The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings November 10, 2019

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Birch’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meaning December 9, 2018

When I was growing up in the Allegheny mountains of Western PA, and I was still a very small child, my father and I would seek out the sweet birch saplings.  A good sapling was tall and lithe, but bent easily.  Dad would bend a sapling down, and hold me on the end of it, letting me bounce up and down like a ride.  A few days later, when we walked back through those same woods, the sapling was back upright and growing tall.  It was no trouble for a birch to bend to give a small child a ride and then bounce right back up!

 

When I was 14, the a forest behind my house that I loved dearly was logged.  For many years, my sorrow kept me out of that forest–I didn’t want to see it cut, I didn’t want to see my many tree friends gone.  And when I started on the druid path, a decade later I finally went back into that forest. There, in every clearing, growing in huge clumps creating a thicket that was nearly impassable, were the black birch seedlings.  They ended only where the outstretched hemlock branches came, circling around.  For years and years, I would go into that seedling patch as they grew into saplings and cut black birch branches for teas, birch beer, cleaning, and medicine.  Now, only a few years later, the strongest grew tallest and many of the smaller ones died back–it is looking once more like a forest.  The birches have helped regenerate the land so quickly–in less than 10 years.  Birches are the true forest healers.

 

These two stories have much to offer those of us who are interested in the sacred power of the birch tree, a tree of new beginnings, regeneration, and illumination.  This is part of my larger Sacred trees of the Americas series–where I explore the various trees in the Eastern US for their many qualities to help those of us living here understand these sacred trees.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Come with me now and let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the incredible birch tree!

Birches in fall

Birches in fall

Growth and Habit

Birch trees of varying kinds are found up and down the eastern seaboard and midwest of the US, although the specific species and their range vary widely.  In the Alleghney mountains, we have two primary birch trees: black birches (sweet birch, betlua lenta), who smell like wintergreen, and yellow birches (betula alleghaniensis), who have beautiful golden curled barks once they reach about 15 years and older. In people’s yards, you might also occasionally see a river birch or white birch, but these are not our native birches.

 

Birches are pioneering species, often quickly being the first tree to regrow after logging or fire.  Because  of this, most birches come up in a large thicket, with intense competition, as my story above shares.  All of this quick growth comes at a cost, as most birch species are not considered pinnacle species, but rather, regenerative pioneers.  Given the widespread deforestation, logging, and other kinds of damage that forests are facing in the 21st century, we certainly need the power of the birch to regenerate damaged ecosystems.

 

Both of these trees grow 80 feet and up to 100 feet tall, and are usually short-lived (although there are cases of sweet birches living up to 250 years).  Often though, competition in birch forests eventually shade out older birch trees.  Birches of both species, here, can be found in a healthy forest along with beeches and hemlocks with understories of witch hazel or mountain laurel.  Yellow birches, in particular, like the same wet and cool forest habitats that Eastern Hemlocks do, and they can often be found growing along the same creek edges in moist forests.

 

Where I live, up in the ridges, you can find chaga mushrooms growing on birch trees.  Not only are birches themselves highly medicinal, chaga mushrooms are as well.  They look like burned and charred pieces of wood growing out of old birch trees.  Eventually, the birch will die from the chaga mushroom’s incursion–and at that time, all the medicinal aspects of either die as well.

 

Wood and Uses

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Harvesting Birch Sticks for Drinks and Medicine

Each birch that grows in the Eastern US has unique contributions in terms of human use. Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) obviously got their name from the paper-like quality of mature trees’ white bark.  This white bark was used by many different native american tribes for baskets of various sizes as well as arrow quivers, and canoes. As Eric Sloane writes in A Reverence for Wood, native americans along the eastern seaboard would choose a large paper birch tree and make two cuts down the bark of the tree on opposite sides.  In the spring, the bark would peel; they would cut away both sides of the bark–these are the two halves of the canoe.  They used roots from white spruce trees for lashing it together and used balsam fir resin and pine pitch to seal it. Albert Reagan describes in “Plants Used by the Bois Fort Chippewa (Ojibwa) how the Ojibwa used paper birch for dwellings, sweat lodges, canoes, containers, buckets for collecting maple or birch sap, dishes and trays, and coffins.

 

All birch barks, particularly paper birch or yellow birch, have excellent fire starting capabilities.  You can start a fire quickly from the outer bark of most birch trees.  Slices of birch bark are commonly carried and used in natural firestarting kits (such as those including flint and steel). They also are great when one is looking to start a camp fire! Even when fresh or wet, birch bark will burn, making it ideal for survival situations.

 

The wood of certain species of birch trees is pale and soft grained and indoor decorative and vaneer purposes.  Yellow Birch wood is the most sought wood from the speces and is used for a variety of indoor applications, including birch flooring, toothpicks, furniture, cabinets, and so on.  If you buy “birch” wood for your home, chances are, you are purchasing yellow birch wood.

 

Finally, birch species around the world have long been used as paper, even before the invention of paper in certain cultures.

