The Druid's Garden

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

Establishing Sacred Land, or, A Home-Coming October 29, 2017

There has been a lot of talk in the American druid scene in the last few years about establishing sacred spaces, creating sacred groves, and really staring to re-enchant our land here. I think druids and other earth-centered spiritual traditions around the world, particularly those living in places shaped by colonization, face these same challenges: how do we create our own sacred spaces? What does that look like?  I wrote earlier this year, for example, about Stones Rising at Four Quarters farm, and the raising of standing stones. A few years ago, I’ve also written a series on sacred sites in the US and how to build some sacred sites. This post continues those conversations.

White Oak by the Creek

White Oak by the Creek

In my Stones Rising post, I talked about how establishing sacred spaces, as a community, was certainly an “American” challenge because of the history of colonialism and the genocide of native peoples here.  I commented how we were living on “someone else’s sacred land.” And there is certainly truth in that statement. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I think this statement is much more complicated and problematic. Here’s the thing: as long as we think about the land where we were born, and where we live, as someone else’s sacred land, it continues to be inaccessible/unavailable/distant from us.  We feel like we are outsiders, inhabiting a place to which we do not belong. And the truth is this–we are here now, we are working to rebuild, we are working to reconnect, working to understand the sacredness of nature, her magic, her medicine. If we work to create sacred spaces, learn about ecology, uses of plants, and so on (a lot of stuff I advocate here on this blog), I think that this kind of work very much honors the ancestors of the land and the relationships they had with the land. In other words, we learn the land, we let the land teach us, and we connect with it on the deepest levels.

 

Obviously, its not ok to visit someone else’s sacred site and claiming it as your own–that is cultural appropriation.  What is also inappropriate is not acknowledging the many ancestors of the land who came before–we have to recognize what happened here, on this soil, and help the land and spirits to heal.  Given these two points, I believe that what we need to do is forge new connections for a new time.  We have to build, from scratch, both our relationships with the land and the sacred spaces we need to honor the land.

 

And yet, “re-enchanting” or our land, so to speak, and connecting with it is a multi-generational process.  It will take lifetimes of work, generations of people, individuals and groups.  But I believe that work begins here and now–and for many of us, has already begun. The danger of not creating sacred spaces and making this land our sacred land means that we will never be fully connected to it.   The danger of not seeing the land where you were born as your own means that you have no place to call home.

 

So in today’s post,  taking this “sacred space” concept more to the practical level, I’d like to explore the work of establishing a piece of land, of any size, as sacred land–that is, establishing and maintaining a permanent sacred space, a sacred sanctuary, a place of magic, contemplation, reflection, and renewal (and many other things). This post coincides with my purchase of new land and my own moving to a new home, and so I’ll use myself as a case study.

 

Sacred Land/Landscapes

What do I mean when I say “sacred land” or a “sacred landscape”? How is it different than a “sacred site?” In both cases, we are cultivating a relationship with the land, but the scope of that relationship differs. The way that I see this distinction is as follows.

 

Sacred Sites: We can establish a sacred site, like a stone circle, sacred garden, shrine, altar, and so on, as a stand-alone space. These are single constructions that offers a particular kind of blessing to the land or has another kind of use (or series of uses). They may be hidden away or created in a place that has many different purposes. The point here is that something is set aside for purposes only to be used as sacred (like a stone circle).

 

Sacred Landscape - room to regrow

Sacred Landscape – room to regrow

Sacred Landscapes: When I say sacred landscape or sacred land, I am talking about a potentially larger piece of land with many smaller sacred sites/spots/items contained within it. The idea here is that the entire piece of land or property is a dedicated sacred place where you can engage in various kinds of sacred actions to reconnect with nature. It is certainly a step above a single dedicated space, but rather,  We have some public examples: Circle Sanctuary, Four Quarters, Dreamland.  But any person can choose to do this as well on a smaller piece of land of their own–and it is to this work today that I will begin to attend.

 

One metaphor you might think about this ties to permaculture design. I might create a small raised bed for raising veggies and focus my efforts solely in that direction, or, I might create an integrated design that had many different kinds of features including an orchard, herb garden, outdoor kitchen, butterfly garden–the whole design, which took years to enact, works together as a cohesive whole to meet a variety of shared purposes. A sacred shrine is like that single raised bed growing tomatoes.  A sacred landscape is the entire design, working together, to feed, house, and nurture all who call that place home.

