The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Landscapes, Part IV: Sacred Time, Sacred Space April 8, 2018

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

A woodburned sign bidding druids to enter a sacred space

“This is sacred time, this is sacred space.” At the end of the opening of every OBOD ritual, this powerful statement is made.  But what does “sacred time, sacred space” really mean? What is “the sacred” and how do we know it?  What is sacred in the context of American Druidry, where we do not have an abundance of ancient stone circles or accessible sacred sites? In this post, I want to spend some time today thinking about the ways we might enact the sacred in our own lives and lands as part of building sacred landscapes and re-enchanting our land.

 

In my first post in this series, I talked about the “disenchantment” of the world through industrialization and the rise of a religious tradition that did not acknowledge the land as sacred. And truly, a disenchanted worldview–where only the physical matters, and where the physical landscape is viewed only as a resource from which to extract wealth–literally strips the sacredness from everything: very little is “sacred” in our current culture. In this culture, money, and the pursuit of it, is the most sacred thing. Some of our national landmarks are tourist attractions, and may hold sacredness for someone (like the Veterans memorial for someone who lost a solider at war) but even these spaces are fairly rare. Churches, mosques, synagogues and other such places may also hold some sacredness still, but even that seems fairly minimal. Most major natural wonders are now tourist attractions, and tourists are anything but respectful or reverent. Even sacred places around the world, like Stonehenge, are routinely desecrated through garbage, graffiti, and more.

 

I think that what I’m describing is the reality of living in a disenchanted world, where nothing is truly sacred any longer. If we don’t know how to treat anything as sacred, how can we re-enchant our lands? In this post, I start to explore some of the building blocks and considerations for doing this.

 

The Building Blocks: Intentionality, Time, Meaning, Symbolism, and Energy

In order to create sacred spaces, we need to consider a number of different building blocks that help us pick up the pieces and begin again.

 

Intentionality. The first building block of bringing the sacred into everyday life is about intentionality and acknowledgement.  Sacredness happens in many cases because we choose to make it happen. We choose to offer an event, a place, an object, a mantra or prayer, or even a person some special meaning, some important significance, something that takes it from an everyday “mundane” thing and into something that has meaning beyond the every day. That that object , place, event, mantra, and so forth is something different, something out of the ordinary, something that requires reverence and special treatment in some way.  Individuals can create the sacred, but so can groups, on a different level.

 

Cherish Earth Sign - made from old barn wood

Cherish Earth Sign – made from old barn wood

For example, declaring intentions at the start of a ceremony where you are establishing sacred space and time (such as the OBOD opening) is a sacred act.  Speaking the words is a powerful act that sets your intentions. When I was homesteading in Michigan on my land, I created a lot of signage that also set intentions. My garden had a sign that said “Cherish Earth” (which will go on my new garden this year).  That sign set the intentions for me working in the garden each day–as a place of sacredness, as soil to cherish and nurture.

 

Time. Time helps us build a relationship with space. The more that we acknowledge and engage with a sacred place, thing, object, prayer, and so on over a period of time, the more sacredness it begins to take on. This is both because of human psychology (repeated patterns become individual rituals) but also because of magical reality (the more energy you put into something, the stronger that thing becomes). A simple analogy here might help illustrate this point. Let’s say you start with an empty field, and each time you visit a sacred place, you bring a stone. After 10 visits, you have 10 stones, and have built a stone cairn. After 100 visits, you have four stone cairns at each of the quarters as well as a whole stone circle and spiral labyrinth. Thus, repetition and time can certainly build sacredness in a space. This is an important concept in an American Druid setting and offers us one of the keys to sacred space and time here in the US.  Time, by the way, is one of the pieces often “missing” for American druids. We don’t have that sense of history and presence of old stone circles in the way that our UK counterparts do. Given that, we have different kinds of work and possibilities here on our soil.

 

Meaning. Ultimately, something is sacred because we choose to give it meaning. The nature of that meaning, and the spiritual experiences we may gain through that meaning, is paramount to establishing anything sacred. Part of the reason we have less sacred spaces, times, and places is that the only thing that has real meaning and singificance is money in our culture. Recognizing the meaning and importance of other things is part of establishing the sacred.

 

Symbolism. Symbolism here, also plays a role. We can draw upon existing symbolism (Awen, ogham, the pentacle/pentagram, runes, colors, animals, directions, etc) to bring more meaning to new places/objects/prayers, etc. that we want to bring more sacredness to. Symbolism is connected to meaning–some symbols have long-standing relationships with particular themes (like the pentacle and pentagram, which have been protective symbols for over 5,000 years and are woven into the fabric of our landscape). Symbols, then, help us shape meaning and establish the sacred.

 

Magic and Energy. Sacred space and sacred time is also, ultimately, about magic and about energy. The kind of energy that you can raise in a group setting through ritual (see next section, the kind of inherent energy that collects at the bottom of the waterfall, the telluric energy gushing forth out of a spring. In the hermetic tradition, the simple adage rings true: as above, so below; as within, so without. When we create sacred spaces in the physical world or interact with them, that raises energy on the inner planes. When we raise energy by calling the quarters, chanting, dancing, singing, and more, we bring forth energy, direct it, and shape it in some way. And for many sacred places and sacred landscapes, that energy stays in some way. In the case of the ley lines, as I described last week, the lines themselves faciliate the raising and transmission of energy all across the land.

 

 

Creating Sacred Time and Sacred Moments

Now that some of the building blocks have been covered, we can turn to ways to bring in the sacred on different scales and in different ways.  Sacred moments and time are not permanent sacred places, but ways of powerfully bringing in the sacred to everyday life.

 

Sacred Moments in Everyday Life. Let’s start by thinking about the different ways in which humans experience the sacred in everyday life.  Again, thinking about the building blocks above, we can bring in sacred meaning to everyday life in any number of ways—the key is to take a moment in time, give it meaning, and set intentionality.  When people say a prayer at a meal, for example, they are taking a sacred moment in everyday life.  You can also do this with natural events, as my example will now illustrate.

 

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Here’s a simple example: in late November or early December of 2017, the first snowfall happened. I happened to be at work that day, on the 5th floor of our building (the top floor). I went into this lobby area in my department and began watching it in awe and reverence—the snowflakes were big and lazy and beautiful.  As I stood, another colleague of mine also came to the window. We acknowledged each other and our mutual love of snow, and then we stood, watching it, for probably about 10 minutes. We recognized, in each other, that the first snowfall was a significant and sacred event, and we took a quiet moment in an otherwise very busy and hectic day to revere it. This is a simple example of observing a natural event, in every day life, and taking a moment to respect and honor that event in life.

 

Sacred Times through Ritual. Another way in which we intentionally create sacred space and sacred time is through ritual. A lot of effort in the druid tradition goes into opening and closing a sacred space—usually about half of our ritual time is devoted to this activity. Why is it so critical?  For one, it takes time to do it right and well, to acknowledge the powers and call them forth, to protect the space, to cleanse and bless it.  But really, I think a lot of the time spent is in the mind—helping us come out of the mundane and cross the threshold into sacred awareness. We also declare it in some way, by declaring the space open, declaring sacred space/sacred time, and so forth—the declaration of it, the acknowledgement, that all of us are in agreement (in a group) or that you are doing this sacred thing is critical to the task at hand. We use intentionality, symbolism, and time to do this work.

 

Sacred Actions.  Another kind of sacredness we can bring to everyday life is the idea of living life in a sacred and intentional manner.  This is the kind of ‘everyday’ living that brings sacred awareness to your life.  For me, this involves ecological living and permaculture: I use permaculture principles as a guiding light to help me make decisions and recognize that with each moment, I am interacting on sacred land—my actions can help or harm that land.

