Tag Archives: imbolc

Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

The Wheel of the Year is obviously a powerful symbol, both in nature spiritual practices like druidry as well as more general neopagan practices.  It resonates with something that is ancestral and connected–living by the cycles and honoring the seasons. A host of different traditions use some form of a yearly wheel, and when you join many traditions, the wheel of the year is a critical part of the practice. But what do these holidays mean? How do they actually connect to our lives?  How do they connect to our local ecosystems, and how do the wheel holidays help us connect with nature?  I consider these questions and argue for a wildcrafted wheel of the year rooted in your own observation, connection, and daily life in connection with nature.

As a druid for the last 16 years, I feel like this is a question I continue to return to over and over again.  I even wrote a book on sustainable living practices as sacred action using a wheel of the year framework (see Sacred Actions) trying to explore these issues from yet another perspective.  I’ve celebrated these in all sorts of ways–by myself and in various groves and groups, formally and less formally, with other people’s rituals and my own.  And yet, I feel like almost every year, I get another piece of what it means to really live this wheel but also what complications and changes I have to make.

When I first took up the path of druidry when I was still in college, I began celebrating the wheel by looking at rituals in books and enacting them. There was nothing wrong with this approach, but I was essentially bringing in other people’s visions and classical interpretations of the wheel from an ecosystem in which I didn’t live.  It was a good foundation and gave me a connection to a tradition I was still attempting to understand.  However, it wasn’t until I really started delving deeply into wildcrafting my own druidry and developing an eco-regional approach that I really started to understand these practices.

I had an epiphany this week about Imbolc and the real power of this holiday. We had a pretty warm December and then January plunged us into very cold and dark times.  January was exhausting after weeks of sub-zero temperatures where we were trying to keep our animals warm, bringing hot buckets of water out to them several times a day, learning how to live with chickens in a tent in our spare bedroom–the chickens can’t handle the bitter cold we had.  Thus, the handsome Pythagoras, our roo, woke us up crowing up the sun every day!  Each morning, I’d face the bitter cold to tend to the animals, coming in like an icicle to warm by the fire (which I had to stoke and tend before venturing out). We spent our days making sure we had enough wood, and one of us was always up tending the fires throughout the night and wee morning hours.  It was pretty intense. This was deep winter, cold winter, dark winter, where the sun hardly even came out of the sky. And then, on January 31st, the weather broke.  We moved out of the teens and had a 30-degree day (I’m speaking Fahrenheit here!). The chickens got to leave their house tent purgatory, and the ducks and geese had their pools filled with water for the first time in weeks.  As the geese and ducks joyfully swam in their pool, you could see the joy and relief on their faces.  They knew the weather had shifted. And then  February 1st came and with it the flowing of the maple trees. The wheel had just turned from dark winter into late winter, and we celebrated Imbolc and tapped our maple trees.

I tell this story because, if I hadn’t lived on a homestead where we are required to go outside many times a day to tend our animals, the importance of this day would have likely been lost. I remember when I lived in an apartment, dorms, or a townhouse–I didn’t really pay attention much. I would have probably turned up the heat, ran the water a little extra to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then thought nothing of it on the way to the car or into a building.  Because that’s how it is in modern life is–everything is designed to make you a cog in the machine that never changes.  Regardless of what is happening in the ecosystem, you just keep on going.  But that’s not really what creates a deeply connected and wildcrafted wheel of the year.  Crafting our own wheel requires us to pay attention.

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh...with a portal into the unknown

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh…with a portal into the unknown

It was the experience of having to be out there in the cold for weeks on end, seeing the animals enduring the cold and suffering, and then after all of that, experiencing that powerful break in the weather and the first thaw.  As soon as the thaw happened, local wildlife changed activities, our flocks grew much more active and happy, our own spirits lifted as the temperatures rose.  When I think about the historical origins of Imbolc, how it was a holiday originally surrounding the lactating of ewes, I say yes–this must have been such a relief to those farmers and peasants who had just suffered through a difficult January.  Maybe the food stores were running a bit scarce.  Maybe they woke up for the 30th day in a row and froze each morning like I did while taking care of the animals and think…will this ever end?  And then, suddenly, it does. That was the power of Imbolc.  The breaking of the cold and dark times.  The promise that spring will return.  The flow of milk–of nutrients, of life.

I write all of this to illustrate a simple point: these holidays make more sense when we are deeply embedded in our landscape.  When we are deeply connected with nature, when we are out in it every day, when we–through our own life choices or commitments–are required to endure it along with the rest of nature, then we can learn the lessons the wheel really offers us.  Living the wheel of the year–not just celebrating it–teaches us the important lessons of that moment.  When we spend time in nature and commit to being out there, then we are forced to contend with whatever nature throws at us.  When we are understanding the holidays not only in terms of history or lore but based on our actual experience, then the wheel of the year unfolds for us.

And this is critical–in order to make the wheel of the year yours, a wildcrafted wheel that you build yourself, one of the best approaches is to find seasonal markers that make sense for you (I shared a lot more about this approach earlier in this post).  Maybe it’s the flow of the maples or the return of the robin, maybe it’s the hawthorn blossoming.  To me, these moments in our own landscapes are much more important than dates we may have from traditions that are far removed from us.  These kinds of key observational markers also will make sense in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is throwing off traditional seasons.

And here’s the other thing I learned through this process–not everyone has an eightfold wheel of the year.  Your wheel might be threefold, binary (rainy and dry), or even more.  In fact, I worked up a 12-fold wheel of the year for my region that actually works better than the eight (I shared that philosophy on the link above).  The idea being that there are distinct phases of each of the four seasons (and 4×3 = 12).  My 12-fold wheel allows me to understand my ecosystem in much more detail and allows me to see each season as waxing and waning.  What I found in creating these wildcrafted seasonal markers is that I start to anticipate them, look forward to them, and honor them as they occur.  So rather than having arbitrary dates and times that are disconnected, I do what my ancient ancestors did–I observe, make meaning of the observations, and build that into my spiritual practice.  And, I learn to honor and appreciate holidays like Imbolc at a deeper level.

What I’m suggesting takes time and effort.  You don’t have to do it all at once.  I suggest taking some time, a year and a day, maybe even longer, and simply observing what is right outside your door.  Ideally, your seasonal markers for the wheel will be happening in your everyday life–and if you are in an urban setting, they may also be dictated by the patterns of people as well as nature.  E.g. perhaps the early part of summer is when the local public pool opens.  The built and human-based environment is still part of our environment; we are all part of nature.

PS: This is part of my Ancient Order of Druids in America-themed posts.  AODA as a druid order is extremely committed to helping druids “wildcraft” their druidries and create local practices.  I am currently the Grand Archdruid in AODA, and have been a member for the last 16 years.  For more information on AODA, please visit www.aoda.org.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Reskilling at Imbolc

Imbolc–the first signs of spring (artwork by myself and my father, Mark Driscoll)

In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring.  Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles.  In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions.  So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities.  As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world.  Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it.  Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.

If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:

  • Fall Equinox: Receptivity.  Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear.  In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
  • Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age.  By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
  • Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices.  In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.

These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.

One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series.  My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed.  From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal.  That’s ok, do your thing.

Reskilling at Imbolc

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Wild food foraging and food preservation = two fantastic skills to learn! This is an image of autumn olive jelly being canned.

Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.

As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions:  Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you?  How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?

One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost.  The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe.  These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.

Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how.  Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more.  The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.

Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays.  This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.

Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc.  So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction.  That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.

Reskilling

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

Earth oven- building and using are traditional skills worth learning

There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.

Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc.  So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs.  These basics actually encompass quite a few things:

  • Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
  • Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
  • Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
  • Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
  • Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
  • Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
  • Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here.  These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.

This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.

Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in.  When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.

If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above.  Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a  skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills.  Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!

Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.

Sacred Actions and Reskilling

One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices.  In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)

Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work.  It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.

Blessing and Honoring Your Tools

Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and  I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:

  • Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
  • I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use.  When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.

Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work.  You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).

Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft

Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.

For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling.  I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post.  In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings.  In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.

You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft.  You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project).  This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.

A Commitment to the Journey

A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft.  I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside.  After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony.  For this ceremony, I suggest that you:

  • Honor and bless your tools
  • Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
  • Set goals
  • Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits

You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate.  For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this.  I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me.  I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them.  I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them.  I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create.  I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space.  I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.

Conclusion

When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy.  I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were.  We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent.  Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet.  Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.

The big issue that a lot of people have is time.  Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy.  But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations.  Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.

I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?

Building a Rocket Stove Maple Sap Boiler / Evaporator for Maple Sugarin’: Design Plans and Instructions for Boiling Sap

The Maple Sap Boiler!

Maple syrup season is one of my favorite times of year. Honoring the maple trees, collecting the sap in buckets, seeing the magic drip from the trees, and feeling the return of early spring.  Sap begins running just after the deep freeze is over, usually in early February here in the Alleghney Mountains in Western Pennsylvania. A very important factor in collecting sap is having a plan for boiling that sap into maple sugar.  Today’s post will give you full instructions for how to build a very wood efficient outdoor maple sap boil system using bricks, a stovepipe, and four restaurant trays.  I’ve used this system for five years at two different locations and it is one of the best setups I’ve seen.  For more information on maple sugaring, please see the magic of maple trees and maple sap.

There are a few key features about this setup:

  1. You can boil quite a large amount of sap using relatively small amounts of wood because it is using rocket stove technology. We boiled 40 gallons of sap down in 6 hours in March 2021 this system. That included about 45 minutes of getting the fire going and about 5 hours of boiling. We used two small piles of wood, most of which we trimmed as dead wood off of some of our Norway Spruce trees.  Thus, this is an extremely efficient system and can be fueled with downed wood.  The best kind of wood for this system is longer pieces of wood that are the thickness of your wrist or less.  The goal is to keep the flames on the boil system.  Wooden palates also work really well for this.
  2. This system (new) will cost you about $200, and half of that is the cost of the stainless steel pans and the rest is the bricks and stovepipe. However, many of these materials are quite easy to source for free or used, so take advantage of that. In fact, the stovepipe and most of the bricks all were salvaged here on the land, so the only thing we paid for was the boil pans. If you boil 40 gallons of sap a year, the system will pay for itself in under 4 years (around here, local maple syrup runs about $65/gallon). 
  3. This system requires no skills other than some sweat equity to build!
  4. The system doubles as a large party grill, so invite your friends over for the 4th of July for some grilled meats and veggies!  You will just need to source a griddle for it for this use (we use one for free that a friend gave us from her old oven).
  5.  Wood-fired maple syrup tastes much more incredible than maple syrup finished in commercial boilers. When you boil the syrup with wood, the syrup takes on a hint of smokiness that is just incredible. It’s hard to describe the exquisite flavor, but it is truly one of the best things you’ll ever taste!

So with all of that, let’s get started with how to build your own rocket stove maple sap boiling system!

Materials and Supplies

The following are the building materials that you will need to construct your rocket stove boiler.

  • Gravel: Several wheelbarrows full of gravel, depending on how level your original site is
  • Concrete bricks:  24 blocks for the sides and approximately 9 blocks for the back (depending on how you construct your boiler).  They cost about $3 or you can usually easily find them for free or used on Craig’s list (in the US).  We ended up using a mix of bricks foraged from the property that were left by previous owners with some new bricks–you can adjust for slight size differences.
  • Stovepipe: An wood stovepipe with a cap is your second piece of equipment. This is necessary for getting the fire really burning as it allows you to create a rocket stove effect for greatly enhanced efficiency.  Find one used –but make sure it is for wood and not gas.
  • Restaurant Pans: This boil system uses a set of four nested restaurant pans (full size, 6″ deep, stainless steel).  These represent about a $100 investment but can be used for years and years.  We’ve been using the same pans for 5 years now and they show no signs of wearing out.

