interconnectivity, interconnection, and connection of all things in existence. Magic, nature magic, and the magic of connection. The great web of life present in the earth, the soil, and the universe.

Ecology: The Hickory tree is a hardwood nut tree that is widespread throughout the eastern US. Hickory trees are slow-growing trees that can produce abundant nut harvests as they mature. Reaching up to 130 feet in height and featuring a variety of shaggy, gray bark, hickories form an important species throughout the region. They are easiest to spot in the fall, when their leaves turn a deep golden sun-yellow shade. The wood is very hard and straight-grained and most hickories have delicious, edible nuts, enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.

For the last decade, nearly all of the Ash trees in the US Midwest and East coast have been dying from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle—this destruction has radically shifted the energy of the Ash tree here in the US. Due to the millions of deaths of Ash trees, it cannot hold the energy of Nuinn in North America. Because of the plight of the ash tree here, I have offered an alternative in the strong and mighty Hickory tree, which like ash, offers strong and tough wood and a commanding presence. Hickory trees are strong, dominant, have deep root systems, and in the fall, offer a wonderful alternative to the Ash.

American Sycamore – Fearn

Allegheny Tree: American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

Original tree: Alder

Pronunciation: FAIR-n

Meaning: Bridging between spirit and matter; spirit transitions. Individuality. Oracular guidance, messages from spirit. Transitions between realm to realm. Using one’s instincts or intuitioin.

Ecology: In North America, the Sycamore tree, which is often found along the edges of rivers and thrives in damp river bottoms, swamps, and bogs is an excellent choice to replace the water-loving Alder tree. Sycamore trees with their gray, greenish, brown, and white mottled bark which flakes off as the tree ages. As you drive through the river bottoms in the Alleghenies, you will see the sycamores reaching up from the bottoms, their whitish branches stretching out. Sycamores produce small seed balls that stay on the tree throughout the winter, looking almost like ornaments, dropping and spreading seeds in the spring.

Alternatives: The original Alder tree in the UK is a water tree that grows in swamps and bogs; it is often used to construct underwater and the wood grows harder in wet settings. Any other trees that grow in wet settings would be appropriate here. One such tree is the American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana).

Black Willow – Sallie

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Original tree: Willow

Pronunciation: SAHL-yuh

Meaning: Change, growth, cycles, moon cycles. Women’s mysteries. Fluidity, receptivity, and flexibility.

<Ecology: Black Willows have a wide range within the Eastern US and Canada. Black willow is widespread, and grows thick and tall as it ages. As a water loving tree, it is often found along the edges of water. Willows are excellent for land and waterway restoration, as they have a high tolerance of pollution and can break down certain toxic substances in the ecosystem. The Willow, with its deep roots, can regularly handle flooding and changes in water levels.

The Second Aicme

Hawthorn – Huath

Allegheny Tree(s): Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), including Pennsylvania Hawthorn (Crataegus tatnalliana)

Original Tree: Hawthorn / Huath

Pronunciation: OO-ah

Meaning: Restriction, danger, warnings. Patience. Heart and emotional protection. Hawthorn’s thorns are not aggressive, as in the snag and tear (like blackberry) but rather they are protective, surrounding the tree closely. This offers insight on the kinds of protection that hawthorn provides: thorns that protect but do not attack, thorns that create space for healing.

Ecology: The Eastern US has over 70 native species of Hawthorn. While leaf patterns vary widely, all has the ubiquitous thorns, 5 petaled flowers in the spring signaling the return of spring (Beltane), with ripening haws (fruit) in the time between the fall equinox and Samhain.

White Oak – Duir

Allegheny Tree(s): White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)

Original tree: Oak / Duir

Pronunciation: DOO-er

Meaning: Wisdom. Durability. Be strong and steady like the oak. Find your grounding. Power within and without. Growth. Protection.

Ecology: The Oak is one of the keystone species in the Eastern part of the US and into Canada. The White Oak can reach 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity, with a massive canopy and deep root system. White oaks live up to 300 years or more. Oaks produce acorns, but often do not produce large crops of acorns until after their 50th year of life. Every 3 years is a mast year, where Oaks produce a very large crop of nuts. Acorns were the staple food of many indigenous cultures and can be used in a wide variety of cuisine.

American Holly – Tinne

Allegheny Tree(s): American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Original Tree: Holly / Tinne

Pronunciation: CHIN-yuh

Meaning: Facing challenges, being a warrior, being dynamic and responsive. This is a plant of warriors and protectors. It also ties to the changing of the seasons, courage, and moving forward, and bringing light into dark times.

Ecology: The American Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly. It is shade tolerant and can live in the understory of most forest canopies. It is spread across the southern and northern Eastern US, find in wild areas as well as cultivated areas. The holly berries are dominant at the winter solstice.

Alternatives: Any other evergreen species is appropriate here. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), which is north of the native range of American Holly, is an excellent alternative for more northern areas.

American Hazelnut – Coll

Allegheny Tree(s): American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Original tree: Hazel / Coll

Pronunciation: CULL

Meaning: Poetry, wisdom, divination. Bringing ideas to the surface, awen; artistry or creativity; inspiration; divine inspiration, finding the muse. Honing one’s craft or skill in a subject. Letting the flow of inspiration (awen) come and opening to that experience.

Ecology: The American hazelnut is a shade-tolerant small tree or large shrub, usually not reaching more than 3-10 feet tall. It grows in large thickets and even when cut back or coppiced, can powerfully regrow. It is shade tolerant, often growing in the understory. Hazels produce delicious nuts that have a high protein content and can be enjoyed both by humans and wildlife.

Alternatives: Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgniana) is a different species, but may be appropriate as a substitution.

Apple – Quert

Allegheny Tree(s): Apple (Malus spp.)

Original Tree: Apple / Quert

Pronunciation: KWEIRT

Meaning: Celebration, love of all kinds, harvests and success, contentment. Paths of learning that are open. Making a good decision. Learning and growth.

Ecology: Although many species of apples were introduced to North American in the 17th centuru, the “crab apple” is native to the US. Crab apples are edible like their more cultivated counterparts, but are usually smaller and tarter due to lack of thousands of years of cultivation. Today, it is common to find crabapples and abandoned apple orchards all through the Allegheny mountain region.

Alternatives: Another domesticated fruit tree.

The Third Aicme

Wild Grape Vine – Muinn

Allegheny Tree(s): Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia), New England grape ( V. novae-angliae), Vitis spp.

Original tree: Muinn / Vine

Pronunciation: MUHN

Meaning: Freedom, truth, honesty, trustworthiness. Release of prophetic powers, prophecy and divination.

Ecology: A variety of wild grape species grow in the Allegheny region; all are characterized by flexible steps that send out tendrils to cling, grow, and climb. Wild grapes often have gray bark that peels easily off the vines. Some wild grapes can grow massive and create a canopy of grapes that, if too heavy, can pull down trees around them.

Alternatives: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Blackberry – Gort

Allegheny Tree(s): Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

Original Tree: Ivy

Pronunciation: GORT

Meaning: Making slow progress, being entangled or prevented from moving forward. Having delays, setbacks, and unforeseen challenges. With these setbacks, however, comes the determination to keep going. This is a time of persistence and determination.

Ecology: Blackberry is a native perennial shrub that can grow up to 7’ tall with many canes. Canes live for two years—the first year, the cane is green with many thorns. In the second year, the cane goes a dark red/brown with thorns. After the second year, new canes can sprout up from the same root system. The fruits are abundant and purple-black when mature, excellent for pies and jams—if you are willing to brave the thorns and canes to get them. If you’ve ever been caught in a big blackberry patch, you understand how the blackberry canes can catch, snack, and stall you.

Cattail – Ngetal

Allegheny Tree(s): Cattail (Typha spp.)

Original Tree: Reed

Pronunciation: NYEH-tal

Meaning: Swiftness and speed, the idea that things are moving forward, perhaps rapidly. Transformation. Healing and the healing that only changing circumstances can bring.