 

Sacred Places: Natural and Created

Moving beyond moments, we can think about the kinds of natural and created larger sacred spaces that we might engage with, particularly here in the US, in places were we don’t have bountiful stone circles or ancient sites.

 

Sacred Places: Natural.  There are those places that have such inherent beauty and magic that they are already sacred.  These are places that we may come upon that simply have an existing “energy” about them that is so powerful and potent that you move forward with reverence and awe.

 

I’ve spoken about one of these places at length, here, on this blog: Laurel Hill State Park’s old growth Hemlock grove.  I remember the first time I walked into that grove, it had such a sacred presence about it. It took my breath away.  I had never seen anything like it—the ancient hemlocks, powerful and wise—just stood, waiting for me to do something. It is extremely dark, the understory is minimal, and the trees just go up and up.  Their trunks are so wide and old. It looks nothing like the other forests of Pennsylvania, who have all been logged multiple times and are in the place of regrowth.  Since that moment, I’ve spent a lot of time seeing other people, random people, not just druids I bring there, interact with the space.  They enter the grove, their eyes light up, their mouths open, and they grow quiet. It is spectacular, it is sacred, and it is meaningful to the everyday person.

 

Sacred Places: Intentional. Then there are those spaces that we create, that we build, over a period of time.  This might be individual or small sacred spaces like I’ve written about before: stone circles, sacred gardens, bee and butterfly sanctuaries, etc.  These are wonderful ways of bringing the sacred into our landscapes and everyday lives.

 

Stones at Four Quarters

Stones at Four Quarters

Or, this might be spaces that we create together, with our hearts and hands, like the stone circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. Four Quarters has been engaged in an ongoing ritual to create a stone circle for almost a quarter of a century—and it shows. When you walk into the space there, the stones sing to you. They greet you. They each have personality, presence, magic. It is unlike any other place I have been on this land in North America.  There can be a social aspect to creating sacred spaces. The idea of people coming together, for a common goal and vision, and lending their energy to meet that goal is a powerful experience.

 

 

Sacred as Relationship and Co-Creation

Creating sacred space and sacred time is ultimately about relationship.  It is about you being in relationship to something else: a waterfall, a moment in time, a stone circle, your relationship with what it is that you feel is sacred.  It is about you taking time out of regular, busy life to engage with the sacred and to co-create the sacred.  We co-create the sacred with each other, and we co-create the sacred with the power of the living earth. For me, this is why regular visits and regular rituals/moments are a critical part of thinking about sacred spaces and places. Like an old friend, I am building a relationship with a sacred space or place and that simply takes time.

 

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Building Sacred Landscapes: Disenchantment and Re-Enchantment of the World March 18, 2018

Several years ago, I recounted a story of my experiences with the considerable energetic shift in telluric (earth) energy at Beltane in 2014. I remeber the moment so distinctly. I had planned on doing my solo Beltane celebration in my sacred grove. I walked down to the sacred grove and then, as soon as I connected with the energy of the land there to begin to open sacred space, everything felt wrong.  It felt like the land was weeping, the vital energy being drained and scattered. I later found out that this was the day when Enbridge’s oil pipeline, line 6B, which was put in 1/4 mile north of my home, was turned on. That particular oil pipeline carried tar sands oil, the worst kind of oil, with the highest environmental cost. Enbridge had dug the pipeline over a several year period in our areat. I’ll never forget my experience that day–what was planned on being a festive and wonderful holiday instead became a day of deep earth healing and telluric energy work.

 

Stone Circle in Michigan

Stone Circle in Michigan

Frequently, I hear other druids, those on similar earth-honoring paths, and those sensitive to earth energies telling these stories: how all the trees on the block were cut and weeping, how the river near their house is sick, how the land seems to be crying. The times we live in beyond difficult, they are extraordinarily challenging for those of us who walk this kind of spiritual path and are paying attention. Anyone who cares to pay attention can see what is happening, but the spiritual path also opens up other senses that give us deeper insight. Changes that happen not only on the physical but on the metaphysical. People who read this blog, who meet me in person, who share these stories want to know one thing often: they want to know what they can do. 

 

This experience, combined with so many others’ sharing their own concerns and stories, has certainly continued to resonate with me as I returned to Western Pennsylvania, which itself has a lot of exploitation and “resource extraction” activities (mines, gas wells, logging, etc). For many years, I’ve been in a place of observing and interacting on the land, and seeing a lot of energetic and physical damage. Due to some of these experiences, the last few years, I’ve written extensively on land healing and how we can do that healing as part of druid spiritual practice (for many of the land healing posts, see post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5, post 6, post 7, post 8, and post 9).  That is, I’ve been thinking about our work as druids in the landscape and how we might be a force for good. Last year at the Mid-Atlantic OBOD Gathering in the US (MAGUS), I worked with a team to develop a Celtic Galdr ritual for land healing for the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid threat, which was a moving experience for everyone who participated. This kind of land healing work is critical, necessary, and I believe is part of the work many of us are called to do in these destructive and challenging times.

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

Hemlocks in a quiet grove

However, what strikes me today is this: these are all very reactive spiritual responses to what is happening. We see a problem, we want to do something. That seems to be the way of things so much right now: there is so much going wrong, so much bad, that people wanting to do something good are put in a place of continuing to respond and do their best to mitigate the damage.  We also see this a lot in progressive political or environmental groups: it seems every day, I get another email describing someone up to no good and asking me to write my politician to do something. This is also the cultural narrative that we face as people: the idea of doing less bad, rather than more good, is one we are sold often. In fact, in the film Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective, Ben Falk, a Vermont-based permaculture designer puts forth this statement: rather than feeling like we are simply a force that can be “less bad” what if we were instead a force for good?  Taking his cue, we might ask, “what does ‘being a force for good’ look like for druids, for those those integrating sacred living with nature spirituality?”

 

A lot of people would answer this question with thinking about direct action in the physical world.  For me, I practice physical land regenreation and build ecosystems through the use of permaculture principles and permaculture design. Creating soil, composting, planting trees, , regenerating ecosystems, spreading seeds, wildtending and working to bring back healthy ecosystems.  Other individual actions, like  bringing our own lives into alignment with the living world through sustainable practices, are clearly part of this work as well. The physical proactivity is clear, measurable, and impactful. You can literally see the seeds sprouting, you can literally see the insects buzzing about and the soil rich with worms and mycelial hyphae.

 

But what about spiritual proactivity?  How might we go from responding to severe energetic damage to building something anew? Something resilent, something that is ours? What does that work look like, and how might we do it?

 

Capitalism and the Disenchantment of the World

In order to answer the questions I just posed, a quick delve into western philosophy and sociology is in order–for we have to understand some of the way the world is now in order to know what to do about it and how we can engage in spiritual proactivity. In the social sciences, the theory of “disenchantment” tied to Western ways of being is excellent framing for the problem at present, as this “disenchantment” has led to many of the above problems that so many of us find ourselves  reacting to and wrestling with.