You will also need some supplies on hand to complete the job:

  • Garden rake or hole to smooth out gravel
  • Shovel to help level and move gravel
  • Wheelbarrow  gravel and bricks
  • Level

Choosing Your Site

Once you have your materials, it is time to choose a site.  I would recommend three considerations:

  • Location: make sure it is at least reasonably near where you are tapping your trees. Large amounts of maple syrup are not exactly easy to move around, and so, you will want your boil system located near your trees if at all possible. 
  • Trees: Second, make sure wherever your stovepipe is located isn’t too close to branches or trees–the heat coming out of this is pretty intense.  You don’t want to damage trees in your sugarbush. 
  • Level: Finally, you will need to have a level surface for building your boiler, so starting with somewhere relatively level is a good idea.  You can always level the area out with soil and/or gravel.

Steps

The end goal is to have a boiler that is 4 standard concrete bricks long, 3 bricks high, and has a fairly sealed in the back that can keep your stovepipe secure. 

Cut-away view of the Maple Sap boiler with a shot of how to place the stovepipe for getting the rocket action!

Level your site and add a gravel foundation. The first thing you will want to do is create a level site using gravel.  We laid down 4″ of gravel across the area where we were building our boiler.  Level out the gravel as best you can, and check to see that it is relatively level before you start adding your bricks.  You can do this by using a larger level or use a smaller level on a piece of 2×4 board.  Adding gravel is important for two reasons–first, it allows the site to have good drainage and it prevents frost heaving (which is obviously an issue anywhere you are harvesting maple sap).

Build your walls, ensuring they are level and that the pans fit between them.  Next, you will build your two walls, building one tier of bricks at a time.  The first tier of bricks is two lines of four bricks across, and 21″ apart (the pans are 20″ 3/4″ wide).  As you work, make sure your bricks are level both short-wise and long-wise so that as you build your structure, you can keep it level.   After you lay your first set of bricks along both walls, double-check that all four of your pans fit and adjust accordingly.

Then, add your second layer and repeat the process, and finally, add your third layer and repeat once more.   At this point, your pans should fit snugly, but they should be able to be lifted out and put in with relative ease (remember when you start boiling, you will have to remove them at the end of the boil!)

Build your back and secure your stovepipe. I‘m going to show photos of how we built our back.  There are a few considerations.  First, you want to seal it up as much as possible so that the airflow goes primarily through the pipe and out any cracks (you can use cob for this or even small pieces of the concrete block).  You could use ashes or vermiculite if you wanted, but we just added smaller pieces of block.  Second, you will want to make sure your stovepipe is extremely stable so once you start boiling, you don’t encounter issues where it falls over, etc.  Second, you want to make sure you place a half brick or large stone under the pipe–as the ash builds up as you are burning all day, you do not want the pipe to clog.  Ours sits about 4″ off of the ground.

We had an interesting chimney-sized brick that was a square with a hole on our property, so we used that as something to better hold our stovepipe.   You can also just hold it in place with a few bricks long-wise.  After all of this building, you are ready to fire it up and boil!

Using your Boiler

I have some tips and tricks for using this boiler, as I’ve been boiling sap on this kind of setup for six years.  Here they are:

The absolute most important thing is to make sure your fire is going well for about 45 minutes before you add your pans.  One of the things that will cause the most grief and slow down your boil is a poor fire with your pans added too early.  If you get your fire started and wait at least 45 minutes, keeping it fed, by the time you add your pans, it should be able to keep going.  This means you need to procure wood and make sure its dry before the day of your boil (cause no wood outside is dry in Feb/March!)

Make sure you have dry wood that burns well. Your goal is high flames and a hot fire–not coals.  The flames should be touching the bottom of your boil pans.  This means you want smaller diameter wood (sticks, branches, wood palettes).  Often, your sugarbush will have enough downed branches that if you collect and keep dry, you will have enough.  If not, pick up some pine palates–they work wonderfully in this boil system and burn very hot. Cutting dead branches off of nearby conifers is also excellent and will yield many flames.  We recently had part of an Eastern Hemlock come down and a year later, that wood is amazing for sugarin’.

Good eats cooked on the edge of the boiler on a cast iron griddle!

You will need to tend your boiler throughout the day.  Plan on feeding it wood every 15 min, keeping an eye on the amount of boil, adding more sap, moving sap, and generally enjoying the day. This is an activity that requires your presence and is certainly “slow food.” Choose a nice day for boiling–you want a sunny day, as warm as it can be.  Usually, here our trees run in late January and through February and we choose to boil on a warm day in early March for boiling.

For your boil, you will want to have some kind of wire skimmer/strainer with a fine mesh, a mug or dipper for moving sap between the different pans, some heat-resistant gloves or mitts, and a vessel for transporting your finished sap (I recommend a pressure canner since it has the locking lid) for moving your hot sap to the house for finishing.  The oven mitts WILL get sooty so those from your kitchen will likely be ruined (which, of course, I learned the hard way).

You want your sap to be actually boiling–if it’s steaming but not boiling, it will take a LOT longer to boil off and your fire needs to be hotter.  Getting that rolling boil is necessary to make progress on your sap. You can get it too hot and then it starts to boil over–just add more cool sap to cool the pan down if necessary. 

The bricks next to the stovepipe will have a little bit of rocket action themselves–so it is a good place to cook yourself some lunch or dinner, especially if you have an iron griddle (see below).

This is about as dark as you want to go outside–bring it in the house to finish at this point.

Sugaring can be a really fun and community-oriented event.  In the many boils I have participated in over a decade, I’ve learned how to carve spoons, weave baskets, make cordage, and a number of other natural crafts that we would enjoy as we sat around the fire and took turns tending it. 

As you are gathering up your sap, make sure to discard any ice in your buckets or storage containers.  The sugars stay in the remaining non-frozen sap, so you can save yourself hours of boil time by removing the ice–this condenses down your sap and there is less to boil off.

The point of an outdoor boil is to boil off 80-90% of the water–and then take it indoors for finishing.  It’s hard to maintain the right levels of heat in this system to get it 100% of the way–you risk scorching or burning it.  So by doing most of it outside and finishing it on your stove (where you have full control) you are able to really be effective.

Sugaring Stage 1

Boiler Pans - the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Boiler Pans – the rightmost are the hottest (boiling) and the leftmost are the warming pans

Get your fire going and wait about 45 min until it is going really strong and well. If you add your pans too early, you will struggle to get the fire going and waste a lot of time.  Once it is going and will stay going when you feed it wood, add your boil pans being careful not to burn yourself.  Then, pour 3″ of sap in each pan. 

The way this system works is that the pans closest to the stovepipe will be hotter than the ones further out.  So your first pan, at the opening of the fire, will be your warming pan, your second pan will be hot and maybe boiling and pans 3 and 4 are your main boiling pans. You can see this from my image.

Feed your fire regularly, trying to make sure the flames are enough to keep at least your first two pans boiling steadily.  As the pans start to boil down, you will add the liquid from the 2nd pan into the 3rd and 4th as they boil.  Then add sap from the warming pan (1st pan) to the 2nd pan, and add more cold sap into the warming pan.  Use your mug for this.

This method works best because if you are adding cold sap directly, you are slowing down your boil–and the more you slow down your boil, the less efficient you are.  By adding sap from the second pan that is near boiling, you will not slow down your boil.  By having a warming pan, you keep the sap heating up and ready to move. As you boil, your final two pans will get darker and darker as the sugars are concentrated in the syrup.

As you are boiling, there will be bits of stuff in your sap–strain it as you add it, but the smoke and ash will continue to come into it a little bit (this is GOOD as it gives amazing flavor).  As the foam appears, skim it off and discard it.

Toward the end of the boil, you will either boil through your sap or get tired and want to call it a day.  At this point, your strategy switches.  You don’t want to boil it too far down or you can risk it turning to sugar–and the outdoor boil system isn’t very precise.  One of the things to look for when you are getting ready to be done is that the bubbles in the boil get thicker and the color turns much darker.  So, as you see your pans boil down and you are out of sap, you can start removing them.  First, pour off any remaining sap into your 2nd pan from your first and remove it.  Then, do the same with the second.  Allow these to boil down another 15-20 min and then, rake out your coals. 

Getting down to the final two boil pans!

At this point, you will want a good vessel that can carry your sap back to the house.  The absolute best tool for this job is a pressure canner with a lid that locks.  This will prevent you from burning yourself and you can finish it right in the pressure canner.

The easiest way to remove your sap is to label it out with your mug into your pressure canner until the boiling pan is almost empty.  Then, with a friend, each of you can take one side and pour off the rest. The pans are hot so be careful. They are also covered with soot, and you might be too after handling them.

At this point, put the lid on your pressure canner and take it back to the house.  You still have to boil it down a bit more on the stove.

Indoor Finishing

Finishing your sap indoors usually takes another hour or two, depending on how far down you were able to get your sap.  Bring your sap to a boil again, and with a spoon, check it every 15 minutes.  You should try to keep an overhead fan running–if you boil too much sap down in your house your house can actually get sticky (this is why we do outdoor boils).  After another hour or two (or 5, if you still have to go quite a ways), you will boil it down to the point where you have a thick and lovely maple syrup.  What I usually do is bring out a little syrup I have from the year before and compare it to what is in my pot–and when I get to the same consistency, I am done. 

The spoon test: the one on the left is from last year and the one on the right is from this year. The one on the right still needs to boil down a bit more

Get yourself a few clean mason jars, and pour your sap into your mason jars.  Wait 24 hours.  You’ll have some stuff in the bottom of the jars from the ash and smoke from the boil.  Pour these off carefully, making sure not to get any of the stuff from the bottom of the jar.  Usually, if I’m pouring off 3-4 jars, I will pour all of the sludge into one jar and let that sit a second time, and pour it off a second time.  That’s the syrup that I will use first.  The idea is to get as much of that out–because that will impact the shelf stability of your syrup. You can also experiment with finely woven linen or cheesecloth to get all the bits out. 

There you have it!  This is literally one of my favorite activities to do all year–it is meaningful, sacred, and fulfilling. I wish you the brightest blessings of the maple tree and joy in your endeavors.

 

Imbolc Symbolism for the North Eastern US: Reflections on the Landscape

Imbolc was traditionally a Gaelic holiday celebrated in the holiday celebrating the first signs of spring. When I first started down the path of Druidry, I never felt very connected to Imbolc as a holiday because there seemed to be this huge disconnection between the holiday’s traditional roots and what I was seeing on my own landscape. Part of this is that the weather in the UK is much milder than where I’ve lived and I’m more likely to see at the Spring Equinox–or later–what might be first signs of spring at Imbolc. I thought it was funny when I’d see rituals where I should decorate my altar with snowdrops when they were still another 1-2 months away from coming forth!

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Reflections on Imbolc

My own issue with Imbolc speaks to what I see as one of the major challenges we have in Druidry, here in North America and globally:  It’s actually pretty hard to take the traditions of ancestors that were rooted in one place (the British Isles) and port it to another place (like North America). Once they are removed from their context, they lose a lot of rich meaning.  But it’s not just a contextual problem, but also a lifestyle one: the ancestors of the druid tradition also lived a non-industrial agrarian life, so different from modern life. Some of the traditional activities don’t make sense to you if you are living, say, an urban lifestyle (like the lactating of ewes!)  Further, as an animist, I don’t get into the deity specific focuses of the holiday, creating yet another kind of disconnection. So there are multiple points of disconnection: disconnection with the way of life of the people who originated the holiday, a disconnection with what is happening on my own landscape, and also, perhaps a cultural disconnection.

 

What I thought I’d do in this piece is share with you some of my own Imbolc symbolism, adapted for someone living in the Allegheny Mountains of Western PA, and talk about the stories behind the symbols and how I got there. I hope this will offer an example of how to adapt a holiday associated with the druid tradition (but maybe one you don’t immediately resonate with) to your local landscape. This allows you to practice a wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry that is more rooted in local landscape and place  I do think it’s important to recognize the difference between activities, observances, and rituals–celebrating a holiday to me isn’t just about doing a particular ritual, but rather, engaging in a number of activities and observances that mark that time of year. Thus, I’m not really talking much about rituals here, but more, my adapted Imbolc themes. And like those original peoples who developed holidays, these choices are very rooted in my own local landscape, regional culture, and my lifestyle.  I hope that you can use them as a guide for developing your own.