 

Recipes and Treats

In the Appalacian mountains, sweet birch and yellow birch, have long been used for a variety of tasy beverages and treats because they contain methyl salicylate (the flavoring agent for wintergreen).

 

Birch Sap. Euell Gibbons in the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus book has a host of advice describes birch trees as “natural woodland fountains” to be tapped and drank from in the spring.  And certainly, while this same advice can be applied to many of the trees that run (walnut, hickory, sugar maple, other maples, sycamore); none are quite as refreshing as the water with hints of wintergreen that come out of black birch trees. Birches start running much later in the spring, typically about 4 weeks later here in PA, just as the dandelions are starting to come out.  LIke the maple, birch sap can be boiled down to make a syrup, although the sugar content of birch is 100:1, meaning you will need to boil down 100 gallons of birch sap to get 1 gallon of syrup (sugar maple is a 40:1 ratio).   Like maple, I am sure anyone who drinks birch water will find it incredibly vitalizing and refreshing!

 

Birch Beverages. One of my favorite beverages is a simple black birch twig or birch bark tea.  The inner bark (cambium) has the strongest flavor. I suggest you boil fresh or dried twigs or larger shavings from branches for about 20 minutes with the lid on.  Strain, and add cream and sugar if you’d like.  It is a delicious wintergreen treat!

 

Birch Beer (Non-Alcoholic) and Root Beer. Birch beer refers to two different beverages–one fermented and one not.  The non-fermented kind can be made as a simple syrup.  In a large pot, combine birch twigs with 2 cups sugar and two cups water.  Put a lid on it and simmer it for 30 min.  Cool, and strain.  Take the resulting syrup and add it to simple seltzer water, and you have a delightful and refreshing “birch beer.”  Birch twigs are one of the three traditional ingredients for root beer, along with sassafras bark and either sarsipirilla or star anise.  You can make a traditional root beer in the same way above, with these added ingredients.

 

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Leaf Ecoprint

Birch Beer (Alcoholic / fermented).  Just as there are lots of ways to make a good non-alcoholic root beer, you can also make numerous variations on fermented or alcoholic versions.  I highly recommend Stephen Buehner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some great recipes involving birch.  I’m going to share one I have tried only once, and it was a crazy experience.  This was adapted from Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus.   Get a 5 gallon bucket or crock, and put four quarts of finely cut sweet birch twigs at the bottom.  Combine 1 gallon of honey and 4 gallons of birch sap (or spring water), and boil for 10 minutes.  Pour this mixture over the twigs and cover it.  Let cool for 6-8 hours.  When its just warm to the touch, add a package of brewing yeast on top.  (The traditional recipe uses a piece of rye bread to float the cake of yeast, but I omitted this and it still worked).  Let it ferment (I used a lid and a fermentation trap, but the traditional recipe uses a cloth cover).  The cloudiness will go away after about a week and the beverage will settle.  Bottle and store in a cool, dark place.

 

White Birch Vinegar. I know it was traditional to make vinegar from white birch sap, but these traditional recipes seem lost (at least, I haven’t been able to find them in any of my resources).  however, Fergus the Forager in the UK has developed his own recipe (which appears about 2/3 of the way down his page).

 

Medicinal Qualities of the Birch

 

Matthew Wood notes in The Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) that Betula Alba is considered the official medicinal tree of the UK; while Betula Lenta is considered the official for North America. Black birch, with its saliclate-rich bark and oil of wintergreen, helps sooth sore muscles and achey joints. Wood notes that internally, birch tea functions as a diaphoretic (moving fluids out of the body and encouraging a sweat response) and diuretic (encouraging the flow of urine), both of these medicinal actions are useful in the case of atrophied or stagnant tissues (such as, as Woot notes, lack of digestion, kidney stones, bladder infections, arthritis, or poor circulation).

 

Wood also notes that traditionally in Europe, a combination of birch and nettle were used as a hair tonic.  For this, you can make a strong tea of the leaves and the branches, and use it on the hair.  Or, create a vinegar infusion of nettle and birch leaves or branches and use the vinegar as a hair rinse.  I’ve done this and it is wonderfully nourishing for the hair.

 

Wood also notes that leaves and twigs of black birch, in some American traditions, are gathered in midsummer to make a tea that is taken tonically.  The tea was particularly useful for cases of severe diahrehea or other gastrointestinal issues.  I have firsthand experience with this–birch is certainly soothing for a variety of GI issues (and also soothing to the mind).

 

Birch’s Magical Qualities

Birch is one of the 22 sacred trees in the celtic Ogham, the sacred tree alphabet.  It is not surprising that birch functions ecologically in the UK the same it does in North America, and likewise, the theme of renewal, protection, and new beginnings is consistent.  In the ogham, birch represents the letter “B” and is “Beith”, being represented by a single line extending to the right of the line in the few.

 

According to John Michael Greer in his Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Birch species are used interchangeably in terms of magical properties.  Birch is represented by Venus in Sagittarius.  Birch twigs were used as protective in traditional western folk magic–a bundle of birch twigs along the edges of a property keeps away “evil forces” and bad luck.  Birch trees were tied with red and white cloth and were put near stable doors to drive away elves (who were known to knot horses manes and also tire out the animals).