Ecology: Cattails are upright perennial plants that live on the edges of ponds, lakes, and other slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water. They are characterized by their long tall leaves and the stalk that produces a brown, elongated head, which, over the winter months, eventually turns to small seed fluff and flies off. Cattails are a keystone species in much of the Appalachian region and are also a useful wild food source.

Alternatives: Rushes, Phragmites, and other water-loving woody species.

Black Locust – Straif

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Original Tree: Blackthorn

Pronunciation: STRAHF

Meaning: Unexpected or unavoidable change, upheaval, or chaos. Fate, external influences, and external forces working for change, such that change happens regardless of your own actions. Having courage through such having courage through these circumstances.

Ecology: Black locust is a native tree that blooms late, drops leaves early, and has a general skeletal appearance with thick gray-brown bark, and large thorns on young branches. The black locust produces a very dense, strong wood that is rot resistant, and thus, useful for a variety of building applications. Large clusters of pea-shaped white flowers with a yellow center bloom on the black locusts usually in early June; these fragrant clusters are edible and delicious.

Alternatives: For those that are within the range, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) is a fantastic alternative for Straif.

Black Elder – Ruis

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Original Tree: Elder

Pronunciation: RWEESH

Meaning: Endings, with the understanding that something new will come. Life in death, death in life; changes from old to new. Having resolution and closure. Connection to the otherworld, gateways to the otherworld, and fae connections.

Ecology: The Black Elder is a widespread, native tree to the Eastern US. Black elder can be found in full sun, part shade, and full shade, although it is often found along the margins of forests and fields. By the summer solstice, it produces beautiful clusters of tiny flowers, reaching up to the sun. By Lughnasadh, these clusters have turned into ripe, purple berries, bending down to the earth. The Black Elder has a hollow core and pith like other species of Elder in Europe. In Europe, the “sambucca” was an ancient woodwind instrument made of elder; and that’s where the Latin name to the plant comes from.

The Fourth Aicme

White Spruce – Ailm

Allegheny Tree(s): White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Original Tree: Fir

Pronunciation: AHL-m

Meaning: Having clear vision, being able to see what is to come, having insight into a situation. Perspective and the ability to look at a situation in a new way. Having an understanding or coming to an understanding about an issue or situation.

Ecology: Spruces are an important tree in the Appalachian mountain region, along with several other conifer species. Spruce trees can live up to 300 years and grow to a height of 150 feet tall. All spruces have a whorled branch structure (a spiral pattern) and a conical form (like many other conifers). The world’s oldest living tree is thought to be Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce located in Sweden, which is though to be 9,550 years old.

Alternatives: Any other conifer species would be appropriate.

Eastern Hemlock – Omn

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern Hemlock

Original Tree: Gorse/Furze

Pronunciation: UHN

Meaning: Hope, potential and possibility. Hope in a brighter future. Learning and growth. Possibility.

Ecology: The Eastern Hemlock is a keystone species in the Eastern US. It is a shade-loving tree, often found in deep forests or along the banks of forest streams and rivers. The world’s oldest known hemlock is in Tionesta, PA, being 554 years old. The tree can reach up to 170 feet tall and 5 feet across. The hemlock needle underside has two light green lines and the hemlock, for its large size, produces tiny cones less than 1” in length. Hemlocks are currently under threat from the hemlock wooly adelgid, which was introduced to the US in 1924 and has been in the range of hemlock trees since the 1960’s.

Alternatives: Any other dominant conifer species.

Mountain Laurel – Ur

Allegheny Tree(s): Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia);

Original tree: Heather

Pronunciation: OOR

Meaning: Spiritual power, spiritual connections, energy, and creation. Passion and generosity. Close contact with spirit world and healing.

Ecology: Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with broad leaves in the heather (heath) family. When it flowers in early June, the flowers range from pink to white and look like beautiful little parasols. In the more southern end of its range, mountain laurel can grow to the size of trees; in the northern end of its range it stays shrub size.

Alternatives: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) is an excellent alternative, and functions in much the same way in the ecosystem (showy flowers in June, evergreen leaves, shrub or small tree size, similar growth habit).

 

Tulip Tree – Edhadh

Allegheny Tree(s): Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Original Tree: Aspen

Pronunciation: EH-yuh

Meaning: Hard work leads to success. Endurance, courage, and will. Bending rather than breaking, the ability to endure and triumph.

Ecology: The Tulip tree (also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or whitewood) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It can grow up to 160 feet tall, and often grows very straight in large stands in the region. Flowers, looking like beautiful yellow tulips, grow on the tree in May or early June, eventually turning to seedpods. Even in the winter, you can still see the remnants of the dried pod, reaching up from the tree.

Alternatives: The range of Tulip poplar stops in mid-new York and the bottom of Massachusetts. Other good options for those further north would be Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)

Eastern White Cedar – Ida

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis)

Original Tree: Yew

Pronunciation: EE-yoh

Meaning: Death and rebirth. Legacy. Things that abide (like ancestral knowledge, traditions, or lore). Wisdom from experience. Eldership and honoring the elders. Endings.

Ecology: The Eastern White Cedar, also called the Arborvite or the Tree of Life, is a small-sized conifer averaging about 40 feet high. Scale-like leaves form massive branches that go out in many directions. Eastern White Cedar trees are some of the most long-lived trees in North America; some trees on the cliffs of Lake Superior are known to be at least 1600 years old. Even in death, cedar lives on through rot resistance in the wood.

Alternatives: Eastern Redcedar / Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is an excellent alternative. Although it is also called a cedar, Juniper is actually in a different family.

The Forfedha

The Druid Grove – Koad

Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.

Original Tree: Grove

Pronunciation: KO-ud

Meaning: Resolution of conflict with others, peacemaking, and deep listening. Being a peacemaker and promoting a path of peace, justice, and understanding. Communication with others, particularly to promote understanding and harmony. Community and tribe.

Ecology: Forests are made up of thousands of species: trees, plants, insects, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, macrobiotics life—and within a forest, within a grove of sacred trees, there is harmony. This Ogham represents the grove, in whatever ecosystem you live in—this is harmony, community, and the circle of trees around you.

Black Cherry – Oir

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)

Original Tree: Spindle

Pronunciation: OR

Meaning: Fulfilling one’s obligations, honoring one’s commitments, and staying true to one’s word. The determination, dedication, and persistence sometimes needed to complete obligations.

Ecology: Cherry trees are widespread in North America, the black cherry spans from Florida the whole way to Newfoundland. Cherry trees are pioneer species, often rapidly growing after a forest has been disrupted. All cherries produce small “cherry” fruits, although the flavor of the cherry fruits vary widely, and thus, are usually eaten by birds. The cherry seed reminds us of the meaning here: cherry seeds have incredibly tough shells and require scarification to germinate (the surface scratched, perhaps by going through an animal’s digestive system). Determination is necessary for these seeds to sprout.

Sugar Maple – Uileand

Allegheny Tree(s): Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)

Original Tree: Honeysuckle

Pronunciation: ULL-enth

Meaning: Hidden desires, pleasures, and possibly distractions. Finding our true selves, and discovering insights along the path of our own growth. Subtle mysteries, secrets, and hidden things.

Ecology: Maples are widespread in North America, and since they are also planted for show, they are easy to find even in urban areas. The fall color of maples is fantastic, ranging from deep purples to bright reds, oranges, or yellows, which is why some maples are called ‘fire maples.’ Maples all produce a delicious sap that can be boiled down into syrup or sugar, although tapping trees and boiling it can take some effort. The maple encourages us to look within and find our true selves.

American Beech – Phagos

Allegheny Tree(s): American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Original Tree: Beech

Pronunciation: FAH-gus

Meaning: Wisdom, learning, history. Ancient knowledge, memory. Beech trees have long been associated with human learning, particularly through words, books, and stories written down.

Ecology: Smooth and light-barked beech trees are often found growing with Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar maple on rich and wet slopes here in the Alleghenies and represents a final stage in ecological succession. Beeches are shade tolerant but can also reach up to 115 tall. Throughout history, the smooth bark has invited humans to carve “arborglyphs” into the bark of the beech—some of these in North America date back to pre-colonial times.

Alternatives: Eastern Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is an excellent alternative.