 

Extraction activities lead to pollution

Extraction activities lead to pollution

Max Weber was a German philosopher and economist who wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century and is considered to be the father of modern sociology. In several works, he described the shifts in the Western World that came about with the advent of capitalism–including the assumptions, values, and systems in which all of us in the Western world are currently bound up in. In the Sociology of Religion (1922), he explored the “disenchantment of the world” in relationship to modern capitalism and the rise of Protestantism, particularly, Puritainsim. Weber explains that while captialism existed among many world religions in antiquity and the middle ages, it was Protestantism and Puratisim that allowed modern captialism to take shape due to the empahsis on work above all else. And part of this was through the removal of magic from the human conciousness:

 

“Only ascetic Protestantism completely eliminated magic and the supernatural quest for salvation, of which the highest form was intellectualist, contemplative illumination. It alone created the religious motivations for seeking salvation manly through immersion in one’s worldly vocation (Beruf)…. For the various popular religions of Asia, contrast to ascetic Protestantism, the world remained a great enchanted garden, which the practical way to onent oneself, or to find security in this world or the next, was to revere or coerce the spirits and seek salvation through ritualistic, idolatrous, or sacramental procedures.” (269-270) (my emphasis).

 

While modern capitalism was on the rise, particularly with the colonizing and later founding of the United States, the world was being “disenchanted” and stripped of its magic.  As the above quote explains, the modern capitalist pursuit of money for the sake of money’s sake was, in fact, rooted in a religion who valued, among other things, the over-intellectualizing of spiritual practice and the removal of anything that was meta-physical (beyond the physical, the world of spirit).  This disenchantment, I believe, has led to so many of the problems we see and that I described in the opening to this post: without magic, without a sense of sacred, the world itself and all life in it, human or otherwise, are simply resources to be extracted.  We see this current of thinking every day and manifested in every way.

 

The “enchanted garden” of the world was essentially stripped from human conciousness in western society. The results are certainly present today: in mainstream culture, the very idea that you can talk to trees, or that the world may contain magic, is so laughable and outlandish that many people who believe such things end up “in the broom closet” hiding their beliefs for fear of mockery. I know of druids who have been fired from jobs for having their minority religion status revealed: all because they dare to believe in an enchanted world.  The only place that such enchantment remains is in fantasy movies, books, or video games–the idea of magic is still present, but only in a safe “fictional” way (in some ways making real magic even more outlandish).

 

In another work, Weber writes that the participation in the modern capitalist system, which he argues that the Protestant work ethic essentially created, was like an “iron cage” for all members born into it.  Iron is what drove industrialization after all, and so it is a very fitting metaphor. He writes, “This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” (p 183).

 

Weber was writing nearly 100 years ago, in the height of industrialization, when the world had undergone a terrifying transition. Since that time, consumerism has been added to the industrialization mix, but the same dominant worldview (what John Michael Greer would call the “religion of progress”) that was present in his day is still at work today. And so, we’ve been born into this “iron cage” capitalist system that has viewed the world as nothing more than a resource to extract, as something with no enchantment, no inherent magic.  These ideas (which Weber argues are rooted in Protestantism’s work ethic) eventually created the most destructive human civilization in the world.

 

Its heard to read the quotes from Max Weber and not feel a bit of despair. The conflict of everyday living and nature spirituality is there, for so many, because we are still locked up in the iron cage of capitalism and the larger system: even if we want to live differently, even if we do everything we can to live differently, the system is always working against us, the iron wheels of progress turning and crushing. Even if we don’t want to participate, that system is outside of our door, moving and grinding away.

 

So many magical places!

So many magical places!

But there is another possibility: the possibility of rebuilding an enchanted world.  The possibility of building a counter-system, something different, something better. Certainly, this is at the core, perhaps unspoken, of many modern earth-centered movements: bringing the magic back into the world, back into our lives, and back into our landscapes.  And so, now, we turn to spiritual proactivity and the re-enchantment of the world.

 

Reenchantment of the World: Relationships and Landscapes

 

It is important to note for our puposes here that the ideas of capitalism and consumerism were ideas long before they were realities. In the same way that ideas  become the realities of capitalism, so can ideas about enchancement and magic become realities again in our world. If humanity is to surviv the post-industrial age, I believe they need to become realities again. The concept of the world as an enchanted place, concepts that have been with humans since the dawn of time, are not lost. They still reside in the hearts and realities of every person who takes up a druid path or similar nature-oriented spiritual practice.  But if we look at so many non-mainstream movements: druidry, nature-based spirituality, neo-paganism, permaculture, urban farming, yoga/mindfulness, traditional herbalism–so many things happening right now, that new system where the world is sacred, where nature is valued, where the land is an enchanted place is already being tested, expanded, created.  People are getting fed up with the “iron cage” and seeking a different path forward–they are working to bring the magic back in.

 

When I say “enchantment” I refer not to the inherent magic in the world, that has always been there and continues to be present, but rather, our ability as humans to access that enchantment and to work, physically and metaphysically, to raise and shape the magic of the world.

 

For those of us who pay attention not only to the phsyical world, but the metaphysical world, there is a lot of opportunity both for individual and group action to engage in re-enchantment. I believe we are in the process of creating a larger vision for what re-enchanting our world might look like. There is no one way to do this, but many ways, and it is only through the attempts at doing something that we will find our way forward with it. And for this, is useful to begin in the past, considering what ancient humans did, and the wisdom they have left us with.

 

Re-enchantment of the world can mean any number of things, but for our purposes, I’m going to focus my discussion in two areas: developing sacred relationships with the land itself and re-enchanting the world through sacred landscapes. Let’s now consider each of these in turn:

 

Sacred Relationships and Connections:  Ultimately, relationship and connection is at the heart of reenchanting the world.  Enchantment is both a physical reality in the world, a metaphysical reality in the world, and a perception/awareness of such magic. As I’ve written about before, I see druidry as inherently connection-oriented, that is, modern druidry seeks to reconnect people with nature, their own spirits, and their creative practices.  This is part of the “relational” work of re-enchantment.  Connection work can manifest in the building a personal relationship with the living earth: sacred work with trees, learning the names and uses of plants, recognizing our own dependency on the earth, communing and connecting with plant and animal spirits.  This is inherently ‘re-enchantment’ work, and it is primarily done as part of individual spiritual practice.  We’ll explore these concepts more in future blog posts.

 

Sacred Spaces/Landscapes:  Second, however, is the work on the land iself.  Ancient human peoples saw the landscape itself as sacred–both what was naturally forming and already there, but also, and this is key–what they created and enacted upon the landscape.  That is, enchantment in the landscape comes from a collaboration between the existing splendor and magic of nature and what humans have carefully created.

Creating sacred spaces, places, and landscapes

Creating sacred spaces, places, and landscapes (Stones Rising at Four Quarters)

We might think about creating sacred spaces and sacred landscapes on an individual level. This might mean creating sacred spaces, stone stacking, snow sacred geometry, and even the idea of sacred land.  These are things individuals, with some land or none at all, can do regularly to think about how to energize and bless the land in a very proactive manner.

 

But we might also think about this on a group level–which is what many ancient humans did.  How and what might we build together? What shape would it take? What would it do? The topics of ley lines, sacred geography and earthworking offer much here. We have plenty of roadmaps left by the ancients:  the ley line system in Great Britain, the songlines of the Aboriginal Austrialians, the various other kinds of magical and sacred pathways throughout the world.  These ancient systems offer us tremendous truth: that human-assisted magic is still present in our world.  And that we can build our own systems, anew.

 

Conclusion

Since this post is already getting long, over the next few weeks, I’ll first be tackling the idea of “sacred lanscapes” and considering various ways in which we might “the sacred” in terms our land. By drawing upon other peoples and times, thinking about how we might develop sacred landscapes today. I will also note that re-enchanting the world and creating sacred landscapes this is part of the magical work that we will be engaging in at MAGUS 2018, so if you are planning on coming to the gathering, you will have a chance to do this kind of  work in a group ritual and workshop setting and talk more about it with others!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Working with Trees in Urban Settings August 13, 2017

Maples growing up through grate--been there for years!

Maples growing up through grate–been there for years!

