Tag Archives: oak knowledge

Three Principles for Ethical Foraging

Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, and wild medicines is something that is growing as a pastime for many people. The joy of foraging from the land connects us to our ancient and primal roots and allows us a chance to build a more direct connection with nature. But with any practice rooted in nature comes the need for balance and responsibility. Thus, the following principles can help wild food foragers and wild food instructors harvest ethically, sustainably, and in a way that builds wild food populations rather than reduces them.  I share both the principles in text below as well as graphics.  The graphics are (full size and web-sharable versions, see links) and they are licensed under a Creative Commons license.  Anyone who teaches plant walks or wants to use them in foraging, wild foods, and herbalism practice is free to download them, print them, and share them! The two graphics are of the same content, rendered differently. For full size printable versions click the following links: The Foraging Flower (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG); Foraging Ethics Tree (8 1/2 x 11″ JPG)

Harvest Mindfully: Mindfully and ethically harvesting from the land to ensure sustainable harvesting, ensuring the long-term survival of wild food and medicines for the benefit of all life and future generations.

  • Take only what you need. Harvest only what you need and resist the urge to harvest everything. Find ways of preserving foods and wild medicine so that nothing goes to waste.
  • Harvest in a way that sustains long-term populations. Be careful about how much you harvest, where you harvest, and when you harvest to ensure that you are not damaging plant populations or harming individual plants. If you need to take a root harvest, it should only be done sustainably and when plants are in abundance. If you are taking a mushroom harvest, remember that mushrooms are the reproductive system; if you harvest them all, the mushroom can’t reproduce. At the same time, recognize that some plants should be harvested as much as possible–those who are spreading and harming native plant populations.
  • Harvest with gratitude and respect. recognize the gift that nature is offering you, and harvest respectfully and with gratitude. Be thankful for the plant and the opportunity to harvest.

Tend the Wilds: Our ancient human ancestors understood that creating a reciprocal relationship with nature were the only way to ensure a more bountiful harvest and sustain our lands so that they could sustain us in return. Thus, building in wildtending practices and tending the wilds should be a counter-practice to foraging.

  • Cultivate and spread wild plants. Learn how to cultivate and tend the native and naturalized plants you commonly harvest.  Work to establish new wild patches of these plants by gathering and scattering seeds, dividing and planting roots, and transplanting. Cultivate new patches which you can later harvest from.
  • Target your efforts towards at-risk plants. Look for plant populations that are in danger of disappearing (from overharvesting, loss of habitat, etc) and target your efforts to help cultivate them. This may mean that there are certain plant populations that you do not harvest until a more stable population is established.
  • Create a balance between foraging and wild-tending: Strive to balance your practices between foraging and wild tending, both in terms of working to cultivate more specific plant populations and also in terms of broader conservation and ecological work, such as protecting wildlands, replanting lands, engaging in political activism, or working with conservation groups.

Build your Knowledge: Understand the plants that you are harvesting–how they grow, how they function ecologically, and the populations of plants in your area.

  • Build your knowledge of ecology and plants. Recognize that there is a lot to know about plants and that this is a lifetime of study. The more you know, the more you are able to apply to your foraging and wildtending practice. Read books, attend workshops, and learn about how your plants function in the ecosystem: where do they grow? how do they grow? What insects/animals depend on them?  Which plants can you harvest as much as you want? Start by learning about a few plants and build from there.
  • Observe and interact.  Don’t depend on the wisdom only in books but get out into your local landscape, observe, and interact.  Recognize that the populations in your local area of plants and mushrooms may be radically different than what you read about.  Understand what is happening in the areas that you spend time in specifically so you can be more mindful of your interaction.
  • Connect, learn, and share with community.  We can do more as a community than as individuals, so find ways to connect with like-minded others, building and sharing knowledge.  The more we spread these principles and ethical foraging approaches, the more good we can do in the world.

Background on these Principles

Milkweed patch now well established in the meditation garden!