White Pine – Ifin

Allegheny Tree(s): White Pine (Pinus strobus);

Original Tree: Pine

Pronunciation: EE-van

Meaning: Vision, awareness, perception. Self-work and shadow work. Guilt. Making amends, possibly after a long and bitter time.

Ecology: White Pine is a dominant species on the US east coast, spanning throughout the Appalachian regions and beyond. As the tallest tree in eastern North America, White Pines have been recorded up to 230 feet tall and they can live up to 500 years. Needles that are long, green and flexible, typically come grouped in bundles of 5. White pines were heavily logged in the US in the 18th-20th century for shipbuilding and industry, but still some old-growth forests that contain White Pine (and often also Hemlock and beech) remain. These are a spectacular sight, walking within them is truly like walking in a cathedral. White pine can live up to 500 years.

Alternatives: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

 

Using the Allegheny Ogham as a Bard, Ovate, and Druid

            Working with any Ogham system can be a long-term learning process. The Ogham is a flexible system that you can use for magic, divination, meditation, art, studies in ecology, and more. This section offers some ideas for how to best work with the Allegheny Ogham.

Preliminaries: Creating Your Ogham Set

Foraging for your Ogham Set. For long-term Ogham study and developing a deeper understanding of the ovate arts, you might want to seek out and forage for each of the Ogham fews that you are going to work with. While the symbols are useful, having the wood itself and meeting each of the trees can be a very effective way to work with the Ogham and understand it from the perspective of the ovate arts: that is, the perspective of ecology, identification, and experience.

Foraging for your own Ogham can take considerable time, sometimes a period of months or years, depending on how often you go out. Once you find a tree, you will want to spend some time with the tree. Ask permission to harvest a few from the tree (living or dead, your choice) and make sure you leave some kind of offering (I like to use a home-grown herbal blend. I also will pee on the base of the tree to offer nitrogen if I do not have any of my regular offering blend).

As you collect your Ogham, you can work with and meditate on each of the fews, doing some of the other work as outlined in this guide.

Ogham for dyslexics!

Ogham for dyslexics- with all of the words burned in.

Creating Your Own Ogham set: There are two ways to go about creating your Ogham set. The first is to use a single wood (maple, apple, etc) and create all of your fews from that wood. I recommend that if you want to get into the Ogham and start working with it immediately as a divination tool, you consider this option. You can also use this initial set as you are foraging for your own Ogham, as described above.

To make your set, you want to start by making sure that each of your fews are about the same length. A pair of hand pruners is an easy way to cut them to size. I would then recommend at least some light sanding to take the hard edges off of your Ogham staves. From there, you will want to burn in the images of each of the Ogham. The most common way is to take a sharp blade (knife, box cutter, or the like) and shave off an inch or so of the bark, cambium, and some of the wood so that you get a smooth surface. From there, you would draw, paint, or woodburn the specific Ogham symbol into the wood. If you have difficulty remembering the symbols (or you have dyslexia), you could also burn the name into the wood or add some other detail to help you, like an image of the leaf.

In this specific Ogham, Cattail and Blackberry are not trees, so they do not have a woody stem. For those, I would not cut away any of the branch structure but would rather mark the symbol right on the wood.

Storing your Ogham. You should have something to keep your Ogham in when you aren’t using them. Traditional materials include linen or silk, both of which are known in esoteric circles to be fairly neutral energetically. You can also store them in anything else you like—a small leather bag or small wooden box also works great. If you want to use a casting cloth, you can also store your cloth with them (or use the cloth as a wrap itself).

Ogham and the Druid Path: Divination, Meditation, and Magic

Ogham for Divination. Learning how to use the Ogham for divination is an art form—while its easy to get started, you can also deepen your understanding over a period of time. You can keep it simple or get very advanced with casting cloths and stave directions. Here are three such ways to start to use the Ogham. I would also recommend a book-length work for more info on using Ogham for divination such as Ogham: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie and the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

The Daily Draw. To start to use Ogham, and to continue to build your skills, I suggest a daily Ogham draw. This can be an Ogham few that offer you a message for today—something to reflect upon, meditate upon, and carry with you as you go forward in your day (or if you do it at night, as you rest and start your new day). Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, arriving at this moment and allowing other thoughts, feelings, and issues to retreat. Set your intention for your divination. Reach into your Ogham bag and feel for an Ogham few that speak to you. Pull that Ogham, and look at the meaning. Reflect on it for a few moments.

Three Rays Draw. The three rays draw has a number of different possibilities and interpretations. For this, you will be drawing three staves. The three staves can represent any of the following (choose in advance what you’d like them to represent)

  • Light aspect (right), Dark aspect (left), how to bring them into balance (center)
  • Current situation (left), suggested action (center), possible outcome if action is taken (right)
  • Mind (left), Body (center), Spirit (right)
  • To bring stability (left), to bring flow (right), to bring balance (center)

To engage in any of these draws, you will use the techniques described in the daily draw and draw three Ogham fews. Lay them out, look at their meanings, and meditate on the message.

Additional draws and options. Once you’ve done the above draws, you might want to get more elaborate in your divination. Many different methods exist for this. You can start by selecting a number of Ogham (three or seven) and then dropping them on a surface to see how they land. Pay attention to the interaction between them (e.g. are any of them touching? Which direction are they facing? How do they interact?) This gives you additional insights and experiences with the Ogham. Once you’ve practiced this a while, consider adding a casting cloth to your experience. A casting cloth allows you to “cast” any number of Ogham (I usually use 7) and where they land on the cloth, and in what direction, can help you interpret the meanings. You can create your own casting cloth or purchase one (there are a number of options out there, including some typically used for runes that will work great for Ogham).

Ogham for Meditation. A second way to use Ogham is to use it as a meditation tool. Meditation on the Ogham, their meanings, relationships, and associations can help you have a deeper understanding of what the Ogham means and their divination meanings. Meditation on the Ogham can also put you in a deeper connection with these trees and your local ecology. Here are three meditation strategies:

  • Energy meditation. The first meditation is one where you simply feel the energy of the Ogham few. Relax and get into a receptive space (with breathing, candles, quietude). From there, breathe deeply and allow the air to flow in and out of your lungs. Once you have found quiet within, turn your attention to one of the Ogham fews. See how it feels in your hand. Run your fingers over the bark. Engage it with your senses. Now, close your eyes and feel the energy of this Ogham few—is it welcoming? Cold? Strong?   Try picking up a second few and comparing the two. What is the difference?
  • Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation is a type of mediation based on focused thought. Prepare yourself for meditation by getting comfortable, engaging in deep breathing, and grounding yourself. When you are ready, focus on one of the Ogham fews (one you draw or select in advance). Consider the meaning of this few. Work your way through this meaning, allowing your thoughts to go where they would like as long as they continue to focus on the meaning. If you find yourself straying too far from the Ogham few itself, retrace your thoughts and focus back on the main theme—the Ogham few, meaning, and the tree itself. You can repeat this meditation for each few and work your way through them. I have found it useful to meditate on each one as I was learning, and then, about once a year, return to these meditations as my own experiences with the trees themselves and working with the Ogham deepened.
  • Journey Meditation. A final way you can use these Ogham for meditation is through spirit journeying. Journeying can allow you to meet the spirit of the trees and Ogham directly. Journeying, in this sense, involves meditating on the specific Ogham you wish to connect with, envisioning an inner grove where you can meet that tree, meeting that tree, and engaging in conversation, travel, or receiving teachings on the inner place from that tree. While it is out of the scope of this article to describe this in detail, I’ve written extensively on spirit journeying with plants in The Plant Spirit Oracle: Recipes, Meanings, and Journeys as well as on my blog (see: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/plant-spirit-communication-part-iii-spirit-journeying/ ).

Ogham for Chant Magic

A final way you can incorporate the Ogham into your druid practice is to use it for chanting.  This can be simple, simply chanting the Ogham itself so that you can bring that energy into your life.  Or, you can do something much more elaborate, like this Hemlock Galdr ritual!