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

Birch does not make an appearance in traditional American hoodoo, which is somewhat surprising to me, but given that most of it originated in the deep south where there aren’t that many birch trees, this makes sense.   However, birch does make an appearance in The Long Lost Friend, which is a 19th century grimoire from Pennsylvania.  Here is the full charm, focusing on a restoration for the limbs:

HOW TO CURE WEAKNESS OF THE LIMBS.

Take the buds of the birch tree, or the inner bark of the root of the tree at the time of the budding of the birch, and make a tea of it, and drink it occasionally through the day. Yet, after having used it for two weeks, it must be discontinued for a while, before it is resorted to again; and during the two weeks of its use it is well at times to use water for a day instead of the tea.

 

Birch in World Mythology

The birch features prominently in many world religions, particularly those of siberia and russia. Frazer writes in The Golden Bough about a Russian tradition involving a birch tree. This tradition that involves welcoming a birch as a guest into the house for the duration of Whitsunday (Easter sunday).  Russian villagers go into the woods, sing to the birch, and weave garlands for themselves before cutting it down and dressing it in women’s clothing with many colored ribbons.  They then feats, and they carry the tree back to their village, with more garlands, dancing, and singing, and set it up in someone’s house as a guest.  The villagers visit the tree for two more days.  On Whitsunday (Easter Sunday) they go to a nearby stream and throw the birch in along with their garlands. Frazer believes that this shows both the personification of the tree by Russians as well as the likelihood of throwing the birch in the stream as a raincharm.

In a second tradition, described by Czaplicka in Shamanism in Siberia,  birch is used as part of the preparation that Siberian shamans, called the Chukchee, use to gather their power.  They believe that new shamans, either male or female, must have a prepatory year or two where the new shaman gathers his or her power through various means including heeding the call of the spirits, gathering up tools, goes inward for ritual and fasting.  When the new shaman is ready, the elder shamans gather up birch seedlings, which are fashioned into a birch broom. A goat is sacrificed into a pot, and then the birch broom is dipped in the water in the pot and used to beat the back of the new shaman as a purification ritual. More birch trees are cut, with the approrpriate offerings, and then they are planted near the south-west corner of the shaman’s yurta.  Czaplicka writes, “This birch represents symbolically the porter-god who allows the shaman ingress into heaven. It points the way by which the shaman can reach the sky, and remains permanently in the yurta as a sign that the dwelling is that of a shaman. The other birches are planted in front of the yurta in the place where sacrifices are usually offered, in the following order, from west to east”

 

Birch in Native American Mythology

 

In American Indian Fairy Tales by Margaret Compton, the story of the Fighting Hare features the uses of birch.  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.” The birch says, “My bark is for the picture-writing of the people.  How, but for me, could one Chief talk to his brother who lives by the distant river?” The oak says, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.  This not only shows the birch as a use for a writing system for records and history, but as a way to keep the peace among the tribes for communication.

In another Ojibwe legend titled “How the birch got its burns” Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother asked him to find the fire that the Thunderbird kept in the west.  He goes on a journey to do this, and disguises himself as a small rabbit.  When he gets to the Thunderbird’s home, he asks to be let in because he is cold and hungry.  Thunderbird agrees.  When Thunderbird is not looking, Waynaboozhoo steals Thunderbird’s fire by rolling in it and keeping it on this back.  Thunderbird is furious, and flies behind Waynaboozhoo trying to sear him with lightning bolts.  A birch tree offers Waynaboozhoo protection, and the white birch is seared many times by Thunderbird’s bolts, but Waynaboozhoo stays safe.

In the “Old Man and the Lynx” a strong birch tree helps prevent the Old Man from blowing away.  Birch trees in this story and others are known to have deep roots that will not blow away, unlike other trees.  Old Man is being blown by a harsh wind and has nothing to hold onto–finally, he comes to a birch tree and can hold on till he is able to calm down the wind.  In thanks for the birch’s protection, Old Man marks the tree in a long line with his knife.

In “Why Raven’s Feathers are Black”, Raven is a trickster who often steals from other animals in the forest.  He also has beautiful white feathers.  A little yellow bird is stolen by Raven and taken to his nest in the pine tree, and a wood worm decides to help her. Wood worm first binds together Raven’s feet with birch bark and moss while he sleeps and frees the yellow bird. Then wood worm brings more moss, leaves, and birch bark and surrounds the pine tree where Raven’s nest is.  He sets it on fire.  The other birds choose the birch bark is used to start a fire at the base of a great pine tree, and Raven eventually escapes, but his feathers had so much smoke that they were turned black.

 

Awen birch art for a friend

Awen birch art for a friend

Birch’s Magical and Divination Meanings in the Americas

The mythology and stories throughout the world offer some fairly consistent representations of birch as a tree that offers much to humanity. Here are some general meanings we might take from the birch:

 

Illumination. The birch’s connection to both fire and fire starting of all kinds, signals the birch tree’s tie to illumination, insight, and bringing light back into dark places.  That birch is also associated with the spring and new beginnings in the traditoinal celtic lore further strengthens this connection.