I started teaching wild food foraging almost a decade ago after a lifetime of cultivating an ethical practice of foraging and working to regenerate damaged landscapes.  I began teaching foraging with the naive and simple premise that if people understood that nature had value for nature, they would honor and respect it, work to protect it, and cultivate a relationship with it. However, this is not the case. But with increasing frequency, as new people get into wild food foraging, I’m seeing something very different emerging: communities of people who see wild food foraging as a treasure hunt, going into areas without any knowledge of the plant populations or sustainable harvesting techniques, and pillaging the ecosystem.  And in these same communities, there is strong resistance to any discussion of limits, ethics of foraging, or cultivating reciprocation with the land.  But, this situation offers us a chance to grow and to learn how to be better stewards of the land.  With that said: what an opportunity for change. We are always learning and expanding our understanding, foraging is an opportunity for this. Be open to changing your perspective and be forgiving and understanding of yourself and others on this foraging path.

Unfortunately, in the wild food community, we see the same colonizing and capitalist attitudes that pervade other aspects of Western society. Here in North America, one of the underlying issues is that nature is treated by most people in the 21st century no different than it was treated in the 16th-19th centuries: as a resource that you can take as much as you want from. The history of colonization here in North America turned carefully cultivated food forests into deserts and destroyed the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples who lived in harmony with nature. The current practices of land ownership and individualism stress this further–the assumption is that if it’s your land, you can do what you want with it regardless of how it impacts other life living there. Many people born into Western culture are enculturated into this colonizing mindset and may not even be conscious of how much it impacts our assumptions and relationship with nature. This mindset drives a set of behaviors that are literally putting our planet–and all life–at risk. Thus, it becomes increasingly clear to me that at least some behavior surrounding wild food foraging is a new take on the very old problem of colonialism.

I’ll give three examples to illustrate the impetus for the principles I offer. When I was a child in the Allegheny Mountains, Wild Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) was easy to find. My grandfather used to harvest it in small quantities and brew it up for us as a special treat. In the years since, with the increasing demand from China and the rising prices for American Ginseng, in all my time spent in the forests here, I have never found a single wild ginseng plant growing.  This means that the medicine of American Ginseng is completely closed to the people of the Appalachians, and it should not be. I have only had the opportunity to interact with wild ginseng that someone (myself or others) has planted. And in cultivating it, I’ve realized how incredibly hard it is to establish and grow. Most people cultivating it have less than a 20% success rate with either seeds or roots. In a second example, when a friend and I were co-teaching a wild food class, we came across a patch of woodland nettles. Some of the students in the class immediately went into the patch of nettles like vultures, taking every last nettle. Not 15 minutes before, we had had a discussion of wild food ethics and sustainable harvesting, but this was quickly forgotten with the excitement of the harvest.  That nettle patch has since regrown with some careful tending, thankfully, but it took about four years to get as large and beautiful as it was. In a final example, one wild food foraging online group in my region, a person posted a picture of six 5-gallon buckets full of ramps, including the bulbs. This represented an extremely unsustainable harvest for several reasons, not the least of which being that ramps take 1-2 years to germinate from seed and up to 7 years to mature. When I kindly shared information about how to harvest ramps more sustainably (very limited or no bulb harvests depending on the population, being mindful of the amount being taken, scattering seeds to propagate ramps), I was banned from the group for “pick shaming.”  Most online groups have very strong and immediate reactions to anyone discussing ethics, sustainability, or limited harvests, which prevent any conversations from taking place.

These three examples illustrate the challenges present with overharvesting and were part of the impetus for the above principles. I will also note that all of these examples come from the United States; I don’t know if the issues I’ve witnessed apply to other contexts or cultures.

I’ve never met a wild food instructor, teacher of herbalism, or earth skills instructor who didn’t do their best to teach at least some of the principles I’ve outlined above.  But it seems that we need to do more, particularly as large numbers of new people are picking up wild food foraging and that many online spaces are opposed to discussions of the ethics of practice. These principles can be a critical part of every class we teach, every social media post, every Youtube video we create, and every publication we author. By adhering to a set of ethical standards that put wild food foraging in the broader context of building a reciprocal relationship with nature, I believe we can create a more balanced and ethical practice for all.