I walk down the sidewalk of a street in the small town that I call home.  As I journey, I see a crabapple friend with ripening fruit, her leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. I reach out to her, and tell her I look forward to harvesting some in the fall.  She is pleased, as her fruit is largely ignored, and delighted that I will return.  I see others along my walk: horse chestnuts, lindens, mulberries, serviceberries, balsam poplars–many trees that are different species from the forests where I often tread.  Finally, I walk across a grate and wave to the maples growing up from below, in the four foot space below the grate and the drainage channel and into someone’s driveway. These urban trees are often shaped by humans in ways forests are not: an odd growth habit becuase of pruning under a powerline, a trunk and roots spilling over a sidewalk, a dwarf nature due to selective breeding, growing in a place unfathomable (like the maples).  And yet, each is beautiful and unique, no different than those in less human-dominated settings.

 

As readers of my blog will likely know, I am very much a “forest druid” when at all possible.  I spend a lot of time wandering around in forests, communing and talking with the trees there in quietude, far away from bustling city and town life.  But, in the last two years in particular, I have also spent a good deal of time with urban trees as I have been living in a small town and walking everywhere. I wanted to take some time to talk about working with trees in urban settings, and how that work might be different (or similar) to some of my earlier suggestions on druid tree workings. 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, and establishing deep tree workings.  You might want to look at these if you haven’t already!

 

Pruning, Cementing, and Tending

Trees have a very different relationship with people in more urban settings. Urban trees have a lot of human management–some of it good, and some of it less so.  Urban trees may be heavily pruned to keep them small, full, or away from houses or power lines.  Some pruning is healthy for the tree, but some pruning (like taking off all branches and leaving only the top of the tree so it can resprout) is very destructive. Urban trees take the shape of human desires and needs in urban settings in ways that they don’t in more natural settings. I think, in some ways, this changes their nature: the tree who simply grows in a forest is fundamentally different than one who has been carefully shaped around the power lines on a particular street with regular human interaction.  This certainly makes them different than those in the forest: not different in a good or bad way, just different.  The outer shaping does shape their personalities and in some cases, what work you can do with them on a non-physical level.

 

In the process of looking at various pieces of property (a process still ongoing), I came across a curious phenomenon.  It appears at some time in the past, old oaks were so highly regarded in this town that if one were to start to get hollow, the city would fill the oak’s hollow with concrete to keep it going.  One such huge oak, which I met while looking at a possible property, had been filled with concrete and was over 200 years old.  Of course, this means that nobody will ever want to try to cut this tree down–which I find a nice defense mechanism.  I don’t think trees are tended this way much anymore here, but it is good to know they once were.  I know of at least two other concrete-filled trees that are solid and growing well in my area.

 

In the forests and fields (particularly those forests that were at one time cleared and turned into farmland, which describes nearly all of the forests in this area) we have occasional very large, old trees.  These were all mostly fence trees or corner of property trees.  Trees that had barbed wire attached to them that eventually grew inside of them–trees that no sawmill would touch.  I think its the same with these old concrete-filled oaks.  So in some ways, being in an urban environment gives a tree a great deal of attention and, in some cases, protection that it wouldn’t get in another setting.

 

Working With Trees

Urban trees are often a lot more “awake” than many of their forest counterparts, especially trees in parks or other well-tended places.  Think about it this way– in a remote forest (or even a well visited one) there are trees who have very likely never had any human interaction at all. A human has never touched them, never tried to speak with them, and much of my earlier conversation about going “slowly” with the forest trees use this as a somewhat underlying assumption.

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

The Oak Grove in the Morning Light

Urban trees live surrounded by humans, were almost certainly planted by humans, watered by humans, and generally have regular human interaction.  On the positive side of the interaction, in a local park children will play among the trees, climb them, make friends with trees, and hug them regularly.  Adults often come to enjoy their shade, sit against them, read a book, use them to hang up a hammock and more. On my campus, for example, we have an “oak grove” that is a very public and highly used space. The grove is probably about an acre in size and is the center of campus, so we have about 15 buildings on the edges of the grove. Within the grove are about 80 or so mostly oak trees, many of them quite old.  On a daily basis, these trees have regular interaction with the students, faculty, staff, and visitors to the campus.  They are extremely open and friendly and are used to human interaction on various levels.  These trees are wonderful to talk with and work with because of that, and I often walk through the oak grove and converse with them.

 

On the other side of this, some urban trees have experienced higher than necessary levels of trauma, and might be angry at humans.  Trees who have had vicious pruning (where they are taken to a stump or just a trunk can fall in this category, as well as those who have had branches broken for no reason, etc.  Or, what is happening in my town might happen and make the trees, as a tribe, angry.  Here, people say that “the city is at war with trees” and it seems true–sidewalk work last year has had them cutting down hundreds of old trees, eventually replacing some this spring with younglings who cast no shade.  A tree-less main street is a sad sight. But even in the 2 years I lived on one street, 12 large shade trees were all cut down (for purposes beyond me) and the street was much less pleasant. So you might also find some angry or sullen trees who feel violated by humans or who have lost very good friends (and lots of them) in a more urban setting. These trees may even physically lash out, whapping people with branches, tripping people with their roots, and more.

 

For these kinds of trees, I often do some of the land healing techniques I wrote about earlier: apology, witnessing, honoring them, giving them space but coming by often to let them know there are good humans out there.  For the sake of the tribe and the living, I also think it is good to honor the fallen trees (see more on this post here). One of my favorite things to do here involves taking charoals and doing healing drawings and ogham work on the freshly cut stumps and leaving little blessings (in the form of acorns, etc) at the trunks.

 

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

Some of the new strange looking oaks planted after the other trees were cut

A third thing that may happen with trees in urban areas is that they live in an undesirable area (like next to warehouses, docks, or train tracks).  These trees also don’t have a lot of human interaction because of where they are, even though they are substantially impacted by human activity. They may be very open or very shut down, depending on the tree.  I have a few friends who are walnuts who live right next to the railroad tracks that come through town.  They are always happy when I stop by because otherwise, nobody pays them any mind.

 

Figuring out what kind of typical interaction that the tree has had with humans is a good start to developing any kind of deeper relationship with said tree–simple observation and interaction works well here!

 

Variety and Species

Urban settings give you a chance to meet an entirely different ecology with different kinds of trees than are typically growing wild in a nearby forest.  I have found so many delightful trees in my own town, including horse chestnut; linden; mulberry; an extraordinary amount of crab apples,  fruiting dogwoods, and serviceberry; ornamental mostly thornless hawthorn (which I don’t think have the same potent medicine as those with the thorns); fruiting sour cherries, peaches, and pears; walnuts; and many more.  Some parks, towns, or college campuses may have planting programs that focus on bringing in a lot of diversity of plant life–so you can find many rare species (and fruiting species) in those kinds of places.  I have really enjoyed finding and mapping the many different species of trees on my campus and on my walk to work as a simple ecology and nature identification practice.

 

My friend the weeping cedar.

My friend the weeping cedar.

Another feature of the urban tree is that you can also see an interesting variety of cultivated trees descended from wild stock–like this beautiful weeping White Cedar that I often pass on my walk to work.  It is a beautiful tree that I would never encounter in a forest setting because it was bred and planted.

 

Trees that are pruned or growing in a different environment may lead to a different look and growth pattern, which matters for identification.  For example, my campus has a pruned beech that allows me to reach branches to harvest nuts, a thing that *never happens* with the beeches in the forest!  And there are lots of other oddities you see–like the maples growing up from the grate in the photo that opened this post!

