Tag Archives: nature connection

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

In the western esoteric traditions, and traditions tied to them, like druidry, initiation is a powerful method of transformation and energetic work. While features of initiation and their overall goals vary widely by tradition, many initiations do follow some basic patterns, and those are worth exploring. In Inside a Magical Lodge, John Michael Greer notes that the outcome of initiations are to enact specific and desired patterns of change in a person and to connect new members to the group and to the group’s overall egregore (that is, the energetic patterns that a group collectively creates). The initiation then, as he writes, is the magical framework that is put in place in a candidate from which all other things derive.

I believe that we can apply this same practice to working and reconnecting with nature, and today, I’ll share my thoughts on initiations through nature–tree initiations. A tree initiation often results in a very deep, mutually beneficial relationship between you and the trees. Nature and humans cultivated such relationships for most of human history; this is obvious from our mythology, from our own history, and from existing indigenous cultures. It has only been in the last few centuries that those of us in western industrialized cultures lost our ability (and desire) to deeply connect with nature.

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree cradling moon in the roots

Tree initiations are one way of helping us to re-establish those deep bonds with a specific kind of ceremony.  In the same way that some dedicate themselves to working with a particular deity, I have found great value in connecting myself deeply with certain tree species.  One of the ways into this work is through initiation.  That is, you are making a conscious commitment to connecting with a tree or tree species in a sacred manner. You can think about this as a magical act that will help jumpstart a much deeper relationship to the tree and to the species.

With tree initiations, this goes beyond a friendly acquaintance, but rather, is a gateway into the deeper mysteries of nature and of that particular tree or species of trees (or plant, for that matter). A tree initiation, then, is a way of establishing a life-long relationship with a tree species, in the same way, that one you are initiated into a druid order or other magical group, you typically will always be a member of that group as long as both you and the group exist.  This kind of ceremony can allow you to connect with the trees in a way. Like any other initiation, the initiation works deeply within you, and through you, and has long-term and lasting effects.  Perhaps what I write here is appealing to you, and you have been called to a specific tree, you will find it of use to continue to use some of the strategies I include here.  I will also note that while I am describing “tree initiations” you can do the same thing outlined here with plants and other features of nature.

Please note that this is a post in my longstanding series on working with trees in a sacred manner.  Earlier posts in this series include finding the face of a tree, working with trees on the outer planes, working with trees on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, offering tree blessings for abundance and wassailing trees, considering the role of the seasons and seasonal the breath of the earth in tree work, cultivating deep connections with trees, connecting to trees in urban settings, working with the Nywfre/energy flows of trees through sap flows, deepening relationships with trees, seeking out and working with grandmother trees, cultivating reciprocity in tree relationships, creating intuitive tree sigils and tree magic, and witnessing the death of a tree.  I list these out here because much of the preparation for doing a tree initiation, which is a very advanced practice, can be found in these other posts where you get to know trees, support them, and work with them in various ways.

Druid Tree Workings: An Initiation from the Trees

Before we can delve into the specifics of tree initiations, I’m going to start by describing some features of initiations so that we can see how we might begin to craft tree initiations:

Preparation. There is typically a period of time when the candidate prepares for their initiation. The specifics of this vary widely. This might be a longer period of time: like a period of learning and growing in that tradition, a period of growing up (as in years). But there is usually also some distinct time set aside for the preparation for that exact ceremony (a silent vigil, period of meditation, special bath, etc). This certainly applies to tree initiations; there often is a long period of preparation (and you might not even know you have been being prepared) while you learn and connect with your tree.  Most of the work that I outlined in my previous posts on Druid Tree Workings (see full list above) is much of the prep work for such initiatic work.

Timing. Timing often plays a critical role in initiations. For coming of age rituals and initiations that mark the passage of an important life event, the timing of them is obviously based on marking a key point in someone’s life. For initiations into magical traditions, path of the sun in the wheel of the year, the placement of the stars, or the phase of the moon may be important (e.g. having an initiation on the equinox). For tree initiations, paying attention to the seasonal cycles is particularly critical. I have found that different trees have their high energy times at different points; apple is most powerful when she is full fruit, witch hazel is most powerful in late fall when she is blooming; and maple is most powerful in early spring when her sap is running, as three examples. See this post earlier in the druid tree workings series for some general timing suggestions on when trees have their highest energy (because that is a very good time to do this work).

Roles: Common roles include the Initiator(s) who are performing the initiation, the candidate (those being initiated), and, depending on the initiation, observers/community who are there in support of the person being initiated. Anyone with any role in the initiation (even spectator) take part in the experience, and all are changed by it.

A good tree to get to know--Chestnut!

A good tree to get to know–Chestnut!

Receptivity. Typically, initiations involve somehow putting a candidate into a receptive state so that other work can be done. This can vary widely; in indigenous cultures, fasting, not sleeping for a period of days, and/or ingesting psychotropic mushrooms are ways to place the candidate in a receptive state; in other magical traditions, the candidate may be blindfolded, exposed to startling noises, or other things to get them out of their normal working state. With tree initiations, I believe that this receptive state comes after basic energy exchange and sitting in quietude with the tree.

A fundamental shift of some kind. The whole point of initiation is to enact some change in the candidate and to mark some important milestone; as such, effective initiations are accompanied by some fundamental shift. The shift may be subtle or dramatic, but it is present. The lack of such a shift likely means the initiation “didn’t take” due to a variety of reasons (e.g. the candidate is not ready for that kind of shift).

Now that we have some idea of the features of initiations more broadly, we can begin talking about specific tree initiations.

Preparation

Just like any other initiatory experience, it is important to prepare for a tree initiation for a period of time. For one, both the tree and you have to be ready for it and willing for it to happen, and that isn’t like putting a date on a calendar. Rather, this should be something that you come to understand over a period of time, that you are called to do or a specific tree you feel called to really deeply work with. Sometimes, the preparation for initiation can take years.  Trees work on their own time and it may not be your time.

I have personally found, and this might be different for you, that tree species will call to you.  A particular tree might be your main contact (e.g. the oak in your back yard) but you will find yourself as you are out on the landscape continuing to be drawn to the same species.  Over time, this is a species you might end up having an initiatic experience.

Establishing a relationship.  Most trees and plants want to have relationships with us; they miss our ancestral connections, and they are looking to re-establish them. The first step on this journey is working with trees, recognizing that they are our elders and that they have much to teach us. Practicing respectful communication with them, recognizing and honoring their agency, and a lot of other basic steps (again, outlined by my other posts).  If you are going to prepare for initiation with a tree or ask a tree for such an initiation, you need to lay the foundation and groundwork. This can take time, perhaps a lot of time, but it is time well spent.

Observe, interact, and commune. As you are preparing for this work, you want to spend time with your tree or tree species as much as you can.  Observe your trees in different seasons.  Interact with your trees.  You might find that a species all has a particular mentality, although individuals differ (think about this like culture–all people from certain cultures share certain features but are still individuals).  Spend a lot of time talking with your tree, getting to know your tree, hearing their story, and sharing yours.  Find out what you have in common and how you might work deeply together.

Massive oak tree

Build understanding. Its also a great idea to learn about your tree.  Find out information on the tree’s ecology, role in the ecosystem, growth habits, how tall it grows, how long it lives, what you can make from it.  Get a bit of the wood and see how it is to shape it.  Learn how to make medicine, cordage, food, drink, whatever you can from the tree.  I have a whole series on druid trees that you can draw upon if you are anywhere near my ecosystem (see the top of this post for a complete list).

Establishing commitment.  Once you’ve done that preliminary work, there will be a time where your work deepens, where you grow committed to each other.  It is at this point that crafting a tree initiation ceremony will be appropriate.

Planning Your Initiation

Once you feel it is appropriate and you get a clear signal from your tree, you can begin planning your tree initiation, a ceremony you craft together with the tree that helps connect you deeper and leads you into the deeper mysteries of the living earth.  I’m going to now offer some possibilities from my experience, but understand that each of these ceremonies are different.  Above all, work with the tree itself and hear what guidance they have for you.

Taking the Tree Within

Unless the tree is poisonous (like Yew), I have found that taking the tree into yourself in some way and offering something in exchange is an important part of this process. Your tree research should have revealed if the tree is poisonous or if it was used as medicine/food. In my ecosystem, few actually are poisonous and most have edible leaves or needles, but it might be different in yours. It also might be the case that part of the tree can be eaten but the rest is poisonous (for example, black locust flowers/beans can be eaten safely). Or it might be that eating it may require some preparation (certain tannin-rich acorns). Many of the hardwood trees (maple, birch, linden) have leaves that are edible, especially earlier in the season when they are young and tender. If it is poisonous, obviously, don’t eat it. If it isn’t, poisonous, however, I would suggest that you start consuming small parts of it (with permission and with an offering). This allows part of the tree’s life force and energy to work its way into your physical body.

