The Druid's Garden

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

The Lessons of Nature at the Winter Solstice December 16, 2018

In the fall, I always feel like I’m fighting against the coming dark at the time of the winter solstice, and each year, I have to learn the lesson anew.  This year proved particularly challenging for a few reasons. After the time changes at Daylight Savings time, and the sun starts setting at 3:30pm.  It is down by 4:30 and completely dark by 5:15pm. As a homesteader, in preparation for spring planting and the winter to come, there always seems to be so much to do.  Bringing in the harveset, preparing the greenhouse, preparing and clearing garden beds, stacking wood, cleaning gutters, shoring up the hen house, and doing all of the necessary multitude of other preparations for the coming winter.  As the fall deepens, each day, the light continues to wane, and there is less light each day to work with. On many days when I go to work, I rise before the sun rises, I am on campus all day in a windowless office, and I leave campus after the sun has set–literally never seeing the sun, sometimes for days on end. These “lack of sun” issues were certainly heightened this year, by our region having the rainiest season on record.  Many of us in Western PA felt like summer never happened; an extremely rainy and cold July and August meant that the warmth never had a chance to seep into our bones. These climate changes are the new norm, but they certainly make it difficult to adapt! Finally, and perhaps most salient, I think the cultural darkness has also left its mark on many of us in 2018; it was a hard, dark year.  No wonder as the light wanes, I found myself really mentally fighting the coming darkness of the winter solstice.

 

Snowfall at our homestead

Snowfall at our homestead

But whether or not we want to face the darkness, it is now upon us, as it will be each year of our lives.  Earlier, I wrote about embracing the darkness at the winter solstice on this blog.  I’ve also written about enacting a winter solstice vigil during the darkest night of the year and about sustainable and magical activities for the winter solstice.  In re-reading these, I remind myself that the lessons of this year are powerful, and perhaps, each year, we must learn to embrace the darkness anew. So today, I offer three additional insights for the lessons of the winter solstice and thinking about embracing the darkness during this time.

 

Lessons of Darkness, Again and Again

The irony is that in my earlier posts about the winter solstice, they seemed so certain, so firm, as if I had found the answer that helped me embrace the dark.  The truth is, for this druid at least, there is no “one” answer to addressing the coming of the darkness.  I am in a different place as the wheel turns again, and the darkness of each year finds me in a different mindset, different life circumstances, different present time.  Such that, particularly for this holiday, learning how to work with the Winter Solstice must be learned and deepened each year anew.  Each holiday on the Druid’s Wheel of the Year offers us this same lesson–a chance to deepen our experiences with the magic of that sacred time.  For Alban Arthan, the darkness requires a different kind of interaction and engagement with the world–a time of quietude, slowness, of otherness.  And we must simply let ourselves be present in it and embrace it.  And for some of us, we have to teach ourselves this lesson again each year.

 

Perhaps, saying that we have to learn a lesson is not the right way of thinking about it.  It is almost like we have to come to a place of acceptance of this time, this dark, this cold.  There is something so joyful about the light of summer, and that light is so far away. As the light wanes to nothingness, those of us who are stuck indoors at jobs may notice that all of our “light hours” are gone during the working week.  Further, the cold and dreary days set in, and some days, it hardly feels like the sun is there behind the clouds at all.  Darkness requires us to step away from “business as usual” and re-orient ourselves to this time.  Culturally, this re-orientation is extremely difficult because the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in full effect. If anything, our lives are the most busy this time of year, yet nature is telling us hey, you’ve got to slow down.  I think this is part of why there is so much depression around the holidays: we are fighting our natural instincts. And perhaps that’s why each year,  it seems of all of the wheel of the year holidays, I find this one to be the most difficult to adapt to, to embrace, and to accept.

 

Indeed, my first lesson is that the darkness may always be difficult for many of us.  In the same way that nobody wants to have bad things happen in their life, experience pain or loss.  But like the dark, these things are inevitable, just as the darkness of the winter solstice is inevitable.