Ogham and the Ovate Arts

As I described above under “preliminaries”, foraging for your own Ogham set and finding all of the 25 sacred trees is certainly a fantastic way to connect more deeply with nature and learn about these Ogham trees. That search, in itself, is a very powerful journey that allows one learn a variety of ovate skills: plant and tree identification, observation and interaction, getting out in nature, and communing with nature.

Beyond that work, I would also recommend seeking out places where these trees are dominant and doing some ritual work in these places. For example, some of the trees on this list, including Oak, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine, can be found in old-growth groves throughout the East Coast. Visiting some of these groves and doing a kind of Ovate pilgrimage to these places is an excellent way to commune deeply with them. Bring your Ogham set with you (if you have one) and intone the Ogham as you sit among these trees.

Planting and tending some of the 25 sacred trees is another way to practice the ovate arts. You can get most of these from the Arbor Day Foundation (if you are in the US). Consider also learning how to forage for these trees for medicine or food—ethically and sustainably, of course.

Finally, you might learn about these trees in more depth: what other plant species are associated with these trees? What insect, animal, or bird life depends on them? What is their life cycle? How do they look at different points of the year? The more you can learn about the trees on the physical plane, the more that your spiritual connection with them will deepen in time.

Ogham and the Bardic Arts

Beyond making your own Ogham set (which is certainly a very Bardic skill), you can learn about the Ogham and work with them in a number of ways, both the trees themselves and with the symbols and sounds themselves.

The Ogham can be an inspiration for you for the Bardic arts. You might consider how the Ogham might be developed into chants, music, dance, or song. Poetry, short stories, or other literary works would also lend themselves well to considering the Ogham. If you are a visual artist, you might work the symbolism of the Ogham into various artistic creations.

Another option here for the Bardic arts is to work with the woods and materials from these sacred trees. Tulip poplar, for example, allows you to make amazing bark baskets—if you find a Tulip tree that has recently fallen, you can harvest the bark and learn basketry. The cambium of this same tree is excellent for using as kindling for fire starting. The woods of many of these trees, including Cherry, Sassafras, Oak, and Beech, are excellent for woodworking (including woodburning, turning, carving, and more). Learning each of the trees by working their wood in a Bardic tradition allows you deeper insight into the trees themselves.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has inspired you to work with the Ogham or deepen your practice. Questions and comments about the guide can be posted to this page.  I welcome your comments, feedback, and thoughts!

Tree Alchemy: Hydrosols and Essential Oils from Sacred Trees

Nature can provide tremendous wisdom and healing, especially when we work with our local ecosystems and ecologies. One of the most powerful ways of working healing with nature, I believe, is to combine the innate healing properties of plants with your own various kinds of medicinal preparations. The plants and trees offer the raw material and your hands and tools shape that material into something that heals the body, mind, and/or spirit. Working to transform tree and plant matter through alchemical processes into medicine–and then taking that medicine–can be an incredibly powerful way of establishing deep relationships not only with the living earth but with the trees themselves. Today, I want to talk about a particular kind of medicine known as a “hydrosol” and talk about how you might make your own with plant and tree material.  This is especially beneficial for today as many of us are thinking about planning our year, what we will be planting and growing in containers and in gardens, and so forth.

 

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Harvesting Goldenrod for hydrosol preparation

Alchemy in the Inner and Outer Worlds

Alchemy is the ancient art of matter transformation. Alchemists worked to turn base metals into gold, to render the philosopher’s stone for that purpose. Alchemists also worked with plants through spagyrics, the practice of plant alchemy. It was believed by the alchemists that the process of alchemy, as the material moved through the black, red, and white phases, didn’t just happen on the physical plane, but rather facilitated transformations of mind, body, and soul.  I, like most folks of this time period, have never done anything with metal alchemical work (it is highly toxic).  But for many years, I’ve been fascinated by spagyrics, and have made a number of preparations using those techniques.  (For good reading on the subject, I suggest Mark Stavish’s Path of Alchemy as an introduction).  Because Alchemy is an inner and outer process, there is a whole movement of “inner alchemy” or “spiritual alchemy” work, work that can be can be used for inner transformations. The thing about any alchemical process is this: matter has to be broken down with fire and heat in order to be reformed in a more pure manner.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work we might do with trees and alchemy and have been experimenting in various ways in that direction. Basic spagryic preparations (which are detailed in Mark Stavish’s excellent work) combine macerating plant matter in high-proof alcohol (that is, soaking it for a period of time) and going through a process of refinement where the material that was macerated is burned and the ash is further refined. Eventually, the refined materials are combined for a highly potent medicine.

 

I think there are other kinds of work you can do with plants and tree matter that are a little less direct. On the most passive side that requires little tools, preparation, or time, a simple flower essence (where a bowl of spring water is held up to a leaf or flower of the plant, imbuing that plant energetically) is a good first step. Somewhere in the middle, requiring some preparation, tools, and time, we have the hydrosol and the creation of an essential oil. On the far side, requiring much preparation and time, we have the full spagyric plant preparation.

 

Hydrosols and Essential Oils

Hydrosols are also known as “floral waters” although they can be made of much more than just flowers.  They are produced by a simple distillation process. You can purchase fancy equipment (often known as an Alembic or Still) to do this or you can do it with stuff you likely have already in your kitchen (I am going to offer information on both approaches.)  I used the simple stovetop approach with kitchen materials for many years before, using about $10 worth of materials from the thrift store for very small batches.  Then, last year, I finally invested in a medium-sized copper alembic to do more advanced preparations.

 

The process of making a hydrosol, which I’ll detail with photographs below, involves gathering fresh plant material that is aromatic in nature.  You will need a lot of plant matter – usually several pounds.  It involves heating the material up to create steam, cooling that steam and condensing it back into a liquid form that is medicinal and relatively shelf stable).

 

Hydrosols are sacred medicine in their own right, although they are often seen as “by products” of the essential oil distillation process.  When you heat up plant matter that has high amounts of volatile oils, those oils also come out through the distillation process and sit on the top of the hydrosol.  Most people working on this process at home, particularly with sacred trees, may not produce enough oil to make it worth their while, although some plants, like lavender or goldenrod, certainly can do so, especially if you do several batches of distillation.

Choosing Your Material

Harvest your plant material with reverence and respect. Hydrosols and distillation take a good deal plant material (particularly if you are using an Alembic and doing a higher amount of distillation). Keep this in mind as you are planning for the garden this year! Plant material should be safe to consume or at least put on the body. Despite my positive relationship with Poison Ivy, I would not, under any circumstances do a steam distillation of it!

 

Any plant or tree that is typically used in herbal practice and that has a scent would be a good choice. Common kitchen herbs are often used such as:

  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Rose(petals)
  • Mints
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Monarda/bee balm
  • Scented geranium

In terms of trees, the leaves or needles would work.  Ones I’ve experimented with include:

  • Blue Spruce (needles)
  • White Pine (needles)
  • Eastern Hemlock (needles)
  • Black Birch (budding branches)
  • Sassafras (root)

 

Harvesting the Herbs/Plants/Branches

Harvest your material on a sunny day when it is not raining. The rain, particularly for flowers or aromatic leaves, can dilute the plant oils and overall result.  Harvest the plant matter in abundant areas or grow it yourself to ensure that you are not taking too much from the plant matter. Generally speaking, if the plant is rare, doing a tincture is probably the best way to use that plant’s energy because it is the most efficient.  If the plant is very abundant, a steam distillation would be a good choice.

 

The timing also matters–plants have different levels of aromatic oils at different times of year. If I was doing a black birch preparation, I would do this in the early spring due to the amount of sweet oil in the birch branches that time (due to the flowing of sap). Other plants, like the conifers, don’t matter as much. Flowers and herbs should be harvested at their peak–so when lavender is in flower, for example, but before it goes to seed.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A large hedge of Eastern Hemlocks on the edge of a field provides an excellent place to gather material.

A friend and I went out and harvested a number of plants to fire up the copper alembic. We did four distillations, two of herbs (goldenrod and sweet clover) and two of trees (eastern hemlock and blue spruce). We experimented with different kinds of approaches to the distillation.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

The Eastern Hemlocks are carefully cut and placed in a cloth bag for transport home.