 

Weather, Groundhogs, and Prognostication.

This first symbol is rooted in the rodent weather prognostication that happens throughout the US.  Throughout the US in several different states that have German roots, American Groundhogs look to see their shadows and foretell the coming of spring. I happen to live about 45 minutes south of the most famous Groundhog of them all, Punxatawney Phil. Today marks Phil’s 134 years of weather predictions. Yet, this tradition is much older.  The tradition is rooted in Germany, where they used a European Badger to predict the weather this time of year. When the PA Germans moved here to Pennsylvania, they found that the Groundhog (or Woodchuck) was the more appropriate prognosticator, and the tradition has continued on. All throughout PA and now in many other states, the Groundhog is honored this time of year for his service in helping predict the end of winter. There’s a lot of fun that you can have in honoring the groundhog and doing some prediction of your own this time of year. If we broaden this tradition for personal celebration, you might think about Imbolc as being a good time to do some divination for things to come.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: One strategy for adapting your Druidry locally is to look at more local or regional customs that might align with your holiday. Look for annual traditions, large festivals, or other traditions that might take place at or near your holiday. In my case, adding Groundhog Day and prognostication/divination to my wheel of the year was an easy choice, both because of where I live but also because of my own cultural heritage as having many PA Dutch ancestors.

 

Tapping the Maple Trees

 

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees

The second symbol that has become a cornerstone of my own Imbolc traditions is tapping the maple trees. The sap in the trees will run when the temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. For where I live, this almost always occurs in the two weeks around Imbolc. In fact, I consider Imbolc officially “here” the first day when the sap is running and I do my best to tap the trees on that day if possible (which doesn’t always happen, but usually I can get within a day or two!) A big part of my Imbolc celebrations includes tapping the trees, singing to them, making offerings to the trees and doing ritual work, and drinking their fresh sap as a blessing and cleansing. Usually, between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox, we get together with some other friends and do a day of boiling the sap–a way to share in community and the activity of the season.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Symbol: A lot of the druid wheel of the year holidays focus on changes in the landscape. Start by observing the time of year and look to see what is happening around you.  What is happening with wildlife? Precipitation and weather? Plants and trees? Through these observations, you’ll see that things can be both very quick (e.g. the changes that happen on the landscape after a hard frost) or quite subtle. It took me a number of years–and access to other people who knew about maple sugaring–to select this symbol and practice. Now, it is absolutely central to my activities this year and is certainly part of our regional culture here.

 

Snow Spirals and Ice Observations

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Snow spiral in sacred grove

The weather this time of year is very dynamic, perhaps more so than most other times a year, at least in this ecoregion. We have periods of snow, periods of ice, and periods where the temperatures thaw. I like to do a lot of work with snow and ice this time of year, tied to what is happening in the landscape. I pay attention to the snow and ice, I make snow spirals to bless and protect the land.  I also like to spend extra time at our stream and pond observing the melting and freezing of the waters.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: For each of the eight holidays, I like to spend time in observation of the landscape. I usually change the focus of my observations based on the holiday–for this holiday, the waters are the most dynamic and hence, where I spend some of my focus.

 

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow)

The newest addition to my own Imbolc celebrations is the creation of the Butzemann.  My

Butzemann from 2019

grandmother used to keep a scarecrow in her garden, and I always thought it had a life of its own–in fact, traditionally, many scarecrows did! The Butzemann is another tradition that comes from PA Dutch culture and is, essentially, a magical protective scarecrow.  You build the Butzemann at Imbolc, out of things that will burn, preferably, materials from last year’s garden and from the land around you.  At the spring equinox, you walk the Butzemann around the property and invite a good, protective spirit into the Butzemann. You give the Butzemann a name (there are some fairly complex traditions around naming, but essentially each year, you add a new name to your Butzemann, but keep all the older names as additional names.  Eventually, the name gets quite long indeed, demonstrating the Butzemann’s legacy over the years). You hang the Butzemann somewhere prominent for the remainder of the year, where it can protect your crops, flocks, and home for the growing season. I also like to make offerings to my Butzeman at each of the major holidays where he is active (Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lughnasadh, and the Fall Equinox). At the end of the growing season, by no later than Samhain, you burn the Butzemann so his spirit can go on the wild hunt.  If you don’t burn the Butzemann, the good spirit will leave anyways and your Butzemann could become possessed with a bad spirit.  At the end of the season, you may also save some special materials to construct your Butzemann the following Imbolc.

 

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: I was so excited to learn about this practice from the folks who are developing Urglawee (PA Dutch Heathenry). I was looking for a practice that helped tie the growing season together and that would protect our flocks and land.  Wassail traditions are part of the blessing and protection fo the land but are very orchard and tree focused. This tradition offers another layer and is a wonderful way to tie the seasons together and offered me another great bioregional and cultural practice.

 

Sowing the First Seeds of the Season

Catnip seedlings!

Catnip seedlings!

On the full moon nearest to Imbolc, we start our first seeds of the year for our garden (other than garlic, which you plant the previous fall).  I think this is an important part of our traditions surrounding Imbolc because it lets us focus not on the remainder of winter (all six weeks of it, according to Punxataweney Phil) but rather, this pulls us into the light half of the year.  Tending the seeds, watching them grow, and planning for the future is a powerful reminder that spring will come again.

Strategy for Selecting this Practice: This one is fairly pragmatic.  We have big gardens on our five-acre homestead and Imbolc is usually about 12 weeks out from our first frost–the first opportunity to start seeds for the year. This is when we start slow-growing herbs like Lavender and Sage, our allium crops (onions, shallots, leeks, and chives), and our greenhouse starts. It’s more meaningful to do this work tied to a druid holiday.

 

Concluding Thoughts

As you can hopefully see from this list, I’ve rooted my own Imbolc practices and activities in a way that is tied both to my specific life (as a homesteader growing my own food in a rural environment) but also to my specific landscape and local/regional culture. While it took me a number of years, the effort and intention I put into making Imbolc “mine” has really enriched my experience of this holiday and, honestly, took it from being my least favorite to one of my favorites.  I hope these symbols and activities are useful and inspirational to you on this most sacred day.

Druid Tree Workings: Nywfre, Telluric Energy, and Sap Flows

Last week, I wrote about the many flows of the month of February: the flowing of the springs from the hillside, the flowing of the river, the flowing of deep emotions, and the flowing of the sap from the trees. Today, I wanted to delve more deeply into the nature of the flow of the trees, as part of my “Druid tree workings” series, a series that focuses on deep magical and spiritual work you can do directly with trees in your ecosystem. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth, establishing deep tree workings and working with trees in urban settings. The whole goal of this series is to develop deep spiritual and magical connections with trees in a variety of ways.  To me, connecting to trees is a year-long process, but the nature of that work changes as the seasons flow.  Today’s post explores a timely topic for anyone here in the temperate parts of North America: the flowing of maples and the magic of that flow.

 

Maple leaves early in the spring

Maple leaves after budding out in spring

Sap and Flow

In the late winter, sometime in  and into March (and April in some years depending on the weather), the sap begins to flow in many trees.  Most trees have some kind of sap, but the sap we are talking about today is that which flows from maples and her close cousins (walnut, birch, sycamore, hickory).  Sap is literally the lifeblood of the tree. All plants, including trees, have two kinds of tissues that transport nutrients: the xylem (which is a kind of vascular tissue in the inner bark of a tree that provides upward movement) and phloem (a second vascular tissue that transports nutrients from leaves to the rest of the tree). This exchange system allows the tree to move, store, and release nutrients in different parts of the year. The xylem and phloem system is conceptually similar to the human body, which uses the blood vessels (veins and arteries) to transport oxygen and nutrients.

 

In the early spring, the tree begins to prepare for the coming season and starts converting starches into sugars.  These starches were stored by the tree  the previous summer and fall in the root system, and remain quietly present in the roots all winter long.  In preparation for budding, the sweet sap moves up from the roots by way of the xylem and into the trunk and branches of the tree. The science of how the sap flows is actually under debate, but regardless of scientific debate, there is no denying the incredible magic as the sap begins to flow. Due to the particular nature of Maple and similar trees a strong flowing of sap occurs in late Feb and early March when the temperatures are below freezing during the night and above freezing during the day. This sap ceases flowing when the trees bud in the spring–the sap having completed its work to spark the new life of the coming season.

 

Tree Sap, Nywfre, and the Telluric Current

Running sap!

Running sap!

While the science and health benefits are certainly of interest, just as important to focus of today are the esoteric qualities and magic of this process. To this, we can turn to two concepts from the Druid Revival tradition, both of which I’ve written about on this blog in various ways before.  The first is the concept of Nywfre (noo -IV-rah), which is considered in the druid tradition as the energy of the life force.  That is, it is the spark of life, the vitality that creates life, the energy that flows so life can happen. Other traditions have other names for this such as qi, chi, prana, ankh, and so on. In fact, Western civilization is one of likely very few who doesn’t have an actual term for this power (although the popular term “force” from Star Wars is perhaps most fitting).

 

The second concept that is of relevance to the magic of the flowing of the maples is the framework of the three currents through which energy flows through the land within and without: the telluric, solar, and lunar currents.  The telluric current is tied  to earth energies, and, as my earlier post describes, is the current of energy of the deep earth.  The telluric energy wells up from the core of the earth and outward into every living being–through roots and plants, through sacred wells and springs, through hot pools, and so forth.

 

It is not hard to put the esoteric philosophy together with the physical reality of the sap flowing in the spring.  The early spring sap is–literally–full of the vitalizing life force of nywfre, rising up from the deep earth via the telluric pathways.  This sap is what allows the buds in the spring to grow, what sparks them to life.  This sap is vitalizing, refreshing, healing, and incredibly rich in telluric energy from the living earth.

 

And likewise, unsurprisingly, drinking the sap as a beverage, or, using fire and ice to transform the sap into a syrup, can allow one to deeply commune with the maple tree and offer revitalization and strength. This sweet sap of a sugar maple has about 2% sugar content but also a host of vital nutrients and minerals including 46 nutrients, minerals, amino acids, and phytonutrients–all of considerable benefit to human health.  While few of us have drank the sap straight from the tree unless you have tapped trees (or have friends who have tapped trees), many of us have probably enjoyed the maple syrup that comes from the process of boiling down fresh sap into shelf-stable syrup that can last for many years.  In my opinion, there are few things more vitalizing or refreshing as drinking this magical sap straight from the tree, and fewer powerful ways to commune with the trees in this regard.

Relationship and Magic

Humans have been tapping maple trees for millenia; a small tap in a healthy tree will quickly heal over and cause no long-term damage to the trees.  In places in New England, people have been tapping the same “sugarbush” of trees for over a century and a half.  Still, in order to really tap the flow of sap–literally and figuratively–I think its important to recognize that you and the trees are always in a relationship.  Walking up to your nearest maple with a 5/8″ drill bit, drilling in a hole, plugging the hole with a spile, and taking the sap without asking is, in my opinion, an exploitative practice. I believe if we are to work the magic of this sacred time of year as a druid tree working, we need to be in reverence and connection with the trees. And that begins with gratitude and respect.

 

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

My own Imbolc tradition, tied to my own ecoregional wheel of the year, is deeply tied to the flowing of maples and the honoring of these trees. Typically, I work to determine the first potential day that the sap may be flowing. For me, this most often gets folded into my personal Imbolc celebration as the weather is starting to warm right around that time period.  As Imbolc was traditionally a time of lactating ewes, to me, Imbolc happens when the maple begins to run. A good warm day, with sun, where the temperature is at least above 40 for the first time, is when I will go out.

 

As it was my first year tapping trees on this land, and as this land has been damaged, I took considerable care in approaching the topic with the Maples who were on the land. Thankfully, six of them allowed me to tap them, and I honored each of them with a home-grown tobacco offering, panflute music, and my own energy in return for them accepting a tap.  In addition to my own work, a group of friends also did a wassailing for the largest of the maple trees at the late January supermoon just as the trees were beginning to run.  After we wassailed the tree, each of us drank of the sap (which I had warmed and brought out in a thermos due to the cold) and then went on silent walking meditation on the land till retreating to the warm house to enjoy a potluck meal.