 

Renewal & Purification.  Birch is strongly a tree of renewal–for the landscape and damaged forests, for the human body when it is ill, and in a magical sense.  Birch offers the properties of renewal and rest both in inner and outer ways–as the birch works to renew forests, she also renews the light and spirit within each of us. Like the birch that can so easily bend down and accept a child to play, the birch teaches us many lessons of renewal through her physical being. Purification goes hand in hand with renewal, and we see this strongly both in the birch’s medicinal qualities as well as some of the stories of the use of birch as a primary purification tool for new shamans.

 

Protection. Birch is used as a protective charm and wood in many different cultures, including in the americas.

 

New Beginnings. Many of the stories feature birch as a new beginning in some way–birch marking a rite of passage, birch burning and allowing new things to grow.

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Apple’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings September 30, 2018

“Nothing gives more yet asks for less in return, than a tree: particularly, the apple” –Johnny Appleseed

“As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my loved one among the sons. I took my rest under his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” – The Song of Solomon

 

Spirit of the Apple - from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

Spirit of the Apple – from the Plant Spirit Oracle (www.plantspiritoracle.com)

All summer long, we have had so much rain and thunderstorms.  Penn Run, a small creek behind my home, once again overflowed, raising several feet for a time.  When the waters had subsided, I was delighted to find delicious wild apples lining the banks–the river had carried them to me as a blessing for this wonderful Fall Equinox!  It reminded me that I have been wanting to write of the apple–of her magic, of her folklore, and of her abundance=. And so today’s post explores the delicious, nutritious, and extremely magical apple tree (pyrus malus, malus spp.) and the blessings that she offers. This post continues my longer series on Sacred Trees in the Americas, where I explore the many aspects of trees native or naturalized to the Eastern and Midwest regions of the US. Previous entries have included Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Eastern Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Sassafras, Beech, Ash, and White Pine.

 

About the Apple

Nearly everyone knows about apples, but often, the common experiences with apples are what people see in the grocery store–a select number of perfectly waxed and shiny varities–golden delicious, gala, or granny smith. These commercialized varities are only a tiny piece of the incredible apples that you can find in the wild.  Another thing that I’ve heard regularly is that people believe that crab apples (and wild apples in general) are poisonous and cannot be eaten.  There is nothing further from the truth–wild apples are wonderful, rich, sometimes tart, sometimes mealy, but often a surprise and delight to those who seek them out.  Apples of all kinds are easy to find, abundant, and–this time of year–completely free!

 

Apples will typically bear every two years (biennially) while other apples are bred to offer fruit every year. In the spring, apple blossoms fill the air–each mature apple can produce anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 blooms, which can be smelled up to 1/3 a mile away.  These blooms offer a critical early nectar source for bees and other insect life.  Less than 5% of those blooms will ever set fruit; some are unpollenated and others don’t form properly.  Sometime in June, the “june drop” occurs where the tree drops any fruit that isn’t setting properly.  By late August or early September, the tree fruits and the fruits grow ripe and sweet.

 

Of Apples and Ancestors

John Eastman, in Field and Forest, has much to share about the apple tree.  he notes, as any wild food forager will attest, that commercially grown apples are grafted and carefully managed, those growing in the wilds offer much wider varitey.  He notes that orchards allowed to go wild or otherwise abandoned will, over time, change their apple composition and may end up “reverting to more ancestral types of fruit.”  I love this idea and vision–and certainly, a stroll through the country to find wild apples this time of year connects us back to the ancestral, magical traditions surrounding so many aspects of the apple tree.  Apples offer us much in terms of ancestral traditions.

 

One ancestral tradition closely tied to the apple here in the US was Johnny Appleseed, a historical and legendary figure who spread apples all over the US.  Eastman notes that some crab apples do appear native to the US, but nearly all of the apples we have were spread by Appleseed and others looking to make “cider” (and by that, I mean hard cider!)

 

In Eric Sloane’s A Reverence for Wood, Sloane writes about the important place of apples in Colonial America.  Because the early colonists were told not to drink any of the water, they depended on drinking cider (the alcohol of which would be safe).  Even small children were raised drinking apple cider as their primary beverage. Even late into the winter, apples from root cellars were brought out and made into many things–this made the apple one of the primary foods and drinks.  Unlike today’s limited varities, Sloane notes that in the 1700’s, there were close to 2000 known varities of apples.  Most orchards were planted with many varities to ensure an extended harvest, and different kinds of apples had different purposes (cider apples, storage apples, fresh eating apples).  Special care was taken both in the harvesting and preserving of apples; Sloane notes that special apples were often hung carefully by their stems in the house or packed away in straw for the winter months.