 

Some Background

So how does this look in practice?  This will be my second time working to create a sacred sanctuary, and I’ve learned a few things along the way, but I still have a lot to learn!  And so, over a period of time as I create the space, I’m going to walk through the process  sharing how I am transforming my new 5 acre land land into sacred land–energetically and physically.  In order do that, I want to offer some background on where I’m coming from and where I’ve been. I lived on a 3-acre homestead in Michigan for 5 years (the beginnings of this blog) where I first intuitively learned some of what I’ll share in this post series. Then, 2.5 years ago, I returned to Western Pennsylvania, the land of my ancestors, for a new job and to be much closer to my family. It was a bit of a jarring shift–after working for five years on land both physically and energetically, and transforming it into a druid and permaculture oasis, I was stuck in a rental situation in a small town.  And yet, some of my deepest insights of my druid path came from this work. I had no home base. All the land became the land to which I belonged.

 

After two years of living in town, I was fairly convinced that urban permaculture was not the route I wanted to take. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time exploring options of intentional community with a friend.  After exploring various pieces of land, we realized that our visions were different–I was drawn to the wild, wooded spaces and she preferred the hustle and bustle of city (or at least small town) life.  For some of us, living in a town or city and being “visible” doing permaculture is their calling, like my dear friend Linda of Nature’s Harvest Urban Permaculture Farm. But for me, I realized how badly I needed a sacred sanctuary.  Yes, it would be a sanctuary that had a regular flow of friends and guests–but not prying neighbors constantly observing my space. I wanted my home to be a restful space for myself and those I love that was largely invisible to outsiders. I do enough visible work in the world, but I didn’t want my home life on display.  And then, the land came to me–it literally fell in my lap.  I had resolved to start looking for a home next spring and give myself the winter in town. But then in early August, I was visiting some permaculture friends at their amazing food forest and they told me about a house that was going up for sale that I should take a look at. As soon as I saw the pictures online, I knew it was home. It came on a mostly wooded five acres, surrounded by forests and farms. It was 15 min from my work and only 5 minutes from the state forest where I enjoy kayaking and hiking. When I saw the photos, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, and the next day, went out to see it. After a long process, the land is now under my “ownership.”

 

Preliminaries: Establishing Relationship and Doing Away with “Ownership”

Having signed the paperwork making me “the owner” of the land this past week raises all kinds of issues surrounding creating sacred land–and these are useful to explore as part of the process. In truth, the profit-driven western world has encouraged a line of thinking that implies that we humans are the only agents of change in the world–we have the power, we have the control. There is this underlying assumption present, particularly with nature and life other than our own, that we can just do what we want. Of course, the modern conception of ownership of land solidifies the problematic “do what pleases you” thinking.  I just signed paperwork that says I can do just about anything I want to this land, short of some legal issues (like dumping raw sewage on it or building new structures without a permit).  But in terms of what I might do to the trees, to the plants, to the ecosystem–beyond “lawn maintenance” there are no laws for that. I could cut it all down, I could let it grow up–because I now “own it” the land is mine to do with what I want.  And for the record, I don’t really think this is about laws, what is legal or no.  What it really is about is mentality, mindset, approach, relationship.

 

Home: A little cabin in the woods

Home: A little cabin in the woods

I have a druid friend who is a landscaper, and he tells me how prevalent this attitude of “shaping nature to my will” is when he is working with clients on their landscapes. Most of the time, the attitude is “I want it to look nice” and by “nice” it means “in control.” He told me of a woman who owned a beautiful property and wanted to cut down a bunch of trees for no real purpose. He tried to talk to her about stewardship, asking about the people who would own the land after her…and it went over like a lead balloon. People don’t see themselves as stewards of the land, they see themselves as “owners.”  The most salient story I have ever read on this topic was in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss book. It was a later chapter in her book called, “The Owner.”  I think everyone should read it–it was a shocking and horrific story about ownership and what people will do to bend nature to their will tucked in an otherwise wonderful book about mosses and how they grow.  This “ownership” is from this same place and line of thinking that so many of the atrocities that are committed against the land are rooted.

 

In order to create a meaningful sacred space on any land, or to establish land as sacred, this “Ownership” mindset must be put firmly aside. Sacred landscapes aren’t just about what you want to do on your land or about your vision becoming a reality. Creating a sacred sanctuary must be a collaboration with nature itself–both the elemental forces upon the world, the physical status of the land, as well as the will of the spirits of the land. In fact, the more that you can get into your head this idea of service, partnership, or stewardship for a greater whole, the better all of this kind of work happens. While I legally “own the land,” I do not see myself not as an “owner” but as a steward, here for a period time, here with the sole goal of leaving the land better than I found it and working the will of the spirits of the land while I am present.  Stewardship implies that you are there, for a period of time,

 

Part of this is linguistic: When we use possessive words, like “my land” or “I will do”, it again, establishes a certain kind of relationship–one where I am the dominant force, where I have the control.  I like to instead describe the land as “the land to which I belong.” Its subtle, but powerful, and helps shift the inner subconscious, not only for you, but for anyone else who hears you speak. And so, if we are going to establish any land as a sacred space, it begins in a place of partnership, respect, and conversation.