 

Every year since I began learning about tapping trees (so about 8 years ago now), I have worked to keep this tradition alive. Even when I lived in a rental house, I managed to keep this tradition going by tapping three trees in my yard and boiling off the sap on an electric burner on my porch.  I’ve also tapped a single tree in a friend’s yard so I could still enjoy some of the sap. I wrote about the process a few years ago, when I was still living in Michigan, and my friends and I setup a regular yearly sugarbush.

 

Tree Alchemy

Even if all that you do is drink some sap straight from the tree, you will gain much in the way of benefit–an energy exchange with the tree and a revitalizing opportunity to deeply commune.  However, if you decide to boil the sap down, you can also experience the transformative power of alchemy.  Of course, the Sugar Maple (who also has the name of “Fire maple” in the Appalachian Mountains) would know much about alchemical processes.

 

The process of transforming sap into sugar is two-fold. When the sap is dripping from the tree, and then is sitting in a bucket or storage bin overnight, it often becomes partially frozen due to the rise and fall of temperatures. The Native Americans found that if you removed the ice, it concentrated the sugars and minerals in the remaining liquid. Allowing the sap to freeze down by half reduces the boiling time as there is less water to remove.  So, it is a wise idea to pull out all the ice from the buckets.  The winter itself, the freezing, allows this process to take place.

 

The second part of the process, which I detailed on this blog some years before (and linked above), is boiling the sap down using heat and flame.  This, too, is alchemical in nature–through the application of fire, we transform the maple from almost pure water to one of the greatest delicacies known to humanity.  The use of an actual wood fire, which is done only by hobbyists (and never the bigger industries) creates a maple syrup with a delightful hint of smoke that is truly one of my favorite things to enjoy.  If you have purchased maple syrup commercially, you would likely not have tasted this wood-fired syrup.

 

Boiling Sap

Boiling Sap

Last weekend, some permaculture friends and I did our first big boil this year.  We researched and built a simple boiling unit using concrete bricks and used restaurant pans as our boiling pans.  We started with 25 or so gallons of maple sap and 5 gallons of walnut sap. We boiled the sap all day, even as the snow started to come down.  We boiled the walnut down separately–it still tasted (surprisingly) similar to maple but with a hint of deep walnut flavor at the end–so delicious!

 

As I wrote this post, I am sitting here near my stove, drinking fresh sap from the trees and keeping an eye on my  finish off the result of our sugaring from the day before. The rich scent of wood-fired maple syrup permeates the air.  I think about how much vital energy–nywfre–is now concentrated in a single drop of this incredible syrup.  When I am feeling depleted or run down, even the smallest spoonful of this will offer a tremendous benefit.  If you have a chance to tap even one maple tree, and the tree gives you permission, I would suggest trying to do so and enjoying the rich rewards that the flowing of the sap offers.

 

Energy Exchange

Even if you cannot tap a tree, spending time with a maple on a warm day when the sap is flowing will transfer some of this nywfre and telluric energy to you.  You can stand with your body against the tree (like you are giving her a hug) where the sun hits the tree (and the sap flows most strongly).  Spend time here, and feel the flow of the nywfre up the tree.  Sense that same nywfre flowing up from your own feet and through you, revitalizing you.  Doing this often, on each warm late winter day, will provide tremendous benefit.

 

American Tree Magic

As an American druid, I am always looking for ways that we might adapt our druidry to the ecology present on our landscape and tie to the magic inherent in our specific lands. Sugar maple is, of course, native to North America and grows in a fairly limited geographical region spanning parts of the Eastern   USA and Eastern and southern parts of Canada. To me, the maple is one of the most magical trees in our landscape: she is abundant and easy to find, she is honored by many (including many who are not druids) and she is so giving of what gifts she has to offer.  Her lifeblood can sustain us through difficult times, and likewise, we can tend her and keep her forests in good health.  She is a tree tied to the early spring and seems to be in her greatest power as the snow and ice yet permeate the land (tied to the “ice” part of the alchemical process of reducing sap) and to the mid-fall (tied to her “fire maple” nature). And where maple doesn’t grow, you may find one of the other healing sap producing trees: sycamore (a type of maple), another variety of maple, birch, hickory, or walnut.  All produce a delightful sap that you can drink fresh or boil down into syrup.  And certainly, most would be willing for you to sit and enjoy them on a warm day!

Diary of a Land Healer: February

A tranquil February morning

A tranquil February morning

February is here, and it is is all about flow. With the accellerating pace of climate change, February becoming is the new March–the most dynamic, engaging, extreme of the months of the year. February is a month of transition. Its a month where the ebb and flow of water, snow, rain and ice are ever present and ever changing. It is a month where the weather apologizes to no one: it is simply raw, powerful, unchecked. Just this past week here in Western Pennsylvania, we had a 60 degree day where the maple sap was flowing, then we had two days of solid rain that caused major floods in the region, and then yesterday it was a very cold day with 3” of snow overnight with a low of 15 degrees. In fact, late winter often has this kind of dynamism rarely found in other times of year. Each day in late winter is a radically different: a different mood, a different temperature, different visuals, different water levels, a complete different experience. The message is simple: adaptability, change, growth, and flow are required of us now. And with this message comes the challenge of managing our own adaptability, emotions, and the change that swirls around us.

 

This post is part of my “Diary of a land healer” series; once-a-month documentation of the healing process of the land here, where I live, for 2018. I offer photos, thoughts, and lessons from this landscape as it heals and regenerates as well as insights I have  as I watch this process unfold. You can read my first entry in this series from January here, and a large number of earlier posts on land healing here.

 

Flowing of the Land

These freezing and thawing cycles have encouraged many different kinds of flows upon the land. One such pattern of flow is from the trees themselves.  Everyone knows of the famous sugar maple with her flowing sap that can be transformed into delicious syrup. However, Maple trees aren’t the only trees to have sap running in their inner cambium this time of year–most trees have flowing of sap, but only certain trees have a high enough sugar content to make tapping them for producing syrup worthwhile. We think this time of year, everything is still under the snow, but a single warm day enocurages the rise of sap up from the roots and into the branches.  These trees well up with pure telluric energy–the sap comes up from the roots, deep within the earth, and into the branches and trunk. The water that flows from many trees–Sycamore, Maple, Birch, Hickory, Walnut, Butternut–is delicious to drink and offers a vitalizing quality that I have only found in fresh spring water right from the mountainside.

 

Flowing of the sap...

Flowing of the sap…

At Imbolc, I made offerings, spoke with the trees, and tapped six of them who gave me permission.  Since that time, each day the weather is warm enough and the sap is running, I have visited the maples and have drank right from the tree, bringing in the vitalizing nywfre (a druid’s term for life force/vitalizing energy) into my body as a  rejuvenating practice. It is incredible–fresh, cold, pure, and putting a spring in my step that is hard to otherwise describe.

 

This same powerful life force, this Nwyfre, will eventually will spark the new beginnings of all of the life upon this landscape.  Nywfre is the spark of life, the magic present in the land that allows healing to take place–the trees just start that process when the rest of the plants and roots are still waiting for the sun to return.

 

Of course, the excess sap will be put to good use as my friends and I boil it down to make syrup, a fine activity on a warm February day!

 

Flowing of the Stream

Penn Run in stillness

Penn Run in stillness

Flow is happening in so many other ways on this beautiful landscape. Given the dynamic nature of the flows of Feburary, I have been paying attention to the stream, Penn Run, which flows behind my house at the bottom of my property. The ebb and flow of the waters come anew with each new day. Its amazing how a single day of rain, ice, or snow transforms the whole landscape and the whole edge of the creek. Just two days before, as is my regular custom, I put on my muck boots and waded across the tranquil stream, enjoying the peace that it offered. But as the flood waters raged and the stream was several feet above its normal height, I stood respectfully from the shore and honored the power of flowing water on this brisk February day.

 

The floods this week were potent and powerful. If we had this precipitation even 10 or 20 years ago, we would have had 2 or more feet of snow, but because it has been so much warmer in February in the last few years, the snow has become rain, sleet, and ice. This is a change I am sad to have to adapt to, for it warns me of further changes to come.

 

Earlier this week,  the nearby town of Indiana, PA, where a number of my local friends live, so many have been sharing photos and stories of flooded basements and posting messages alterting people to the height and flood status of Mill Run, the stream frequently floods and that runs through heart of the town. I am thankful right now that my house is at the top of a hill and the Penn Run creek is at the bottom. This is an important lesson: planting ourselves carefully in relationship to nature. If we haven’t done that—these floods bring terror and sleeplessness.

 

In our quest as humans to do whatever we want, to dominate nature, to tame her, we forget that in the end, when nature wants something, she takes it. As I stood earlier this week looking at the swollen and flooded stream,  and heard stories of flooded and frozen basements, I’m glad to know that I’ve chosen to live somewhere where the path of an angry stream does not impact whether or not I have a home the next day.

 

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Flooded Penn Run, two days later!

Its amazing how much of our lives and lands depend on cycles of things that are somewhat unpredictable. Like this weather.  We know that floods will come, but we don’t know when.  In less than 12 hours, the stream went from a children’s wading pool to the point where a whitewater kayaker would have a very good time. We think about the time between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox as a time of renewal and healing. Yet healing is characterized by this stream, the turbulence and raw force of it.

 

The Flowing of Emotion

The powerful transition of the stream from tranquil to flooded resonates deeply with me on an emotional level, and asks me to recognize the power of currents of deep emotion. We often go through our lives like that tranquil stream, peaceful, quite, serene, going to work and coming home, being in the regular rhythm of our lives. And suddenly, out of nowhere, something intense happens: a terrible loss, a tragedy, or an unexpected event that rattles us to the core. And that one thing sets us off on on this raging journey of turbulent emotion.

 

 

Part of that time of healing and renewal is not denying what is inside, but embracing it and saying “I’m going to deal with this right now. I am going to let these emotions flow. I am going to let all of this wash away.”  Water breaks away all that is false, all that is damaged, all that says to us “I can’t…”  A good friend of mine, on the same day this creek was flooding, talked to me about a relationship that she cared deeply about and that was sadly ending. She spoke to me of all of these emotions that were inside of her and shew as afraid to experience. I told her she needed to be like this river, to let it flood, and let it flow.  She did so, and the healing, the release, was powerful.

 

Flowing spring upon the land...

Flowing spring upon the land…

Yet, in the same way that physical floods can bring terror to those who have planted themselves on flood plains, so too, can these deep emotions bring terror. It is scary to watch the rage of incredible emotions flowing through you–or another–like this frothing creek. It’ss particularly terrifying to experience these kinds of emotions if you don’t know how to navigate such a strong current. The current threatens to take you down, pull you under.  And sometimes it can. But, if you have learned how to kayak and you have a worthy vessel or some other way of navigating it, it can be a tremendously beneficial experience for your life.

 

Because when the stream returns to normal, the banks are different. Everything is clear. Debris and detrius is gone, washed away, or buried under sand and silt to become fertile ground.  These floods are exactly nature’s process for renewing the landscape and bringing in fertility. Just as the physical stream has to flood, we too have to be in that flooded, turbulent space for a time if we are going to be renewed. And if we can do this, can gain the benefits of the rich soil, the healing, and the joy that comes in those later summer months as the flood waters recede and land is born anew.

 

But what I worry about, both for the land and humans, is when we dam them up. We know what dams do to ecosystem. And similarly, we know what daming up emotions do to our souls.

 

 

Renewal, in nature’s way, is not a clean process. It is not an easy process. It’s a process of thawing and releasing, of ice and slosh, its rain and ice and snow.  It is a process of unexpected floods rebuilding nutrients along the shore. It’ss hard work. And the land here, in this beautiful February time, reminds us of this powerful lesson.

 

Flowing Anticipation

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

A common scene this February near the spring! It is almost time!

All across this land, I can see the buds on the trees singing, saying “we are almost ready.”