 

And of course, one of the longstanding ancestral traditions is the wassail. I’ve written fairly extensively about the “wassail” traditions surrounding apple.  Because of the importance of the apple as a staple food and drink crop, people would go out to the trees in January 6th or 17th (old 12th night, depending on how you calculate it) to bless the trees, make offerings to the trees, and drive evil spirits away from the trees in order to ensure an abundant harvest for the coming season.  Make no mistake–these wassail traditions were magical traditions focused on bringing good health, fertility, and abundance to the land–and they are very old ancestral magic that has begun making its way back into our modern era.  Here is another classical interpretation on the wassail.

 

Wild Apple Foraging

Sometimes, you can still come across these old and abandoned apple orachards and have a very good time as a wild food forager, harvesting hundreds of pounds of apples of all shapes, colors, and varities.  But for me, foraging for apples begins not in the fall at the time of harvest, but in the spring. Apples are easiest to spot when they are in bloom in their swath of pink, red, or white blossoms.  I note where these apples are and then, later starting in late August or early Stepember, I return to these trees for a potential harvest.  Harvesting apples is simple–as soon as the tree is ready to give you its fruit (as in, the fruit is easy to pull from the tree and ready to drop) the apple is ready to eat.  Try many apples in the wild–you will find some incredible varities and tastes!  Some of the wild apples can certainly be tart, however, in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons offers a suggestion of waiting till frost sets in for some wild apple varities, as the frost will sweeten their otherwise tart taste. Good, tart crab apples will sweeten when cooked (and make some of the more delicious apple pies or sauces that you will ever eat!)

 

Crab apples - these are tart and sweet!

Crab apples – these are tart and sweet!

 

Gibbons suggests the following recipe for wild apple jelly.  He suggests gathering up wild apples and quartering them, removing any insect damage, worms, etc.  Put these apples in a pot and cover with water, simmering for 20 min with the lid on.  Let this cool and strain the juice.  (I will add that if you have a small fruit press, you can even press these apples–after cooking they will be easy and you will get more flavor).  This juice can be used to make a jelly.  I like to use Pomona’s pectin (a low-sugar pectin) to help this set and add 1/2 cup honey to 4 cups juice for a delightful wild apple jelly.  I’ve also shared a few previous posts on making delicious things with apples, such as applesauce and pressing apples into cider. 

 

If you do come across an old apple tree or old orchard in the US on the East Coast, look around nearby.  You will almost always find an old foundation from the people who likely planted that apple tree.

 

Apples and  Modern Folklore and Herbalism

Apple in Modern Folklore

Unlike many of the previous trees covered in this series, which are largely unknown to the average person, the apple has a special place even in present day culture. We have many references to the apple in present society–people are either good apples or bad apple. One bad apple will spoil the bunch. Newton was apparently hit on the head with an apple and that led to his insight on the theory of gravity. The Buddah gained enlightenment under an apple tree–as did the Merlin in some Arthurian folklore.  Snow white was, of course, seduced with a poison apple. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  In this folklore, good apples are tied to insight, fertility, and health, while bad apples will lead to ruin and poor health.

 

Apples and Healing

“An Apple a Day keeps the doctor away” is a common saying–but this saying has quite a bit of truth. As far back as Culpepper, we have records of apples being used for a variety of healing uses. Culpepper offers a range of uses, from using them to soothe “hot and bilious stomachs”, to roasting them and adding frankincense to a poultice to address pain in the abdomen or side.  He notes their generally cooling quality. He also notes that an apple syrup will surely assist with “faintings, palpitations, and melaoncholy.” It seems there is very little that those in the western world in the middle ages and Reniassance.

 

Today, likewise, herbalists recognize the importance of apples to health.  Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) notes that apples are a “true folk medicine” in that accounts of what apples can do in terms of health vary widely.  Each herbalist, therefore, had his or her own personal experience with how to use the apple.  However, Wood notes some consitenencies–apples are cooling and moistening (reflected in what I just wrote above about Culpepper), apples before they are ripe have an astringent quality (making your mouth pucker).  Therefore, herbalists today use apple for a variety of “hot” conditions such as burns, fever, headaches, and kidney strain/pain.

 

Apple in the Western Esoteric Traditions

The Apple has a privledge place in the Western Esoteric Traditions and has a wide and varied interpretation of its magical powers and uses.  Here are some highlights:

 

Love magic:  In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that apples are in the sign of Venus (in Libra) and that they were most typically used in love magic (love drawing). This association goes back to at least Roman times, according to this source, where figs (known as “love apples”) eventually had their meanings transferred to apples on trees. This is also consisten from the American Hoodoo tradition, where Cat Yronwode says that apple is used as a “sweetener” to atract someone to love, but also for sweetening up customers or bringing in business.