Always listen to what the tree tells you regarding whether or not you can take a piece of it.  Honoring that tree’s request, and not taking something if it is not allowed/offered, is one of the most important and meaningful ways of building a relationship.  Many trees have been abused by humans, have lost their elders to humans, and some can take time before they are willing to give.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Eating leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts. You can eat flowers, leaves, nuts, and seeds fresh off the tree certain times of year.   Each tree has a different cycle. May tree leaves and flowers are edible (and delicious when young and tender). Nuts can also be enjoyed. Flowers and nuts are very potent because they contain the lifeforce of the tree.
  • A Tree Tea. Many trees make a pleasant tea that you can drink. I enjoy conifers for this quite a bit—eastern hemlock, white pine, blue spruce all make delightful teas.   To make a simple needle or leaf tea, I will gather the leaves/needles (leaving an appropriate offering) and pour boiling water on it and let it sit for a while (30 min or longer for needles, 10-15 min for tree leaves or flowers). If you want, you can instead use sun tea and allow the sun to heat up the needles. Strain and add a bit of honey for an amazing treat.
  • A Tree Bud or Leaf Essence. Some trees are not healthy for you to eat or don’t want to be damaged or have their parts removed, but you can create a flower or leaf essence. You simply go out on a sunny day with a bowl of spring water and put the bowl right up to the leaf/flower and let the leaf/flower sit in the bowl of water for a time (use your intuition). This creates a “mother” essence that you can then water down and store (some people put a bit of brandy in their essences to preserve them).  And you can take the “mother” essence for a long period of time.
  • Tree Sap. Some trees (walnut, birch, hickory, various maples) also have sap that runs and that can be tapped in the spring. With permission and copious offerings, you might be able to tap a tree and drink their sap directly (all of the above saps can be drank directly or boiled down into syrup/sugar). This is an extremely powerful exchange (you are essentially drinking the lifeblood of the tree) and should be done with respect and honor. To drink their sap, you don’t even need to tap them—I remember a year I was harvesting birch branches. It is best to do this in the spring right as they are budding. I harvested a branch from one tree and it was still running. I sat under that branch spot and it dripped every 15 seconds or so, and I allowed it to drip right in my mouth for a time and then made an offering (you know what!) to the tree in thanks. Don’t waste a drop!
  • Tree Resin. Some trees also produce an edible resin (like white pine) that you can consume with great care. White pine is the tree I most frequently do this with; again, this is the lifeblood of the tree and should be done only with deep respect, permission, and offering.

All of these offer possibilities to take the tree within, and much deeper work can manifest once we have a stronger physical connection to the tree.

Discover the tree’s time of power

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In order to perform the tree initiation, you will need to discover the tree’s time of power during the year.  Most deciduous trees are in their power at some point in the light half of the year, while conifers may have a longer time you can work with them. When is this tree at the height of its power? What I mean by this is–when is this tree at the peak of its vitality and presence on the landscape?  For example, Maples has two major times of power–when they are flowing in late winter/early spring and when they are in full fiery form in late fall.  Oaks seem to be in power throughout the light half of the year–once they have a full crown of leaves and are perhaps at the height of their power at the summer solstice and into the fall as they are dropping thousands of ripened acorns.  I’ve found most nut-bearing and fruit-bearing trees seem to be at their peak when those nuts and fruits are ripening and falling.  You can intuit this and ask the tree.

The point here is that you want to perform your ceremony at a time when both you and your tree are at their peak (e.g. no good will come of you trying to perform a ceremony with a maple tree at the winter solstice!)

Exchange and offering

You want to think about what exchange you will make, what you will offer the tree.  While a physical offering here can be used, I would recommend some kind of longer offering (e.g. I will gather your nuts and plant them in places each fall).  Here, the exchange should be something more meaningful (your time, energy, and service) for this tree.

Journey, lessons, or teachings

As part of an initiatatic experience, you will want to create space for direct communion with the tree. Depending on who you are and what methods you use, this part can vary but could include: an open conversation with the tree, meeting the tree on the inner planes and having a spirit journey (see more here), using divination tools to receive messages from the tree, or using sacred dreaming to receive messages.  Create space for these lessons and teachings from the tree (and continue to create space for them as time passes beyond your initiation).

Finding the right space

Obviously, you also need to seek out the right place to hold your initiation ceremony.  This should be somewhere private where you can be near the tree species.  This might be easy for some, and for others, you might have to do a bit of searching.  Consider this part of the process!

Putting it all together: Crafting Your Ceremony

Your ceremony will obviously be unique to you, so I cannot give you a specific ceremony here, but I can offer what one may look like.  If we put the various pieces above together, here is one option.  This is for a sugar maple tree in the fall.

1. In the space you selected, set up your space in any way you feel is appropriate.  In our sample ritual with a maple tree (in fall), this would include making a mandala of leaves around the base of the tree and creating an altar in front of the tree.

2. Open up a sacred grove in the space you selected, near a tree that you want to have a tree initiation with.  (I would use AODA’s solitary grove opening for this purpose).

3.  State your intentions for the ceremony and give space for the tree to offer their own intentions (see last week’s post!)

4. Take the tree within you in whatever manner specified.  For our sugar maple ritual, this would be a tablespoon of maple syrup.

5.  Go into a deep meditative state, meeting the spirit of the tree, and asking the tree to take you on a journey and offer you initiation and teachings

6.  Make a commitment and an offering to the tree (of time, energy, etc).  Make sure to do something during the ceremony to begin that offering and commitment.  For example, you might sing a song to the tree (I have a maple song I would sing) and then make an offering of liquid gold to the tree as well as an herbal blend.

8.  Close the ceremony, ground, and journal about the experience.

This is just one of many examples that you could use–the point being that you are carefully crafting a ceremony to bring you much closer to the sacred maple tree.  The last thing I’ll share is that sometimes these initiations aren’t planned–they simply happen!

PS: The Druid’s Garden blog will be going on hiatus for a few weeks while we do a site upgrade.  We will be moving to a new domain and doing some scheduled website maintenance, so you may also experience some intermittent downtime.  No worries–the blog will be back up and running soon!

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Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

Introduction to Sacred Gardening: Connection, Reciprocity, and Honoring Life

My druid's garden full of sacred plants!

My druid’s garden full of sacred plants!

Walking into a sacred garden is like walking into another world, one full of joy, happiness, and wholeness.  Fruit hanging from happy branches, plants coming up from all angles inviting a nibble, a taste, a touch.  The pathways spiral and you get lost, looking at flowers, breathing in the fresh air, and tasting the tart berries on your tongue.  An indoor sacred garden is much the same – a bright window with a chair asking you to sit, stay awhile, and meditate with the plants (or even reach up and take a lemon-scented geranium leaf in your hand and breathe deeply).  Sacred gardens are places that are intentionally cultivated to be in harmony and balance, that are carefully tended by loving hands, and that offer many possibilities for spiritual practice and deeper spiritual connection.

 

It’s amazing to see that this year, so many new people are taking up gardening.  While I’ve written on these topics before (obviously, this blog is called the Druid’s Garden!), I’m returning to this topic today to offer an overall philosophy of sacred gardening that I hope can help you deepen your practice or start a new garden.  I’ve been engaged in these practices for over a decade, greatly aided by my permaculture design certificate and permaculture teacher training, which offered me much in the way of working with nature and developing deep observation, interaction, and ethical skills. I realize that other authors, especially those coming from different spiritual traditions, may have a very different take.  But this is mine :).

 

Sacred Gardening: A Triad of Reciprocity, Life Honoring, and Connection

To define sacred gardening, let’s start by looking at the definitions for the two terms.  A garden refers to a place where ordinary people can grow food.  Beyond that, gardens actually vary pretty widely based on the philosophy and practices of a gardener.  You can have gardens that are organic and holistically managed or those that are full of chemicals, weed killers, and poisons.  You can have gardens that are diverse and support life or those that are focused on keeping all life that isn’t intended out with some pretty violent means.  You can have large or small gardens, indoors or out.  They can be perennial or annual. Gardens, then, are defined by crowing food, cultivating plants for human benefit; they are often (but not always) very human-dominated spaces.

Sacred refers to something that is dedicated to a spiritual or religious purpose, something that is deserving veneration, being worthy of awe; and/or something that is entitled to reverence and respect.  When we think of something that is sacred, it is a special place where we offer honor, respect, and reverence.  Where we tend to our interactions and be intentional in our practices. For thinking about nature as sacred, several concepts emerge that are critically important to our discussion here they are: connection, reciprocity, and honoring life   It is in these three concepts that we can arrive at a useful definition of sacred gardening.

Diverse garden!

Diverse garden!

Actions here represent the third aspect that is important to define.  The ultimate point of most gardening is growing food, using whatever means an individual chooses.  What makes that gardening sacred is how the gardener chooses to interact with the land, the specific choices and behaviors that gardener engages in, and the intentions put forth into the space.  As with many things, while intentions matter a great deal, it is actions that determine our relationships and reality to the land. You can have all of the sacred intentions in the world, but walking into your garden with a backpack sprayer full of Round-Up sends a very different message.

 

At the same time as actions speak intentions into the world, it is also important to recognize that the physical and metaphysical are affected by each other and that there are many metaphysical aspects that can affect a physical space and vice versa.  Thus, we can think about sacred gardening as being about both inner and outer practices, practices that help not only support the physical presence of the garden but also the spirit.

 

Thus, I see three guiding principles, a triad in the druidic sense, that can help us with a full definition of this practice:

Three principles for sacred gardening:
Deepening inner and outer connections with the garden
Engaging in reciprocity with the garden
Honoring and creating spaces the diversity of life in the garden

Thus, sacred gardening is a practice of cultivating a space (indoors or outdoors) that allows for not only growing food but also spiritual connection, reciprocity, and honoring life through both inner and outer practices.  In the remainder of this post, I’ll explore these three concepts and offer both “inner” (metaphysical) and outer “physical” practices

 

Connection: Building a Relationship

The first principle is connection.  Sacred gardening is connected gardening, where a big part of the goal of sacred gardening is to cultivate a deep relationship with the garden: which might include plants, soil, bird or insect life, stones, and other features.  Connection allows us to learn and grow in the garden by building a deeper relationship with that garden. Connection can mean many things in a garden setting, from developing a long-standing relationship with seeds that you carefully harvest and save each year to learning more about your space.   So now let’s look at three “inner” and “outer” connection practices.