I can see the maples flowing and drink the sap water every day to rejuvenate myself.  The maples wave their branches, getting redy to bud, and say “it is nearly time.”

I can see the land starting to green again, even the ferns left on the forest floor start to wake up and say “it is almost here.”

 

Before we can look to the promise of spring, we have to deal with late winter’s flows of intensity upon the land. These floods are the floods of renewal. We can’t stop them. We just simply have to learn to adapt and do the hard work of renewal.

A Guide to Winter Hiking: Walking in the Winter Wonderland

Recently, I went on a winter hike with some friends.  It was below freezing, with ice-covered trails and the sun shining low in the sky. We came to a crossroads and all felt led to go to the left; eventually, we left the trail and worked our way down a steepish hill and to a beautiful cascading river. The river was incredible–the water had a greenish cast to it and it had so many layers of ice built up. We observed it a while, and then, I felt led deeper and closer, and following some mushrooms, went down very close. The closer I got, the more magical the river was–with ice castles, ice cascades, and a depth of color and energy not experienced in the summer months. A return visit in the winter would reveal a completely different river due to the ever-changing ice and snow conditions.  Each winter visit, the, allows for a brand new experience as the winter snows come and go. This, dear readers, is the hidden beauty of winter, the dynamic quality and ever-changing nature of this dark time of year. It offers a beauty well worth seeking out.

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

Cucumber falls, Ohiopyle State Park

I think that most people’s reasonable reaction to the cold and snow is to hole up for wintertime, waiting till the sun and warmth returns before going outside for hiking and such. However, winter has always been my favorite of the seasons for its dynamic and magical nature, and with careful preparation, can be enjoyed like any other season. Taking a hike in the woods during the winter months, especially visiting local waterfalls and streams, offers an array of beauty, stillness, and intensity simply not often found during the summer months. Winter offers us plenty to see, plenty to do, and certainly, plenty to learn–and here, on Imbolc in early February, we are in deepest part of the winter months.  In fact, I can’t enough of winter hiking and find myself out as often as possible!

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

An incredible cascade of ice at Cucumber Falls, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

This post explores some simple ideas for taking a walk during the winter months and getting the most out of the experience; I’ll explore clothing, footwear, and gear; timing and safety; winter botany and foraging; tracking; fun things to do; and more. So join me on a walk into the winter wonderland!

 

Preparing for Winter Hiking

One of the things that people don’t always understand today is how to properly outfit themselves for a winter hike. Proper clothing and footwear ensure that you have a great time rather than a cold or dangerous one. You can do this with minimal special equipment and investment.

 

Clothing: Clothing is important–you will be out for an hour or more, and it is not the same as a quick walk from the house to the mailbox or out to shovel snow. I advocate for natural fibers (particularly wool) and layers of clothing on the body. Two pairs of thick wool socks, good boots (hiking or snow boots, depending on the depth of the snow), gloves (for extreme cold, I will put a thin pair of gloves inside my warm woolen mittens), a wool hat, wool scarf, and good outer jacket are necessary. For pants, insulated pants, snowpants, or several layers, including preferably a wool layer, are good. The idea is that you can strip off layers of clothing as you heat up–and walking helps keep you warm.

 

Footwear. Footwear is critically important, even for short hikes. You can go far with a  good insulated boot with good traction or a hiking boot with gaters (gaters are a kind of leg warmer that insulates the lower leg and keeps snow out of the boot).  I actually hike most often in the same boots I do in the summer, just with an extra pair of socks.

 

Winter Traction.  Winter conditions, especially in this time of warming winter weather, often create ice. I used to have to wait till there was good snow or things had melted, which really limited my ability to get out and about, even with good hiking boots. Then, I recently discovered the incredible world of winter traction devices, and it has really opened up my access to the hilly and more icy trails in Pennsylvania! The right treads make even the more treacherous of trails really passable and enjoyable, and open up a lot of opportunities for winter hiking, so I’d strongly suggest investing in some or making some if you can. With the treads, I can walk (or run) on even the most extremely icy of conditions with stability. A lot of folks add some ski poles or a walking stick for added stability.

Winter traction - Yes!

Winter traction – Yes!

Snowshoes. I haven’t had the opportunity to snowshoe (due, primarily, due to decreasing snowfalls and very small amounts of snow in the winter months), but this is certainly another possibility for you. Since I don’t have a lot of direct experience, I’ll direct you to sources who do.

 

Water and snacks. Winter hiking still can work up a good sweat and appetite; just as in the summer months, it is a good idea to bring a water bottle and snacks if you’ll be out for a bit.

 

Miscellaneous supplies. A small first-aid kit, a compass and map, fire-starting equipment, a foraging knife–these are things that are good ideas for any hike, and winter hikes are no exception. I often also bring a backpack for gear as well as to shed any layers I might want to be rid of if I get overheated.

 

A Friend. Winter hiking can offer challenges that summer hiking does not–even with the best traction shoes, falling into a river, for example, can mean serious harm to your person. It is for this reason that I strongly advocate always having a hiking buddy with you.

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

One of my dearest friends with me out on a winter hike!

Timing and Weather

The timing in winter matters. Each moment of winter, each day you go out, offers a different experience. I would suggest getting out as often as you can. If you are driving somewhere to do a hike, you want to make sure you are able to make it there and back safely.

 

Staying Close or Going Far: It is for this reason that I like to plan hikes in state forests and the like on sunny days or days it won’t be precipitating and plan hikes completely on foot on snowy days or days with winter storms. Interestingly, with the right gear, I have found it much easier and safer to walk on the snow than to drive on it!

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

An incredible winter river near Schenectady, NY

Snowstorms: As the snows begin to fall and lay on the landscape, you enter a different land. The quiet dropping of the snow, and the stillness of it all, bring a quiet to the landscape rarely present any other time of the year. I love taking it in while it is happening and enjoying walking out in the storm.

 

End of the Storm: Go out as soon as the storm is over–the dynamics of winter mean that nothing will stay the same for long. I remember one day in Michigan when everything was just covered with a powdery snow–every branch of the tree was accentuated and it was magical. About an hour later, the winds picked up and everything changed–I was so glad I took my camera out that day!

Amazing after the storm forest

Amazing powdery snow on the forest in Clarkston, MI

Icestorms: If you have the really good treads, the ice storms too can be really delightful to go out in. The treads make it so you are stable even on inches of ice, and for that reason, you can go out and observe what is going on! Because nobody else goes out in an ice storm, and even walking around your yard or neighborhood, again, offers tremendous experiences.

 

Winter Botany, Ecology, and Tracking

Winter offers a range of opportunities to deepen nature awareness and spend time getting to know the living earth in all of her seasons.

 

Tracking: Animal movements, tracks and trails are really easy to observe in the winter months. I remember the first winter I had spent at my homestead. I had been trying to figure out the path the deer were taking, and then when our first snow hit, I clearly saw their trail in ways it was difficult to see before hand. I discovered the raccoons who had been visiting my compost pile, and some critter living in my barn (who I later discovered was a possum). While I had glimpses of these animals in the summer, the winter offered much more opportunity to see all of their movements. I followed the deer trail deep into the woods and came to a natural sacred grove there, which was an amazing experience. This is all to say that you can track animals extremely easy and build your tracking knowledge over time. A good book to learn tracking is Paul Rezendes Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs.

Finding tracks in the frozen mud...

Finding tracks in the frozen mud…

Seeking Waterfalls, Creeks, and Rivers: One of my very favorite things to look for and to hike to in the winter months are moving sources of water. These are incredible–each day, the river changes with the temperature, sometimes being very clear and deep, other times (when it gets bitterly cold) freezing up. They are always well worth your time to travel to (by foot or by vehicle). I like to meditate there, and if possible, explore them from multiple angles. You can learn a lot about the sacred lessons of water from the flows and movements of the interplay of snow, ice, and water.

Incredible Winter Waterfall

Incredible Winter Waterfall near Schenectady, NY

Winter Tree and Plant Identification. Winter offers us an amazing opportunity to learn how to  identify trees by their bark and the shape of their buds and branches (or studying trees that you already know and observing their bark and branches). Another useful thing to do is to look at the dead or dormant plants growing–what do you recognize in a different form? Whose dried seed pod is that? For this, some good references for my bioregion include Winter Botany: An Identification Guide to Native Trees and Shrubs by William Trelease and Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech and Tom Wessels.

Wild Cherry Bark

Wild Cherry Bark in Winter, Gallitzin State Forest, PA

 

Mosses and Lichens. Moss and lichens are really interesting to observe in the winter months–in a forest, the moss and lichens take advantage of the openings and light to do a lot of growing. I have been on hikes that have abundant, bright green moss in late December when the moss is just bursting with color and life.

Incredible moss in late December

Incredible moss in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Mushrooms. On the edges of winter or in particularly warm times, mushrooms (including oyster mushrooms, some of my favorite) are also good to look for. Oysters can grow when its quite cold and offer a tasty meal. Lots of other mushrooms will pop up as well–so be on the lookout in those warmer winter moments.

Awesome mushrooms in late December

Awesome mushrooms in late December, Gallitzin State Forest

Foraging. Some limited foraging and wildcrafting can be done in the winter months and in fact can be done better then than other times. Pine, spruce, and hemlock needles make a wonderful nourishing and vitamin C-filled tea. This is also a really good time to look for tree resins (see my post on tree incenses from last year). Nannyberry (Virburnum Lentago) can persist in the winter months, and you might find yourself a wonderful trailside snack! I gather certain materials for making handmade paper (like cattail heads) or other goodies during this time of year. (I’m working on some natural panflutes now and just harvested the materials two weeks ago). If you are doing any natural building using thatching, for example, phragmities (reeds) can be harvested in abundance easily this time of year. In other words, the forest still offers abundance to those who know how to look.

 

Things to Do

Beyond communing with nature and learning more about her, there are many fun winter activities to do in the woods.

 

Follow a Deer Trail. Trails made by humans offer pre-determined destinations. This is why it can sometimes be fun to get lost in the woods (but only if you can safely make your way back again–use trail markers, a compass, etc). One way of getting “lost” I rather like is following a deer trail and seeing where it leads. This is nature’s version of your hiking trail, leading you off in new directions.

 

Make some spirals in the snow. I wrote about this in a post on winter last year–you can create spirals in the snow and walk labyrinths for meditation and deep healing. This is a very relaxing activity, and one I like to do as part of my celebrations of Imbolc each year.

Amazing snowy sassafras

Amazing snowy sassafras, Clarkston, MI

Enjoy a meal or cup of tea. A simple thermos with a steaming cup of tea can make for a simple winter ceremony or quick way to warm up.  Recently, a friend and I were in search of waterfalls, and I had made a Chaga tea with maple, and brought it with us in a thermos.  There was nothing quite like sipping that chaga tea while sitting by the waterfall, observing it in all its amazing beauty!  Every once in a while, a rainbow would form of the frozen mist–and had we not been enjoying the tea, we may not have stayed in the same place long enough to see it!

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

Ice drips, Ohiopyle State Park

A second really fun thing to do in the winter on longer hikes is bring a little camp stove (the backpacking kind) and/or forage for kindling and start yourself a small fire for a pine needle tea (see below) or heat up some grub; this is a great way to enjoy winter and warm up a bit. Of course, as part of this you might want to either bring something to sit on (a little foam mat works well, like a gardening mat) or you can use leaves and/or some boughs from a fallen pine to allow you to sit comfortably in the snow.

 

Winter Frolicking. Enough good can’t be said of winter frolicking in the snow. This takes on different forms: sliding down the hill in a sled, making snow angels, dancing around, throwing snowballs, and more.

 

Seed Scattering. Many seeds require a period of dormancy and freezing before they can germinate. I like to scatter seeds using a “frost seeding” technique in the winter months. This technique is based on when the ground has been very wet, and then freezes, and the frozen earth rises up with the water; when you step in it, you’ll get pockets and a lot of crunching. If you scatter seeds when the ground is like this, when it thaws out, the earth will return and the seeds will be buried.  So its a great time to do a little wildtending.