 

Distillation Process

Now I am going to walk step by step through the distillation process.

Preparing the Alembic and the Plant Matter

Once we were home, we removed large stem material and did our best to crush up the hemlock needles. We had not done this with the blue spruce (instead, placing whole small branches in the alembic) and that proved to give us very little essential oil, but certainly, a nice hydrosol. Breaking up the hemlock material took more work, but we believe, it was worth it as we had a better preparation.

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

Stripping needles and soaking plant matter in spring water

 

After we soaked the needles, we added fresh spring water (harvested at my local sacred spring, Heffley Spring) for the distillation. If you can’t get access to fresh water, I would consider using distilled water. The point is this: the process is very potent, and I certainly wouldn’t want any human-added chemicals, like chlorine, in my distillation.

Spring water is added to the alembic base

Spring water is added to the alembic base

 

My alembic also has an addition column where you can cram more plant matter in and the top that also takes plant matter. So I did this–so both the base and column are filled with plant matter (this photo shows Goldenrod), and the base is also filled with water. That gives you a lot of plant matter at once to steam distill–probably 10x what I used with my other method.

Plant matter being packed in.

Plant matter being packed in.

Sealing the Alembic

In the traditional method, Rye flour is used to seal up the alembic prior to steaming it. If you have severe allergies to gluten, I would suggest a sticky rice flour or tapioca flour in the place of rye.  I haven’t tried this, but I think it would work. First you mix a big batch of the Rye flour up.  It looks a lot like a sticky bread dough.  I didn’t measure, just added enough water till I got a nice paste.

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Mixing up the rye flour paste

Then you basically smear it into the cracks and crevices of the entire alembic to hold it together. The idea is to seal it up so that as it starts to steam, it doesn’t leak steam anywhere.

Adding it to the Alembic

Adding it to the Alembic

The flour is a fun yet messy job.

Sealed up and ready to go!

Sealed up and ready to go!

Distillation

Distillation works with the heating up of the plant matter and water to create steam then cooling it down quickly for condensation. That’s the entire process.  So you will need something to heat it up (I used a small outdoor burner) and you will need something to cool it down (I used lines with a small submersible fish tank pump and ice cold water).

The full system

The full system

I forgot to take a photo of the pump part of the system. The condenser unit has two cooper pipes sticking out of it–the top one flows water in and the bottom one pulls water out. You can keep the system cold if you flow cold water into it. Online, some people just use this from their tap, if they have a spring or well, the water is cold enough if you keep flowing it through. I didn’t have this, so instead, I used several bags of ice and a cooler. I placed the submersible pump at the bottom of the cooler and then ran the tubing through it and into the condenser. I used a little clamp to regulate the pressure of the water (so it would stay level, which required some work).

 

I found that the unit took about 30 minutes to heat up and about 45 minutes to actually start condensing the steam.  I let it run two or so hours, until the water no longer looked cloudy when it was coming out of the condenser unit.

Collecting the steam!

Collecting the steam!

This final water has both your essential oil and the distillation in it.  You can purchase a fancy oil separator (which I didn’t have when I did this) but I used a different method.  In my case, the only plant that produced enough essential oil to really take off the top was goldenrod.  To do this, I simply poured it all into a mason jar and then froze the whole thing.  The hydrosol freezes but the oil does not. I then pulled it out of the freezer and used a pipette to pull the oil off the top of the jar, then unfroze the hydrosol and put it in neat little spritzer bottles.

 

Conclusion

Since doing this last fall, I have shared these hydrosols with many friends in the druid community. They remark on their potency–the spruce gives an incredible lift me up, the white pine brings peace, and the hemlock brings stability and space (mental space/clarity, is the way one person described it). In truth, the goldenrod got a little skunky/funky, but did produce  a nice oil, so I’m not sure I’ll do that one again (and I didn’t give that one away!).

 

Creating tree hydrosols and essential oils represents a unique and beautiful way to connect with the potent medicine of the trees and work with them for healing and transformation. What seems like an intimidating process is actually a very simple one: refining potent medicine through the application of fire, water, and ice.  The practice of alchemy, of course, isn’t just about producing a physical medicine–but rather, the refinement and work on the level of the soul. Alchemical preparations not only as medicine for the body, but medicine for the soul.

PS: After this post, I will be taking several weeks off of regular posting on this blog to do some travel.  I look forward to returning later in June to my regular posting.  Blessings!

A Celtic Galdr Ritual for Land Healing

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

 

Background Information

Eastern Hemlock and the Wooly Adelgid

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

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

 

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

 

Galdr Magic

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

 

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

Duir Duir Duir

Dooo Ahhh Iiiirr

Du Du Du Du

Duir Duir Duir

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

 

Ogham and Tree Magic

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

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

 

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

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

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

 

Wassail

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

 

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

 

Land Healing

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

 

Ritual Setup

Roles:

Four Ritualists:

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

Participants:

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

 

Materials (created in advance):

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Signs for Ogham Ritual

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

 

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

 

Basket or bag for drawing fews.

Pre-Ritual Discussion and Practice

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

 

Step 1: Hemlock Tree Attunement

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

 

Step 2: Ogham Stave Drawing

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

 

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

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

 

The Ritual

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

1. Participants Ground and Clear

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

 

2. Open up a Sacred Space

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

 

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

 

Beith Galdr Leader calls east.

 

Straif Galdr Leader calls south.

 

Quert Galder Leader calls west.

 

Duir Warder calls north.

 

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

 

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

 

3. Participants take their places

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

 

4A. Quert Chants

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

 

4B. Duir Warders Reinforce Circle

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

 

5. Straif Chants

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

 

6. Beith Chants

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

11. Close the Space and Send out Energy

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

 

Duir Warder Leader thanks the north.

 

Quert Galder Leader thanks the west.

 

Straif Galdr Leader thanks the south.

 

Beith Galdr Leader thanks the east.

 

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

 

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

 

Additional Notes and Adaptations

 

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

 

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

           

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

On Being Your Authentic Self, Part II: The Path of the Sun

In last week’s post, I explored the importance of finding ways of living and being your authentic self. I suggested that there were at least three pathways to doing this work: the first of which is Path of the Moon, which is the quiet path of living one’s principles (or the “what” of the work) while not necessarily discussing the spiritual path (or the “why” of the work).  This is a good path for those who feel restricted in sharing their spiritual path fully in various contexts of their lives. Today, I’ll explore the second path, the shining path of the sun.  The sun path refers to us being more being more out, open, and explicit about the fact that you  follow an earth-based spiritual path.  Those walking the sun path radiate this truth in the world like the sun shining down on a warm summer day. As I mentioned last week, both paths are useful to understand to do the work of integrating our outer life with our inner spiritual paths but both are inherently different kinds of work.  Today, we stand in the summer sun!

 

The path of the sun!

The path of the sun!

 

Path of the Sun: Coming Out and Radiating Brightly

There seems to be a prevailing idea that certain people in the earth-based spiritual community are out, radiantly and brilliantly so, in all aspects of their lives.  And while it is true that some folks manage this, the degree to which druids or others are “out” and open about who they are seems to fall along a wide spectrum. Few of us are blessed with having life circumstances that allow us to be out fully and unabashedly, at least here in the USA. Truthfully, I know of very few druids or who are out and free to be druids in every aspect of their lives. Rather, I have found that being out is a matter of degrees. Maybe you are out to a select group of friends or even your family, but still “in” at your workplace to preserve your career. Or maybe you are out and publicly known in the broader druid community, but life in a conservative community requires you keep your beliefs quiet around town. Or maybe you feel you cannot be out at all; you are new to the path or exploring on your own and aren’t ready to defend practices you are still beginning to understanding (if so, my post last week will be relevant to your position). In acknowledging this spectrum, I acknowledge that each of us must find our own place along these paths.

 

However, I do think that it is important that at least some of us take up the “path of the sun” work.  Given this, I’m now going describe three reasons for doing so.