Further Preliminaries: Honoring, Trust, and History

Creating sacred spaces is a time-honoring, slow process; creating a whole sacred landscape is even more so the case. Like the flow of the seasons or the sprouting of a seed, this kind of work can’t be forced. The work takes the time it takes, unfolding like a spiral. In honor of time and space, before you even begin to shape a shared vision of creating sacred land, there is preliminary work to be done. Think of this preliminary work like the foundation upon which everything else is built–your job, first and foremost, is to lay the foundation and prepare the site. And you do that through honoring and, in a lot of cases, some good old fashioned sweat equity.

 

Before you even begin to shape a shared vision for sacred land, its important to acknowledge all of the folks sitting at the table: ancestors of the land, nature spirits, land guardians, the spirits of the stones, and the trees, and the like. There are a lot of different kinds of “spirits of the land” or “spirits of place.”  Ancestors of the land, human spirits that once lived there and still guard/protect, may be present. Nature spirits, the spirits of the plants, animals, stones, and trees, may also be present. Greater nature spirits, like those of the soil web, the mountain, the river, the whole forest, may also be present. Even greater beings, like a land guardian or deity of some sort, may also be around.  They want to be acknowledged and should be before any other work can begin.

 

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the white oak (just realized this photo has me with paint on my hand from painting the art studio!)

Honoring the Nature Spirits of the Land. For honoring the nature spirits of the land, I like to simply sit in stillness and quiet in a place on that land, and make simple offerings. When I arrived on the land to which I now belong, even before it was under my “ownership”, I brought some home-grown tobacco and my flute and played the flute and made offerings around the property.  This was my sole purpose in the visit. I spent time on the land; I brought a blanket and lay in what may become a sacred grove down by the pond. I just breathed in the soil and observed the land around me.  It was beautiful, magical. I could feel the spirits of the land stirring.  Sometimes, the spirits have been asleep for a long while–and they need time to awaken again. This simple honoring work achieves that goal over a period of time. For honoring them long term, I highly recommend a dedicated outdoor shrine–this will be the first thing I build on the new land once I have a sense from the spirits of where to build it.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land. Ancestors come in many types. Here in the US, we have primarily two types–the more recent ancestors which may have been farmers, miners, and the like, and more distant ancestors of the land, who were the native peoples. For the native ancestors of the land, I am planning on a specific ceremony to honor them at Samhain. I will build a fire, drum, play my flute, offer my home-grown tobacco and simply be present to listen to their voices.  After I have listened, I will share with them my hopes and dreams for the land. For the non-native ancestors of the land, who I know to have been farmers (thanks to those who lived on the property before me), I have indicated my intent to dedicate a bed in the garden in their honor.

 

Building Trust.  Even if you are stepping onto “well tended” land, most land today has been damaged by the typical practices of westerners: keeping lawns, spraying weeds, burning garbage, driving over the soil and compacting it, and the like. You may find yourself in need of doing some reparation work before you begin any spiritual work. This is because the spirits may need to learn to trust again.  Before you can communicate with them, before you can create sacred land, you must pave the way and demonstrate your intentions.  At my old homestead, I had to clean up the egregious garbage all over the place before I did anything else.  That, and the honoring work, took me far in connecting to the spirits.  At my new sacred land, I have the sense that I will need to do some seed scattering and forest replanting, among other things.

 

Understanding the History of the Land. Part of trust building is learning, what you can, about the history of the land.  If you have access to the previous owners, that is a good place to start.  If not, you can look for signs on the landscape–old fence posts and barbed wire, for example, is a common sign in these parts.  I think it is useful to use any tools you can–in the US, the US Geological survey also offers historical maps of many regions and that can help you get a sense, back into the 1950’s, of what the land may have looked like.  Court records and deeds are also very common!

 

This post has gotten quite long, so I’m going to go ahead and close for this week.  In my next post on the series, we’ll continue into this work!

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Honoring the Ancestors of Land, Tradition, and Blood October 15, 2017

As the world  (where I am at, at least!) gets bathed in frost, as the plants wither and die, as the trees bathe themselves in color and then drop their leaves, as the cold wind blows and as the darkness sets in, we in the druid tradition–and in any other traditions–turn to think about the ancestors. In this post, we’ll explore the global traditions surrounding honoring the dead that tie to August-October and honoring the dead to see similarities, we’ll discuss three types of ancestors the druid tradition recognizes, and then we’ll explore ways to honor the ancestors.

 

Food for the Ancestors!

Food for the Ancestors!

Global Ancestral Traditions

When you start digging into ancestor traditions around the world, some striking similarities seem to emerge.