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Leading deeper into the winter realms

Winter Wonderlands

I hope that this post has inspired you to go out, get on some trails, and enjoy winter in all of her splendor.  Imbolc is a wonderful time to do this and learn about the depths of winter and her many mysteries–and I’d be delighted to hear any stories you have about winter hikes!

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An Imbolc Blessing: Energizing Snowy Spaces using Sacred Geometry and Symbolism

Walking the Imbolc Spiral on the Pond, Imbolc 2015

Walking the Imbolc Spiral on the Pond, Imbolc 2015

In my part of the world, Winter has finally arrived in all of her glory and we are now at Imboc, a wintry holiday of renewal and regeneration (ok, so some people say that Imbolc is the first sign of spring; I consider it a winter holiday and celebrate it as such. There are no real stirrings of spring here till late February or early March when the maple sap begins to run). In today’s post, I’m going to share with you one of my favorite Imbolc activities–unfolding sacred patterns and symbols upon the inner and outer realms, using snow as our canvas. This is a delightful outdoor activity you can do while we have snow coverage during this quiet and most sacred time of the year. For those that are already groaning and saying “Oh no, not more snow!” please scroll to the bottom of this post, to the “Shifting Mindsets” heading and read that first :).

 

A Blessing Within and Without

Fresh snowfall blesses us an incredible canvas upon which to work, to imbue ancient patterns of sacred meaning. The act of creating sacred geometrical patterns, mandalas, or other symbols in the snow allows you to embody those patterns through the simple practice of walking meditation. This act creates not only a blessing from within, where those patterns unfold on the inner planes as you walk them, but also a pattern for blessing our land on the outer planes. This blessing can resonate for weeks, months, and years after the patterns themselves melt away. There are few things we can do in winter that are so simple, and yet so profound.

 

I use the strategies I’m going to be sharing today with you as either the main celebration ritual that I do for Imbolc, or as a large part of that ritual.  The photo above was taken at Imbolc last year (2015). My friends and grove members gathered on the frozen pond at Imbolc, where we created an “unwinding” spiral (counter-clockwise) to unwind and de-stress as we went deeper within.  Then we laid upon the ice in the center of the spiral for a time, and, when we felt ready, we “wound back up” and brought the positive energy, rejuvenation, and clarity to ourselves as we went out. This ritual was conducted when I had just been offered a new job in home state of Pennsylvania and was making a decision that would have life-long ramifications–the act of walking this snow spiral helped clarify, for me, the next stage of my journey. I cried as helped create the spiral, unsure of the best path.  But by the time I had walked back out of that massive spiral, I knew the answer to my decision: I was going home. These practices can be profound, indeed!

 

The Process

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Another Imbolc spiral – this one in the sacred circle

So let’s take a look at this process and how it can unfold as a sacred magical practice or ritual.

Your Snow Canvas. First, find yourself a snowy space, of any size.  It doesn’t have to be completely clear–in fact, trees, stones, or other features can add their own beauty to the design.  My favorite place to walk on my homestead was my frozen-over pond, once I was sure it was frozen :).  It was a perfectly flat surface and usually had less snow than the surrounding areas.  My other place that I always traced symbols was my sacred circle.  Since moving to a new state and living in town, I have found that my tiny backyard and even local parks are good spots to do this.  You can even do this on a small porch or balcony.   Even a tiny patch of snow can be used, where you trace the symbol with your fingers rather than your feet.  The snow can be fresh or even starting to melt (as my second photo suggests) Once you have selected your canvas–it is time to select your symbol.

 

Symbolism. There are two ways to go about selecting a symbol.  You can choose to use a symbol for a specific purpose and meaning (see the next section) or you can choose to create an organic symbol from what emerges.  I’ll cover both practices.

  • Selected Symbol. Set forth in your mind the symbol you wish to create. Envision that symbol already traced upon the snow–how large it will be, how you will need to walk to form it, where its boundaries are and spend some time in this visualiation process–it will help you plan things out, especially for more complex symbols. Visualize that symbol in an appropriate color (yellow-green light or white light is a good choice), already there upon the landscape. All that you will need to do, then, is follow the pattern.
  • Intuitive Symbols. The alternative is not to select a symbol at all, but simply to begin walking and see what symbols unfold within and without–I’ve done this numerous times with my eyes closed in an empty field. I also like weaving spirals among the trees in a forest in this manner.

 

Establish Sacred Space, Ground, and Center. As you are ready to begin to create the actual symbol, you can choose to open up a sacred space at this point (I use the AODA’s solitary grove opening for this), but its not always necessary.  Since I usually do these snow symbols as part of a seasonal celebration, I usually will open a space, standing to the side of my selected “canvas” and then include my canvas in the ritual space.  If nothing else, however, you can take three deep breaths, clear your mind, and begin to walk.

 

Walk the shape. The process unfolds from the simple practice of walking.  Walk slow and purposefully.  As you walk, set your intentions for the work you are to do.  It might inner healing or direction (as my opening example suggested).  Or, it might be a strong land blessing.  As you walk, with each step, imbue that energy into the space and into the symbol. Note that you can use the symbol again and again as long as the snow remains on the ground–so it might be that you start with a land healing symbol, and once that’s firmly established, you then walk it again for some personal healing.  Another note here–the more snow, the more challenging walking may be.  I remember a few years ago when I was making one of my pond spirals and it was over a 20″ deep–I had to walk that symbol many times to really have a nice path, but it was a wonderful experience to do so.

 

Return often. Even after you’ve walked the shape, you can continue to come back to it.  A few winters ago, during the year of polar vortexes, I had symbols in the snow that continued to persist for several months!  Each day in the month of February, I would come home and walk the pond spiral before going into the house.  It was a great way to reconnect with my sacred land. You can also rewalk the symbol with fresh snowfall.  The longer the symbol persists, the more energized the space will be.

Vesica Piscis and Cross Design

Vesica Piscis and Cross Design in Recent Snowfall in my backyard in town – this was walked one time.

Symbols, Energy and Intentions

The symbol you choose to create and why you create it is an important part of this process–and like all other magical acts, you should consider this carefully before you begin. When my grove came together last Imbolc to create the spiral, each of us were faced with a major issue in our lives that needed some guidance–and we created the spiral primarily for that purpose.  If you have no direct intentions, then saying you are “open” is a good one!  Also, the land can *always* use a blessing, and certain symbols are particularly good for that.

 

I’m going to now share a few different symbols, primarily drawn from sacred geometry, that can help you see the wide range of symbols available to you.  A few of these images are from a project I’ve been collaborating on with with a friend–a sacred geometry oracle deck and book. I’ll share more about the project as we get closer to the release date–so stay tuned!  But in the meantime, here are some of the symbols:

 

The Pentagram and Pentacle

The Pentagram and Pentacle are symbols over 5,000 years old, used for a variety of purposes, nearly all of them protective in origin. A pentagram is a protective symbol that radiates that energy outward with the five points. A pentacle contains the energy within the five points as it is surrounded by a circle. If you wanted to do a blessing and protective symbol for the entire land, a good choice would be a pentagram. If you had a sacred space you were working on empowering, say, a stone circle or garden, you might choose a pentacle instead to keep the energy contained within that space.

Pentagram (left) and Pentacle (right)

Pentagram (left) and Pentacle (right)

The Spiral

Spirals are my favorite of the snow symbols to create because they can be very easy to create, requiring nearly no thought, and yet profound.  Spirals are likely one of the oldest symbols in human culture, and can be found in paintings in caves and carved in stones as far back as 8000 BCE.  The spiral is representative of many things–to the Ancient Celts, one meaning was the life force or cycle of life.  Spirals reinforce the notion of a cycle or season upon us, and are particularly useful for meditation and walking meditation.  I have found that my snow spirals have a twofold effect–they encourage a deeper awareness and meditative state where I can work out various deep rooted issues, but they also have a profoundly energizing (winding) or clearing (unwinding) energy about them.

Some simple winding (sunwise) and unwinding (desoil) spirals

Some simple winding (sunwise) and unwinding (desoil) spirals

A second kind of spiral, a bit harder to get right in the snow, but no less profound is the one that unfolds from the golden mean. This spiral is created from the Fibonacci sequence (1, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21….).  Entire books have been written on the meaning of this spiral (here is a nice overview)–a most basic understanding of it is that it is what connects the heavens and the earth; we see this spiral reflected in the shape of the Milky Way galaxy all the way down to a simple snail shell.  This same sequence is present in the many ratios of the human body, the notes on a scale, the pattern of a sunflower or the branches on a tree.  When I walk this spiral in the snow, I see it as a connecting spiral, a spiral signifying the universal gnosis, the oneness of all living things.  Walk this spiral and see what unfolds from it.

Golden Mean Spiral

Golden Mean Spiral (with divisions)

The Vesica Piscis

Another symbol for snow workings is the vesica piscis–another ancient symbol drawn from sacred geometry with profound implications.  The vesica piscis is reflected on Glastonbury’s Chalice Well as well as in various religious art and symbolism; it literally means “the bladder of the fish.”  It is a symbol representing unions of many kinds–the union between heaven and earth, between humans and nature, between male and female, between light and dark.  When I create this symbol in the snow, I see it as a promise–a sacred pact between myself and the lands that I serve.  This is the one I walked last week in the snow–a promise of unity with my land.

Vesica Piscis

Vesica Piscis

Awen

Of course, no discussion of sacred symbolism on a druid’s blog can be complete without a discussion of the Awen symbol!  Not nearly as ancient as those above, the symbol still carries profound energy–the energy of creative awakening, divine inspiration, and the arts.  I draw this symbol when I want to bring those blessings into my life or into the lives of those around me.  This symbol is particularly good for workspaces or areas where creativity may flow–consider, for example, using this symbol near a fire pit where the bardic arts are often shared!

Simple awen symbol

Simple awen symbol

 

The Warrior’s Call Symbol

The final symbol I wanted to direct your attention to specifically for land protection is a symbol developed by the pagan group against fracking, The Warrior’s Call. This is is the newest symbol here, but it is being actively used by many around the world to energetically address fracking and protect the lands from fracking activities.  I have found that this symbol is fairly complex for the snow, but its do-able. I have recently used a simplified version of this symbol during our latest snow fall  here in Pennsylvania, near some gas wells, given that I live among the oldest sites of Fracking in the USA.  This symbol works well as an acknowledgement of the land’s suffering and pain. I think this symbol is highly appropriate for snow sigils in areas being fracked or under threat of fracking or other duress.

Warrior's Sigil - Against Fracking

Warrior’s Sigil – Against Fracking

These symbols presented here are few among many, many, many others that you can work with. Be creative and consider what personal symbols or those from the ancient mystery traditions might be most appropriate to your purposes and path.

 

Shifting Mindsets: Embracing the Snow

This special section is for those who want to work snow magic, but have a problem with the snow :).  I am a great lover of winter and the snow, and I find it to be an incredibly magical time of year.  The icicles and shimmery ice on the trees, the gentle snowflakes falling to the ground, the rich carpet of whiteness across the land.  The more that comes, the happier that I get in these cold and wintery months! However, so many people do not share that sentiment. Yet, if you are  are going to do magical workings with the snow, like anything else, you need to come into it with the right mindset.

Small Spiral in Snow

Small Spiral in Snow

For some, winter can be a very hard time due to seasonal affective disorders, managing the snowy weather and work schedules, food insecurity, or other issues. I laid out this fully in my post on cultural challenges surrounding our relationship with snow–if you haven’t read it, its well worth a read.  If you do have serious issues with the snow–I suggest you seek out the root of your discomfort.  Is it that you don’t like driving and have to go to work when its snowing?  That may be an underlying issue with rigid work rules and inflexibility or economic insecurity.  Is it that you don’t like getting stuck in your house with limited food during a storm? Perhaps that’s an issue of food insecurity. Perhaps its the chilling cold–few modern clothes are designed to be sufficiently warm (wool socks have changed my life).  Perhaps, your discomfort isn’t your own, but rather the collective’s continual complaining and demonizing the winter.  We have a copious amount of negative media coverage surrounding natural weather phenomena like snow (a visit to weather.com’s page will demonstrate this in spades–I get stressed just looking at their homepage).  If you are on social media, there’s no shortage of it there either.