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Beautiful, cultivated polycultures!

Inner Connection Practices for sacred gardening. These three practices don’t have to be taken up all at once. I suggest you start with one of them and build to others over time–it can take years to establish deep connections. Think about inner connection work as taking a seasonal approach: each season you can grow and deepen your practice

.

  • Plant Spirit Communication. Learning how to directly communicate with your plants and the spirits of your land is a fantastic way to build deep connection.  By practicing and learning these communication techniques, you can learn from nature and grow in deep ways–as plants have been teachers of humans long, long, before recorded history.  Many of our garden plants, especially the culinary herbs like rosemary, lemon balm, and sage, have extremely long relationships with humanity and are almost always willing teachers.  For more on plant spirit communication techniques, see Plant Spirit Communication 1, Plant Spirit Communication 2, Plant Spirit Communication 3, and Plant Spirit Communication 4.
  • Meditation. Meditation techniques, including walking meditation and meditation where you are in stillness within the space, are excellent ways to build connections.  Consider doing your regular meditative practices in your garden as often as you can.  Even taking 5 or 10 minutes a day in your garden to meditate and connect can be a very positive experience–for you and for the garden!
  • Planting and Harvesting Rituals.  Relationships are built, in part, by recognizing the spirit in the plants and honoring that spirit.  I have found that planting, blessing, and harvesting rituals are a great way to build a spiritual connection between yourself and your garden plants.  Here are a few rituals for you to try: land blessing, planting ritual 1, planting ritual 2.

Outer Connection Practices.  Outer connection practices help signal to the spirits of the land your intentions.  Humans in this age often take the easy and quick ways out (e.g. plowing, pesticides, chemical fertilizers), and those easy and quick ways are often at a high ecological cost.  By taking things differently, and slowly, we can demonstrate sacred intent.

  • Supporting the soil web and soil health.   One critical physical connection in gardens is the soil and building soil health.  I would suggest as part of your connection to the garden, you work to attend to your soil–of which there are many different practices.  One of the most important is, for outdoor gardens, taking up the practice of no-till gardening, for example, using sheet mulch or hugelkultur approaches.  Supporting a healthy soil web begins with avoiding tilling a garden; tilling each year destroys the soil web and is quite destructive on the soil bacteria, nematodes, worms, mycelial networks, and more.  Adding rich compost (finished compost, coffee grounds, etc) and natural amendments help cultivate rich soil.  Here’s more on a few compost techniques: composting for city dwellers, composting options for outdoors, and vermicompost.
  • Observation and interaction. One of the first principles of permaculture design is a very useful one to list here.  To build a connection, you have to interact, to be present, and to do so frequently throughout the season.  Observe your plants as they grow.  Spend time with them, watch how they grow.  Look at them at different points in the season and at different times of day.  Take a full moon walk and see the glistening of the dew in the early morning.  This kind of walking meditative practice, where you are simply present with your garden, will offer you much.  More on observation and interaction. 
  • Seed starting and seed choices. Another connection practice focuses on seeds.  Seeds today can be difficult to navigate and choose because of the proliferation of GMO seeds (which I don’t recommend for sacred gardening)–this guide offers some suggestions for seeds.  Once you’ve selected some good seeds, you can start some for yourself (even starting a few will really give you a connection with the plant).  And I would suggest saving at least some varieties of seed from year to year.  For example, I have tobacco seeds that I use for ceremonial purposes and I’ve cultivated a many-year relationship with those seeds. At this point, each time I welcome up the new tobacco, it is greeting an old friend!

Connection allows us to begin to establish deep relationships with our sacred garden both in inner and outer ways.  I believe that connection is a basic requirement for sacred gardening–and the other two steps begin with this one.  Let’s now turn to the second principle–reciprocity–and see how it leads directly from connection.

Offering on a stone cairn

Offering on a stone cairn

Reciprocity: Giving Back

Reciprocity refers to the ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial where each side continues to gain positive benefits from the relationship.  In the case of a sacred garden, abundant land produces yields to sustain you.  In the case of the gardener, the gardener does things to improve the diversity and health of the land and ecosystem–not only for the direct benefit of growing food but beyond.

Inner Reciprocation Practices help us to shift our mindset from those commonly assumed and indoctrinated in our culture to something more sacred and reciprocal.

  • Offerings and Gratitude.  In a sacred garden, whether it is indoors or outdoors, I like to have a space reserved for gratitude and practice gratitude regularly–this is the first step.  I usually build some kind of small shrine (whether that is on the windowsill or in a corner of a larger garden) and leave regular offerings. Offerings may be physical, musical, or spiritual (energetic).  More on gratitude practices from an earlier post.
  • Meditations and critical thinking work. Another good practice here is to spend time dismantling (though discursive meditation or other thought processes) the underlying assumptions about nature that we might not even consciously be aware of.  Our present culture has a constant assumption that 1) nature is there for our benefit and profit and 2) we can take from nature heedlessly and constantly.  These kinds of assumptions run through everyday life in unexpected ways and it can take some serious work to distance ourselves from them and to develop more healthy and productive beliefs about our relationship with nature.  For some good reading on this topic, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and John Michael Greer’s Mystery Teachings of the LIving Earth.

Outer Reciprocation work helps us create gardens and plans that give back as much (or more) than we take, and establishes balance and harmony with us and the living earth.

  • Closed-Loop Systems and replacing what is taken. One of the reasons that chemical fertilizers are so popular is that as we remove nutrients from the soil, they have to be replaced (even so, we know that these kinds of farming techniques have caused a considerable nutritional decline over the decades).  Ultimately, the loss of nutrients permanently from the soil is a problem with reciprocation.  At minimum, we need to be replacing nutrients that are lost through erosion and harvest–but I’d argue that we need to do one better and add even more than was originally present. Practicing composting is one way, and for more radical folks, humanure and liquid gold offer ways to have a truly closed-loop system. Adding healthy amendments (I especially like to get coffee grounds from nearby coffee shops and interrupt other waste streams to divert to my garden).  Gathering up fall leaves and using them as part of your gardening practice is another resource.
  • Reduction or Elimination of Fossil Fuel Use. Another issue with reciprocation has to do with our over-dependence on fossil fuels, a dependence upon which is literally killing life on our planet and threatening our very existence as a species. As an act of reciprocation and acknowledgment of the problems with fossil fuel, I make it a point to do as much of my gardening by hand as I possibly can (even in a 1000 square foot garden!).  When I must make use of fossil fuels (such as to bring off-site compost to establish new beds), I make sure that I am making minimal and conscious use of these resources.
  • Scattering Seeds and Wildtending. As part of the gardens at the Druid’s Garden homestead, we have a “refugia” where grow a number of rare medicinal species and regularly scatter their seeds to wild and untended places, particularly places that have suffered ecological devastation after logging or other disruption (common where we live).  We grow both full sun perennials (like St. Johns Wort and New England Aster) as well as shade-loving woodland medicinals (wild ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, ramps, goldenseal, bloodroot).  We also make sure to give seeds and seedlings out to others as much as we possibly can.  This is a direct response to many of these plants being lost in our local ecosystem and offers one way to give back.

 

Honoring Life through Sacred Gardening

Garden with sacred statuary

When you start thinking about connection and reciprocation, this is all leading to the most important sacred principle of all: that of honoring all life.  This is tricky–gardens are traditionally human-dominated spaces and the goal is traditionally to grow food for humans.  When the potato beetles or squash borers come knocking, “honoring life” is probably the furthest thing from your mind as you literally watch your hard tended squash plants wither and die on the vine.  This is when you might be tempted to go to your nearest big box store for a chemical solution. But it is exactly these situations that test us as sacred gardeners, druids, and nature-honoring people.  Nature herself has ways of bringing those squash beetles in balance, and there are many things we can do.  The principle here of honoring life is so critical because it is this principle that is so broadly lacking.

Inner Principles focus on cultivating a diversity of life principles as part of our gardening practice.

  • A full season of blessing rituals. Offering regular rituals in the space that bless and welcome life is a great way over time to affirm your relationship with the sacred garden and raise positive energy for the space.  Here’s one such approach based on land healing.
  • Inviting others in. One of the ways to honor the life of your garden is by inviting others in, sharing with them, and helping others understand these basic principles.  Once you’ve done enough that you have something to share, invite others in to learn, grow, and enjoy the space.  I try to do this often, and as I offer a “garden tour” I share not only what is going, but the life-affirming philosophy that is present in the garden space and how we bring that into reality.
  • Permaculture ethics. Meditations on the three ethics of permauclture (earth care, people care, and fair share) can really help one develop a mindest that honors life and the resulting behaviors. I like to regularly meditate on these concepts and also create signs for my home that remind me of these concepts.