  • The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a blending of European traditions and Aztec honoring of the dead, goes from Oct 31 – Nov 2. As part of this celebration, Mexicans that believe that the souls of the dead return to the living and elaborate and colorful altars of food and gifts are prepared.
  • The Japanese Buddhists celebrate Obon in August; Obon also honors lost ancestors and the Japanese believe it is a time when ancestors temporarily return to the land of the living.
  • In Korea, Chuseok, which is a three day celebration of thank-giving and honoring of the ancestors, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is either in September or October. This holiday includes thankfulness for the harvest and visiting the graves of the ancestors.
  • In China, Buddhists and Taoists have an entire month dedicated to the ancestors called “Hungry month” where the dead are said to walk among the living (held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, or August). The spirits are fed and given offerings on an altar to appease their hungry spirits.
  • Gai Jatra is a festival of cows and the dead in Nepal, held in August. The Cow, the Hindu sacred animal, is led through the streets to help deceased family members cross over.
  • Finally, in Cambodia, Pchum Ben, a festival of honoring the dead, is celebrated in mid-September to mid-October for 15 days. Cambodians believe the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at this point and dead ancestors may return to seek out the living. They dress in white (Cambodian colors of mourning) and visit temples and also offer food at temples for the hungry ghosts.

 

The festival of Samhain itself came from the Gaelic tradition (which also celebrated Imboc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh). On the Hill of Tara, a mound called the Mound of Hostages built between 3350 and 2800 BCE has a cave that is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. In the Samhain tradition, it was believed that veil between the otherworld was thinner and the souls of the dead could pass through. The souls were thought to return to their homes and seek hospitality, so offerings were left for them. Great fires burned for various rituals to protect livestock through the winter. People often dressed up in costumes and went about door to door for food to confuse the spirits (which is where modern Halloween traditions come from).

 

These traditions are all notably similar in their understanding of what happens with regards to the dead, what should be done, and when it should be done. Sometime in the fall, somewhere between August and early November, something changes in the fabric of the world and the “veil” grows thinner and those who have died are able to briefly return and walk among us. They are often hungry and in search of their family, and so, various preparations need to be made in order to honor them which may involve preparing home altars, visiting temples, feasting, and making offerings of food.

 

Three Kinds of Ancestors

For many of the cultures above, those living on ancestral homelands–the ancestors would include spirits who lived on the land, who created and passed on the traditions, and who were blood ancestors. In the druid tradition, particularly in non UK contexts, we have roots from many places.  And so we often honor at three kinds of ancestors. We honor the ancestors of the blood: the contributors to the physical DNA within us, our genetic heritage, people of our family lines that came before. We honor the ancestors of the land: those who lived and tended the land before us.  And we honor the ancestors of our tradition: those who helped create the druid tradition and bring it into being (both ancient and modern). Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:

 

Ancestors of the Blood.  This is the most common definition of “Ancestors” in the US and usually around the world.  We carry the genetic heritage and legacy of our ancestors.  We know now, for example, that genes can be expressed or repressed by how people live; our ancestors’ and their lives, are literally written into our bodies and into the DNA present.  The work of our ancestors are also present in the landscape: how they lived, where they lived, what they did while they lived, and so on. Even in the US, with its lack of attention to the metaphysical realm, you’ll hear people talk about a deceased grandmother that they feel is “watching over me” and so on, so even if there isn’t a fully expressed ancestor tradition, there are small pieces.  We also have Memorial Day, which is a close to an ancestral tradition as we have, where, at least in my family, in late May we visit the graves of ancestors and tend to them. It is to these ancestors that have literally brought us into being that we give thanks.

 

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Ancestors of our lands. For those of us living in North America, especially on the East Coast where I live, the peoples who once tended these lands for tens of thousands of years are no longer generally present.  These are people who tended this land for generations, who understood and interacted with the spirits of the land, and who were mercilessly driven from it or forcefully relocated to other parts of the US. Now, by no means am I advocating appropriating any of their traditions. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable and relevant to honor those who came before–I have always gotten a good response when making such offerings. I think this is especially important for druids who are honoring the land–in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, she makes the strong case that not only were native people critical to creating an incredible abundance found in the Americas, they also did plant breeding work, allowing certain plants to thrive through their careful propagation. The land that we love as druids is a land that was so carefully tended by their hands.

 

Also as part of the ancestors of the land, for me, are the 1930’s conservationists who did so much to establish the state and federal park system here in the US.  After I visited Shenandoah National Park a few years ago and saw the careful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enormous amounts of people who were put to work creating the park systems, I wanted to honor these ancestors as well.  The conservationists of that era did us a tremendous service by having the vision to preserve land, to set it aside, and to make it freely accessible.  That is well deserving of an offering!

