The Druid's Garden

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

Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden January 8, 2016

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

 

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.

 

Refugia

Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.

 

In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

 

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of  us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

 

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA

A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

 

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

 

Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

 

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

 

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

 

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

 

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

 

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

 

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

 

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

 

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

 

Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

 

Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).

 

Invasive Plants and Invasion Biology as Destructive Concepts: A Druid’s Perspective October 9, 2014

When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective.  I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry.  I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.

 

Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive

Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive.  The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion.  This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape.  When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.

 

Autumn Olive Berries

Autumn Olive Berries

The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants.  In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).

 

Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.

 

The Origins of Invasion Biology

One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently.  I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions.  From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.

 

Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted.  The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops.  And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem.  Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.

 

The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or  what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it.  The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.

 

Gotta love the dandelion!

Gotta love the dandelion!

Problems with Invasion Biology

All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems.

 

Invasion biology as a profit scheme.  First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one distrubs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants.  David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plants movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council).  Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.

 

Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves.  What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them?  If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals.  We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.

 

Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause.  The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.

 

Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature.  I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land.  As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals.  And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.

 

Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology

Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.

 

Nature is not a static thing to memorialized but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preserverationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time.  Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there.  And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”

 

The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life.  We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan).  Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.

 

The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same.  But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000’s of miles in their beaks, and so on.  The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas.  Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.

 

Adaptation

Adaptation

Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.

 

Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.

 

With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.

 

Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity).  They often have benefit to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short sighted and pointless.  The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can.  Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.

One one of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before).  As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances.  In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record).  There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed.  And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion.  They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil.  They are paving the way for others to come.

 

Long-term Orientation.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow.  I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.

Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this.  Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux.  Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force.  If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place).  The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.

 

Nature is good.

          One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.”  No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against the wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.

 

The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make considerable positive change in the world.  If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed.  If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes.  Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways.  To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good.  We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.

 

Black Birch Tree Information and Recipe for Sore Muscle Rub / Massage Oil and Birch Tincture February 26, 2013

Black Birch (Betula lenta) is one of my all-time favorite trees.  In the forest where I grew up, I we had thousands of black birch trees.  Any time there was a thicket (or if someone would cut a part of the forest down), the birch trees would quickly spring up and grow thickly.  This is exactly why the ancient Celts began the Ogham with Birch (beith), and why birch is considered a tree of new beginnings–they are the first to spring up and heal the forest.

 

On smaller trees, the black birch has a lovely black bark with little white flecks.  When you break off a branch, it has a medium green inner bark that smells–and tastes–of wintergreen. This birch bark has wonderful properties, both magical and medicinal. The inner bark has methyl salicyclate, which is used primarily today for muscle pain (note that muscle rubs like Ben Gay have about 30% methyl salicyclate in its ingredient list!); black birch tea is also good for colds, soreness, and cleansing of the body. Magically, birch is connected to the element of water, and is a tree of renewal, rebirth, regeneration, protection and cleansing.  Its also very good for calming the emotions.

 

I brought the black birch back with me from a recent visit to the forest to which I belong in PA to make two other recipes- a black birch tincture and birch water. But when I recently saw Jim McDonald, a fabulous herbalist, for a consultation and I mentioned to him that I had collected a number of budding birch branches, he gave me this recipe and it is turning out amazingly awesome, so I wanted to share it.

 

Black Birch Sore Muscle Rub / Massage Oil

For both of the recipes, you want to use small twigs or budding branches from the black birch tree.  Late winter and spring is the best time to collect because the sap is running then and the tree is renewing itself after a long slumber.

Here are my branches–I added about 1 cup of oil, and I used about 2/3 of what you see here to make the oil.

Birch Branches!

Birch Branches!

Get 1 cup or so of neutral oil as your base. I wanted something that had some good shelf life, so I purchased sesame oil.  Almond oil would work too, but it has a shorter shelf life.  Olive oil has its own unique scent, so I’m not sure how it would work.