Examples of the Ethics in Action: Working with Milkweed, Garic Mustard, and Oak

Here are three specific examples how this might be done, both from a teaching standpoint and from a practitioner standpoint:

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of my favorite wild edible plants, with four different harvests throughout the season. A wild food foraging practice that includes common milkweed has a chance for causing harm. Overharvesting shoots can prevent the plants from growing at all; overharvesting flower buds, immature seedpods, or silks can prevent the milkweed from going to seed and spreading.  In most areas in the US, common milkweed is in decline due to new farming techniques, spraying, mowing, and land-use changes. Thus, our land needs a lot more common milkweed, which is a critical food source for declining insect populations, including the increasingly endangered Monarch butterfly.

When I teach common milkweed, I start by passing out small packets of common milkweed seeds that I have grown in my garden from local seed stock.  I tell people about what a wonderful wild food that common milkweed is, how good it tastes, and how to prepare it.  And, I ask that people work to cultivate their own patch (in their garden, yard, or in a wild area) so that they can eventually start harvesting it themselves.  I explain that I do not, ever, harvest this in the wild but rather, I cultivate new patches and eventually return to them to harvest. In this example, I teach Common Milkweed in context: not only what it is but how to harvest, but the challenges surrounding it.  And, I put the direct tools for change–seeds–in their hands, so that they can spread them and begin their relationship with milkweed from a place of reciprocation and stewardship.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is another plant I commonly use and teach.  The lesson of this Garlic Mustard is a very different one: Garlic mustard is an opportunistic plant (I avoid the term “invasive”, also for ethical reasons) and by harvesting, we can control the populations of this plant.  Because it is always abundant and opportunistic, not only do I teach this plant, I encourage those on my plant walks to harvest as much of it as they can while we are on the plant walk.  I will sometimes bring a garlic mustard pesto or another dish that they can taste to see how delicious it is.  On social media, I will share recipes and information on how to find it and cook it, so that others can also start harvesting this plant abundantly.

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Offering gratitude to the oak with an offering

Oak (Quercus Rubra, Quercus Spp.) is another one of my favorite trees from a foraging perspective. When I teach oak in the fall, I usually bring a sample of acorn bread or cake so people can get a sense of how delicious the oak is.  This helps people recognize and honor the oak tree as such an abundant resource. We discuss the principle of the “mast year” and how you can harvest acorns. We discuss how to identify good acorns to harvest based on examining their caps and shells.  We do talk about how much one can reasonably harvest and process–and how to leave acorns for wildlife.  I also teach wildtending practices with Oak in two ways: first, I encourage them to be like a squirrel, not only harvesting acorns but, after harvesting, taking a stick and popping some of them back into the ground to propagate the oak.  I also encourage people to return to their favorite oak in the spring and dig up some of the small oak seedlings to spread elsewhere, ensuring the genetics of the tree survive.  This creates a balanced relationship with the oak, and helps repopulate a keystone species in our bioregion.

In all three examples, I’ve developed both a teaching and foraging practice based on examining the specific context in which a plant or tree grows, its abundance, and the ecological needs it has.  In the case of Milkweed, declining amounts of milkweed (including in my immediate ecosystem) have led me to cultivate it in a number of places, spreading those seeds outward, and considerably limiting how much milkweed I enjoy eating.  The case with Garlic Mustard is the opposite–I harvest and eat as much of it as I can as a way of limiting the spread.  One of the practices of the oak is to participate in acorn planting and spreading oak trees.  Each of these wildtending practices allows me not only to ethically balance a foraging practice but to create a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the living earth.

I would love to hear thoughts on these principles and other ideas for how we can cultivate ethics of reciprocation within wild food foraging!

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.

Traditional Western Herbalism as a Sustainable Druidic Practice

Because of my ongoing study of Traditional Western Herbalism as a student of the amazingly awesome Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald.    I wanted to take some time today to discuss the potential of herbalism as an essential quality of druid practice.  I hope this post encourages others to also consider learning herbalism for their spiritual work, sustainable work, or both.  It is highly rewarding, with direct, tangible benefits.