 

The problem with all of this negativity wrapped up in snow is that it blinds us to the beauty and magic of this time of year.  And, just as importantly, if you are going to attempt to do the snow workings and sacred activities laid out here–its important to make sure you are putting the right energy into it: loving energy, peacefullness, and goodwill!  As within, so without!

 

Energetic Patterns and Time

This snowy ritual I have shared can be used for an number of different purposes, and can deeply weave patterns of energy into the landscape–both inner and outer. After doing spirals on my frozen  pond for a number of years, I had a druid friend visit me for the first time a few summers ago and he said, “wow, your pond has some spiraling energy going on!” And I just smiled and said, “Yes, it certainly does.” Even after the snow has melted, the energy that I raised in that space becomes part of the energetic underpinnings of the land for years to come. It can be further reinforced with other kind of sacred space, plant, or stone work! The sky is the limit…or perhaps, the snowfall :).

Another shot of the Vesica Piscis

Another shot of the Vesica Piscis

In Praise and Honor of the Snow: Understanding and Overcoming Cultural Challenges

In January, this year, we’ve gotten record amounts of snow (somewhere above 50″ since the new year). This is true of much of the midwest and eastern seaboard in the USA.  Snow holds a very convoluted position in modern American society. At least half of us live in areas that receive at a decent amount of snowfall per year, year after year. With the increase of weather events relating to climate change, more and more extreme weather events are occurring, and snowstorms are not the exception. In recent years, it has been my perception that as the extreme weather events are increasing, so is the weeping, gnashing of teeth, and hatred towards the snow.  But it is not the snow to blame, but rather our underlying cultural issues that are exacerbated and intensified by the snow; we have a number of deep-rooted problems in society that are manifested by the appearance of snow. I am breaking these cultural issues into to two categories–issues we, as individuals, can more easily change and things that are more difficult to change but are still serious problems.  After the discussion of these areas, I conclude with some insights and reverence for the snow.

The White Wonderland

The White Wonderland

 

 

Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Can More Easily Change

The following four areas represent cultural issues, and responses, that I think are fairly easy for us as individuals living within this culture to change.  These changes do take some work, but they are still very much within our own power to change.

 

 

1. Negative framing of snow by national media (Underlying cultural problems = negative news, disconnection from natural cycles).

We have a substantially negative framing of snow by our news and weather media.  For the snowstorms we’ve had the pleasure of receiving in the last month, I saw everything from “Life Threatening Snow” to “Winter Fury Unleashed” to “Ion Bears Down on US” as ways to discuss the snow. These negative discussions take away from the otherwise beautiful, yet powerful, winter scenes and immediately frame it as a negative event that has to be dealt with rather than a natural occurrence. Beautiful scenes of snow aren’t portrayed on our local or national news–no, we hear about the 30-car pile ups and the difficulties people have with the snow.

 

The second thing that I think is going on with negative framing of the snow is that as humans, we are disconnected from the natural cycles.  Snow is an integral part of most climates; trees like the Black Birch and Maple need the cold before their sap can begin to run.  Because of this lack of understanding of the cycles of nature and the negative framing, we don’t take time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the snow.

 

Of course, with snow being framed in such terms nationally, its no wonder that individuals feel nothing but negativity towards the snow. Facebook feeds, twitter feeds, and other social media, combined with in-person weeping and gnashing of teeth, all frame snow in a negative light. Its a nuisance, its a bother, it causes work, it delays plans.  And that is certainly one way of looking at it–but not the only way!

 

 

 

My response: Positive Framing of Snow.

My response to the negative framing of snow, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, is simple–I don’t participate in the negative framing of snow. Snow is a natural part of the seasonal cycle, and something to be celebrated in the same way that we celebrate a warm summer day. I work hard to revere the snow, to recognize its artistry and beauty, and to help others do the same.  Are there times that a snowstorm messes up some plans I’ve had? Sure.  Does that mean its the snowstorm’s fault?  No.  What it means is that I get to make new plans, to stay home, and to enjoy the winter.  I can celebrate the solitude and quietude that the snow brings; revel in its incredible beauty, and remember the lessons it has to teach.  I also remember that snow is but part of the cycle of the seasons, and that soon enough, spring will return.

Through the Branches

Through the Branches

 

 

 

2. State-of-Fear Reactions in Society (Underlying cultural problems = state of fear hype, fragility of current system). 

One of the big shifts that occurred in America following the September 11th tragedy is that our leadership and mass media work hard to keep people in a constant state of fear.  Everything is something to react to, to be afraid, and to panic about. Why? Its simple–people are easier to control when they are reacting and feeling, rather than approaching something using reason and their minds. This is why Aristotle, when speaking of the three primary ways that persuasion happens, suggested that pathos (or emotional-based appeals) were the most effective, but also the most dangerous.  A reactionary populace is not a thinking populace.   Snow, unfortunately, has become caught up in this state-of-fear mentality.

 

Furthermore, the media has made the move to name winter snowstorms and other large weather events.  This personifies the storm, gives it human qualities and motives, and makes the personified storm’s actions more severe.  Snowstorm “Ion” is somehow much more nasty than “that snowstorm coming tomorrow.”

 

Can snow cause problems and can it be dangerous? Absolutely, especially with the mass stupidity which which people treat snow (more under “transportation” below).  We know snow is coming, its a natural occurrence. If one is carefully prepared, there is no reason to get upset or frightened.  The underlying problem is not that we get a snowstorm, its that people are now so unprepared to have a snowstorm, it causes fear.

 

My Response: Careful Preparation and Building Resiliency

I look forward to the snowy times, but I only do this because I’ve worked to be well prepared for the winter months and to plan ahead.  With a stock of wood to heat my house in the event of a power outage, a good relationship with a neighbor who has a plow, a stock of herbs and tinctures in case I fall ill, adequate winter clothing that I could wear to stay warm for hours outside in the snow, and the potential to call others in case of any difficulty, I’m not so concerned when the snow begins to fall.

Snowy scene of pond

Snowy scene of pond

 

 

 

3. Frantic Supermarket Chaos before Snowstorms (Underlying cultural problems = no food security, complete dependency on corporations for basic needs).

Hype about any given snowstorm is first built up to a frenzied state using the “state of fear” tactics I describe above.  This encourages people to go out and spend more money than the otherwise would on massive amounts of food and other “supplies.”  Supermarket shelves are stripped bare, and people take their stuff back to their houses and hope for the best.  If we recognize that fueling consumptive activity is the primary goal of all media, it becomes no surprise that this is what occurs. However, there is a deeper issue at play, and that issue is food insecurity. 

 

In this region of the world, when winter came, individuals, families, tribes, and communities had substantial stores–they spent the bulk of the spring, summer, and fall, growing, foraging, raising, or otherwise producing enough food to get them through the winter months.  I think about the caches that Buffalo Bird Woman discusses in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, or the extensive pantry and larder that Laura Ingalls Wilder discusses at her family’s homestead.  In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe describes the Hopi’s rule of growing and storing enough corn for two seasons, not one, to ensure survivability in case of crop failure. Having a store of food through the winter time, with access to what one needs, is one definition of “food security.”

 

Right now, most Americans react to the snowstorm in what I’d call a reasonable manner, given their food-insecure circumstances.  Most Americans have only 1 or 2 weeks of available food in their houses at any given time, and literally no skills or ability to produce their own food.  Part of this is that many now live on convenience foods, rather than staples like dried beans, or rice, and there is only so much room in one’s freezer.  So when they rush off to the grocery store, they are reacting due to their food insecure circumstances (which seems ironic, in a country that wastes up to 40% of its food).

 

 

My response: Increasing Food Security.

My solution has been to be more food secure and to work to produce as much of my food as I can, to store my food effectively, and to be prepared for when snowstorms happen.  With 150 lbs of rice; 100 lbs of various beans, nuts, and other dry goods; 300+ jars of sauce, jams, preserves, jellies; and a freezerful of fresh pressed apple cider, meats, and other goodies, I’m not worried when the snowstorms come.  I could get snowed in here for two months or more and still be eating healthily and with variety.  If producing your own food isn’t possible, at least moving toward a pantry/bulk food buying system where one has more than a week of groceries in the house at any given time would help with food security issues.

All white!

All white!

 

 

 

4.  The Work of Snow (underlying cultural problem = sedentary lifestyles). 

When a snowstorm hits, there is, of course, the complaints about shoveling the walks, cleaning off the car, and so forth.  I believe a lot of this is rooted in our culture’s largely sedentary lifestyle, where people aren’t used to a lot of physical labor, and shoveling a foot of snow is certainly physical labor. I realize here that some people have health conditions that prevent them from doing the labor–and to them, I suggest to make friends with a neighbor (this is another underlying cultural challenge–we don’t actually know our neighbors).

 

My response: Snow = Free Exercise.

Since I derive all of my physical activity from either being in nature (hiking, kayaking) or productive work (like double-digging beds, putting in a chicken fence, chopping wood, hoeing the garden, raking leaves, etc.) I am happy when the snow comes down.  Why? It gives me a chance to get out, get some exercise, and move around a bit.  I look forward to shoveling that long pathway to the chicken coop, and throughout the year, I work hard to keep myself in shape so that I can do that work.  I don’t have to pay for expensive gym memberships–I can just shovel snow!

Snowy maple guardian

Snowy maple guardian

 

 

Underlying Cultural Problems Manifested by the Snow: Things We Cannot Easily Change

The last set of cultural problems that are manifested through the snowstorm are not things that we can easily or readily change, but issues that are very much impacting our cultural responses to snow.

 

1. Lost wages & Job issues (Underlying cultural problems = erosion of the middle class; living hand-to-mouth; income disparity). 

A snowstorm,  like the ones we’ve experienced here in Michigan for the last month, means one or two days where no pay is coming in, where a lost paycheck can mean the difference between paying the rent and not paying the rent. This is actually probably the biggest concern for a lot of people, especially those working hourly-wage based jobs or several jobs to make ends meet.  Several days of lost paychecks can hit a family very hard, and again, the easiest culprit to blame is the snowstorm out one’s window.

 

However, I want to point out that issues of personal economic security have nothing to do with the snow itself–it has more to do with the fact that we have so many people working low-wage jobs in poor conditions and struggling to make ends meet.  This whole situation has more to do with the erosion of the middle class and corporate greed than it has to do with a snowstorm.

 

 

My response: Shifting lifestyles, Reducing Consumption and Debt, and Doing Meaningful Work.

This is not an easy, or quick, thing to respond to.  The prevailing cultural and economic winds have made times tougher and tougher for everyone I know, myself included. However, a series of life changes have caused me to deeply reflect on my own relationship to finances, working to track my funds and reduce my consumption, and creating a plan for getting out of debt. One of the books I’m reading now is a book called Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin; in this book, she suggests that we should align our values with meaningful work, examine our true hourly wage, and examine the relationship of time and money (too much to discuss here, but worth reading).

 

 

2. Difficulty in transportation, dangerous conditions (Underlying cultural problems = lack of care for employees, unnecessary travel)

The last issue that snow often raises is the transportation issue. The roads get covered in snow or ice, flights get delayed or cancelled, and travel is, generally, dangerous and frustrating. For some people, they have to travel because of their jobs (see #1 above) and have little choice if they are going to keep their jobs. For others, they are planning on some travel and that travel is delayed.  I’m thankful, at least, that schools have it right–they don’t ask teachers or students to go out in bad weather, and I only wish that the rest of the nation would do the same.

 

 

My response: Shift Plans, Stay in if Possible

I often wonder how much travel is actually necessary during a snowstorm.  I think that people try to treat snow like any other day–driving to go get gas, to the grocery store, to keep those dinner plans, etc.  But we can’t treat snow like another occurrence–its a special time, a time that asks us to slow down, to reflect, to enjoy the quietude of the winter time.