Sesame oil I used (two bottles)

Sesame oil I used (two bottles)

The goal is to get as much of the inner bark, finely chopped and exposed, into your oil.  To do this, I cut up the smallest branches with scissors to get them into 1/2″ or so pieces and then used my mortar and pestle to expose the inner bark and smash them up a bit.  On the larger branches, I took a good sharp knife and simply scraped the bark off.  Both methods worked very well!

Mortar and Pestle

Mortar and Pestle

Scraping off the birch bark!

Scraping off the birch bark!

I filled up a mason jar with the birch bark scrapings and small branches until they reached the top of the oil.

Adding bark to oil

Adding bark to oil

I sealed it up and I’m letting it sit for three weeks (minimum) but not more than 5 or so weeks (I let mine sit too long, like 9 weeks, and it went bad and I had to get a new batch started).  After only a few days, the oil is already beginning to take on the scent of the black birch–I can’t wait till it is complete!  After the time has passed, I will strain it and jar it up and use it for back-rubs, massages, sore muscles and the like :).  My second batch, after straining, worked soooo well! I’m adding a little coconut oil and it will be a wonderful sore muscle rub.

Birch in jar!

Birch in jar (prior to straining).

Black Birch Tincture

The process for making the tincture is actually quite similar; the only difference is that instead of using a neutral oil, like sesame, you use grain alcohol. Everclear or vodka can be used.  Even after a day, you’ll be able to taste and smell the tincture; the tincture goes to this lovely green color (similar to the inner bark) and smells just awesome.  Give it a month or so, and you will have an amazing tincture!

 

January Garden Updates January 13, 2013

I really love January. The bitter cold, the winds, the snow–there’s something so magical about being out in a snowstorm.  Where most people lament for the sun and hot summer months, I welcome all of the cold, the wind, the ice, the snow.  It stirrs something within me–it says, “embrace the darkness of this time, go into hibernation, rest, and when the time is right, emerge into the light!”  The latter part of December and January brought the wonderful snow storms and cold.  We had about 8″ here on the ground for several weeks. Unfortunately, the cold has broken and the snows have melted. Its January 13th.  More winter must come.

But since the last few days have been warmer, I was able to open up the hoop houses and take some photos of what’s going on in the garden.  Its amazing to see that we still have so much produce available, even in the midst of the harshest of the winter months.  Here are some photos from yesterday (Jan 12th).  Zone 6, South-East Michigan.

Lima Bean eats Rye

Lima Bean eats Rye

The chickens continue to enjoy the winter rye I planted as a green manure/cover crop.  Its a great crop for them to get their greens all winter long–since little else stays green, they are often at the rye when its not covered with snow.

Lentil digs worms.

Lentil digs worms.

The chickens continue to forage the land every chance they are able. They’ve been out in our pole barn during the heavy snows (they don’t like walking on it) and so when the weather cleared up a bit, they were so happy to be out to peck and scratch again.  And have a clean coop, since I was unable to open their back door that had frozen shut to clean it for a few weeks!

Hoop House!

Hoop House!

Second hoop house!

Second hoop house!

Here are photos of my two hoop houses.  They are doing amazingly well for it being January.  The first hoop house has minzua (which has fared less well than the rest of the greens), arugula, spinach, and kale.  This one was planted later than the first–in late September–so the spinach is still pretty small, but its good.  The tricky thing about hoop house gardening is anticipating how long you can get crops to the “harvest” state, that is, when they are ready to harvest and keep them there.  This is important because hoop houses in the coldest months of the year extend the *harvest* season and not the *growing* season.   If they go dormant before they are too large, then you have small greens to eat.

The second hoop house was planted earlier in the year–mid August–so it has nice sized kale, a few leeks (which were planted in May), cabbages, and more spinach.  My rooster, Anasazi, is checking out the cabbage :).