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Druidry, Sustainability, and Herbalism: A Natural Relationship

I’ve been exploring the relationship of my druidic path to that of my herbal studies, and I’ve come up with a number of ways that they are highly compatible:

 

1. Speaking with the plants, seeking connection with the natural world on the physical and metaphysical levels. Since druidry is a deep path of nature spirituality, following the cycles of the seasons, listening the voices of the spirits of the land, it only makes sense that one kind of oak knowledge we would seek would be that of the plant kingdom.  Herbalists speak in terms druids can understand and that aligns intimately with our tradition; when I open up herbals and I read about how we must listen to our “plant allies” and also work on an intuitive scale with the plants, I know that I’m reading something that can substantially deepen my practice and also improve my health.

 

2.  One branch of druidry, that of Ovate studies, directly connects with plant knowledge, divination, and the healing arts. The realm of the Ovate within the druid tradition is often associated with plants, the natural sciences and healing with said plants (also, often, divination). I see all of these intersecting with the work of an herbalist–an herbalist must know the plants very well, must understand their lessons and their medicine.  This means studying botany and ecology, being able to rightly identify herbs.  But this also has an intuitive side to discern signs and accurately assess someone’s condition in order to select the correct herbs and doses to use. These kinds of intuitive practices can be enhanced by druidic practice, such as discursive meditation, observation of the natural world, and naturalistic studies in the bio-region where the druid resides. Likewise, the practice of herbalism directly enhances a druid’s understanding of the world…when I go out in a field or forest, I know the qualities of the herbs that can help heal. That’s a powerful tool, and one that the ancient druids certainly held.  I honor my spiritual ancestors, and that ancient tradition, by learning the healing teachings of the plants as “oak knowledge” and “ovate knowledge.”

 

3.  The roots of druidry and herbalism are quite similar and work from similar frameworks.  Herbalism is a folk tradition, passed on, adapted and fluid.  Herbalists’ making of knowledge involves a combination of research from aging tomes, material directly passed down through teachers (orally, in the case of my own course), engagement in the natural world.  Each herbalist has her or his own unique approach, and yet herbalism is a framework in which all herbalists interact.  As #2 describes, herbalists also rely heavily on intuition and inner teachers and plant allies.  I find the epistemology of herbalism (that is, their ways of making knowledge and of knowing) extremely compatible with my druid path, where knowledge is constructed and practices are based in similar epistemologies.  That is, as a druid I read old texts and learn about the ancient druids and the revival druids, enjoy the myths and writings of those who came before.  I adapt these teachings and the basic frameworks to my own practice.  I learn from others, from correspondence courses and direct teachers, inner and outer.  I learn as much from nature as I do from anywhere else…..sound similar?  I think so!

 

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

4. There is magic in plants, and herbalists and druids both know it.  Herbalists have developed ways of reaching the magic of plants, ways that benefit druids to learn.  Tincture practices, practices of drying, dosing plants, and the like, can lead not only to greater health benefit for the druid and his/her family, friends, and community, but it can also lead to deeper magical practice.  I think studying the herbal healing arts gives us new and powerful ways of interacting with the plants, ways that maybe aren’t as accessible within the druidic traditions and training.  Likewise, practices rooted in druidic work (such as Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system) use spagyrics (or plant alchemy) to create extremely potent medicinal/magical tinctures.  Combining these two systems gives one a huge advantage in understanding the magic of plants on many levels.  I have found that the more one knows the plants….the better for so many reasons.

 