Outer Principles

  • Welcoming the diversity of life – pollinator hedges and more.  When designing for spaces and when planning, I think its important to design just not for what we want to eat but to welcome in diversity, particularly insect and amphibian diversity.  Insect diversity can help us with integrated pest management (below) but also just with cultivating spaces that have room for life.  A simple way to do this, for example, is to use a pollinator hedge–fill it with perennial species like borage, mint, comfrey, sage, milkweed, and more.  These pollinator hedges help welcome in insect life into your space and create habitat, food, and forage for non-human life.  Another common feature is a small frog pond and bee drinking area; a place for frogs, toads, and other amphibians to lay eggs, shelter from the hot sun, and get a drink.  A final thing here to consider is that life-honoring gardens are usually a little more “wild” than their human-dominated counterparts!
  • Integrated pest management. There are so many ways to deal with pests naturally.  Planting pollinator species, particularly the kinds that attract parasitic wasps, can help you with a host of pest problems.  Letting your chickens or ducks run through the garden.  Using cayenne pepper or copper tape to address slugs–the list goes on and on.  Most garden pests have several natural solutions in the short term.  In the long term, fostering a healthy ecosystem allows the predatory species of insects to handle the ones that could cause you trouble.  This approach does take more work and knowledge than a chemical one, and you are likely to lose some crops along the way–but in the end, it will be a much more life-respecting and affirming choice.
  • Making full use of the harvest. Another aspect of reciprocation is to use fully what is harvested and not contribute to food waste.  I think its really important that, in a time where up to 50% of the food grown is wasted, we make every effort to honor what was grown and produced in our gardens. This often means taking up some kind of food preservation, such as canning or drying produce.  Another way of thinking about this is also offering the harvest up to other life–e.g. if I can’t eat all my tomatoes, can some of my neighbors or friends enjoy them? What about offering leftovers to my chickens who convert that garden produce into eggs and manure?

Beautiful patio garden

Conclusion

I hope these principles will help those of you who are starting gardens with the intent of having sacred gardens or for those of you who already have a gardening practice and want to make it more sacred and intentional.  I would love to hear from you in the comments about other ways that you’ve engaged in sacred gardening techniques and things that you do.

 

 

 

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

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

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Reflections on Imbolc

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

 

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

 

Weather, Groundhogs, and Prognostication.

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

 

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

 

Tapping the Maple Trees

 

Tapping maple trees

Tapping maple trees

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

 

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

 

Snow Spirals and Ice Observations

Another Imbolc spiral - this one in the sacred circle

Snow spiral in sacred grove

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

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

 

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow)

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

Butzemann from 2019

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

 

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

 

Sowing the First Seeds of the Season

Catnip seedlings!

Catnip seedlings!

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

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

 

Concluding Thoughts

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

A Journey through the Senses: Breathe Deeply

An Ancient Black Oak

An Ancient Black Oak

Over the summer, I spent the weekend at a beautiful farm with my family for a family reunion. That land had gifted me, and all of us, much that weekend. I had found some stunning new stones for pigments, I had spent tranquil time on the lake, and I had talked with many of the trees there. So, as I was preparing to leave, I walked up to a giant oak on my way out. I gave it a big hug. It had rained the night before and the trunk was covered in lichen. I took a breath and the smell was that sweet and earthy smell of lichen. I remember the smell the first time I smelled such a lichen. It was down in Louisiana, and I had visited an ancient live oak with some druid friends. A branch had fallen on the ground. My friend picked it up and she handed it to me and she said, you really should smell it. And I did. It had this sweetness. The smell isn’t something that you can put into words. It’s simply smells amazing. Slightly sweet, slightly earthy, very serene.  It smells like nothing else in the world.  To this day, I feel like that lichen smell connects me to the wisdom of the ancient druids.

 

I am also reminded of this powerful connection right now, as the maple leaves are turning to fire and falling gently to the earth. Those leaves carry the scent of memories past, so many moments over time. Moments of jumping and burying myself in leaves, of chestnuts roasting, of raking leaves and preparing garden beds. The smell of the last of summer leaving as winter creeps ever closer.  The smell of the Fall Equinox making way to Samhain. It’s just a smell that is magic, connecting me deeply with one of my favorite times–and trees–upon the landscape.

 

When we’re thinking about connecting with nature with the senses, usually, our sight dominates. We’re looking for things. We’re observing. We are experiencing the world through its beauty and vision. I wrote about nature observation in a few ways earlier on this blog.  But, most of my previous posts have been focused on sight-based observation, and thus, perhaps the other senses are neglected. We spend a lot of time in our heads, almost in a disembodied state where our eyes put input directly to our brains (often from screens, etc).  When we breathe, we fill our lungs, which brings oxygen to our entire body.  We breathe into our heart spaces, allowing ourselves to be embodied and have more embodied experiences.  This allows us to experience the magic of nature, the enchantment of it, in a multitude of ways. Thus, the lichen and leaf experiences are powerful reminders about nature and the senses–and the importance of attending to our many senses if we want to fully connect and commune with nature.

 

Smell and the Gateway to Memory

 

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaf jumping!

Smell is a gateway to memory. One of my earliest memories of any smell was spending time covered in leaves with my dad. My Dad and I would go out, we would rake up the beautiful sugar maple leaves, and after amassing a large pile, we would jump in them. Once we had finished jumping, we’d cover ourselves up in them, just laying there, laughing, and letting the smell of them permeate us.  Sugar maple leaves have a beautiful smell in the fall.  Again, I cannot put it into words, yet it is one of my favorite smells in the world. In the fall, each year I not only walk in the woods, but I rake up the leaves and jump in them because I want to experience that smell and that smell carries me back to an earlier time–a trigger for memory.

 

 

Three Deep Breaths

Smell is powerful; it is connected to our in-breath, into things coming into us, filling our lungs, engaging with our senses. Why does a forest smell so much better than a factory?  Its the smell of life, of earth, of nature.  When you go into the natural place, far from pollution and industrialization, you might begin by taking three deep breaths. We do this at the beginning of all OBOD rituals. Take three deep breaths together with the earth beneath us; together with the sky above us; together with the waters, lakes, and rivers around us. And as we take those three deep breaths, we are rooted in our sense of smell in that place.

 

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow, Plant Spirit Oracle

As I was working on this post, I stuck my nose deep in a yarrow plant, blooming for the last time this season before the final frost kills it till next year. I know what Yarrow looks like. I know what Yarrow tastes like fresh, in tincture, and in tea. I know what her crushed leaves, often used for medicine, smell like. I know even what burning Yarrow smells like in a smudge stick.  But yesterday, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply into the last yarrow bloom of the season. I was actually quite surprised: her flower is a bit dank and skunky.  I learned something new about yarrow and deepened my connection with her in a powerful way through that experience.

 

Smell and Nature Connection

All forests smell different in each season.  Breathe deeply. Spend time in silent communion with them as you breathe out the building blocks of their life–carbon dioxide–and you breathe in their gift of oxygen and sweetness.  Animals, too, have their own smells–and this is part of how we connect with them.

 

But so many other things can also benefit from this expanded sensory experience. What does the stone smell like? What does the water smell like? What does the dew in the grass smell like? These things are important, that they’re meaningful, they’re powerful. They give us a sense of rootedness and connectedness that comes through our very breath. The only thing I suggest you don’t sniff while out and about are white umbuled flowers, particularly, the poison or water hemlock. My herbalism teacher, Jim McDonald, used to have people engage fully with the poison hemlock: touching it, smelling it (not tasting it).  Its important to learn plants through the senses.  But he told us he no longer does that because even smelling such a poisonous plant made one of his students sick and very woozy. The other thing you might want to refrain from smelling is mushrooms, particularly if they are in the spore-producing stage.

 

Nature connection doesn’t have to just be outdoors–you can cultivate this within your indoor spaces as well. One of my favorite indoor potted plants is my lemon-scented geranium. She lives in my art studio, now taking up about 2/3 of the available window space, crawling up along the windowsills and up each window, expanding outward.  I saved her from a dumpster about 7 years ago, when I found her at the bottom of a bag of leaves.  I potted her and we’ve been friends since. Her permanent residence in my art studio.  She has her own smell that is entirely unique: sweet, lemony, relaxing.  I often take a leaf of hers with me when I go to campus, pulling it out of my pocket to breathe deeply for a moment. Sometimes, when I’m making little cakes, I put some of her leaves on the bottom and the smell infuses into every bite. Ours is a relationship built entirely on her incredible smell!

 

A Journey of the Senses

If you want to go on this journey of the senses, you might start by attending to your breath. Go to a wild and fragrant place.  Sit, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Our eyes dominate our senses when they are open, so its best to close them. Then, focus on your breath–what you smell, how the air feels as it enters your lungs, how it feels as it exits. Spend some time with this experience. I suggest going into mature wild spaces where you live (for me, those would be Oak-Hickory or Eastern Hemlock forests–all with their own smell). See if you can identify places not only by their look but by their smell.  The oak-hickory forest has a very different smell than a Hemlock forest.  Hemlock forest smells different in each season.

 

Fragrant blooms of summer

Another approach is to work with specific plants and take them in as a kind of aromatherapy. As a second smell exercise, when it was still high summer, I went to the blooming elder and I bent towards one of the stalks and I breathed in.  I did a four-fold breath pattern (where you breath in for four counts, hold lightly for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and pause for four counts).  I did this for a while.  Now, the energy of the elder is with me, she is my medicine, coming through my very lungs and into my being. And that that’s powerful and meaningful–something I have carried with me even into the dark half of the year.

 

I think that all of these kinds of things can really help us better experience the living earth. As we work to embed ourselves in the landscape, to connect and reconnect with nature, there is a wisdom that can only come from experience. It’s not the wisdom of, if not the wisdom of book knowledge, it’s not the wisdom of other people telling you things. Most of the most important profound wisdom is the wisdom that you yourself have and you gathered through your own senses.  It is the wisdom that comes from realizing the world is an enchanted place, a place for all of our senses.