 

The Lesson of the Seed

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

Spirit of Black Cohosh (from my in progress plant spirit oracle deck)

In the last week, two seed catalogs arrived, reminding me that while it may be dark, planning for the coming season offers hope.  As I browse the seeds, thinking about their magic and life, I realize that we can learn a lot about embracing the darkness from starting seeds.  I think about all of the seeds of the self-seeding annuals, perennials, and nuts that the squirrels buried this past fall season: those seeds are there, covered in dark soil, awaiting the spring. Awaiting warmth, moisture, and a chance to grow. The darkness holds these seeds, preserves them, allows them to be in  a time of stasis before they spring forth.

 

In fact, many of the seeds of some of the most rare and medicinal plants require “cold stratification.”  The seed packets tell you to put the seeds in your refridgerator for a period of time, usually some weeks or months, for without this period of cold, the seeds will not grow. Black cohosh, a critically endagnered forest medicinal plant, is one such plant that requires cold stratification.  For years, I attempted to do just as the seed packets asked–putting them in the fridge in a damp paper towel for three months, as requeted, then planting them indoors with my other seeds and hoping they would grow.  For years, no sprouts happened. The seeds simply would not grow.  Last year, I stuck the seeds right in the ground in the fall, after clearing away and marking little areas.  Sure enough, in the spring this year, the seeds came forth and now I have several beautiful black cohosh plants growing on the property in addition to some live plants I had purhcased and planted.

 

I wonder: how many of our most sacred and magical ideas are just like that Black Cohosh, requiring that darkness and incubation period? There are seeds we plant that must have their own time of darkness and cold before they can spring forth into the light of day. We need the darkness, just as the seeds need the darkness.  We need the quiet, the slowness, the time for reflection and introspection, before the seeds of our ideas can sprout in the spring.

 

The Lesson of the Roots

Another aspect of nature reminds me of another important lesson about darkness. Roots on trees and plants are extremely sensitive and require darkness to live. If roots are exposed to air and light, they will almost immediately be damaged.  Enough exposure will kill the roots, thereby killing the plant. I remember the first time I was planting trees as a new druid.  I had no idea how sensitive roots were, and I had left a number of trees’ roots exposed to light and air while I dug holes.  These little planted seedlings struggled mightily, I hadn’t realized that I had damaged their roots by exposing them as such.  They eventually did live, but only after a tremendous amount of care: water, singing, sunlight, and sitting with them. This was certainly a powerful lesson for a new druid!

 

Roots go deep

Roots go deep

Even many root crops, like potatoes and Jerusalem Artichokes, prefer to stay in the darkness and space within the soil.  When exposed to too much light, these crops go “green”; this greening produces Solanine.  Solanine is actually slightly toxic to humans, creating symptoms of nausea and upset stomach when consumed. How ironic that that which we want to embrace–the light–is so detrimental to the root crops.

 

But there is a deep lesson here about darkness and why we need this winter solstice time. Our own roots–that of our spirits, that of our creative practices, that of the core of our beings–are in need of the same kind of darkness.  Our roots are our grounding, the place of spirit and of the soul.   If the dark offers us a time for quiet contemplation, for rest, for rejuvenation: all of this is necessary if we are to bring any fruit into the world.  Fruit will not happen without strong roots, and strong roots do not happen without darkness.  Otherwise, we are just producing Solanine.

 

Concluding Thoughts

The seed needs dark soil to spring forth.  The roots cannot be exposed to light without damaging or killing the whole plant.  Potatoes go green in the light.  Maybe we are the same. The roots of our being are found only in the times of darkness: within ourselves, in our dreams, in the promise of a new beginning, in the quietude that can only be found in rest and open time.  We need the darkness as we need the air to breathe.  Blessings to you on the upcoming long night–may your spirit soar.

 

PS:  I’ll be taking a few weeks off of blogging for some travel and deep spiritual work over this period of darkness.  I will resume blogging again in mid January!  Blessings of the snowy white pine and sheltering Eastern hemlock upon you!