 

Ancestors of the Tradition. The final kind of ancestor we could honor are ancestors of our tradition–those who have influenced the practices that we hold.  I generally honor three groups here: the Ancient druids (a lump group, since we dont’ know any of them by name).  The druid revival druids, many of whom we know, like Iolo Morganwg. Morganwg has gotten a terrible rap. Let’s be clear: Iolo Morganwg is one of the key ancestors in our tradition and if were not for him, I believe we would not have a tradition. In the more modern movement, we might look to ancestors of the tradition like Ross Nichols, who, with Gerald Gardener who sat in a bar in Glastonbury and developed the modern wheel of the year and founded OBOD, or Dr. Juliet Ashley, who was instrumental in developing many of the frameworks currently used by AODA and Mother Betty Reeves, one of the Archdruids in AODA who helped pass the tradition to John Michael Greer so he could bring the order back into a healthy place. My point is, without these ancestors’ contributions, we would not have a druid tradition–and the specific traditions I practice–today. Its important that we honor them, as they are ancestors of this path.  Your own ancestor of tradition path may look a little different than mine, of course, depending on what specific path you follow.

 

How do we honor the ancestors?

Honoring All Ancestors: As described in the worldwide traditions above, some of the ways we can honor the ancestors are as follows:

  • A Spirit/Ancestor Altar. Creating an altar to honor the ancestors and make offerings either outdoors or indoors (or at another sacred place).  You can leave offerings of food here.
  • Making offerings of other kinds. A pinch of tobacco for native peoples of the land, a bit of bourbon, picking up trash in the forest in honor of the conservationists, and so on, may be useful offerings that can be made to honor certain groups of ancestors. Remember that an “offering” doesn’t just have to be a physical symbolic thing that you give–it can also be your time and energy.
  • Feeding the Ancestors. This may include something called a “spirit plate” that is left outside (traditionally in the west), preparing a feast for them, food offerings at an altar, and so on.
  • A Dumb Supper.  A tradition circulating within various forms of pagan celebrations is a “dumb supper” where you invite the ancestors to dinner.  In this case, two plates are set for each participant–one for the participant, and one for their ancestors.  The way I’ve done it most commonly was that we create two plates of food and eat in silence, listening for the voices of the ancestors.  A cup of mugwort tea may also be enjoyed to open the senses for the voices of the ancestors.  Afterwards, the spirit plates are left on an outdoor altar till morning.

 

Honoring the ancestors of our blood: To honor the ancestors of our blood, you might also choose some additional activities.  For example, I believe it is a wonderful honor to find out as much as you can about your ancestors, where they came from, and who they are.  In the USA, in particular, we have often completely lost these cultural traditions. finding out who they were, learning about our histories of our own memories of our families.

  • Writing our own histories so that when we become ancestors, or children and children’s children will have that material. My ancestors didn’t do a good job of this; or if they did, this has been lost and it is of great sadness to me.
  • Learning about the history of your last name. One of the ways I did this was to study the cultural heritage of my last name, O’Driscoll. I managed to find this book on the Internet from the O’Driscoll Clan, in Ireland, called O”Driscolls: Past and Present. I now have a much better understanding of who the O’Driscolls were and the name that I carry.
  • Learning and practicing one or more cultural traditions from your ancestors.  If you are like me, you don’t have any cultural traditions of your ancestors left.  I have decided to learn some of them and carry on traditions from my ancestors.  One of these is creating pysanky eggs, information which I shared on this blog before.
  • Learning the stories of the ancestors.  Learn a story or two from the lands where you can trace your genetic heritage.  Perhaps, perform it for family members!

 

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land: The ancestors of the land are many and diverse where I live. We have the Native Americans of various tribes who used to live here  (such as the Shawnee, who were the most local to my area). We have those who came here after, and who unfortunately, pillaged the land to build industry–and for me, these are also ancestors of blood. Finally, we have conservationists who have worked to preserve a beautiful park system throughout the state and country.

  • Honoring Native Ancestors: Learning to tend the land.  There are lots of ways to honor the native ancestors of the land, but to me, engaging in their work and tending the land is one of the best. I believe that we need to re-learn how to inhabit a particular place, tend it, and bring it back into healthy production for the benefit of all life. We need to reclaim our last heritage of humans interacting with the land–again, I point to the incredible gift that M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild is–her book showed that it was by the judicious use and propagation of the wilds that the native peoples brought abundance and a deep ecological knowledge. The best thing we can do to honor the ancestors of this land is to treat this land with reverence and respect and to learn their knowledge. Because of this, I study native plant uses, I study the traditions of the ancestors of the land, and I learn how to cultivate and harvest plants. In other words, I re-establish my relationship with the land, and through that, the ancestors of the land.
  • Conservation Activities: Because I recognize not only native ancestors of the land but also those in the CCC and other groups who essentially “saved” large parts of land for state and federal parks, I believe that the best way you can honor these ancestors of the land is by continuing their work. This may be political advocacy to save lands that they had a hand in protecting, trash clean up work, re-introducing native species to lands, and more.
  • Reparation work. Given that my own ancestors also helped to damage the lands and contribute to some of the ecological challenges faced here in my local ecosystem, I also do reparation work on behalf of my ancestors. Most often, I do this through land tending through the practice of permaculture (see the first bullet point) but also do land healing work.