Ancient Order of Druids in America

Dear readers, I’m taking a pause from my regular article-style blog posts this week to share some big news and do a bit of reflection. Last week, as of the Fall Equinox, I became the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). I’ve been in leadership and service with the AODA since 2013, serving first as Trilithon journal editor for four years, then as Grand Pendragon, then as the Archdruid of Water for the last four years. And now, I’ve stepped up to lead the AODA, following Gordon Cooper, and before him, my friend and mentor, John Michael Greer. Because of this, I wanted to take a week to share my story of AODA and reflect on this path. I do this for a few reasons–first, I wanted to share the news. But also, I realize that a lot of people may find this reflection useful in deepening their own practices–learning about others’ paths helps us see possibilities for our own. Additionally, a lot of what I talk about on this blog is rooted in some way to frameworks from the AODA. A lot of my thinking about nature spirituality, druidry, and permaculture have an underlying foundation of AODA work. Thus, in this post, I am going to do two things.  First, I’m going to share my story about AODA and how I got to where I am today.  Second, I’m going to share what I consider to be the strengths of AODA practice, the highlights, the things that make AODA an amazing druid order.

 

The Road to a Spiritual Home: My Path into AODA

Druidry and the trilithon

Druidry and the trilithon

I’ll start by sharing some reflections about my own journey into AODA. After leaving home at 18 to go to college, I released the last hold of my parents’ religion. I called myself a secular humanist and an agnostic and went blissfully along my way. And while that path was useful to me for a time, after watching my closest friend battle with, and die of brain cancer in my early 20’s, I realized I needed something more. I had experienced his spirit after death, I had a deep knowing of his passing long before the formal news came my way, and with that experience, I knew I could be agnostic no longer. So in April of 2006, I began working through my grief and also finding a spiritual path that I could call home. The only spiritual experiences I had were with nature, so I started with that–I needed a path rooted in nature. I found druidry sometime in the fall of 2006, and after researching numerous druid orders, I found two I really liked (consequently, the two I belong to and work with today- AODA and OBOD). I decided to join AODA and did so in early 2007.

 

My first few years were spent learning and growing and asking so many questions. As a teaching order, AODA is dedicated to giving people a set of tools and practices to help them develop and deepen their own nature spirituality, rather than offer dogmatic belief or sets of rules. This self-directed path was useful, both because fundamentalism of any kind was not welcome in my life, but also because self-direction allows for ownership and mastery in the deepest way possible.  You learn by doing, by practicing, and sometimes, by making mistakes. I also think that part of why I took to AODA’s practices so quickly is that it didn’t require me to believe anything, particularly surrounding deity, a concept with which I was wrestling after coming out of my birth religion. Instead, I was given a set of working tools, rituals, and experiences that helped me shape my own druidry, deepen my connection to myself and my creative gifts, connect deeply with the living earth on multiple levels, and learn to be fully present and alive in this world.  I learned about the power of meditation, spending time in nature, making lifestyle changes to reduce my ecological footprint, and more.  I opened up myself to the bardic arts, the living earth, and the world of spirit (you can see AODA’s full curriculum here for more info). My developing nature spirituality, on both inner and outer levels, unfolded over a period of years.  Several years into my path, as I was finishing up my AODA 2nd degree, I also joined OBOD and found those practices to be wonderfully complimentary, particularly as OBOD’s course offers a lot of deep psychological work.

 

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

Permaculture Triad for Druidry

As time went on, I continued to grow with my AODA practices, eventually moving into the AODA’s self-designed 3rd degree.  This is a three-year project that you undertake to enhance your spiritual practices in some way–it is entirely self-designed and self-directed. For my project,  I took up the practice of permaculture and applied it to druidry (and as some of you may know, I have my first book coming out sometime next year–and that book is on the synthesis of permaculture and sustainable living practices and earth-centered spirituality!). This blog was also born from that project–I started this blog in 2013 as a way to document my experiences in the third degree in learning about the synthesis of permaculture, sustainable living, and druid practice. Obviously, I decided to keep it going long after as writing this blog became one of my primary expressions of my bardic arts!

 

What are AODA’s strengths?  What does AODA do well?

Now that you know a bit about my own experiences with AODA, I wanted to share some of what I think makes AODA unique and special. I draw this list from several places.  First, obviously, my own experience having gone through the curriculum. But also, for the last four years, I have read most of the degree reflections from AODA; these are what people write at the end of competing for one or more of their degrees. You can get a deep sense from these as to what people are really taking away from these practices.

 

Nature Reverence

One of the most central and abiding aspects of AODA practice is the way in which nature is central to everything we do. This isn’t just a respect for or use of nature as part of a spiritual practice, but rather, seeing the natural world immediately surrounding you at the core of your spiritual practice. AODA druidry has several key features that help members root themselves deeply within their own bioregions and practices.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Deep roots

Nature Connection: Wildcrafting your druidry.

The first is a concept of wildcrafting your own druidry, first described by Gordon Cooper years before he became Grand Archdruid. This manifests as a deep commitment to developing locally-based druids that focus on a deep understanding of your local ecology, local seasonal wheel of the year, and so on.  I wrote a number of articles on this blog about ecoregional druids in this same theme: you can see them here, here, and here. What you see with AODA druids is rather than “boilerplate” seasonal wheels of the year based on far off locations, you see all kinds of different druids based on location

 

Nature connection : Reciprocation and regeneration.

The second is understanding and set of practices that forefront reciprocation ass critical part of a spiritual path. For the last few centuries, humans have felt that they can simply take from nature with reckless abandon. In fact, we cannot, and the true cost of our actions are coming due. In AODA practice, we recognize that saying you revere nature is not enough–but rather, it must be accompanied by practices that engage, in permaculture terms, care for the living earth and fair share, taking only what we need. These practices also focus on regenerating nature. When they take up AODA druidry, all of our members engage in lifestyle changes and tree planting to help “give back.”  Many AODA members go well beyond the required work and truely embrace nature reciprocation as a core part of life, practicing permaculture or other regenerative practices. AODA druidry, then, is the deep green kind of druidry–the druidry that helps protect and heal our landscapes.

 

Nature connection: Nature knowledge.

The third aspect of nature connection central to AODA is a commitment to growing ecological knowledge about the world around you. Most people in the modern world know virtually nothing about nature, and we make it a point in AODA to change that–to have people know about nature in their local area.  Thus, all AODA members focus on learning more about their local ecosystems, through several different practices.  Regular time spent in nature, including in focus and observation, helps us gain direct experiences that allow us deeper connection.  We also read books, take classes, and learn about different parts of the ecology, geology, hydrology, and so forth with our ecosystems.  This is a powerful practice–by learning about nature, we grow more connected with nature.

 

Adaptable and Effective Rituals and Frameworks.

AODA works with a seven elemental system, including the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and three aspects of spirit (above, below, and within).  The three aspects of spirit are tied to the telluric current (earth energy, spirit below), the solar current (solar energy, spirit above) and the lunar current (nywfre, the spark of life, the spirit within).  We offer members a core daily practice, the Sphere of Protection (SOP), as a protective/balancing ritual that offers lasting benefit.  I have been working with the SOP and this elemental system for a long time, and it has been extraordinarily adaptable and useful in a wide variety of circumstances.  One ritual, the SOP, literally can do anything from setting me up for my day to help me send healing energy to a friend to doing massive land healing and blessing.  John Michael Greer once explained it to me as a “swiss army knife” and this is an apt metaphor.

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

One of the other great things about the SOP, which is partially covered by my next two bullet points, is that the SOP is also infinitely adaptable to one’s local ecology, local beliefs, and individual practices. There are versions of the SOP floating out there using swords, oracle cards (my last week’s post), various different ecologies, and much more.  Each person has the opportunity to create their own take on this ritual, thus, making it even more meaningful and personal.

 

Creating Room for Individual Paths and Honoring Diversity.

As my story above explored, one of the other strengths of the AODA path is the way in which it appeals to people of many different walks of life and belief systems.  AODA is a path of nature spirituality, compatible with many other belief systems. It is non-dogmatic, and instead, offers you a set of tools to help you discover and develop your own spiritual practice. Within AODA, we have people who practice an incredibly diverse range of druids: polytheistic pagans, animists, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and more. I love the fact that you can have a practice rooted in nature spirituality and keep your existing beliefs–or explore them in a new context. This allows AODA to appeal to a wide range of people from different walks of life. I think this is really important today, given some of the social and political challenges we face at present and the rise of extremists and hate groups.  Let’s let peace prevail in the quarters, and certainly, within our order.

 

Flexibility and Self Direction

AODA’s core curriculum focuses on individual choice, individual path, and following the flow of Awen.  In addition to offering individuals a set of core tools (meditation, nature observation, celebrating the seasons, the SOP), it also offers a lot of flexibility in choosing one’s path.  Members can choose to pursue any number of bardic, ovate, or druid practices while working through the curriculum.  Members also develop plans of study that are focused on their lifestyles and local ecosystems.  No two druids end up doing the exact same thing as part of their path into AODA.

 

Sacred rays of the sun

Sacred rays of the sun

Traditions and History

AODA is the oldest druid order in the US.  Established in the US in 1912, the AODA is currently 106 years old.  During that long history, it had several twists and turns, the most recent being that John Michael Greer resurrected the AODA in 2003 when it was down to less than a dozen elderly members.  Now, the AODA is thriving with 1200 members, mostly located in the USA. The SOP, the oldest of our practices, dates to sometime in the 1960s, also likely adapted from older practices.  This is a tradition with staying power, and that matters.