 

Urban trees have to stand up to different kinds of demands than their forest counterparts.  Of particular note, pollution of various kinds can be hard of certain species.  For example, at one time, sugar maples were planted heavily in city areas (and were known as the “gentleman’s tree”), but they are very pollution intolerant, and as cities began generating more pollution with the advent of power plants, factories, and automobiles, sugar maples couldn’t survive and other species were planted in these areas.  In smaller urban areas, like the one where I live, you can still find sugar maples in ways that you can’t in the larger cities due to pollution.

 

The other thing you can see in urban settings is how trees can be adapted for different kinds of uses. One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen happen here is that people have taken the majestic eastern hemlock and have used it as a hedge.  I had no idea hemlock would grow in a hedge if pruned and planted correctly, but this is quite common here.

 

The Nature of the Spiritual Work

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Most of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog prior to this have involved being quiet and sitting with trees, talking with them, and more.  When you are working with trees in an urban environment, of course, you have to deal with people, and that can really change the nature of the work you are doing.  There are two ways around this: tree workings in plain sight and tree workings when others aren’t present.

 

In plain sight

Tree workings in plain sight are just as they appear: you do the work with the tree in plain sight, with others (maybe a lot of passerby) around.  This usually means you need to be quiet about the work you are doing.  I wouldn’t be lighting candles and waving around a smudge stick or chanting loudly at a tree in a local park–you’d get too much unwanted attention.  Unwanted attention from passerby can disrupt the work you are trying to do (and is rarely conducive to this kind of work).  So instead, sitting quietly against a tree, leaning quietly against a tree, having a book in your lap against a tree, for example, are all good ways.  One of my favorite ways of working magic with trees is to sit against a tree and put my headphones in my ears (but not turn them on). Then it looks like I’m just chilling out with my eyes closed, listening to music and enjoying the shade when I’m really sitting quietly and communing with the tree. This works so well and nobody looks at you twice.

I like to have people avoid staring, as I think it disrupts my own energetic work and the concentration I need to commune with the tree.  Some people or groups, however, might want to make their tree workings a much more public and open thing. The one exception to this is my flute music–I sometimes play the panflute for a tree, weaving magic and energetic work into the song, and people may stop to listen to the music.  I’m ok with this, they can enjoy it too.

 

When others aren’t present

The other way work with trees in many urban settings is to be out to do tree work when other people are not typically around. Here’s what I mean: a light warm rain is a good time to visit a tree (as long as you don’t mind getting wet). As is a the early morning, a snowstorm, or other days/times where people are less likely to be present.  My favorite time for tree workings (especially along busy walking routes) is early Sunday morning, when a good number of my neighbors are either in church or in bed!  This gives you some privacy and allows you to be undisturbed to do tree workings.

 

Of course, if you have access to trees that you’ve planted or that are growing in your yard, you have a lot more privacy and some of what I’ve said here may not apply.

 

Honoring the Fruits and Nuts

“Are crab apples edible?” is one of the most common questions that I get when I take people out on plant walks every fall. This question reflects the state of knowledge about trees and edibility and I think demonstrates why so many tree harvests in urban environment go unused (except by squirrels and other wildlife).  There are a surprising amount of people who believe that crabapples are poisonous (and then I let them sample some crabapple jelly!)

 

One of the things that has happened as humans have become disconnected from nature is that the fruits and yields of trees are no longer honored as they once were. 150 years ago, any apple tree was a prized possession, used to make cider or for fresh eating/preservation (depending on the variety), so prized that they would be wassailed and carefully pruned each year to ensure abundant harvests.  Now, people prefer to plant dwarf varities to “minimize the mess” in the fall because they won’t use the fruits. Black Walnuts were used for eating as well as dying, ink making, and medicinal preparations. Further back, entire cultures depended on the acorn as a staple food source.

 

Today, though, the abundance of trees is often seen as a waste product. In my many years in gathering leaves in the fall for my garden, I have also found incredible amounts of tree harvests thrown in those bags. Once I found about 25 lbs of black walnuts, in the same year, I also found over 100 lbs of apples that had all dropped from an urban tree and had been bagged up (my friends and I pressed them and they turned out to be a fabulous cider apple). These free foods aren’t valued to a population who aren’t sure if crab apples are edible or that know how to husk a black walnut (or how good it tastes) because that knowledge is no longer in common circulation.

 

Acorns

Acorns

And so, I believe that one of the best things that you can do to really connect with urban trees is to recognize their yields, honor them by harvesting and using their yields, and plant some of their windfall.  This is certainly sacred work, and it can become magical work as well in terms of making inks, applesauce, and other tree-based items, food, or drink that are used for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  But just as importantly, when you take the tree within you, you connect with the tree on a new level, and that’s also important work.

 

Since I took a few friends harvesting serviceberries earlier this summer, the serviceberries have greeted me with fondness and friendship.  My two friends and I quietly and excitedly gorged oursevles on the delicious berries, made offerings to the trees, and picked–and preserved–over ten pounds of serviceberry.  These were all from trees in our urban area and on campus!

 

Moving the Seedlings

Another thing that happens to urban trees that is that they don’t have the chance to reproduce like forest trees, especially because of weed wackers and mowers.  It is crushing have one’s young come up around them and then have them all destroyed year after year. Urban trees have spoken to me in depth about this and so, I make it a point to save seeds and seedlings of varieties of trees that are native or naturalized to our area and plant them in other places.  I certainly can’t save them all, but even saving a few small seedlings can make a big difference–and the next time you come through, that mother tree will be so thankful–you will have made a friend for life, both in the seedling you saved and in the tree who produced the progeny. I believe this kind of work is some of the best ways to honor urban trees (and gain their goodwill so that you can do other kinds of work with them).

 

Offerings and Songs

Urban trees, these days, are seen not usually as living beings but as something nice to make the neighborhood less sunny or look good.  This is particular true of the way that planning commissions and developers think about trees.  Bringing them back in line with sacred practice, and recognizning their worth and sacredness, is an important part of how you might work with them.

 

I like to make these little “blessing” tokens.  They are usually small stones or the caps of acorns, small pieces of bark, or the shells of hickory nuts. I gather these up in great quantity and then I bake them at 400 degrees for 15 min (to ensure that no pathogens or unknown biological agents are being spread). Then, taking my homemade walnut ink, I paint a runic symbol I designed on them, do a blessing at a major holiday, and then take a few with me anytime I am hiking or walking around town.  I use these little blessings often for work with urban trees, even as I walk to campus, I will leave one tucked in at the roots or upon in the branches.  This is a small gesture and can be done without too much attention, but shows honor to the tree.

 

Other possible offerings include singing to the trees, making music, pouring a bit of spring water around the roots, or simply raising some energy and giving it to the tree.

 

Ritual work too, works well.  One of the ways I do this expands upon the token idea.  I’ll do some ritual work designed as a land blessing and put that ritual work into water (in a typical water bottle anyone would carry) or into a token, like a stone.  After the ritual concludes, I’ll immediately take the blessed water/blessed stone to the tree itself and water the roots or place the stone somewhere with the tree.  This is always well received and can be done quietly in public areas.

 

Guerrilla Grafting and Planting

I remember a day when I was visiting some friends out west and we decided to do some “guerrilla grafting” to grow some full sized eating fruit on crab apple trees. We had cut some scion wood from healthy apple trees and took the wood, grafting tape, and pruners and small knives with us.  It was a good time for it, right around January wassailing, when the trees were dormant.  It was a quiet Sunday morning, with few cars or people.  We put on orange vests took out a few cones for good measure to look like we were supposed to be there (hiding in plain sight), and we grafted away.  I didn’t live in the area but I have been told in the years since that may of the grafts took and now the crab apples on that street also produce a nice variety of fresh eating apples.  This is a fun idea and can make urban trees that have been particularly chosen for their ornamental fruits (rather than for eating) more abundant and productive!