 

Ancestors of our tradition: we do have many ancestors in the tradition of Druidry. They are important ancestors, and I mentioned some of them before: Iolo Morganwg, William Stuckley, Ross Nichols, and those who brought forth and continued the druid revival and continued it. We don’t now all of their names. But I still think they are deserving of our honor.

  • Readings.  One of the things I like to do to honor the ancestors of the tradition is to read a short paragraph of their writings in a sacred space (if a text is available).  It is a simple act, but acknowledging their work, their efforts, and their life energy is also important.
  • Altar: I like to honor my ancestors of the tradition on my main druid altar.  I made an ancestor oracle recently (see next week’s post!) and have all of my ancestors there on the altar, including those from the druid tradition.

As druids, I believe it is very important we think about where we came from. Iolo Morganwg and others of the early druid revival have gotten their names sloshed through the mud in an unfair way. Iolo didn’t plan on having his papers published; it was also quite common in the day to “discover” ancient texts. Why are we making him have the same standards as academic scholarship in the 20th century? There’s this body of sacred wisdom and knowledge that we have been given access to, that has been tremendously helping us through these difficult times. We need to honor those who shaped this tradition.   I think this is very appropriate for ritual, but I also think studying those ancient works and using them, integrating them, is also really important.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought–my goal was to tease apart the idea of “honoring the ancestors” and show how rich and incredible this work can be.  Next week, I’ll share details of how to create an ancestor oracle to further some of this work.  Blessings as we continue into the dark half of the year!

 

 

Finding and Working with Ancestral Traditions March 26, 2017

Grandpa's field

Grandpa’s field

When I was a child, my grandfather took my cousins and I to a wild area we later called “Grandpa’s field.” It was a field on the edge of the forest below our houses, the edges rich with crab apples, hawthorns, beeches, and maples. Grandpa had a rusty red tractor, and we’d go into the forest riding on his lap. When we got to his field, we would park the tractor and look for wild mushrooms, wild ginseng, and other wild edibles.  He would point out plants and animal tracks and teach us about the forest.  After that, we would lay in the field and watch butterflies. When I was only 8 years old, Grandpa died after a hard life in the steel mills. In time, these memories faded and I didn’t remember where Grandpa’s field was. Later in my 20’s, some of my cousins came to visit and we began searching for the field–and we found it, overjoyed to be reuinted with a place so sacred to our Grandfather. Here were the old wooden fence posts that grandpa had brought down with his tractor. Here was the old crab apple tree. Here was everything that we remembered.

 

And yet, memories like this are few and far between. In truth, I have maybe 20 or 30 total “fragments” of my own heritage from beyond my parents’ generation–in small stories and tidbits just like this. As part of my own honoring of the ancestors, I’ve worked to bring back any of these traditions, however fragmentary, and I often weave these into the posts on this blog, such as my recent one last week on ethical sourcing of medicinal plants and American Ginseng. Many of us, I’m sure, have stories like the one I’ve shared above–small bits and fragments of those who came before. And yet, for many of us, these memories are fragmentary, so many traditions lost to history, to the passing away of ancestors, or even to our own memories. As I work to begin to live more like them, I am always struck by the little that I know of them.

 

I think it is easy to see the lack of ancestral knowledge as a deficit: how much we have lost, how much we don’t know, how we wish we could just sit and talk with someone who has passed on. I find myself sometimes falling into this trap sometimes, lamenting what has lost and not knowing the extent of what I’ll never know. But recently, a positive shift has occurred for me in rethinking my relationship with the fragmentary knowledge of ancestral tradition (I think this shift had a lot to do with returning to the land where I was born). So I’d like to spend some time today exploring ancestral traditions and the fragments we have left of them, and talk about how these can be used as “seeds” of rebuilding and reconnection within a nature-spiritual path.

 

Fragments of Traditions

The term “tradition” is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” And so when we think of ancestral traditions, they are those bits of language, behaviors, rituals, and culture that our ancestors have passed to us. The challenge I think that many of us face is that we are working with minor fragments of traditions, tiny bits and pieces that somehow survived and made it into the 21st century, into our hands. I choose the term survive very intentionally: in the last several centuries, with the rise of westernization, industrialization, and globalization, we’ve seen many cultural traditions, languages, and species disappear at an alarming rate. In fact, at present, over half of the 7000 languages in the world are “moribund”, that is, the remaining speakers are a few elders and the language hasn’t been passed on. These moribund languages hold incredible insights into how a particular culture thinks, sees the world, understands the human condition, interacts with nature, and more. And what these languages and cultural traditions have been replaced with is part of the predicament we are contending with in the present age.