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of the land. At many points of human history, spiritual considerations of the land and its sacredness were are the forefront of public discussions. Here in the USA today, and in many other parts of the world, this is no longer the case. And I think that being more open and public about the sacredness of the land can help us, on a larger scale, shift things. I spoke about this extensively in my “earth ambassadors” post from last year: how the land needs ambassadors, full of knowledge and rooted in a sacred relationship, to speak.

 

Being hidden about our spiritual practices means we are not able to engage in dialogue, discussion, and action that directly speaks from a sacred and spiritual perspective. I believe that druids and other earth-centered folks are in a good position to do this earth ambassador work and to support others who are also doing this work, but only if we are confident and able to find our voices, as humans and as druids. This directly leads me to my next point.

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of our traditions. I remember being present for the dialogue between Philip Carr-Gomm (Chosen Chief of OBOD) and John Michael Greer (then Grand Archdruid of AODA) on the differences between druidry in the USA and druidry in the UK (you can listen to this discussion on Druidcast (Episodes 68 and 69). Philip shared stories of how UK druids are now consulted to bless forests and parks and to be a source of spiritual guidance when it came to human-land interactions. Meanwhile, in the USA, we have far, far to go. I think so many folks stay quiet about druidry in the USA for fear of rejection, intolerance, or misunderstanding on the part of others. And this is a serious, real fear. I recently spoke to several women at a Samhuinn celebration in my town who shared stories of how a small magical shop had bricks thrown through the windows and quiet threats–it forced the shopkeepers to close. Certainly, being out and open as I now am, I wonder and worry about these challenges myself.

 

Sunflowers embrace the sun!

Sunflowers embrace the sun!

For those who are considering how far down the Path of the Sun they want to travel, I want to point to the many social justice movements of the 20th and 21st century for perspective. It was only through invested parties being willing to be “out” and fight for equality that we finally saw tremendous social progress on a number of issues (racism, gay rights, Native American rights, and so on).  Now, I’m not saying that any of these issues are “solved” but we have certainly seen major social movement and increasing tolerance over a period of time because of the willingness of people who belong to these groups, and their allies, to stand and be seen and heard. I believe education and advocacy on the part of druids and other earth-based spiritual paths, like other social movements, is a necessary part of the work we need to do in the world. If at least some of us are not willing to be out, we face a longer, harder road towards social acceptance, which harms us all. Cultivating broader public understanding is a critical issue on a number of levels; the lack of understanding affects all of us in different ways. I’ve spoken to many folks who have difficulty getting their holidays off (with employers seeing their paths as not legitimate), folks not able to wear symbols of their faith while other religious groups can, and issues of child custody in court cases based on religion.

 

One key issue in addition to those I listed above has to do with the core spiritual practices and experiences that we have as druids. Many of the spiritual experiences that are validated, acceptable, and important in our druid community are considered to be mental health issues by the broader establishment. And yet, many spiritual traditions all over the world see and hear spirit communication; its just the present one I happen to live in that utterly rejects this and instead sees it as pathology or worse. Some good writing on this topic has come out recently from the shamanic community, but these perspectives are very far from the mainstream. There’s a reason I don’t talk about my work with plant spirits to most people (although people certainly know I’m a druid, but they don’t know the details about what I do).

 

The Path of the Sun for the sake of ourselves. Beyond the reasons that we might engage in the Path of the Sun for the sake of the land and our traditions, there’s also the inner reason: living an authentic life.  Its important for many of us to feel like we can be open and accepted for who we are, that we can be free to express our spiritual paths and not stay hidden. When I think about this issue, I’m reminded of the line from the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby song, where Eleanor Rigby “Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door, Who is it for?”  Many of us don’t want to have a face that we wear that we keep in the jar by the door (or at the edge of our grove, the edge of the spiritual gathering, wherever that edge is). We want to share more of our true face. I think this is particularly important to those of us in certain Western cultures where the current of individualism runs strong.  For certain people, being anything less than exactly who we are, title and all, resonates with an inauthenticity that we cannot abide.  For these kinds of people, the Path of the Sun represents the only possible path towards wholeness of body, mind, heart, and soul.

 

Walking the Path of the Sun

Now that we’ve established some reasons we might want to walk the Path of the Sun, how can we do so?  This next section offers some suggestions for the process of coming into the sun.  I’m drawing a lot from my own experience here, and the slow movement I had from being completely quiet, to moving into the Path of the Moon, and later, into the Path of the Sun in many aspects of my life.

 

Coming out is a process. Coming out is not a single process that you do one time and then is resolved; rather, it is a continual process that we are always cultivating. Timing is so critical with this coming out process. One conception of time in ancient Rome was “kairos” which loosely translates as the ‘right time and right place’ for a particular thing to occur.  And so, as we think about coming out more fully into the sun, we need to attend to the process and timing of doing so.

 

I’ll also add that a lot of the process of coming out as a druid comes down to issues of our own identity: who we are, who we want to be, and the identity we socially construct with others (the face in the jar by the door). This has a lot to do with how comfortable we sit in our skin and how that comfort changes based on the contexts in which we find ourselves. Each moment, we make decisions about who we are going to be, how we share our path with others, and how we come into the sunlight and shine. Each time we have an opportunity, we choose to act upon it or not to act upon said opportunity.

 

Having Key Conversations. One of the ways I believe that the sun path is most effective is in key conversations with individuals who are open to such conversation. I like to show people that I’m not some [enter your stereotype here] fringe lunatic with a crazy spiritual path, but rather a typical person with a job, a home, and the same hopes and dreams and fears as everyone else.  This is why timing is so important; I rarely come out and say “I’m a druid” in big bold statements when I first meet people, but I also don’t keep it a secret.  I find that its easier to have conversations with people after they get to know you just as a person, rather than someone who has a weird spiritual path (which may color their whole perception of you).

 

Once those conversations are ready to take place, framing and definitions are critical. Most people completely lack a frame of reference of who we are and what we do. If I tell people “druid” they think I might be a World of Warcraft character. The questions immediately begin, “Is that like a witch or something?” “Is that some kind of video game thing?” or “Are you a pagan?”  The person asking the questions is trying to fit you and who you are into their previous sets of knowledge and experience (and this is a normal process; it is how we learn as humans). However, this means that, if you come out or someone finds out you are a druid, the very first thing they try to do is to fit who you are and your path into their existing knowledge base. Please note that it is extremely likely that they don’t have an existing knowledge base that is an accurate representation of your path. Simply allowing them to fit what they understand of your path into their own knowledge base encourages and perpetuates ignorance. This is because we don’t have spiritual paths or practices that are well understood; recognizing that people’s existing knowledge base either is absent, or is present but insufficient, is an important part of moving beyond stereotypical or absent knowledge bases.

 

The Path of Druidry

The Path of Druidry

And here’s the thing: if you don’t fill this void, then imagination, representations on television, fear-mongering, or their own limited experiences are likely to do so.  So, if you see this happening, you can say, “hey, I know you are trying to fit this within your knowledge base, but the truth is most people don’t have any idea of what I do. But if you are interested, I’m happy to sit down with you over a cup of tea and talk to you about it so that you do understand it more. And I’m delighted to hear more about your path and what you do as well.” This kind of strategy can lead to productive conversations and mutual understanding.

 

Of course, key conversations often begin with those closest to us. I remember the difficulty of the first key conversations I had with my own mother, with whom I am very close. These conversations occurred just after I felt empowered by placing the Awen stone in my office as my first act of “coming out” (see last week’s post). I sat my mother down deep in the woods (which is her sacred space), and I spoke to her about my spiritual path. I attempted to outline the parallels between her own Christian path (which involves praying in the woods each day and seeing signs from God in nature) and my own path (which involves meditating in the woods each day and seeing signs from the spirits in nature). She was very quiet, and afterwards, did not say anything for a long time. I didn’t push it, and finally, nearly two years later, I asked her if she had anything to say. She looked at me and said, “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say.” After that, the ice was broke and I was able to occasionally share things with her that had seemed impossible before. Still, even into my second decade as a druid, the conversations with my family are still challenging, and the process of coming out to my family, still presents a lot of difficulty because of the issues I raise above. People think they know all there is to know about me, without ever having a single conversation about me, and it is difficult to find how to fill that gap.