 

Concluding Thoughts

Just like urban people, urban trees are of a different sort–not better, not worse, just different.  Learning to work with them closely gives you unique opportunities not afforded to you in the wilds. They need you as much as you need them. I hope that some readers will also share any experiences or work that they do with urban trees!

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Cultivating the Flow of Awen in our Lives June 11, 2017

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

 

What the poet Taliesin writes of is the “Awen”, a central principle in the druid tradition meaning “flowing inspiration” or “divine inspiration.”   In ancient times, bards embraced the flow of Awen to be masters of memory, sound, and expression. The bardic path was a lifelong pursuit and vocation; bards would spending many years (by one Scottish account, 7 years[1]) learning the bardic arts which included the arts of memory, diction, rhyming, and composition.

 

The flowing of Awen isn’t just an experience, it is a magical and meditative process. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself–when you have a moment of inspiration and then begin to create, losing all track of time, all sense of where you are or what is going on around you–the thing you are creating is the only thing that matters, and you flow with your media.  Hours or days later, you emerge with something incredible.

 

A simple awen painting

A simple awen painting

Today, bringing the flow of awen into one’s life and connecting with one’s creative expression is one of the core aspects of the path of druidry. The druid path is one that embraces creativity, especially, the creativity inspired by nature.  How does the awen flow? How can we invoke it, channel it, and bring it into our lives? And what is the benefit for doing so? This post represents my first in a longer series on the Bardic Arts, that is, a series of posts that explore the relationship between nature, creativity, and druidry. We begin this series with a discussion of awen, for it is from the Awen that all things flow.

 

What is Awen?

Poets like Taliesin, known as the “Chief of Bards” in the 6th century and reported author of The Book of Taliesin,  spoke of the Awen not only as an abstract thing (as the poem above suggests) but also as a muse who works through the poet to bring forth great works. In the translation of the Book of Taliesin, “Awen” is frequently translated into “muse” but also as “flow” or “inspiration” depending on the poem. In some poems in the Book of Taliesin, the awen is personified (“the muse’s prophecy is…”) while in other poems, the awen is a more abstract thing “The muse flows…”). In the British Library Harleian manuscripts of the Historia Brittonium, Talhearn, a poet, is described as “tat aguen” (aguen = awen) translated as the “father of inspiration.”  Other cultures, of course, have also personified the flow of creativity in the form of a muse who are deities or spirits that help the creativity flow (such as the Greek muses).

 

William Owen-Pughe, who was a contemporary of Iolo Morganwg (from whose manuscripts helped start the modern Druid revival), offered a definition of Awen tied to “aw” (flow) and “en” (spirit).  So we have “flowing of spirit” or “flowing of inspiration” as a common definition used today within the druid communities. Other terms I’ve heard used for awen in the druid community include “divine inspiration” or “creative inspiration” or simply “inspiration.” All this is to say that Awen is a force of energy that flows within us, helping us bring forth and express our creative spirits.

 

Awen History and Origins

A  dig into the history of the word and concept of “Awen” can help us understand the awen deeper level. The Awen, like many other things in the modern druid revival tradition, was brought through the work of Iolo Morganwg in Barddas. Iolo drew upon existing Welsh traditions from much older manuscripts that he incorporated into Barddas.  Modern druid scholars have worked to trace the Awen to much older roots. Two full (and fascinating) reports of their work can be found here and here.

 

Of note, Angela Grant explains the research she did at the British Library to attempt to dig into the history and origins of the Awen. She reports on a manuscript she found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England which, she writes, “describes how the historian Nennius, on being challenged by an English scholar that the Welsh had no alphabet of their own, produced for his challenger an alphabet that bears a considerable resemblance to Coelbren, though more complex. It also contains an awen symbol (joined at the top) as one of its letters. This does not represent an individual letter but the Latin word ‘ego’ is ascribed to it : ‘I am that I am …”   Grant also traced Awen back to a “proto-Brittonic root for “breath” and “breathing” that ties to the English word “inspiration.”  From her research, we see that inspiration is connected to life itself–to breathing and to the ego/self.  To create is to exist, to breathe, to be.  So, by extension, one way we might think about the awen is that it can represent the fulfilled creative self.

 

The awen's light shining down on my sacred grove

The awen’s light shining down on my sacred grove

One of the stories that feature the Awen in the druid tradition (and is used extensively in OBOD’s teachings) is in the Mabinogion.  It is the story of how Taliesin became the greatest bard of the land. In a nutshell, Taliesin was once Gwion, a boy who is given the task of stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron while she brewed up a magical spell that bestows the Awen.  The blessing of the Awen was intended for Ceridwen’s son who was hideously ugly; she thought if she brewed up the Awen as a blessing, her son could at least be wise. Gwion accidentally gains the power of the Awen after having three drops from the cauldron splash on his thumb; the drops burn him so he instinctively sticks his thumb in his mouth to cool and inadvertently gains the Awen. Ceridwen is furious and begins to chase him. As part of the chase, the two transform into many animals, with Gwion barely escaping with each transformation. Gwion finally turns into a grain of wheat and jumps into pile of wheat in a barn. Ceridwen transforms into a “high crested” black hen who devours all of the wheat, including the grain that is Gwion. Inadvertently, she becomes impregnated with Gwion.  She plans on killing him when he is born, but instead, abandons him on the sea, tying him in a leather bag.  There, he is rescued by either a prince or fisherman, depending on the version of the story. The newborn child grows up to be Taliesin, the greatest bard of all time.  (For a really delightful musical version of this tale, I’d recommend Damh the Bard’s Ceridwen and Taliesin).

 

This tale offers a tremendous amount of insight into the Awen (and is well worth meditating upon).  Some of its lessons include that awen it is something that can be bestowed–and not always when we expect it.  Some of us may be struck with the Awen out of nowhere, just like Gwion when he was scalded by the three drops of Awen. The power of Awen is also a kind of initiation–the flow of awen into our lives open up great possibility. Awen is transformative.

 

Awen and Nature

Taliesin himself says: “pren onhyt yw vy awen” one translation being as “my muse[awen] is wooden!” Or perhaps, for druids, a more fitting translation would be, “my muse is nature!” And certainly, the relationship between nature and creativity are well worth considering. This statement can be interpreted in many ways: the trees themselves are Taliesin’s muses, or perhaps, he is inspired often by the living earth. Still another interpretation might be that he is nature’s instrument for expression. All of these can be simultaneously true, and I believe, represent some of the key connections between creativity, the bard, and nature.

 

How can we let nature be our muse?  Spending time there, observing nature, paying attention to her sounds, her movements, her colors, her patterns, her flows–all of these things offer us great inspiration for stories, songs, dances, artwork, and writing.  Model nature in our own creative works, and allow nature’s patterns, teachings, and inspiration to flow through us.  Many artists, for example, get great joy out of “plein air” painting, where you paint outside and in the presence of that which is inspiring.

 

Looking to the teachings of the river also provides druids with a deeper understanding of the role of Awen–and how we might use it. From both contemporary practice and ancient texts, we have a keen sense that Awen “flows.” Like a stream in the spring, it might gush forth from a person or be a small but steady trickle. Regardless, Awen, like the water, flows where it wants and goes where it wants. As it flows, it pours into a person, allowing them to be inspired and allow the creativity to flow back out.  The more that water is allowed to flow, the more easy that flow becomes, just like well worn, smooth stones and channels along the river.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity has its own path that we must learn to flow with, is a critical part of the bardic arts and cultivating them in our own lives. Spending a year observing a river will show times where much of it dries up, times where much of it floods and leaves its banks into nearby fields and forest, times where it lazily moves along. In my experience, the flow of Awen is just like this. We aren’t always heavily inspired and overflowing our banks, and we aren’t always dried up and without inspiration. Recognizing the natural “ebb and flow” of awen, I believe, is part of it. But also, recognizing that we have some power over that flow as we invoke the awen and work to bring it into our lives.