 

PPS: Larisa White, who is a fellow AODA druid and fellow OBOD Mount Haemus scholar, is working on a World Druidries Survey for her 2020 OBOD Mount Hameus lecture. If you haven’t already taken it, please consider spending time taking her survey!  Here is a link.

 

Spiritual Lessons from the Land: On the Vines that Catch and Snag September 4, 2015

Nature is abundant with stories and metaphors that allow us to reflect upon our own lives and draw deep meaning, as I’ve written about many times on this blog. It is in these simple lessons that we find the most profound truths–ways of re-seeing our own lives, stories that allow us to spiritually grow, and methods of better living and interacting with our lands. I believe that everything we need to understand to heal ourselves, our lands, and our communities can be found within nature–if only we listen. Today, I’d like to share two stories about vines and the spiritual teachings that they provide.

 

In the weeks following my move to Western PA this summer, I made it a point to visit as many wild places as possible. The closest one was a park to the north, visible from my window of my rented house in town, that’s about 270 acres. As I was walking through this park on my very first visit, a friend and I came across some Common Buckthorn vines on a grove of Sassafras. One of the Sassafras had been strangled to death by the largest vine and was standing dead.

 

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Buckthorn killed the Sassafrass

Three more Sassafras trees had vines crawling up them, but the vines were smaller and had not yet choked out the tree. We found where the vine met the ground, and decided to cut it to save the other trees. The problem was that we lacked the right tool—we had a Hori Hori that has a small saw on it that’s not that effective, but that will work in a pinch (described in this post).  Unfortunately, we didn’t have my portable fold-up saw that I usually carry (which would have made short work of the vine and is much more effective for that kind of job). So cutting the vine and liberating the sassafras trees was slow going, with each of us taking turns, cutting through this vine that was about 2.5” round. That Buckthorn vine was not interested in being cut in the slightest and was quite tough, and the job was quite taxing and difficult. We took turns, and still ended up cutting for a good 30 or 40 minutes in the high heat and humidity before we were finally through the vine. The trees thanked us, and we continued on our hike.

 

In a second story, I recently visited some friends who have been long-time gardeners (their entire backyard is converted to a vegetable garden). A series of stressful events have left them less time to work on the garden this year than in previous years, so the weeds have taken over. I decided to put a few hours into weeding while I was there, and found myself weeding two vines—some kind of morning glory vine and a lot of honeysuckle vine. Its been very, very wet year and the vines have used that, and the fertile soil of the garden, to really take off. The honeysuckle vine was easy enough to clip at the ground to temporarily cut it back, but the stuff was just everywhere. The smaller vine, the morning glory vine, proved exceedingly difficult. In what I thought was just a pile of vine I found garlic and onions, some strangled to death by the vine, all brought to the ground. One vine could send off up to 10 different tendrils. The beans fared a bit better, but even they were likewise pulled down by these vines. It was very slow going, and I opted in some cases for pulling out the root and leaving some of the vine on, cause the damage to the plant to try to remove it would be worse. By the end of my weeding session, I had saved a good deal of the garlic and beans and the vines were already beginning to wilt in the sun–but not all could be saved.

 

A set of powerful lessons lie in these two stories, and I’m sure you can see even more lessons within than I discuss here.  These lesson resonate on multiple levels: ecologically, spiritually, and personally.