 

The Quick Statement. A second part of the key conversations, I believe, is what I will call the “30 second elevator pitch.” Imagine yourself in an elevator, and someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I heard that you are a druid.  What exactly does that mean?” I have found it helpful to prepare–and practice–a 30 second or less response to this question. This will require massive oversimplification. But a simple, yet accurate description is better than a winding and complex description that is hard for someone to wrap their heads around. Mine goes something like this:

“Druidry is a path of nature-based spirituality that honors the seasons, works with the cycles of nature, and finds spiritual guidance rooted in the living earth. Modern druidry is inspired by the Ancient Druids who were astronomers, philosophers, teachers, and diviners. The modern druid movement is about four centuries old and includes practitioners from all over the world, including many here in the US. We live by the seasons and work to heal and regenerate the living earth.”

Feel free to use this statement or adapt it for your own purposes. As someone who is fairly in the Path of the Sun at this point, I find myself using something like this quite often!

 

Community Work.  If you have a group of people (grove, study group, seed group, etc), it is often helpful to do the Path of the Sun work together.  One of the things a group of us did while I was still living in Michigan was to pair up with the only other non-Christian group in the area (a Buddhist group) and do some joint community service work. We let ourselves be known and open, and showed those in the community that we were part of it, there to do good work for the benefit of all. That worked really well, and I’d encourage it for others.

 

Hemlocks in the Path of the Sun

Hemlocks in the Path of the Sun

Other ways to shine. The Path of the Sun is often one of seeing opportunities and choosing to take them on, rather than deciding to retreat.  For example, some NPR folks found my blog post on Hemlock a few years ago and asked me to talk about the Hemlock tree mythology.  I was terrified of this and thought, “Oh no! People will know I’m a druid!  Nobody actually reads the stuff I write on this blog!” After some meditation and reflection, decided to go ahead with the interview.  It ended up being a great deal of fun, and I was able to share my knowledge of the trees with a much wider audience. This is all to say that each of us can find our own opportunities to shine and do our own Path of the Sun work in the world.

 

Closing Thoughts. Whether you take the Path of the Moon or the Path of the Sun, or perhaps walk the dawn or dusk that sits between them, the ultimate goal of this two-part series is to explore how we can be more authentic and comfortable in our own skins. Because that’s part of what a spiritual path is meant to do–to illuminate the path before us, to show us the ways to go and the ways not to go, and to help us feel like more fully actualized, vibrant people.  May you walk your path, sun, moon, dawn, dusk, or otherwise, in peace and fulfillment.

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

Jack Pine Resin - Abundant and Amazing smelling!

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

What is resin and what tree resins work best?

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

 

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

When and where do you harvest resin?

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

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

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

 

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

 

How do you harvest resin?

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions

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

 

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

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

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

Trees that Produce Little Resin

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

 

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

 

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

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

Resins Not Recommended

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

 

Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls

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

 

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

 

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

 

Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin

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

 

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

 

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

 

Incense Papers

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

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

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

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

 

Energy and Tree Incense

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

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

Conclusion

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

Druid Tree Workings: Finding the Face of the Tree

Sometimes the trees themselves share lessons with us about how to work with them, to talk with them, heal with them. These are often presented to me as mystery teachings from the trees themselves–and I’ll be sharing some of these teachings with you.  The first of these is finding the face of the tree.

Grove of Beeches looking out upon the world

Grove of Beeches looking out upon the world

 

I have found that each tree has at least one face and finding it can teach you a lot about that particular tree’s personality and energy. Finding the face of the trees will show you their individuality and unique personality–and yes, individual trees do have uniqueness of their own, both inside and out. This is similar to humans—all humans are humans, but we come from different ethnicities and different regions and those create variation. In the same way, all oak trees have a strengthening quality to them because of their nature: how they grow, their extensive root systems, their tannins, etc. But like people, each oak has his or her own personality and quirks. Finding the face of the tree gives one insight into those personalities and quirks that a tree possesses and gives mean for communication.

 

What do I mean by the face of the tree?  Usually, somewhere on the bark, there is a face or a part of a face–some variation of the bark that allows you to see a message.  You may see an eye or some other feature that shows you the tree’s nature (one of the images below has a heart in the bark…you get it). The face of a tree is almost always found in its bark—look at the irregularities in the bark, the knotholes, bumps, or other features and you will find the face of the tree. Some trees may have many faces (like beech trees, which I’m using in this post) or smaller face that combine into a large face. If you directly address the tree at its face, you will more likely get a response. How high up the face may be gives you a sense of the tree’s accessibility and friendliness. Faces that are well off of the ground may indicate that the tree does not wish to be approached; faces that are near the ground and clearly accessible may indicate the opposite.  Some tree species, like maple or beech, have many many faces present on their smooth bark. Other tree species, like some conifers, require a bit more studying to see the face.

 

Let’s look at a few examples:

You can clearly see the beech's face here--not to far up the tree.  Beech trees are one of the best trees to start this practice with.

You can clearly see the beech’s face here–not to far up the tree. Beech trees are one of the best trees to start this practice with.

An oak and a beech--notice the many "faces" here!

An oak and a beech–notice the many “faces” here!  the oak, too, had a single face, high up, but it was harder to see.

This beech has a heart--another kind of message in the bark.

This beech has a heart in its bark–another kind of message in the bark.

To find the face of the tree, sometimes you must sit across from the tree, and observe the tree. Observe it from different angles, observe it in different light. When the tree is ready, the face will be revealed to you.

 

There are trees that guard themselves closely, or don’t usually have faces that are accessible  There are also trees that are well known within the esoteric and nature-spirituality communities as having energy that is not compatible with humans–yew and elm being two such trees.  I’ve found that hawthorns, also, take a bit of work–the hawthorn guards herself well and does not like being touched by most beings–but she will reveal a face after meditation and study.  Again, the face of the tree can give you insight into the nature of the individual and the kind of work you can do (more on this in an upcoming post).

 

Like our faces, which bear the brunt of our lifetimes—scars, lines, weathering and age—so, too, do trees exhibit such patterns on their faces. Faces may also be created due to cutting or other kinds of force–these faces often reflect the tree’s pain and can be used for land healing work.

 

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Once, when I was visiting a six-acre old growth hemlock grove in South Western PA, in the Laurel Ridge State Park, I was shown the face of a tree. The old hemlock, over 5 feet across, bid me to come closer. He had a burl, and it had grown to have a lot of loose and dead bark on it and it was ready to fall off. He asked me to pull away a small part of the bark that was hanging and ready to fall—I did with very little effort, and when I stepped back, there was his face, clear as day in his wizened old trunk. There was the face of a wizard tree, an old man, looking back at me.  I’ve since returned to visit this tree several times–the last time I was to visit, the tree gave me instructions which lead to me finding a much-needed gift for a friend.  In this case, revealing the face of the tree lead me to a deeper relationship with the tree.

 

In a second story, I met an ancient maple while living in Michigan.  The ancient maple, bearing the scars of time, had many faces upon her weathered bark. I found that in meditating upon those faces, stories of the tree would flow into me.  Different faces had different stories to tell.

 

I encourage you to use this technique to find the face of a tree, and use the face to help connect to it.  Spending time with trees is good for the soul.

Returning to the Hemlock Grove: Old Growth Forests as Sacred Sites

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

 

Hemlocks (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

Looking up in a grove of hemlocks

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

Standing stone with hemlocks across the creek

            

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

 

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

 

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

Hemlock grove

Hemlock grove

 

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

 

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

 

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

           

Hemlock branch with snow

Hemlock branch with snow

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

 

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

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

 

 

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

Hemlock in the forest with other trees

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

Hemlock reflected in the sacred pool

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

 

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

 

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

 

References: 

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

 

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

Save

Four Sacred Trees Brew (Druidic, Magical Tree Tea with Hickory, Pine, Birch, and Maple)

This recipe is derived from an Algonquin recipe that I found in a few places and adapted. It pays homage to the hickory as its star (with birch, pine, and maple as delightful support characters).  Its a perfect drink for Samhuinn, and as the weather grows cold, the plants die off, and the days become dark.  It tastes…like nothing else you’ve ever experienced.  Slightly piney, slightly minty, very nutty, slightly sweet….all the good flavors in a kind of “tree chai”.  I served this at our grove’s Samhuinn ceremony and it was very well received!