 

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity must be allowed to flow where it wills, just like water. Sometimes, trying to impose your own human will too much on a bardic project or performance can impede it (it is like you divert the water or put in a large obstruction that the water has to flow around). And if you are working with a personification of Awen, through a muse, he or she might not take too kindly to you imposing your own will too strongly. As we see from the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Awen is not only inspiration, but a magical or divine inspiration, and thus, the more that we work with it, the more we cultivate it, the more we are able to work with the flows.  My experience kayaking helps here–on a powerful river, you can expertly navigate the currents if you are experienced!  Then, you can do quite a bit, but still only react and flow with the river, rarely paddling against it.

 

 

Cultivating the Flow of Awen in Our Lives

I believe that the flow of Awen is a union, a synthesis, of human, nature and the creative flows and energy of the of the universe/divine. This means that there are things that we can do as a human being to cultivate Awen and there are things outside of our control.  Let’s take a look at what we can do to start cultivating Awen in our lives:

 

Invoking Awen. One of the most simple things to do is to invoke Awen regularly as part of your practice. Druids are good at this, and if you are a druid, chances are, you know how to chant “Awen.” For everyone else, the chant is simple.  You open up your chest and let all the air in, and then you ring out, strongly and surely, three syllables: “Ah – Oh – En.”  And you repeat that as long as you’ d like.  You can sing it, you can dance with it. And as you chant that sacred word, imagine yourself opening up to that flow of inspiration.  You can chant it anywhere you like.  You can get a group and chant together, or “cascade” it by having each person chant Awen at a slightly different time.  And then once you’ve invoked it–do something with it!

 

Visual representations. Visual representations of Awen (the three rays of light) are powerful ways of bringing awen into your life.  You might have a drawing, or another kind of image, to help bring the awen into your life which you regularly see.  Druids are often spotted with Awen necklaces–I like to keep an awen symbol on my person as much as possible, preferably, close to my heart.  I also have an awen in a window that was a gift of a friend–the sun shines through it, literally, letting the three rays of light of the awen come into my space.  Talk about powerful magic!

Awen bringing in the light

Awen bringing in the light

 

Letting the awen flow. The key to cultivating awen, at least for me, seems to be about allowing it to flow regularly, not damming it up.  Perhaps you’ve met people, or youv’ve been one yourself, who stop the flow of awen or who only allow a small tricke to flow forth. They say things like, “I’m not creative” or “I don’t have time for my [bardic art of choice]” or “I could never do that” (we will explore these issues in more depth next week).  Words have power, words are magic.  And saying this is like putting the flow of awen behind a dam. Maybe, if you are lucky, it will collect there, welling up, and one day, explode outwards like the dam bursting forth (this happened to me in my mid-20’s, and it was a really liberating experience!)  But maybe, it will dry up and go stagnant there, and your Awen will become like a dry and parched river bed.

 

The other piece to letting the awen flow is cultivating the right environment.  For some, that means a quiet place free of distractions where they can allow their awen to flow forth and setting aside enough uninterrupted time to “get into the work” and let something beautiful emerge.  For others it might mean bringing together a community to practice their bardic art, or surrounding oneself with other people who are creative.  It also means enough rest and self care to be one’s best to allow this work to happen (I, for one, can’t create when I’m exhausted).

 

Relinquishing control. And then there are people who want the awen to flow, but try to maintain all control and send it off in directions. You can’t always force it, you have to work with it and respond to it, just like that expert kayaker navigating a flow of water. As an artist, writer, and occasional musician, for me this means setting aside regular time to create, but allowing most of that to be unstructured time.  So I know I will create and have time set aside to do it, but until that day, I’m not sure what I will create: will I paint? What will I paint?  Will I play my flute?  Will I write?  And when I begin, I let the flow go as long as I can.  I don’t try to impose my will on it too strongly, but rather, let the awen guide me.  Its almost like there’s a second hand on my paintbrush, and if we both work together, it will work well, but if we don’t, it will be trouble.

 

The Many Forms of Creativity.  I’ve been talking in my examples about traditional bardic arts: writing, painting, music, storytelling, dance, and so on. But Awen can flow through us and be directed towards all kinds of things, not all of which would be considered “bardic arts” in the traditional sense. For example, I allow Awen to flow when I’m planning my lessons for my university teaching through creative activities and creative planning.  I know friends who do lots of building and allow the awen to flow with their design work,  their creative use of old materials and curbside treasures, and their finishing techniques. Others are culinary wizards in the kitchen and make amazing and beautiful meals.  Still others are master gardeners who create a palate with plants.  Once we realize that awen can be applied to more than just the traditional bardic arts, but we can, essentially, lead inspired lives–then the real magic begins!

 

May the flow of awen, of creative inspiration, come into your life!  Next week’s post will delve more deeply into the Bardic arts and how to take up the path of the bard.

 

[1] lrick de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde (1604–1657), Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde … containing several original papers and letters of King Charles II, queen mother, the Duke of York … &c. relating to the treaty between the Duke of Lorrain and the Irish commissioners, from February 1650 to August 1653. Publish’d from his lordship’s original mss. To which is prefix’d, a dissertation … containing several curious observations concerning the antiquities of Ireland. London, Printed for J. Woodman, 1722.

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Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana) June 4, 2017

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

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Permaculture: Design by Nature and the Magic of Intentionality September 25, 2016

I’m sure each one of us have had times where we hadn’t through though something, the thing happened, and it took a direction we hadn’t intended it to take. A little bit of forethought could have made all the difference, perhaps turned a failure into a success. My early attempts at gardening were like this–I didn’t have a plan, I put seeds in the ground without knowing how tall or wide the plants got, and then they came up and things went wild quite quickly!  Sometimes, serendipity took over and I had great successes, if I could manage to weave my way through the thicket of tangles to the harvest. Other times, my plants were crowded out or strangled by each other or my harvest only lasted for a short time. What I learned, through permaculture and organic farming courses was this: a well thought out plan maximizes your yields, minimizes your time, and creates beautiful spaces. I started creating plans, working with nature, and suddenly, my gardens greatly improved!

 

Patterns of nature in a thistle!

Patterns of nature in a thistle!

When people talk about permaculture, they talk about it as a “design system.” One of the definitions of permaculture I work with goes like this: “Permaculture is a design system, rooted in patterns of nature, that helps humans restore and regenerate ecosystems while providing for their own needs.” What does it mean to be a designer? What do we do when we “design?” Why do we care so much about design? And how can design”in a permaculture sense be woven into our other spiritual practices? In this post, we’ll explore the principles of design and  magic of intentionality as two of the cornerstones of the intersection between permaculture, and nature-based spiritual practice.

 

A lot of us feel really lost and confused with what’s going on in the world.  We feel very reactive rather than proactive.  We feel like we need to keep responding to things coming at us, rather than intentionally addressing, in advance, our own circumstances.  Things move so quickly, stuff happens, and we find ourselves always trying to keep our balance. Its the nature of things, you might even say, its by design–just not our own. As a culture, we focus on problems, not on responses to problems–we are always hearing and focusing on everything that is going wrong.