 

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor's house

The most amazing tasting apples from my neighbor’s house

Expelling evil.  In “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland” from 1887, a spell about apples and elder is written, “IT is said by time wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

Apple as a Magical Key or Gateway. In “The Glass Mountain” from The Yellow Fairy Book, a book of celtic fairy tales, there is a golden apple tree that sits on top of a glass mountain. This apple grants people entrance into a splendid castle with stores of food, riches, and a princess waiting to be rescued by a valliant knight.  The apple tree’s apples are gaurded by an eagle. A young man makes it up to the apple tree and battles the eagle; he wins but sustains a wound.  He places the peel of one of the golden apples on his wound, and then goes to the castle to claim his bride.  This is but one of many Celtic tales that demonstrate apple as a gateway; the very famous Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries also describes apple branches as gateways to the otherworld.

 

Eternal Youth and Eternal Life. In the Norse tradition, there is an apple tree in Asgard that offers eternal youth to any who eat of its fruit. Iduna, a Goddess, tends the tree–and only with her tending do the apples grow.

 

Apple and Healing  Long Lost Friend (an American Grimorie of PA Dutch Folk Magic) suggests that the roots of an apple tree are good for curing a toothache, by way of using a needle, blood, and some tranfserence magic. This is but one of many ways which apple is seen as a healing tool for both mundane and magical reasons.

 

Apple’s Protective Nature.  As nearly every pagan can attest, cutting the apple in half horizontally reveals a pentacle.  Apple carries so much magic within her that it is literally reflected both in her fruit and in the blossoms–which form five petals.

 

Apple in Native American Traditions

A lot of Native American lore involves apple trees, but not necessarily magical qualities of them. I think that this was partially because apple was brought to the New World long after many of the mythologies were established. There are a few things present, however:

 

Apples as a fragrant blessing. One legend, from an unknown tribe, surrounds the fragrance of apple blossoms and flowers. In this story, a baby is carried by a panther under blooming apple trees, a baby who turns into a woman that “falls from heaven.” The villagers take her in, and she loves the flowers and blooms more than anything.  She dies and plans on moving onto the little people, but decides to first bless her village that gave her so much–so she makes the blooms, including the apple blooms, more fragrant.

 

Apple as a Gateway to the World.  In another legend from the Huron tribe, the world is divided into two parts. One part is the “sky world” where the people lived, and the second world is the lower world, which was all water, where the animals lived. A girl who lived in the sky world was tired and went to take a nap underneath an apple tree.  A hole appeared under the tree and she fell through along with the apple tree to the lower world below. She is caught by two swans, and then big turtle brings all of the animals together. They decide to bring the soil up from the depths of the water to create an island for her to live on. This doesn’t work well, but eventually, the animals spread seeds and dirt onto big turtles back, and the girl lives there. Now, the whole world rests on big turtle’s back, which is why this land is called “turtle island.”

 

A magical apple pie!

A magical apple pie!

Apple’s Magic and Meanings

Apple’s Blessings.  Apple offers blessings, abundance, fertility, and magic in nearly every story she shows up in.  Apple’s blessings are apparent from her giving nature–apples can sustain people through difficult winters, they can be baked, fermented, dried, and made into wonderful and delicious foods that nurture and heal as much as they sustain.  Apple offers us connection to our ancestors and our future through her nurturing spirit, blessings, and wisdom.

 

Apple as Healing and Life-Giving.   The “Golden Apples” present in so much of the magical lore demonstrate the life-sustaining and longevity properties of apples.  Magical golden apples offer keys to eternal youth, eternal life, and healing.

 

Apple as a Gateway.  Like her sister the hawthorn (although to a lesser extent), apple trees can be gateways to other realms and experiences–the holes that open in the ground, the apple as a key to the castle, the sleeping person under the apple that is transported to a new place.  Apple offers us these journeys and experiences–in a much more gentle way than Hawthorn.

 

Whew! After all of that research and fun, I think I’m off to make use of these “flood apples” and bake myself a nice apple pie with these beautiful “flood” apples.  And to you, dear readers, I wish you an abundant harvest at this beautiful fall equinox.

 

Building Deep Plant Relationships at Lughnassadh July 29, 2018

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Nicotiana Rustica Botanical Drawing

Last weekend, some druid friends came over for a retreat with a focus on land healing. As part of the ritual we collaboratively developed, we wanted to make an offering to the spirits of the land. I went to my sacred tobacco patch and carefully gathered leaves drying at the bottoms of the plant and flowers for use in this offering, humming a song that the tobacco had taught me and making sure that none of the leaves hit the ground in the process. The ritual went beautifully well and the offering was well received by the spirits.  After the weekend, it struck me how long my relationship with these particular tobacco plants was–more than a decade at this point from seed to leaf to flower to seed.  And how I had something to share about cultivating this relationship over time.

 

So I thought I’d take a short–yet related–detour from my “connecting with nature series” to talk about plant spirit and plant relationship work, specifically tied to Lughnassadh, and building sacred relationships with plants over time, using the wheel of the year and wheel of the seasons.