Here are some close-up photos of the lovely veggies still growing in the hoop house.

Leeks

Leeks

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Kale (outside of hoop house)

Cabbage

Cabbage

Baby spinach

Baby spinach

Arugula

Arugula

I’ll leave you, dear blog readers, with some photos of what winter is *supposed* to look like!  These were taken last year.  I didn’t get shots of the snowstorm here because I was in PA visiting my family.

View from backyard

View from backyard

Snowy Oak Tree

Snowy Oak Tree

Our front road

Our front road

Embrace the cold and snow, my friends!

 

Three Representations of Druidry: Acorn, Awen, and Stone December 21, 2012

I went to a natural gift making workshop (which I will blog about sometime soon) and got into a conversation about druidry with one of my fellow workshop participants.  Turns out, she runs a local TV show called “Faith” and she asked me to come in and talk about Druidry for her show in an upcoming episode.  I find it a bit nerve-wracking and intimidating, mainly because of how open and “out” the show is but also because I really want to try to represent the diversity of druidry accurately.  But I still agreed to do it because its also a great opportunity to build tolerance and understanding in our community, especially among other people of diverse faiths. And I generally don’t think these kinds of opportunities come along very often, and when they do, we really ought to take them.
One of the things she asked me to do was to bring three things that symbolize druidry.  These will be used in the show as discussion points.  I spent time discussing the three items with members of both of my druid orders (AODA and OBOD) and I settled on three things: an acorn, an awen, and a stone.  I am listing each here with their connections to the druidic spiritual tradition:

An Acorn. Acorns have a deep and rich symbolism in druidry.  As I’ve written about in other blog posts, druid literally can be translated as “oak knowledge” and the oak is a symbol of druidry.  Oak knowledge traditionally dealt with the survival of the Celtic people, and while that is still true, it can also be more broad.  So we might see “Oak knowledge” referring to knowledge of growing and harvesting foods organically, foraging and harvesting from the wild, and knowledge of sustainability and permaculture.   But oak knowledge can also include knowledge of stories, myths, and spiritual traditions of the ancients, the druid revival and modern druid era.  Because druidry is a living religion/spiritual path, we might also see oak knowledge as our understanding of how nature can help us solve our substantial challenges in the 21st century.

The acorn, as a seed, is also a symbol of growth and unlimited potential.  The acorn, in its dormant state, reminds us that we, too need periods of rest/dormancy and periods of growth.  We, too, must look to the oak and understand the importance of living within the seasons, with grace and harmony.   The acorn teaches us about our own potential–how one acorn can grow into a massive oak and seed a whole forest.  The oak tree is only partially seen–the massive root system of an oak tree is as tall and wide as the tree itself.  This teaches us that there is much to living and our spiritual experiences that we can’t see, and that even though the roots can’t be seen, we can see their influence.

The power of an acorn (judgment from the Tarot of Trees)

The power of an acorn (judgment from the Tarot of Trees)

An Awen Symbol.  Awen, a Welsh word, describes the spark of creative or divine inspiration or illumination.  Awen is what sparks an idea and gives it form.  The ancient bards drew upon Awen in the process of composing their beautiful stories and music.  Today, we druids embrace creativity as part of our spiritual path–the creative arts: music, dance, song, painting, woodworking, baking, crafting, knitting–so many of these are critical to living a happy and fulfilled life.  Awen is so important to druids that many of us use the Awen symbol as our primary symbol of druidry.

The awen, with its three rays of light, also reminds us of the importance of threes–a sacred number in druidry.  We have the three realms: land, sea, and sky (or middle world, upper world, under world).  We have three grades or ways of studying/experiencing druidry: the bard, the ovate, and the druid.  We have the triads, which were ancient Celtic laws and bits of wisdom expressed in threes.  A triad might be as simple as: Three ways of growing: growing food for nourishment, growing in age as time passes, and growing yourself through knowledge and experience.  Or three things that illuminate every darkness: nature, knowledge, truth.