 

Ecologically, Common Buckthorn and Japanese Honeysuckle are both some of the more problematic species that are not native to the USA, and there’s been a lot of concern what to do about them (and no, I do not advocate the use of spraying chemicals, nor do I like to use the term invasive species). They are concerns because they are plants that did not evolve here, but arrived here somewhere in the 1880’s as ornamental plants and are now very widespread. Due to their vining nature,  they can cause serious unbalances in the ecosystem in the shorter term, before nature adapts. Honeysuckle can create huge mats where nothing else can grow and pull down other plant vegetation. Buckthorn can quickly dominate and pull down whole trees in a matter of a few short years as it is a much thicker and tougher vine. I think plants like these teach us a powerful ecological lesson–we brought this plant here without knowledge of what it would do, and now we are seeing the effects of that long-term. We have many such lessons at present, of course, but its a good reminder that we harm nature by not understanding her or what introducing unknown elements can do to her.  Furthermore, Its likely that a very small number of these plants were brought here–but now they are all throughout our lands and changing the ecosystems here.  I beleive, in enough time, the land will adapt to these newcomers and all will be well–but that’s on a larger evolutionary scale.  The current situation teaches us the lesson of impact–we never know what small actions (either good or bad) can lead to long-term change.

 

On a spiritual level, lessons that Buckthorn and Honeysuckle are good reminders of what we want to cultivate in our spiritual lives. I think both of these plants teach us lessons of restriction and what can happen to us spiritually if we allow too many things to pile up and entwine around us. Just as we can see these plants at work in the outer world, in the inner world, we can have problematic issues that prevent rich spiritual life from developing.  These include the constant drains on our time, the things that cloud our inner vision (television, politics and media are particularly bad about this, at least for me), living too closely to the destructive patterns of consumerism and industrialization, and more. I see these constant drains preventing us from a richer spiritual life like vines around our inner sacred grove of trees, attempting to bring them down. If we are not careful, the trees of our inner sacred grove are strangled and simply die, as in the case of the sassafras.

 

The vines teach a similar lesson on a personal and interpersonal level. Sometimes we get into situations or have people in our lives that begin wrapping themselves around us—they have that uncontrolled vine energy. At first, it might not be a big deal, because they are just a small vine, but if they are there long enough, they can hurt us possibly beyond repair. Sometimes, it takes a third party to come in, cut the vine at its source, and help you recover. But this work is never easy—and it can be really draining and difficult. We also need to be aware of the kinds of energy that may be trying to pull us down and strangling us. Even if we are able to get out of that kind of situation, it might leave its mark. The Sassafrass trees forever bear the scars of where the vine had twisted itself around their bark–but they will live!

 

In the gardens of our lives, we have cultivated the soil and have planted various kinds of seeds we have planted that we want to manifest (like creative projects, starting a family, finding meaningful work, etc). These seeds need light, moisture, and good soil—but they also need to be free of competition. The vine energy of other pressing matters often puts those things we most want to bear fruit on the back burner. The garlic and beans, much more delicate plants, would have not have produced at all because the vines were not only strangling them but shading them out. It required the full removal of the vines for those plants to have any chance at producing this season–and that was delicate and difficult work indeed.  If we want tender things growing in the soil, we must be ready to keep them free and able to grow without restriction.

 

Not all vines do what these two vines do–and that too, is an important lesson from nature. I’ll draw your attention to poison ivy vine, which is a plant that has evolved in this part of the world (read = native), and a plant which lives in perfect harmony with healthy trees that it climbs.  Poison ivy climbs up a tree in order to reach sunlight, not to choke and strangle, and the trees rarely suffer ill effects of having a vine. I’ve seen trees and poison ivy vines growing together for very long periods of time, the ivy sometimes blending into the leaves of the tree.  Now while most humans may not like poison ivy (I have some on my foot right now and I’m trying to not think about scratching it), the trees have a different relationship with it.  I see this vine as awareness medicine, a plant that tells us to pay attention and be mindful. Many times, I have found poison ivy to be a great defender of the forest–keeping the people out and protecting sacred spaces.  People leave the trees, or forests, alone when it is near.  And for that reason, I have always seen poison ivy as an ally.

 

So this is to say that not not all vine energy is necessarily bad energy in or ecosystem, physical or spiritual lives, and its up to us to recognize the various species of vines (metaphorically and literally) and whether or not they are doing harm. We must meditate on what the vines attempt to teach us and listen and observe their role in the ecosystem.  With this deep observation and meditation, we can understand the lessons of the vines.