 

Lughnassadh and Sacred Plants

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

My sacred plant ready for the Lughnassadh harvest

Lughnassadh is an ancient Gaelic festival still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.  Of course, Lughnassadh is also a holiday celebrated by many druids and other neo-pagans today as part of the wheel of the year.  While traditions vary from region to region and group to group, it is largely agreed upon that Lughnassadh always was and is a “first harvest” festival.  In my neck of the woods, early August is just when some of the most important crops are coming into season: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, wild berries, elderberries, and more. I’ve come to see Lughnassadah as a festival dedicated to the plant kingdom, not only because of the abundance that the plants produce this time of year in temperate climates, but also become of my long-term work as an herbalist.

 

As I wrote about some years ago, Lughnassadh is a perfect time to make sacred plant medicine and harvest herbs. The power of the sun is energizing, the herbs are in full bloom and many are at the peak of their growing, and the weather is warm for wandering among the weeds. It is after that moment in early August that we start seeing die back and die off of many medicinal herbs as the fall grows nearer and nearer.

 

Today, though, we aren’t just talking about any herb harvesting–we are talking about cultivating deep relationships with one or more plants on a long-term, perhaps lifetime journey.  I first share my story of the sacred tobacco that I have been growing for over a decade, and then share ideas for you to start cultivating your own deep relationship with a special plant.

 

The Story of Sacred Tobacco

I remember tucking the small packet of seeds, a gift from a gardener, herbalist, and wise woman, into my bag ever-so-carefully.  A gift like this was meant to be cherished, and I couldn’t wait till the next spring when I would be able to start some of the seeds. Like little specs of dirt, the tobacco seeds called to me, “plant me, plant me, give me good soil” and I assured them that all of this would come to pass.

 

In the spring, after opening up a sacred grove for planting (something I do regularly with my spring seed starting) I scattered them on some growing trays, and covered them with the finest layer of soil. They sprung up almost immediately, with almost 100% of them germinating, their little fuzzy green leaves reaching toward the light. Within two weeks, I transplanted them, and they grew quickly, getting big succulent leaves and putting up stems.  I transplanted them again, and they grew even bigger.  By the time the last frost had come and gone, they were in large plastic cups straining to get in the ground. I created a special wheel of the year garden for them in a warm and sunny location and into the ground they went.

 

The continuity of the seed....

The continuity of the seed….tobacco pods ready to harvest.

Its fun when you are growing a new plant for the first time; all the photos or descriptions in the world never substitute for the plant itself and its glorious spirit.  This is especially true when you don’t even know what the plant exactly is! I hadn’t grown tobacco before.  My tobacco plants, the 15 or so that took root, were delighted with their new space.  They put on leaf, and then, grew masses of beautiful little flowers that looked like elongated yellow parasols.  As the flowers grew ready to fall off, the plant told me to harvest them and dry them, and I did.  The flowers turned into large seed pods, which eventually grew brown–along with the rest of the plant–and burst open, self seeding for the following spring.

 

At Lughnassadh that first season, I carefully harvested the leaves and lay them in the sun to dry–since my intention was an offering tobacco, something grown solely as an offering to the land and not smoked–I didn’t have to worry about the complexities surrounding the curing of tobacco. I later learned that I wouldn’t have wanted to either way, as this variety has an extremely high nicotine content (and I am not a smoker, ceremonially or otherwise). I let the leaves dry out and go brown and yellow, and then crumbled them up, added the flowers I had already saved, and stored it all in a jar.  I created a little leather pouch and filled the pouch with the tobacco, and went off to make some offerings. The land loved the offering and asked for more and more, so I carried the pouch with me and used it often. I saved the seeds and began sharing them with some people I felt drawn to give them to. I saved the stalks and used them in my smudge sticks. This is the same tobacco (and later, tobacco blend) that I recently talked about in my Beltane Offering Blend post–that blend is my current favorite for creating an offering.

 

Later, I learned that these seeds were nicotinia rustica seeds, also known as “wild tobacco”, “shamanic tobacco” or “Aztec tobacco.”  It is native to North America (and hardy to zone 8), but is no longer widely cultivated in the Americas because the more common tobacco, nicotinia tabacum, is what is now prized and grown. Nicotina Tabacum is much less harsh, with 1-3% nicotine content, which is what people smoke in cigarettes and pipes.  Rustica, on the other hand, has up to 9% nicotine; in some places in the Americas, it is used as an entheogen or as one of the ingredients in herbal blends that also contain Ayahuasca (likely, this is why it is called “shamanic tobacco”). It is believed by some South American Shamans that tobacco is a plant that gives you access to the spirit of many other plants; it is like a gateway plant to the deeper plant mysteries.  I have found this to be true, even though I only use it as the plant has directed–as an offering.

 

Each year I had a garden, I planted this plant, and gave it a privileged space. If I planted only a few things when I didn’t have a garden, my tobacco would always be planted first to be planted. And each year, I saved seeds. Each year, I kept my pouch with me and offered the tobacco regularly to the land–and it was always extremely well received.