 

Here in the US, immigrant families often worked to eliminate their own cultural differences to assimilate; this, combined with the loss of traditional ways and rise of consumerism has left many of these traditions no longer seen as “useful” to pass on. Native blooded peoples, of course, had their culture and language systematically stripped from them for the better part of three centuries. In other places, people may have been forced to relocate, famililes were split, or other kinds of severing occurred–leaving us with few traditions. My own more recent ancestors were part of the cogs of the enormous working class whose blood, sweat, and tears funded industrialization, expansion, and “progress.” My grandfathers were steel mill workers, other family members cut lumber or worked in coal mines in other working class industries here in Western PA–and that’s about the extent of what I know. And by the time someone (like me) is ready to learn them, those that could pass them on have long since returned to the Summerlands.

 

Ancestral Fragments as “Seeds” of Future Traditions

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

For my entire life, I’ve really found only “fragments” of my family’s traditions: these traditions are fragments of what was once a completely different way of life. I have come to see the fragments in two different metaphorical senses: the jar metaphor and the seed metaphor.

 

First, I have the metaphor of the jar, which is the metaphor that reaches back into the past. These fragments are like tiny br0ken pieces of what was once a set of large and beautiful jars, bottles, and vases of various colors and styles (because my heritage doesn’t link back to just one culture, but to many).  Perhaps I find part of a flower or some blue pattern and I wonder what the whole jar used to look like, who held it, the kinds of things that were stored inside.  And so, I pick up the fragments, look at them, and work to piece together what might have been.

 

The second metaphor I use for these fragments is that they are the “seeds” of future traditions.  So if I’m working with a small fragment of ancestral knowledge, that fragment is like a seed of unknown potential. I maybe need to hold onto it for a while but eventually, cultivate some soil and plant it, to see what grows. I need to tend the soil, to work with it, to water it carefully.  Maybe that means doing some research, maybe that means trying something out–but the point here is to “tend” to it and see where it may lead. This seed metaphor is important because I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in the same cultural context that they did, I likely don’t believe what they did, I don’t live like they did, and so, some of their traditions would make no sense in the present age. I need traditions for this age–ways of working through this age, and things to do to respond to the present circumstances and build a future tradition.

 

Family Traditions

Family traditions are often the most salient and meaningful as they weave into our own upbringing and experience and tie directly to ancestors of the blood. And yet, I think there are a few challenges with these traditions. First, our ancestors didn’t always leave much for us to work with. Gather up what you can, as often as you can, and keep it close to you. Write it down–that and stories you remember. Talk to anyone who is still alive about those traditions. I’ve actually found it important to talk with each person more than once, in different settings, as conversations can lead in multiple directions. Ask if anyone has “stuff” that you can look like (old journals, books, etc). This can also help you piece together things.  And sometimes, it can be a puzzle worth solving!

 

Here’s a good example of this kind of work: my same grandfather that I shared about above often visited a spring and drank spring water after a long day at the steel mill. My mother mentioned it a few times in passing as I was growing up, and one day when I was driving to visit my parents, I came across a roadside spring not so far from those very steel mills. I shared the story of that spring last year on this blog. I began drinking the water from that spring and visiting it as did other members of my family. Then, a few months after we had reconnected with the spring, we came across some old reel videos my grandfather had taken of the family when my mother was quite young. As we were watching the black and white videos (with no sound) projected onto the wall, there was the spring, with the whole family drinking from it.  My cousin and I jumped up excitedly because we had confirmation that we had found the “ancestral” spring. This is a seed of something that has become much greater for me–I now visit that spring at least once a month and take water from that spring to other sacred locations.  All of my drinking water comes from the spring and I honor that spring each time that I am there. The ancestral spring has become one of the focal points of my spiritual practice, and I’m cultivating my own relationship with it–all the more meaningful because of the generations who came before me.

 

Sacred Spring

Here’s a second example. A friend recently learned that his grandfather had been known across the county as a person who knew a lot about apple orchards and was an orcharder.  After learning this, he looked with new eyes at the few remnants of his grandfather’s trees that still remained in his grandmother’s yard. He now has plans to gather scion wood from those trees and graft them onto other apples.  If he begins to tend those trees with the grafts, he has–literally–brought part of his grandfather’s work with him and the varieties that his grandfather cultivated. And of course, from there, there is no end to the kinds of activities one can engage in surround this apple tree (like pressing cider or Wassail!)

 

Of course, we have many such family traditions to draw upon: music, food, songs, places that hold significance, clothing, items passed on, land, trees ancestors planted, things they did–all of these hold potential for planting seeds for new traditions that will carry us into the future.