 

People in other centuries holed up for a good snowstorm.  Winter was a time of rest and reflection–you see this in the holidays in the druid tradition, based on the wheel of the year–we rest, we recuperate, we rejuvenate, we heal.  When there is snow, I make a point to change my plans, to stay in, and to accept the gift that nature is giving me–a day off.  Even if its an unplanned day off, its a message from the universe to slow down.

White Pine, the Tree of Peace

White Pine, the Tree of Peace

Winter as a Sacred Time of Healing and Rest

To conclude this post, I’d like to ask us to untangle snow from its cultural baggage, to take some time to enjoy it for what it is, and to embrace the cold and snowy times as times of rest and reflection. Our ancestors did this–they saw winter as a time of rest, a time to enjoy the fruits of their hard labors of the summer months.  Warm in their houses, they enjoyed fruit preserves, family, music, and quietude.  This is part of the natural cycle of the seasons, an important part of rest–for ourselves, for the land, for the trees, for all.

 

We have no such sacred times of rest in current American culture unless we create those times for ourselves.  The snow provides us the gentle nudge to do that–to see the world in wonder, blanked and far from its usual state.  To go out into a white wonderland, full of bliss and joy.  To take time for ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

 

It took me a long time to write this post–I started when the snows started coming down over a month ago, but it was only today that I finally figured out what I wanted to say.    I hope that this causes you, dear readers, some pause for reflection and perhaps helps you see the snow in a new light.  I feel like I’ve been called to be an ambassador for the snow, speaking the snow’s message of hope and renewal.As part of the message of the snow for me this year, I will be taking a hiatus from the web/social media for the next few weeks.  I hope you go enjoy the snows!  That’s what I plan on doing in the next few weeks :).

The Wheel of the Year in the Druid Tradition – Description of Druidic Holidays

When we think about the practices that various groups and cultures did on a yearly cycle, agricultural holidays are some of the most prominent.  The modern Wheel of the Year in the Druid tradition seeks to re-establish a set of holidays that clearly align with the changing season and with earth-based practices.  Therefore, many druids celebrate the “Wheel of the Year” or a set of eight holidays occurring every seven weeks. The holidays in the Wheel include include the solstices and equinoxes (which we give special names in the Druid Revival tradition, see below) as well as the four fire festivals (which occur at the halfway point between solstice and equinox/equinox and solstice).

The following material comes from a workshop that I wrote a while ago to introduce new druids into the wheel of the year. It started with a guided meditation for the wheel of the year, which I posted a few weeks ago on the blog. I thought this might be of use to others, so here it is!

The following graphic shows the holidays as we progress from Alban Arthan, the Winter Solstice and the time of greatest darkness, to Alban Hefin, the Summer Solstice and time of the greatest light. As you can see from the graphic, Alban Eiler and Alban Elfed fall on the midpoints—they provide us two balance points of the year where the darkness and light are equal.   The other six holidays firmly sit within the light or dark half of the year and reflect the themes of growth, harvest, compost, and rebirth.

Druid Wheel of the Year Holidays

Druid Wheel of the Year Holidays

Recognizing these holidays as part of a never-ending cycle is important.  This cycle is repeated in our weather, our light patterns, and our growing and harvesting seasons externally.  Internally, it can also be reflected in our own lives.  We must have times of light and times of dark, times of harvest and times of sowing, times of high energy and times of quite reflection.  Celebrating the wheel of the year allows us to recognize this in our lives as well as balance our own energies with those of the land.

 

Celebrating the Wheel of the Year

As we begin to celebrate the wheel of the year, many druids express a growing sense of closeness to nature and an appreciation for the seasons.  The wheel gives us a sense of balance, of marking the passage of time, and recognizing what each season can teach us. Druids often celebrate the Wheel of the Year in a variety of ways.  Both spiritual/magical and more mundane/physical activities are appropriate for the celebration of the holidays.  Her are some ideas:

  • Celebrating the holiday with grove ritual, food, and companionship.
  • Building outdoor/indoor shrines and decorating a personal altar for the season
  • Planting or harvesting herbs, fruits, leafy greens, etc.
  • Engaging in various bardic arts such as wildcrafting, painting, music, writing
  • Donating your time to others, such as participating in in environmental clean-up,
  • Celebrating the holidays through personal ritual (it might be really useful to you to create your own meanings and ritual celebrations for each holiday)
  • meditation, reflection, and engaging in divination work.

    

The Wheel of the Year: Holidays

 

Samhain / Samhuinn – Approx. November 1st

Samhain was traditionally the Celtic New Year, a time when the veil between the worlds grew thin and the Celts honored their ancestors. Druidry often recognizes three kinds of ancestors: ancestors of our blood, ancestors of our lands, and ancestors of our spiritual tradition.  Samhain is usually our most solemn holiday, where we recognize the death that fall and the dark months bring, the need to compost and go into stillness, and the coming of the cold months.

This quote, gives you a sense of our Samhain ritual (adapted from the OBOD ritual) is telling of this holiday: “It is during this time that the last of the leaves are blown off the trees, that the ground becomes cold and frozen.  Like an egg or a womb, the Cailleach (known also as the crone) gives the land and us time to rest, to dream, so that in the springtime, the land and her peoples may awaken anew. She is nothing to fear—she is but part of the cycle that the lands, and that we humans live in the course of our lives.  She walks in the space between worlds, to our land.”

 

Alban Arthur / Winter Solstice / Yule – Approx. December 21st

This is the second of our “dark half of the year” holidays; the time of the greatest darkness in the year. In the druidic tradition, darkness is not something to be feared or something that it is evil—it is part of the cycle; we cannot appreciate the light if we never experience the darkness.  So we use this as a period of rest, of gestation, of recognizing the need for the cold and dark of the winter months for the land to rest and regenerate.  In our grove, this is when we traditionally give gifts, burn the Yule log, and work to bring light back into the world.

Here is part of our Alban Arthur ritual (adapted from the OBOD ritual): “Now is the time to acknowledge all that has gone before and is no more. The warm breezes of the high summer are but a memory, we are far from that place and now we witness the darkest point. The oak is bare, the earth is cold, the sky is black—from where could hope arise? Our eyes are wet with the tears of dreams lost to the dark.  Our inner vision is misted by grief. Let the darkness be felt within our minds and our hearts.  Only out of the darkness does light arise….only when we have mourned the passing of the old can rebirth occur….we know well that there will be a new dawn tomorrow, after this the longest of nights.  Yet we often forget this simple truth: When we let go of our longing for the past, we are free to nurture the still small light of hope in our hearts.”

 

Imbolc – Approx. February 2nd

The third of our “dark half of the year” celebrations, Imbolc was traditionally a Celtic festival that celebrated the first sign of spring—and for most families, this was the lactating of the ewes, showing that they were going to give birth to lambs.  Although it seems still very much winter in South East Michigan during this holiday, we recognize the importance of the turning of the wheel and the brightening of days.  In our grove, we do healing of ourselves and our lands and recognize this holiday as one of reflection and rejuvenation.  We usually also focus on the element of water during this holiday.

Here is a quote from our Imbolc ritual (adapted from OBOD):  “Imbolc is a time when we begin to see the first stirrings of spring in the world.  Although the world is still plunged in darkness, we are moving towards the light half of the year; the snow is melting into water to nourish the land. Imbolc is a time of renewal and rebirth, a time of purification and starting anew, a time of quiet anticipation and reflection.  This is a time that we seek healing for ourselves and for this land.”

 

Alban Eiler/Eilir / Spring Equinox – Approx. March 21st

The Spring Equinox is one of our two “balance” holidays, or when night and day are in equal balance. The Spring Equinox allows us to step from the dark into the light half of the year, and for Michigan, truly does give us the first signs of spring in the land.  This is the time when we recognize the importance of planting, growing, and nurturing new ideas, projects, plans, and yes, even plants.  We seek balance in our lives and recognize the importance of balancing our activities in the greater landscape to minimize our impact.

Here is a quote from our Alban Eiler ritual (adapted from OBOD):  , “Today, as we celebrate the balance of the light and the dark and the first day of spring, we recognize that our path is not one we walk alone.  Just as the earth begins to awaken from her slumber, so too do animals in hibernation begin to emerge forth once more. The summer birds return from their long winter months in the south, and the amphibians come out from the watery depths to seek the light coming back into the world.  It is today, we honor the coming spring, planting the seeds of change, and seeking new beginnings.”

 

Beltane  – Approx. May 1st

                  Beltane is the third of our spring holidays, and celebrates the return of fertility to the land. Beltane is a holiday about fertility—bringing back the fertility to the land after the long winter, as well as bringing fertility to the land’s people.  The Celts celebrated Beltane with maypoles, dancing, fires, and the great rite.  Cattle were traditionally driven through the smoke of the bonfires to bless them with health and fertility for the coming year.  In Ireland, the fires of Tara were the first ones lit every year at Beltane—all other fires were lit from Tara’s flame.  For our ritual, we raise a maypole (symbolizing the union of masculine/projective and feminine/receptive energies) and walk through the Beltane fires in blessing.

Quote from our Beltane Ritual: “Beltane is a time to bring abundance and fertility to your life—whether you are looking to conceive a child or birth an idea, to enjoy fruitfulness in your career or creative endeavors, or just see your garden bloom.  Beltane is one of the two times in the year when the veils between the worlds are thinnest—this is a time of “no time” and is associated with the otherworld/fairy/spirit realms.”

 

Alban Hefin/Heruin  / Summer Solstice– Approx. June 21st

Alban Hefin takes place on the summer solstice, where we celebrate the heat and light of high summer and the fire of the sun.   For our grove and the broader OBOD tradition, we really take the time just to “be” during this holiday—to be present here and now and simply enjoy the bounty of the summer.  This is also a great time to gather herbs (for magical or mundane purposes).

Here is a quote from our Alban Hefin grove celebration: “Today is the celebration of the Summer Solstice in our part of the world. The Turning point – The longest day and the shortest night. This is a time of fullness, of life in blossomed expression, of the forest filled with creatures awake and moving. The summer solstice is marked throughout the whole world and belongs not to one area or people, but stands for truth universal.  As one we stand in this circle, we attend the triumph of the light.  Now is the time to celebrate the sun, the fire that burns to give us life, and the fire that burns within us.”

 

Lughnasadh –  Approx. August 1st

Lughnasadh is one of the four traditional fire festivals and is the festival of the first harvest.   In early August, the tomatoes and vegetables ripen, the grains grow heavy in the fields, and we celebrate the bounty—and future bounty—of the land. In Ireland, this festival was (and is) celebrated with games, festivities, and the gathering of the berries and fruits of high summer.  Our grove, likewise, celebrates this with games and also offerings to the land in thanksgiving.

Here is a quote from our Lughnasadh ritual, “Lughnasadh marks the time of the beginning of harvesting which is then completed by Alban Elfed, the Autumnal Equinox.  This is a time of joy and of preparing for the Autumn and winter months.  It is now that we begin to reap what we have sown, and it is now that we understand the wisdom of careful preparation, of the sowing of good seeds in our lives, and in the lives of others.”

 

Alban Elfed / Fall Equinox  – Approx.  September 21st

                  Alban Elfed represents the eighth holiday in our wheel of the year.  We return once more to the time balance, when we enter the dark half of the year.  Alban Elfed is the third of the harvest holidays, and a time when we recognize the need for balance in our lands, our lives, in what we harvest, and what we store away for the coming winter months.   Alban Elfed is also the time of the OBOD East Coast Gathering, a gathering that takes place in Eastern Pennsylvania and that many of our grove members attend.

Here is a quote from our Alban Elfed ritual: “I proclaim the festival of Alban Elfed, The Light of the Water, at the time of the Autumn Equinox! I proclaim the symmetry of day and night! I proclaim the balance of summer and winter! But balance lasts but for a moment, for from this very time, night becomes longer than day for a full half-year, until at the other side of the Wheel, when we reach the moment of the equinox again, and day gains in strength and exceeds the time of night for a full half-year again.  Today we seek balance in our lives, drawing upon the energies of the four elements and this sacred time of balance.”