 

But, what if we could reverse those scales a bit, and begin by designing our own lives and designing our interactions with the world?  That’s essentially, what a big part of permaculture is about, and why we use the concept of design. The idea of design, of intentionally and thoughtfully planning in advance, can be of great service to all of us. Design gives us power, in the sense that it gives us a plan to address problems we see. If more of us were able to take the energy we invest in problems (reading about them, experiencing them firsthand, etc.) and turn that into designing responses and enacting change, our world would be a very different place!

 

Design and the Flow of Awen

There are a lot of fields and practices that use design in some way, and if we are going to dig into what permauclture design is and why its useful to us as druids and others on nature-centered paths, let’s start with a few definitions. Merriam Webster Dictionary suggests that to design is to:

  • to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully
  • to plan and make (something) for a specific use or purpose
  • to think of (something, such as a plan) : to plan (something) in your mind
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan:
  • to assign in thought or intention; purpose:

From these definitions we get a few key pieces: design includes the practice of planning, in the mind or on paper, for some purpose.  Design is about goals–what we set in advance and bring into being. We use our minds, our creativity, our artistic skill, and the powers of observation to conceive of some kind of plan, which we can then execute and adapt as necessary. Part of this design work is, of course, setting intentions and following through with those intentions.

 

There’s also, implicit in these definitions of design, that design isn’t simply about planning ahead, but rather, that there is an art to the process.  Creativity, the flowing of awen, must be part of our designs. Designs in permaculture aren’t just simple plans, they are creative responses we can use to better adapt human needs to natural ones.  In this sense, it ties to the entire line of bardic arts–those of working with the hands, with the mind, with the flow of awen to design spaces, places, communities, and more.

Natural Building Inspired by Nature's Patterns and Designs

This flow of awen comes, in permaculture, and in druidry, from the living earth herself.  Patterns in nature teach us patterns we can replicate in our more well-tended spaces.  Principles in nature teach us principles we can encact in our homes and lives.  Nature, then, is the ultimate designer and teacher: all that we can hope to do, and do well, is replicate her understandings.

 

Design and Magic of Intentionality

Further, in druid practice and other earth-centered spiritual practices, I think we can also tie design directly to the concept of intention in the magical sense of the word.  You often set “intentions” when you begin a ritual–the goals for the ritual, why we gather, why we open the space. Intentions help us direct activity and actions–these are things we want to accomplish. In magical work, we often leave the designs itself to the universe/spirits/diety/etc. We set intentions, raise energy, and send it out. But in permaculture, we take a more focused hand. Designs give us the plans that we need to move forward in collaboration and communion with the living earth.

 

I’m not saying that inteintionality and design are the same: they are not.  But I am saying that they are related acts, and come from the same place in the heart: the desire to accomplish good in the world, and to enact positive change.

 

Nature’s Designs

Nature's designs....

Nature’s designs….

The other side to permaculture, of course, is that it is a design system that replicates the many patterns and connections already present in the natural world. Whether you believe in higher hands guiding natural development or simply in evolutionary processes doesn’t really matter–what matters is that nature has an incredible wealth of information to teach us, patterns to show us, if only we are ready to see them.

In Permaculture Design, we use nature’s designs in at least two ways:

 

Conceptually, we design using principles and patterns in nature.  This means that we try to replicate the natural processes that already occur: designing with ecological succession in mind (I design for 100 years, not 1!), trapping and using existing energy flows, designing polycultures (groups of diverse plants) that support each other, and so on.  When we look to nature as our master designer, what we create is more effective.

 

Visually, we design using patterns in nature.  A leaf keyhole pattern in a garden means maximized space and beauty; a wave pattern is visually asthetic and offers many edges and margins; a spiral pattern replicates ancient truths.  We visually create designs rooted in nature and that replicate her patterns.

 

What are the Design Principles?

In the tradition of many hermits, one day in the early 1970’s, Bill Mollison got fed up with society, went into the forest, spent a lot of time observing and simple being present, found wisdom there, and came out with his first draft of the design principles. Of course, as I wrote about in an earlier post on this series, Mollison was giving a new treatment to ancient truths. The design principles are, in essence, those small lessons that nature has taught humanity over and over again, its quite and yet profound way.

 

I see them a lot like lights and markers along an otherwise dark path—we stumble in the dark, but the light of the principles helps guide our way. But to me, the design principles are more than just “design” principles—they are principles for living and being in the world. I use them from everything from themes for discursive meditation to mantras for daily living—here are three ways they can be used:

 

Wave Pattern in Garden

Wave Pattern in Garden

Good Decisions. First and foremost, the design principles help us make better, smarter decisions that are earth-centered and earth-honoring. When I’m deciding how to do anything, the principles are there, helping me guide my decision. For example: I’m faced with the prospect of a bunch of leftover food after an event on campus. The design principles offer some simple solutions through “produce no waste” or “waste is a resource.” How then, can I turn this waste into a resource? Take it home, compost it, feed it to a friend’s chickens, and so forth.

 

Good Design. Of course, beyond immediate life decisions, the design principles offer us much in the way of good design. I’ll be going into the principle of design more in an upcoming post, but in a nutshell, one definition of design is, “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object” (Dictionary.com). This is to say, if we use the design principles for good design, we can live our lives and create/inhabit our spaces with intention and forethought in an ethical, nature-centered way.

 

Meditation Mantras. The third way the design principles work (at least for me) is as mantras for meditation. Deep meditation and reflection upon the nature of the design principles can lead to a more robust understanding not only of how to use them in your life, but in interacting and understanding nature. For example, “use the edges and value the marginal” leads us to understand nature’s patterns but also my own spiritual practices.

 

Designing the Inner and Outer Realms

What I love so much about permaculture as a system of design is that it can be applied just about anywhere.  Just as the permaculture ethics (which I wrote about in the last post in this series, and in the distant past) can be applied to both inner and outer work, so too, can the entire permaculture design system be applied to both our inner and outer realms.

 

Here’s what I mean: one permaculture design principle, which we’ll talk more about next week is: observe, interact, and intuit. This principle is exceedingly useful in considering for our outer landscapes, in that we can observe through the seasons to come to an understanding about how to create beautiful and regenerative spaces. We can observe the flows of nature and energy, note the challenges before us, and pay attention to the changing light, heat, and flows to understand the best approach to developing and regenerating this particular piece of land.

 

Leaf Patterns

Leaf Patterns

But the same principle can be equally effective on the inner landscape: we can step back from ourselves and observe our feelings, our interactions, our inner realms–and this can be deeply useful in our own healing and growth as human beings.  In fact, each of the permaculture principles of design, which I’ll be talking about quite soon in my own druidic way, can function on the outer and the inner–both as a way to design outer functional landscapes of any kind (cities, communities, homes, gardens, farms, campuses, etc) but also work deeply within our inner landscapes.  This series will weave between those two aspects of permaculture as a practice and a system of design.

 

Conclusion

Design offers us a kind of compass and roadmap for the journey ahead.  It takes the guesswork out of things, and instead, helps us plan carefully and effectively before enacting those plans in a meaningful and ethical way.  Design connects directly to patterns in nature, allowing us to carefully understand and replicate those patterns in our own inner and outer landscapes. As simple as design  is as an idea, the actual practice of design takes a bit more work.  In our next post (next week) we’ll explore the design principles as they weave through the four elements and continue to spiral inwards into understanding the relationship of permaculture and druidry.
PS: After posting this, I learned that yesterday Bill Mollison, one of the founders of Permaculture, passed from his earthly body.  I am delighted to be sharing some of his wisdom with you, and I want to take a moment to honor the work that he has done, and the movement he has created.