 

Family Religious Traditions

Of course, one of the challenges for those on the druid path is that we’ve likely deviated away from our own recent ancestors’ religious traditions–and those traditions may be the bulk of what family traditions are left to us.  If that’s the case, we need to also think about what traditions would work best for us, and if any traditions can be adapted and honored, but perhaps in the context of our own druidry. This isn’t always easy for you to figure out, but is worth spending some time sorting through, and I’ll give you two such examples:

 

I have a good druid friend who comes from a Catholic tradition but has left that tradition behind her. Most of her ancestral traditions handed down in the family are Catholic in origin, and she’s working through what to do with those.  Of course, some of those rituals have meaning and significance to her, even though she is no longer a Catholic. One of the ways she has worked this into her druidry is to call upon the four archangels as part of her daily Sphere of Protection (the daily protective ritual in the AODA).

 

I have a personal example here to share as well. My family has done pysanky eggs since I was a small child–something I shared on this blog last year. Each year, we would bring out the small packets of dye in their white envelopes, the small tools, the eggs, and the candles and work to design beautiful and magical eggs.  The traditional eggs, of course, use a lot of Christian symbolism.  I’ve kept what I felt was appropriate and also added new druid symbolism into the eggs.  And so, in this case, I’ve kept up with the tradition but have changed a bit of the symbolism and designs that I draw upon.

 

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

I think it is up to each of us to figure out how we want to weave those previous religious traditions with our present work–and you might find that you are able to do so with more comfort and certainty as your own path continues.

 

Cultural Traditions

Another angle you can take is the broader cultural tradition that your family’s ancestors were part of.  These traditions aren’t necessarily directly descended and passed on by blood relatives, but they are often easier to find and learn about than the fragments left to us through family lines.  Cultural traditions are often well documented in books: look for songs, stories/myths, customs, food, dress, holidays, and more. Of course, with these, you’ll want to develop your own take on these cultural traditions–what works for you? What doesn’t?

 

I have two potential resources here for you on broader cultural traditions. The OBOD‘s course does a nice job in introducing people to some of the cultural customs tied to the ancient druids, particularly of Wales, and how those can weave into modern druid practice. The Grand Archdruid of the AODA, Gordon Cooper wrote a brilliant piece on “Wildcrafting Your Own Druidry.”  In this, he offers an example of a wildcrafted druid cosmology where the druid drew upon her own heritage as well as a focus on the land around her.

 

You also might look to more “local” cultural traditions or those that are around your region.  For example, here, in about a three-county area, there is some tradition surrounding magical barn signs (and they are distinctly different than the Eastern PA “hex” signs).  I’m still researching this tradition, but seeing these beautiful cut out barn signs everywhere has really encouraged me to do more research, to take photos, and to weave these symbols into my own artwork and druid practice.

 

Traditions tied to the Land

The final piece that we might draw upon with regards to ancestral traditions are those tied to the land itself–those that allow us to reconnect with the heritage and uses of the land prior to our current culture.   This, often, is tied to wildcrafting, foraging, and the kinds of plants and animals you have.  Bushcraft classes in your local area is one such way you might learn about these traditions, as are, again, old books, old maps, and old timers.

 

One such tradition that I’ve been attending to in recent times is the art of acorn harvesting and acorn eating. Many native tribes in the US ate acorns and used acorns as their staple crops.  Reconnecting with the acorn in this way, making it a part of my fall rituals, and enjoying it as a meal or flour has really opened up possibilities. And so, I’m learning how to crack acorns effectively, how to dry them, how to grind them into meal and preserve them. Acorns as a dietary staple are easy to find and abundant here, and rebuilding this knowledge can help me connect with the land in powerful ways as well as teach others! I’m finding that acorn preparation is a lot of work, but it is fun work, and it is helping me reconnect with an extremely important local food source that has been used by people inhabiting this land for thousands of years.

 

Other ways you might find some of these traditions is looking at place names: the name “spring” or “mill” gives some sense of what your town or road may have once been used for. Historical societies and historical markers also can help you see some of the broader histories in the region–often directly tied to the land and how people sustained themselves upon it.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought on your own ancestral traditions as they tie to your family, your broader cultural heritage(s), and the traditions of the land around you.  Thinking through and planting seeds of new traditions is extremely meaningful work to do, and can be wonderfully rewarding.  In the comments, I’d love to hear from anyone who has made family traditions part of their own druid path.

 

PS: I’m seeing an increasing number of people directly copying and pasting my blog posts into their other blogs (different than reblogging). These blog posts represent my own thinking, meditations, life energy, and sacred work. I ask if you want to share them, please use the “reblog” feature so that you share a small portion of the post and then the post links back to this site (and thank you to those of you using this feature!) I freely share my insights and experiences here, and I ask that you respect that sharing. Thank you and blessings!

 

Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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