 

Over time and over various harvests, the plant shared some of its deeper mysteries with me, a song for harvesting, for example.  Now, when I start new seeds in the early spring, the first sprouts are like an old friend, greeting me once more. I sing the songs, I sow the seeds.  Since I save the seeds, my relationship with these particular seeds, this particular plant continues and persists throughout my lifetime, and in the many cycles of this annual plant’s lifetime. As Lughnassadh is here this week, I will continue my annual tradition of harvesting the plants as they go to seed, laying the leaves in the sun, and continuing this cycle into the future years. I will once again mix my blend and fill up my jar for the year till the spring when I plant again.

 

My choice of tobacco originally wasn’t my own; they were gifts of seeds and I wanted to see them grow.  But in retrospect, I am delighted that this tobacco is now so firmly in my life. I really like the fact that my sacred tobacco has only one use to me–an offering–and that use is critical for my interaction with the broader land.  I also liked the idea of “reclaiming” tobacco from the ways that it has been abused (and grown in a toxic and unceremonial way) by my broader culture.  So part of this work was “reclaiming” a native sacred plant, and part of it was building a brand new relationship with that plant that was my own, not built on any previous culture’s use.

 

This isn’t my only plant relationship–each of the relationships is unique and its own.  But this is certainly one of my more potent ones, and therefore, is a good illustration of the larger technique I’m sharing today.

 

Plant Spirit Connections and Practices

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

Beautiful Nicotiana rusticas growing in the garden!

So here’s a simple technique you might do, based on what I’ve written about above: choose a plant to cultivate a deeply sacred relationship with. Plan on this relationship spanning a period of time, years or decades, if possible. Rituals and sacred actions have meaning in part because we repeat them; the more repetition we have over the years, the deeper the connection and meaning.

 

I would recommend choosing a plant that has some sacred use to you and that you can grow, even if its in a pot or on a sunny windowsill.  For the method I offer above, I think the cultiavation of it is important.  If you aren’t cultivating the plant, I would suggest one you have regular access to, and that you can “tend” in some way (pruning, scattering seeds, etc).

 

In terms of sacred use, there are so many options:

  • an offering plant, one that you use to make offerings to the land, ancestors, spirits, diety, etc (this is where my tobacco mainly fits)
  • a smudge stick or incense plant, one that is used to help purify and cleanse a space (also can be an offering)
  • a culinary plant that you use for cooking special meals or creating sacred drinks at sacred times (see, for example, my elderflower recipe)
  • a visionary plant, one that helps you open new doorways
  • a brewing plant, one that can be used to create sacred alcoholic beverages (and you might check out Buhner’s Sacred and Healing Beers for some inspiration)
  • a plant for sacred decor, see for example my post on Yule decorations
  • a sacred crafting plant, a plant you can make something from (like cordage, plant dyes and inks, cattail paper, etc)

 

Spend some time selecting your plant–there is no rush.  The plant will be there when you are ready.  Your plant has lived hundreds of thousands of lifetimes, she will wait for you to be ready to begin this work.  In my case, I had no previous relationship with tobacco at all (and had avoided my culture’s use of it); but for other plants I work with in this way, I certainly have had previous relationships (sometimes spanning back to my childhood). By the time I do this work, they are already good friends :).

 

Begin simply by planting your plant or finding it in the wild, watching it grow.  If it doesn’t yet grow where you live, cultivate it. When you interact with your plant, especially for sowing and harvesting, try to do so in an open grove/sacred space.  This helps establish, from the beginning, the sacredness of your relationship with this plant.

 

Visit your plant often. Pay attention to how it grows, how it moves in the wind and how the rain washes over it. Learn your plant in the physical world: learn how it grows in each stage of its life cycle. If it is a perennial, watch it die back and be reborn in the spring. If it is an annual, carefully save its seed each year and plant again to bring your sacred relationship with you as the years go on. Learn what pests may eat it and how to prevent those pests.

 

Connect with the plant in spirit. Listen for the plant’s inner song (each plant has a song, and may reveal that song in time to you). Find out if the plant has a sacred name she wants you to use–and call her by that name.  Find out if you can use that name with others, or if she wants you to keep it to herself.

 

If you can consume part of the plant, do so, and see how it works within you. Do some meditation after consuming your plant; see how it feels and what it reveals. If you want to get even more radical, do a fast and consume only the plant (or tea from the plant) if it is edible; let it sustain you (again, Buhner’s work on fasting may be helpful to you here).

 

Ready to harvest!

Ready to harvest!

Find your sacred harvesting time–perhaps it is Lughnassadh, perhaps some other sacred day on the wheel of the year or a full moon.  Discover how the plant wants to be harvested and prepared; use your intuition and go with the flow of it. Use the plant respectfully, taking just enough to get you to the next harvest (perennial) or saving the seeds carefully (annual).

 

Let the years pass, and continue to build your relationship with the plant. Be slow to speak of this work, and speak of it only when directed by the plant (as tobacco has asked of me); this will keep the magic between you and the plant.  As the years pass, you will grow quite close–and your sacred plant will always be there, with you, offering her quiet presence. The plant will help show you the way to her magic, her stories, her songs. All that you need to do is begin with an open mind, patience and perseverance, and let her guide the way.  Blessings of the plant kingdom this first harvest season!

 

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.

 

 

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!