 

Conclusion

When looking back on my own life, I have no idea what it might have been without the AODA.  Most of the core parts of my spiritual practice, and my life today, is directly resulting from the core practices that I’ve been doing for over a decade.  AODA practices allowed me to return to my bardic arts (now an indispensable part of my life), those practices led me to study and practice permaculture, herbalism, homesteading, radically change my life, and taught me so much about nature (so much, that now I can teach others and do so through regular plant walks and herbal education).  I’m grateful to be taking this next step with AODA, and I hope some of you will join me on that journey!

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part I: A Framework

A lot of people find druidry because they want to “connect” with nature.  They want to attune to nature, feel part of it, gain knowledge and wisdom about it. But what does “connecting” to nature look like in practice?  Going out in the woods and feeling good?  Knowing the name of trees?  Walking with sacred intent in a natural place?  Spending time in nature?  All above the above? And so, over the next few posts, I want to spend more time with the concept of “connecting to nature” and share some strategies for what people can do to connect with nature in a multitude of ways.

As I’ve written about earlier, part of what I see as the core of druidry as a spiritual tradition is the work of “connection.” In that post, I talked about connecting to nature, connecting to the spirit, and connecting to the creative practices as three ways in which connection is manifest in this tradition. And, I believe, it is this search for connection that underlies so much of the interest in nature-based spiritual paths like druidry and the growing amount of druids worldwide.

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

 

A Framework for “Nature Connection”

I find that older books on nature can really offer perspectives that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. For example, The Field Book of Nature Activities and Conservation (1961) by Wiliam Hillcourt, five nature-oriented actions are outlined in the opening chapter. He suggests that we can know nature, probe nature, use nature, do nature, and conserve nature. I think this offers a beginning of a useful framework for thinking about this topic.

 

Drawing upon his five categories, and adding in my own definitions and additional areas that are pertinent to druids gives us a nature connection framework with four major areas with three specific activities for each area.

Nature Wisdom

The basis of much of nature connection is rooted in building an understanding and knowledge of the living earth. This first category, which I call “nature wisdom” helps us do just that.

  • Knowing nature – Knowing nature includes two aspects: knowledge, that is, learning about nature and being able to identify aspects of nature, ecosystems, ecology, botany, and much more.  This knowledge is typically gained from books, classes, and teachers.  It is knowledge that is passed on to us as part of human wisdom.  While knowing about nature used to be something that every human had, and was part of the formal or informal knowledge that was passed to each generation, for many of us living in western contexts, this often needs to be learned anew.  From my perspective, if I am going to honor nature, I better know something about her as well, and that “knowing nature” helps me begin to do that.
  • Understanding nature – As the druid’s prayer suggests, there is a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing is having a piece of information in your head (e.g. wild yam is a forest-dwelling vine that has heart-shaped leaves). Understanding is the kind of knowing that can only be gained through direct experience in nature.  (Wild yam grows up this tree in this particular pattern and has these variations in the leaves. And it has a good energy about it.) Direct experience leads to understanding. I truly believe that both knowledge and understanding are necessary for building “nature wisdom.”
  • Probing nature – Probing nature is not something that everyone does, but it is something that everyone could do.  This can mean anything from scientific observations and interactions where we build knowledge about nature to well as building your own understanding of nature through systematic nature journaling, observation, and so forth. This is what the great naturalists did as they built systematic knowledge of nature; this what every citizen scientist does as she logs the first blooms through Project Budburst. This is also what any organic gardener does as he carefully tracks yields of vegetables based on different soil amendments. Asking questions and seeking answers about nature is what “probing nature” is all about.

Abundance of harvest

Abundance of harvest

Nature Engagement

Nature Activity is the second broad category that helps us establish a connection with nature by engaging with and through nature. This category includes how we use nature, interact with nature, and do things in nature.

 

  • Using Nature – That humans can–and need to–use nature is a key part of not only our connection with nature, but also for our survival. Using nature is twofold: on one hand, it is about learning how to use the natural world for meeting our needs; on the other, it is about the reciprocation activities that must be present in that use so that it is sustainable over a period of time. So using nature includes learning the uses of many plants, animals, and other aspects of nature and would include foraging, natural building, hunting, and bushcraft skills.  This is about how to work with nature to bring productive abundance to our gardens and lands, how to make dyes or spin cloth from plants we grow, and so many more ways that we can turn a part of nature into something that we can eat, wear, or make.  And, it is also understanding local plant or animal populations, understanding the carrying capacity of the land, and learning how to give back.  That is,  engaging in sustainable (minimally) or regenerative use where we give as much as we get (through tending the wilds, scattering seeds, and doing other regenerative activities, see next section).
  • Nature Activity – These are the various activities that you can engage in  while in nature, such as kayaking, camping, backpacking, skiing, and so on. These activities help us get into new parts of nature and let us have fun and relaxation while doing so. Nature, then, becomes a canvas for some of the ways we engage in healthful activities and learn more about the living world.
  • Creating with/through nature – A third way that nature activity happens is through the flow of awen, through creative inspiration.  This might include finding aspects of nature as a muse for creative acts (poetry, song, dance, music, artwork, etc) or else directly working with nature in terms of creating artistic media (wooden drums, berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, etc.). This category is essentially the synthesis of the bardic arts and the living earth–and there is much to explore here!

 

Nature Reciprocity

Inherent in the use of nature and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. Inherent in the term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves (with or without human help).  But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good–the recognition that humans have took too much (at least here in the US) for over three centuries.  It isn’t enough to sustain, but we must learn to nurture and regenerate. This helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

  • Conserving nature – Working to protect nature and conserve existing ecosystems; such as those that are pristine or those that are actively healthy or healing. This includes a range of “conservation” activities that may include protecting new areas, protecting endangered species, encouraging native plant and pollinator populations, river cleanups, building new trail systems, political action, and so on. Conserving nature can also include exploring our own ways of reducing our impact on the planet as a whole, engaging in actions that help us preserve and protect existing resources from further degradation and exploitation.
  • Regenerating and Healing Nature – Working with the land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health, we might use both ritual means (land healing ceremonies) and physical means (such as permaculture design techniques). In this case, we recognize that a great deal of land has been degraded and we can work actively to help be a force of good and bring these lands to a healthier state ecologically.  For example: turning a lawn into a butterfly sanctuary or a food forest is a good example of this practice.
  • Offerings to Nature: Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of the kind of ceremony I am talking about, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.

 

Nature Reverence

A nature based shrine

A nature based shrine

Everything that I’ve been writing about is a form of honoring nature.  When you develop nature wisdom, you honor nature.  When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature.  But there are also specific activities that are more distinct, more intentional, that put honoring nature as central.

  • Respecting Nature – I believe that honoring nature begins, first and foremost, with a mindset. Most people in Western society are socialized to think of themselves first–what can I do that best benefits me, etc.  Through respect of nature, we can add “what can I do that best benefits the land” as an additional (or primary) category in our minds.  Recognizing and engaging in thought, word, and deed that recognizes the sanctity of life and the living earth  is the first step in honoring nature.  This internal mindset, then, will manifest as outward action in a variety of ways.
  • Honoring nature – Honoring nature also involves offering respect and reverence for the natural world and recognizing the sanctity of all life through ritual and intentional action.  This can be through engaging in various kinds of ritual for benefit of life on the planet and the living earth–such as through seasonal celebration or land healing rituals. Another way we might honor nature is through creating physical spaces in our homes and out on the broader landscape. This may include creating physical shrines upon the landscape, home altars, and more.
  • Communing with nature – Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual experiences for us, experiences that help us understand the land and our place in it in greater depth.  Many traditions facilitate these experiences surrounding rites of passage or coming of age rituals, but these experiences are open to anyone. Having deeply intense and spiritual experiences with nature; experiences that may fundamentally alter your understanding of yourself, your spiritual practice, and the living earth.  May include things like a druid retreat, vision questing, journeys, long-term work on a single site (like a druid’s anchor spot), and more.

 

Looking at this list above, there are clearly a lot of ways that “connection’ with nature can happen. There are likely ways I’m missing,  but I do think that this list is a good start for someone who wants to connect but isn’t sure how to do so beyond the “go into the woods and feel good” kind of thing!  Since each of these four topics can be a post in itself, that’s exactly what I’ll do next–delve into activities for each of these and how we might engage deeply with them.  Blessings as you connect with the living earth!

A Druid’s Anchor Spot

Current statistics from the United States EPA suggest that Americans spend almost not amount of time outside: the average American now spends 93% of their total time enclosed (including 87% of their lives indoors and 6% enclosed in automobiles). A UK-based survey indicated that children now spend less than 30 minutes or less outside and 20% of children don’t spend any time outdoors on an average day (which is less time than prisoners spend outside per day). I think that the reason that a lot of people find druidry is because of statistics like these: increasing work and life demands make it harder to get outside, increased urban sprawl makes it harder to find “wild spaces”, and our relationship with nature is at a deficit that has implications for our health, happiness, and well being.