Awen pendant I made

Awen pendant I made

A stone from our grove’s circle.  Stones are also central to druidry, we can look back in our tradition’s history to the root of druidry’s inspiration–the ancient druids and their stone structures.  The importance of historical sites and modern stone circles (such as the one our own grove celebrates in) teach us the importance of understanding our history.  Stone circles today give us a sense of community; as a grove, we meet within the circle to celebrate the passing of the wheel of the year, to welcome new members of our order through initiation, and to seek peace, meditation, and communion with nature.  And stone circles are being recognized as important points for earth-based spirituality, such as the recent press that the Air Force Academy built for its cadets. A stone from our circle here in South-East Michigan also represents our connection to and reverence of the local land and her unique history.    We can also talk about the stone representing earth, and then think about the four elements that druidry often emphasizes: earth, air, fire, water, and the importance of balancing between those different energies.

Stones in our grove at the equinox

Stones in our grove at the equinox

I think these three objects clearly represent druidry (at least, druid traditions growing out of revival druidry).  But I also wanted to present some of the other ideas that people had raised, because they were also excellent ideas:

Myself. Druidry is a living, evolving tradition that seeks inspiration from the past without being bound to it.  Its also very unique to teach individual, and is truly a personal path, where each of us walks his or her own path, while being bound through our mutual respect of the living earth and our broader community.

My crane bag. The crane bag is a druid’s working tool, and something that many druids put together to keep all their various magical and mundane tools in.  I’ve blogged about crane bags here.

Mistletoe.  Mistletoe is mentioned in some of the ancient Roman writings concerning a druid, specifically, a group of druids in white robes with a silver sickle knife cutting mistletoe growing from an oak in the moonlight.  So this is an image that is important to many druids (and is something we usually incorporate into our Yule ritual). The OBOD’s Mistletoe Foundation is focused on understanding mistletoe in relationship to druidry, to preserving it, and to studying it.  Mistletoe, as an herb, can also teach us about herbal lore, which is yet another important aspect of druidry.

What other symbols of druidry would you include, blog readers?

 

The Mystery of the Stumps and The Spiral Path: A Story of How I Became A Druid November 7, 2012

I’ve had a few blog readers ask about how I ended up my path of sustainability and druidry.  I wanted to post about that here, in the hopes that my story will help others find their own paths as well.  There’s a few different stands to this tale, and not all are easy to unravel.  So I’ll start at the beginning.

My family moved to a home on the top of a mountain in the rural mountains of western Pennsylvania, overlooking a

The druid in the forest to which she belongs!

The druid in the forest to which she belongs!

massive forest, when I was seven years old.  Almost immediately, my cousins (who lived next door) and I began tromping about in the woods.  We built cabins with fallen branches, ferns, stones, and bark,  explored everything, and spent much of our time building water dams in the little crick.  Every summer day for years and years we spent in these beloved woods.  Every fall, spring, and winter day, after school or on breaks, we would enjoy the changing of the seasons. Spending so much time in the forest attuned me to the land, the seasons.  As I grew, I formed this wonderful friendship with the forest, whom I now refer to as “the forest to which I belong.”

There was one mystery to the woods my cousins and I had not figured out—something we often discussed.  All through the woods, these giant rotting stumps could be found everywhere.  Many of the moss-coated stumps were massive—at least double the size of the current trees growing. The stumps were black with age and almost entirely or mostly rotted down—when you touched them, they would fall apart.  As kids, we came up with all sorts of reasons that the stumps were there—aliens came and placed them there as a signal, a fire had burned much of the forest, or perhaps a tornado had come and ripped out many of the trees.  The one conclusion that we didn’t even fathom was that they were trees had been cut by human hands.  Was it childish innocence?  Was it naivety?  The thought that someone would do such a thing never crossed our minds.  When we built cabins, we never cut or damaged the trees—not even to put nails in them.  We used only fallen branches in our constructions.  So it is no wonder that the one solution to the mystery—the correct one—had never occurred to us.  Yet this “mystery” was soon revealed to us in full force.