 

I’ve also found this brew to be a most excellent energizing, clearing, and grounding drink.  If I’m feeling a bit schizophrenic, trying to balance the demands of the consumerist world that I inhabit and my own spiritual connection to the land (that is being destroyed by that consumerist world), this brew brings me back to where I need to be.  It gives me inner peace and grounds me, healing me.  This beverage is particularly uplifting if I’m having a difficult day, in need of healing, etc.  I think its because it has so many good trees with different energies, and they are very balancing.  Nature is always a wonderful healer.

 

1.  Obtain your ingredients. For about 6 cups of this brew, you’ll want a handful of white pine needles (without branches), a 6 or so black birch twigs (dried or fresh is fine; I’m using dried cause they are rare around Michigan but bountiful in PA where I gather them when I see my family), hickory nuts (about a cup and a half) and maple syrup (or honey/sugar if you don’t have any). If you don’t have access to any of these ingredients, you can omit them (except the hickory). You can also substitute wintergreen berries or leaves for the black birch and hemlock needles (the tree, NOT the plant) for the pine. But in most Midwestern forests where hickory grows, you should be able to find these.

Ingredients

Ingredients

 

2. Crush up your hickory. You want to take the outer shell off of your hickory (its usually in four or five pieces, easy to peel once the nut dries out for a week or so after it falls from the tree).  To make the brew, you want to crush up your nuts (inner shell and all) with a hammer and then throw them into a pot.

Crush up hickory - shell and all!

Crush up hickory – shell and all!

 

3.  Add the rest of the ingredients (except maple). Break up your black birch a bit and add your white pine needles to the mix. Add about 6 cups or so of water (more if you want it weaker, less if you want it stronger). I’m making a fairly large batch here, so I added some extra hickory nuts.  Extra nuts are always good!

Ingredients!

Ingredients!

Adding water!

Adding water!

 

4.  Boil for 30-40 minutes. Let the alchemical fires transform your ingredients into a sacred, magical brew. You’ll start to smell it, and then the water will eventually get cloudy as the hickory releases its magic into your tea. The longer you boil it the stronger it tastes.  Its really good. You’ll also notice little oil droplets on the top of the brew–these are from the oil in the hickory nuts, and are full of good nutrients.

Brew finished!

Brew finished!

 

5.  Strain into cups, add maple syrup to taste, and enjoy! Enjoy one of the most delightful and unique beverages you’ll experience. Use it as a sacred, magical drink for many purposes and share it with friends.

Wild Medicinal Plant Profile– Reishi Mushrooms (ganoderma tsugae), or, The Mystery of the Stumps Revisited

In a post I wrote about over year ago, I told the story of the “mystery of the stumps” where I described my relationship to the forest where I grew up, the forest to which I belong.  I told the tale of a forest with mysterious stumps that my cousins and I couldn’t explain, and later, when I was 14, seeing the loggers come through and being devastated by the experience.  I told the tale of the regrowth and healing of that forest as I ventured back in after many years, and the healing lessons that that forest provided.  And now, there is a new chapter to tell–the healing medicine that the forest produced out of those cut stumps.

 

Stump with reishi growing!  These ones are too far gone to harvest, but they still make a lovely sight.

Stump with reishi growing! These ones are too far gone to harvest, but they still make a lovely sight.

This week, I took a trip back to my parents’ house and spent some time in the forest with a good friend.  We had recently taken a summer mushroom workshop (which I’ll blog about soon), and we wanted to test out some of our new-found mushroom skills and see what else there was to harvest.  When we were there in May, my friend thought that some of the stumps might have the first signs of reishi (ganoderma tsugae) mushrooms, but we needed to look at them later in the season.  And sure enough, when we returned, there the reishi mushrooms were, growing beautifully.

 

We excitedly frolicked through the forest, and found them on probably about 15% of the stumps that had been cut down (trees cut about 17 years ago, from when I was around 14).  These were hemlock tree stumps, for this is what G. tsugae enjoys growing upon.  This experience was more than just finding a great medicinal mushroom–this was a powerful message in healing.  These stumps were the trees that were cut, my tree friends that were lost but not forgotten when I was 14.  These were the stumps that I couldn’t face, couldn’t enter the forest to see, for at least ten years.  And here were the Reishi mushrooms, one of the best medicinal mushrooms in the world, growing there on those cut stumps.  It was if they were saying, “Look! We are fine! We have healed and now we can heal you as well!”

 

Something shifted in me.  This was plant medicine, powerful and meaningful.  I already knew that the forest was regrowing, healing from its past injuries.  But I hadn’t realized that nature would turn such a tragic occurrence into something magical and medicinal in return.  I was and am always astounded by the gifts that nature gives.

 

Reishi Mushroom Healing:  I was first introduced to the Reishi mushroom by my good friend who brewed me up some reishi tea with elderberry and honey when I was suffering a very bad head cold.  He made me several cups, which I enjoyed and which helped with the cold, and then he sent me on my way with a reishi mushroom tincture.  I recovered from the cold quickly, and I’ve had

Harvested reishi mushrooms

Harvested reishi mushrooms

respect for this mushroom ever since.

Matthew Wood discusses reishi mushrooms in his Earthwise Herbal: Old World Plants book.  He says that the mushrooms contain protein, polysaccharides, phytosterols, and “help reduce autoimmune excess (heat) but also builds up exhasuted, cold people, rebuilds the adrenal cortex, regulates blood clotting, and protects the liver” (272).  It helps with nervous exhaustion, sympathetic excess, or adrenal burnout, helps with allergies, aids in hypertension by inhibiting cholestreol synthesis and much more.  He suggests that for Reishi to be effective, it has to be cooked for at least an hour and made into a tea or stock with soup bones (273).

 

Finding and Harvesting Reishi

Reishi mushrooms, specifically the g. tsugae that are native to North America, prefer Hemlock trees–or in my case, hemlock stumps.  Matthew Wood suggests that the Asian version of this mushroom, G. lucidum, likes oaks and chestnuts.  Another related species that can be found is G. applantum, which grows on Maples.  The reishi I found were part of a mesic forest with multiple streams, at the bottom of an Appalachian mountain valley and along the ridges near streams/creeks.  This is the same kind of forest where you find ramps, dutchman’s breeches, and wood nettles (we also found healthy amounts of chanterelle mushrooms).

Reishi growing from a stump!

Reishi growing from a stump!

Harvesting of resihi can take place anytime after the mushrooms spore (you don’t want to harvest before they spored because we didn’t want to reduce the population of reishi).  After they spore, the fruiting bodies have done their work and you can go ahead and harvest!  This will likely happen sometime in July. You want to get them when they are still white on the bottom–about half the reishi or more that we found were past their prime with worms and bugs and stuff in them.  We cut out the bad pieces, but its tough work. They get worms, slugs, and such later, which you can cut around, but which doesn’t make a pretty sight (see photo below).

Worms in older reishi

Worms in older reishi

You can harvest reishi with a sharp knife.  We used a cloth canvas bag to store our reishi.  Here is my friend Paul harvesting reishi–you can note the nice white underside of the mushroom.  These ones were a little smaller, but still quite nice.

After you harvest them, you want to clean them (we washed them lightly) and then we cut them up into small slices and dried them in a food dehydrator.  Here’s Paul cleaning and cutting the reishi.

Harvested reishi mushrooms

Harvested reishi mushrooms

After about 12 hours, the reishi are dry, and you can store them in a mason jar with a tight lid till they are needed.  What a wonderful mushroom!

Reishi in jars!

Reishi in jars!

 

So I will take this as a medicinal mushroom, in tea and in tinctures (I will be providing a post on how to make a double-extracted reishi tincture in the future at some point!)  It will always remind me of the healing power of nature, the importance of the cycle of life, and is a reminder of the blessings that nature provides.  I hope that you, too, readers, will have the experience of harvesting and honoring this wonderful medicinal mushroom.