 

If (re)connection with nature is a clear goal for those on the druid path and those on related nature-based paths, then it seems that one of the most important things we can do is get outside and spend quality time with nature. But we druids know that not all time spent outdoors is the same. The above surveys aren’t even looking at specific activities tied to nature or quality time in nature, simply the minutes spent outdoors. Riding your lawnmower (which I suspect accounts for a good portion of outdoor time for many people) is not the same as quietly observing and interacting in a natural setting, nor will it give the same spiritual, health, or emotional benefits. There are, of course, lots of ways we might seek connection with nature. Today, I’m going to suggest one strategy that I’m calling the “Druid’s Anchor Spot.”

 

What is the Druid’s Anchor Spot?

My new Druid Anchor Spot!

My new Druid Anchor Spot!

The Druid’s Anchor Spot is is an outdoor place that is easily accessible to you in all weather where you can deeply connect with the living earth through observation, focus, and interaction. The Anchor Spot is as the name intends: it is a regular focus or “anchor” to nature and can be used as one of the key components of your growing spiritual connection with nature. Seems simple enough, right? Yes, it is. The rest of this post will share how to find your Anchor Spot and make the most of it.

 

In order to find your perfect anchor spot, there are at least four considerations:

 

Accessibility. Your Druid’s Anchor Spot should be very easily accessible by you as part of your normal patterns in the day. Perhaps this is a stone by a stream behind your house, an edge area “overgrown” on your walk to work, a butterfly garden in your own backyard, the tree line outside of your workplace that you can visit on your breaks, a stone circle you build in the woods. Wherever it is, you should be able to easily access it several times a week.

 

Quietude. The second consideration is that you should be able to go to your anchor spot and be relatively undisturbed as much as possible (for those with families and in urban environments, this may be more tricky). For children, helping establish a “family anchor spot” is a great activity that can encourage connection with nature with the whole family, but you will still want to have time alone in nature at your anchor spot when possible.

 

An Ecosystem. Third, if at all possible, you want your spot to have some wildness to it or to have an ecosystem beyond a lawn, somewhere that nature has been allowed to grow and thrive. In other words, you are looking for a place that is not a monoculture but a polyculture. The more “natural” and diverse the spot is, the more you’ll have a chance to interact with many different species and grow in your own connection with the land. Lawns do have a bit of life in them, but not much comparably speaking. If you had a choice between a wild hedge on the edge of a field and a lawn, the wild hedge is a much better choice.

So much life to see and find in nature!

So much life to see and find in nature!

A Spirit Welcome. Finally, I think its important to be in a place where the spirits of the land are happy and want you there. Some places don’t have the right feel, you might not feel welcome or the spirits want left alone.  This is not ideal for your sit spot.  This is something you feel out intuitively. You might use some of the strategies outlined in my last post or in my two druid tree working posts on tree communication for help as to how to ascertain if you are welcome and if this will be a place of mutual healing and growth.

 

Visiting Your Anchor Spot

After you select your anchor spot, try to visit it often, preferably every day. Part of the Anchor Spot’s magic is that you get to see the same spot in all kinds of weather, seasons, and conditions.  Because of this, to do this activity, consider committing to regularly coming to your anchor spot for a full cycle of the sun-that is, a full year year. A lot of people don’t like to go out in anything but sunny weather, but with the anchor spot, I’d encourage you to go see it in different kinds of weather. Look at it during a storm, look at it in the morning, observe it in the night, sit with it in the snow (if you get snow). Nature is such a dynamic experience that every moment—every day—will offer you something new. The idea here is to see this spot, in all of her seasons, in all of her faces.

 

What to do at your Anchor Spot

Now that we’ve established what the Anchor Spot is, how to choose a spot, and how often to visit, we’ll explore what you can do at your anchor spot.

 

Honoring the Land and the Spirits

Your druid’s anchor spot is going to teach you so much over a period of time, and it is always a good idea to give back. I would suggest making a simple offering for the land and the spirits before you begin any of your anchor spot work, and at regular intervals. Leaving a simple offering, for example, to show appreciation to the living earth is certainly one possibility (I advocate for liquid gold offerings as they offer nitrogen directly to the plants, but I’m a bit weird). Building a small shrine (even something as simple as three stacked stones) or tying a ribbon around a tree is another great way to make a simple offering, to designate this spot as something very sacred. You can also do various kinds of energetic work (light body from OBOD, Sphere of Protection from AODA).

 

Observation

You can observe in a variety of different ways in your Anchor Spot. All of these observations are are meditative in nature—in this case, quieting your mind and simply letting nature fill it with her own richness.

 

Sensory Observation.  Observation and interaction in nature are some of the foundational building blocks to a spiritual connection with the living earth. Observation can offer us a sense of curiosity and wonder about the living earth, and, in so doing, cultivate a deeper connection with the land. Even within a tiny patch of land like your Druid’s Anchor Spot, there is a tremendous amount to know and discover. And because nature is dynamic, each day brings changes, each season offers new experiences, and much can be gained from this process. Breathe deeply, feel the land beneath you and under your fingertips, observe all that you can. Use not only your eyes for this work but your other senses are appropriate: touch, smell, taste, and hearing.

 

Focus. A second way of observing the land around you is by focusing in on the minute details of something. For this, you might choose a single leaf, a single flower, a single small drip or eddy of a stream—whatever catches your eye. And for the next 10-15 minutes, you simply observe it, carefully. Pay attention to the growth habits of the leaf, the complexity of the flower, the interplay of light and color. Also as part of your focus work, engage in your other senses—pay attention to smell, touch, and if appropriate, taste. Each of our 5 senses has something to offer us in terms of learning about nature. The first time I did this focus activity, I spent about 20 minutes with an all heal flower (Prunella Vulgaris) also known as wound wort or heart of the earth. I smelled it, paid attention to which of the blooms was emerging, nibbled on it (as I know it is edible and medicinal) and looked at its growth pattern. By the end of those 20 minutes, I really knew that plant in ways I hadn’t before—just because of the sensory experience.  And so you can do this: zero in on a particular part of the ecosystem in your sit spot—a single flower, a leaf, or a plant ,and observe the details of that plant for a period of time. This work can be greatly aided by bringing a Loupe (a Jeweler’s Loupe, which is a small magnifiying glass).  If you do this with various plant, insect, and fungal life in your sit spot, soon, everything there will be like an old friend to you.

 

Stillness, Melding, and Meditation

Stillness and Melding. When you visit, spend a good portion of your time in stillness—simply sit and be present with the land around you. Be quiet, don’t move, just simply be. Take it all in. The Anchor Spot technique asks us to slow down and be present with the land, to reduce our pace to the pace of nature. You can further this by working to blend in, to become one with the land, a full part and participant. I call this “melding.” You become part of the landscape rather than separate from it.

 

Melding is critically important to see animal life. Humans are often very noisy, and when you spend all of your time walking or hiking through the wilds, certain animals or birds signal a warning and everyone else that is there goes into hiding. When you sit still for 20 or so min, you blend in and you will have a chance to see a lot more animal activity. The more that you are able to meld with this spot, the more that the land—and her many creatures—will open up to you. Both because they will become used to your presence, but also, because in sitting still and quiet, you become part of the land rather than simply traveling through it.

 

For example, I remember the time a vision quest where I was sitting against a tree in stillness and worked to meld, and had been doing so for about an hour, and it was getting dark (dusk and dawn are great times to see animal movements). And I heard this rustling on the forest floor: it was a huge flock of wild turkeys. They never saw me, and I had this amazing opportunity to observe them for almost a half an hour—I saw their tom turkey, the pecking order, the foraging behavior, their communication with each other, and so on. If I had been walking through the woods, I never would have had that experience because they would have ran away.  But sitting next to the tree, the turkeys walked right by me and never even noticed I was there. Practice blending into the anchor spot, being part of it in the quiet way that animals and plants do. Recognize that you, too, are an animal here in this ecosystem.

 

Close observation of an aster

Close observation of an aster

Nature Meditation. While you are in your druid anchor spot, this is also a very appropriate place to do some simple meditation and breathwork. Lots of possibilities exist for this: I like to engage in simple discursive meditation or color breathing (techniques both described in detail by John Michael Greer in The Druidry Handbook).

 

 

Reflection and Study Surrounding Your Anchor Spot

Beyond the above techniques, you may want to engage in any of the following activities that help you deepen and reflect on your interaction with this spot:

 

Anchor Spot Notebook or Photo Journal. You may want to start an Anchor Spot notebook (or keep your observations recorded in your druid’s notebook or spiritual journal). Documenting nature through sketching and writing observations is a time-honored human tradition to learn more about the living earth. For example The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell describes a biologist’s observations of a square meter in old growth forest for a year. Your notebook will help you keep track of what you are seeing over a period of time and gain deep insights about the land and her inhabitants. These simple observations often lead to profound truths and understandings. You could write about it, sketch, take photographs, and so on to help develop your understanding of this space.

 

Learning about Nature. Another activity that is a great one for your anchor spot is to work on identifying some of the life you observe there. Field guides for trees, plants, insects, birds and mushrooms are all readily available for most bioregions. Animal droppings or animal track guides are also useful for this purpose. Bring your guide with you and spend some time seeing what you can learn about the names and ecology of the life in your sit spot. If you want to take it a step further, learn what human uses these plants once had (medicinal, edible, crafting, and so on). Identify any trees that are there and learn about their woods and what they are used for. Identify the composition of the soil, of the rocks, of the geology present. Listen for bird calls and learn how to identify them. Identify any animal tracks or droppings that you see present. Learning about all of nature can be very challenging, but taking a small slice and zeroing in on it in your sit spot is very useful.