When I was 14, everything changed. We heard the loggers before we ever saw them.  Noises came from below—the sound of trucks, saws, and the occasional crash.  At first it was barely noticeable, but after a few weeks, they were literally at our doorstep and our parents no longer let us into the forest. We watched with horror from atop the mountain—down below where our beloved woods were literally being torn apart by uncaring loggers.  I remember laying in the tall grass behind the house and crying—I couldn’t understand what could possesses someone to destroy something that I so fondly cherished and respected.  My friends were being mercilessly cut down.

After the loggers finished their dastardly deed, I went into the forest only once, in the months after it happened.  The pain was too much.  This was also a time in my life where repressed memories of trauma in my childhood surfaced–as the forest was cut, my memories returned and I suffered much anguish.  The forest and I shared in our pain.  After that day, I did not step again into the forest for 10 years; I could not bear the pain.

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago after a very meaningful spirit journey into the forest to which I belong.  I "liberated" a rusty chainsaw from my forest that was logged and regrew.  That chainsaw formed the basis of my story of peace and healing.

Mixed Media piece I finished a few years ago after a very meaningful spirit journey into the forest to which I belong. I “liberated” a rusty chainsaw from my forest that was logged and regrew. That chainsaw formed the basis of my story of peace and healing.

Ten years later, I took my best friend, Alfred, who was dying of a terminal brain tumor into that forest.  I shared with him the story of it, and we discovered together that while the forest was difficult to traverse due to the left-over branches and understory, it was also slowly healing and new growth could be found everywhere. But it seemed so changed, so different and wild compared to the forest I knew as a child. It gave us both hope about Alfred’s condition.  Unfortunately, my friend lost his battle with cancer a year and a half later.  Before anyone else knew he died, his spirit visited me, and I knew he was gone.  This, combined with the lesson of healing the forest provided me, lead me on a spiritual quest to better understand….well….everything.

After much reading, reflection, and soul-searching after Alfred’s death, I found druidry and knew that it was like I was coming home.  Druidry was a term that  described who I was as a human being in the many different spheres of my life: my connection to the land, to the spirit realm, to my professional career, to my home life, and to my creative pursuits.

Once I started down the path of Druidry, I again sought the voice of the forest where I had spent so much time as a child, where I had watched firsthand the destruction of the land at the hand of humans who couldn’t see its spirit and life for what it was.  The forest had transformed, healed, magically and physically, back into the space I had once knew.  Her scars were still there, the stumps from what had been logged, but she was strong, her gentle persistence in reclaiming what was lost taught me so much about my own loss and trauma–and how I might heal.  After those experiences, I found myself particularly sensitive to the spirits of the land, especially the spirits of the trees–their joys and suffering–and was called to physically and spiritually heal the land.  And that’s a primary part of my spiritual practice–serving as a healer of the land, working with the spirits of the living and the dead, and assisting them on their journey as they assist me on mine.  Wherever I go, the land reaches out to me, and I reach out to the land; we grow and learn from each other. And this work doesn’t apply just to natural places; the land is everywhere, even in urban areas and under concrete, she still calls out to her own.

At the same time as I was discovering druidry, I also recognized the need to radically shift my lifestyle–how could I call myself a druid if I, like most Americans, was living in an unsustainable, environmentally-damaging manner?  And so, with dedicated effort, I began making permanent changes in my life.  I learned about permaculture, sustainability, and deep ecology, and embraced those principles as a central life philosophy.  I take every opportunity to learn, to teach, to grow, and to help preserve. I joined two druid orders to help me along my path–their spiritual lessons taught me much about the long-standing spiritual traditions of nature reverence.  This blog is a story of that path–thank you for joining me on my journey.