 

Nature's cycles - mushrooms even grow in the winter months and are fun to see in your anchor spot

Nature’s cycles – mushrooms even grow in the winter months and are fun to see in your anchor spot

Conclusion

While the Anchor Spot seems like a very simple practice, it can profoundly and powerfully shape your connection to the living earth. You will learn a tremendous amount about the world around you and be much more intimately connected to the fabric of the landscape. Further, rooted in the idea of the Anchor Spot as I have presented it is the assertion that the more you know about nature and the more you are able to connect with her, the deeper your connection to nature will be. This opens up possibilities not only for your deepening connection with the living earth, but the kind of magic, healing, and regeneration you can work with her.   If you decide to use this technique–or already do–please share in the comments! 

 

* Note: This idea comes from two places, and I want to acknowledge them here.  First, it is inspired by the Wilderness Awareness School’s “sit spot”. Second, it has arisen from the many conversations I’ve had with druids—this seems to be a natural practice that evolves over time for many.

Lessons of the River: Nature Connection, Health, and Healing

Sometimes, natural places call out to us, and we heed their call and journey within these wild places–often gaining profound insights along the way. For some time, I have been called to a particular creek. I would drive over a bridge as I was leaving town to visit my parents, and I watched the creek flow–its gentle water lapping at the shores, ducks swimming, stones and water babbling. I didn’t know the name of the creek, but I knew I wanted to connect with it. Then, one day after a storm last year, I saw some people kayaking on it when it was higher and a bit muddy.  Having just purchased my own kayak, I grew very excited and began asking people about the creek. Eventually, I learned where I might put my kayak in and where I might take it out, resulting in about a six mile paddling trip.

 

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

Truthfully, the whole journey was a bit of a leap of faith–I had talked to others who had been out on the creek sometime before, but it had been in prior years, and I knew conditions often change. I have a very good kayak that can handle just about anything and have taken some lessons and training to address emergencies, and this was known as a calm and quiet river. I packed some supplies and did a small ritual to protect the boat and off I went. This particular trip offered me several deep insights–but one I’d like to explore today is humans connecting to nature and land/river health (and I think this is a very appropriate post following up from last week exploring Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition).

 

The start of my journey was absolutely incredible–the water was pure, the scenery was beautiful. I could see evidence of many people’s interaction with the creek: in a quiet forest you could see benches lining the river, I saw several fishermen was fishing for trout, I saw bikers by the river taking a short break to enjoy the water, and even at one point, I passed a lovingly built small cabin the creek. I could tell from these signs that the river was well loved and appreciated by many in the area, even in some of its more hard-to-reach and secret places.

 

Miles passed in this serene way. I enjoyed my journey immensely and it allowed me to see so much life.  As I came closer to Homer City, which was the town where I had parked my car and was traveling to my “pull out” place, I turned a bend and saw this waterfall rushing into the creek. From a distance, it looked beautiful–I was excited to get up close. But as I started to get closer, something about that waterfall appeared very, very wrong. As I arrived near it, I realized that the waterfall was full of acid mine drainage (AMD), and it had bright yellows, oranges, and metallic spots all over the rocks and was pouring extremely acidic water (probably about a PH 2.5) into that creek.  Later investigation revealed that this particular stream–quite small–is coming out of a series of abandoned mines some 3 or so miles north with no AMD remediation.

 

AMD Waterfall - note the color of water change

AMD Waterfall – note the color of water change

Where the waterfall fell into the creek, the hue of the river changed–it grew cloudy and sickly pale yellow.  The waterfall left this cloudy trail in the water, a very distinct change from before. At first, only the edge of the river where the waterfall was running in was polluted, but as I went down the last mile of the creek, soon, it all took on that color.  Truthfully, as soon as I saw the waterfall and what was happening, I didn’t want to be on that river any longer–I racked my brain to see if I had a place I could pull out of the river early and call a friend to pick me up instead of paddling back to my car. But I decided to go ahead and finish my journey because there was clearly a lesson to see in all of this.

 

In fact, not so many years ago, this entire creek had once been filled with AMD. Acid mine drainage is a very serious issue anywhere where we’ve had coal mines. The earth’s blood and bones are torn up, and in the process, she bleeds, and that pain spills into our rivers. In this area, we have thousands and thousands of abandoned coal mines.  Most of these mines were put in prior to the laws of 1970 that required that mines clean themselves up, prevent runoff into streams, and replant the land. So we have a lot of problem mines that are from pre-1970 that are continually polluting the streams (in fact, this problem can go on for 1000’s of years–some mine runoff in Europe spans back to the time of the Romans!) Around here, due to the high acid content , AMD kills all of the life in and around streams.  The stream has a characteristic orange color, with all of the stones also turned orange and the water itself orange, cloudy, and toxic. In Pennsylvania alone, we have over 3000 miles of AMD-polluted creeks.  They are so prevalent in my area that when I was child, we had so many creeks and streams like that I thought that’s just how all waterways looked.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

What I didn’t know was that all of Two Lick Creek that I was paddling had similar problems at one time. However, local conservation efforts by several groups have made good headway in the northern part of the river. One a group called the Evergreen Conservancy has been working to clean up one site nearby–and their efforts show!  The other (where I put my kayak in) is the Waterworks Park, that offers an AMD remediation site and wetland. Without the signage indicating that AMD remediation was happening at the Waterworks Park, I would never have known that the northern part Two Lick Creek had ever had an AMD problem.  The creek banks were beautiful, the creek itself full of life and vibrant.  This speaks, among other things, to the power of humans to heal.

 

And so, I simply observed what the AMD waterfall was doing to Two Lick Creek.  The environmental effects were clear.  As I continued to float downstream, the rocks grew tainted and orange, the river grew cloudy and I could no longer see the bottom.  As the river flowed, the tainted water slowly worked its way into the creek–and entire water grew cloudy and the rocks took on an orangish hue.  It wasn’t a serious case of AMD (like my photo above, another creek that nobody interacts with).  Still, nobody was fishing here, that’s for sure.

 

However, the environmental effect wasn’t the most surprising thing on the river that day, instead it was the shift in human-nature interactions. As I floated past the AMD waterfall, I witnessed an invisible “line.”  North of the AMD waterfall, people interacted with the river. They had chairs out behind their houses by it, they had benches, they had little docks, they were out fishing and enjoying the river, and so on. However, after the AMD waterfall, people no longer wanted to be near the river, and they worked to distance themselves from it.  The difference was very striking. People put up fences and walls, dumped their garbage and burn piles near the river, and simply didn’t not go near it.  It became a neglected thing. Despite the same kinds of houses and people and access to the river upstream and downstream, after the river had AMD, it was no longer wanted or desirable. I realized that it wasn’t just that the waterfall tainted the physical water in the river–it also tainted people’s interactions with it.  Pollution literally disconnected humans from nature.

 

In other words, even a small amount of pollution turned the river from something people cared about to something people didn’t.  It turned the river into a site of enjoyment and connection with nature to something to avoid looking at or interacting with.

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected (and you can see clear to the bottom–and avoid the rocks!)

 

AMD water...

Downstream: Cloudy, Irony, and human disconnected…(and it’s hard to see to the bottom, and thus, you hit the rocks)

I wonder how often this happens. As lands are polluted or damaged, people no longer want to interact with them.  When people stop caring, stop interacting, even more pollution is allowed to occur.  The pollution itself disconnects us from the land and the more polluted things get, the less we want to interact. Even I, as a druid and land healer, a person who has long faced these things with open eyes and an open heart, had a first reaction of wanting out of that river as soon as I saw what had happened to it.

 

You can see how we have come to the point, in this time of so much pollution and damage, to where people aren’t in nature at all. Why would you want to spend time next to (or on) a polluted river? In a logged forest? Hiking among fracking wells?  (Only crazy druid healers do such things, that that’s spiritual work, not leisure!)  If that’s the only options you have, it is no wonder so many humans are so disconnected.

 

I am left with two profound insights from this experience. First, the work of land healing has an additional dimension that I had previously not realized.  Just like in the permaculture ethical triad of earth care, people care, and fair share: we see these things all entirely linked with the others.  If we can restore nature to a state of health and allow her to thrive, we can help heal not only the land, but the human-land connections (and in doing so, the humans themselves). This allows more interaction with the land, more connection with the land, and helps us grow more “places that people care about.” To me, care and nurturing is an essential quality of helping us, as a species, return to being in a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.  And so, if we heal nature, we can start to heal those connections.

 

But secondly, if we see ourselves and our work as a metaphor for a river, we can gain insights. In journeying down the river, you get to see the growth of the river over time. As each spring or stream flowed into the river, the river’s power and size grew. The creek began, at the start of my journey, about 15 feet across, and by the time I pulled my kayak out of the water 6 miles later, it was spanning 30 or 40 feet. The small “creek” had grown into a river with power, carving out rock faces as it went.  And so, I see the tributaries as people, and all of us, combined as one, could accomplish much more than a single spring or trickle. There is power in these combined currents, just as there is power in numbers of people working together. This is something that I’ve been learning firsthand since taking the first steps to establishing our intentional community here–but also something that I’ve long seen the value of in various kinds of sustainable living (like permablitzes, barn raising or community groups).

 

As much as we, collectively, are the river, we also need to look for the sources of pollution–those things or people that will cloud us and prevent us from being our true and whole selves.  Otherwise, our entire river can become tainted, just like the AMD tainted this river–and that changes everything.  Tainted waterways can be remediated, of course, and perhaps, there are more lessons in this as well.

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