5. Knowing about the plants and their benefit to humanity can help save our lands.  This is perhaps the most pragmatic of the reasons, but in my mind, a critical one.  Druids value the land and seek to protect it, to preserve it, to revere it–especially our wild and unsettled spaces.  We can do that SO much more effectively if we can show others the value and benefit of plants within that landscape.  There’s a huge difference to the argument “don’t cut those tall weeds down, they deserve to live” (which they do, of course) to something like this “Those tall ‘weeds’ you are thinking of cutting down are St. John’s Wort plants. They have substantial medicinal value to you, including as a topical antiseptic and wound healing herb, a mood uplifter, a gentle astringent good for the urinary system, not to mention a great herb for native pollinators. Those other ‘weeds’ over there you are thinking of pulling are milkweed. In addition to being critical for the endangered monarch butterfly, you can eat them at most of their growing stages–shoot, bud, and pod, and they are absolutely delicious.” You get the idea.  The more you know, the more you can teach others, and the more they can then value the landscape around them. You’ve been seeing me use this approach with my blog–my post on dandelion, for example, encourages people to resee this plant as an incredibly useful herb, hopefully encouraging them not to dump weed killer on them or mow them all down before the bees have a chance to gather up pollen.  And honestly, I have found this approach to be invaluable. On a recent research trip with some colleagues, I pointed out numerous useful plants, helped one person with itchy bug bites and encouraged some aromatic relaxants for an upset stomach….all from the surrounding landscape.  Ideally, we want to shift to the point where life is valued for the sake of life, but arguments about nature’s benefits to humans is a good way to begin to cultivate such understandings.

 

6. Herbalism, especially locally-based herbalism, makes you pay attention to the seasons and observe/interact with the wild spaces in new and exciting ways. Since I’m determined to gather, dry, tincture, and make into oils and salves as many herbs as I will need to handle my own minor medicinal needs (outside of catastrophic illness/injury and regular check ups), I’ve been out each week, sometimes multiple times, gathering herbs.  This makes me pay such close attention not only to the passing of the seasons but also where I gather. For example, I’ve been eagerly awaiting goldenrod blooms all summer because I really need their medicine.  But I have to be careful where I gather, because I want my herbs to be clean, energetically excellent, free of chemicals or toxins, etc.  I have found myself, since becoming an herbalist, seeing the landscape in ways I never did before.

 

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

7. Herbalism can be an earth-centered and sustainable practice.  The more I learn about the modern pharmaceutical industry, the more convinced I am that many modern pharmaceuticals are not only unnecessary and overprescribed, but also unsustainable to our lands, with destructive outcomes for our waterways and the health of all beings on this planet. The environmental impact is staggering–a quick google search will reveal studies on the ecological effects of antibiotic overuse, the detection of pharmaceuticals in the soil, the amount of drugs going into the waterways, the list goes on.  The more that we can take care of our own needs, become resilient within our local communities and our own lives, the less strain we put on the planet as a whole and the less “consumer demand” we generate for destructive manufacturing practices and unnecessary products.  And the less funds go to companies who might do various kinds of evil with those funds.  If I have a bad cold and choose to stay home and treat that cold with herbs that I’ve gathered and grown throughout the year, that’s a heck of a lot more sustainable than driving out to the store and buying plastic bottles full of manufactured medicine that likely come with side effects.  This is especially true if the herbs are safer and better for me.  Using herbs in the place of over-the-counter drugs, like most sustainable practice, requires more work and knowledge, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.

 

8.  Herbalism as an empowering practice. When I began practicing druidry eight years ago, I found the practices and study courses to be incredibly empowering.  I had taken my spiritual practice into my own hands, it required my own interpretation and a dedication of my time in ways that spiritual practices of earlier times in my life had not.  I had to seek it out for myself, empower myself to learn and grow, and dedicate myself to the practice of it daily.  Herbalism is much the same thing.  It is an extremely empowering practice, and one that has positively altered my life much in the same vein that druidry did eight years ago. Going out and gathering my herbs, knowing how to treat myself when I get a minor illness, and being able to do it all with what is growing around me–that’s amazingly empowering!

 

Studying herbs and Druid Orders: I also want to mention that while some druid orders include healing material as an integral part of their training programs (usually as part of ovate studies) others cannot due to laws on discussing and teaching any kind of healing material in the US.  This means that taking up herbalism as a personal healing practice may or may not be part of the work you can do in an official capacity in an order’s study program, but that isn’t to say that you can’t learn this and integrate it into your druidic path on your own.

 

In my next post, I’m going to describe ways to begin to be an herbalist, so stay tuned!

Sacred Actions, Blending of Inner and Outer, Oak Knowledge, Living Druidry – Insights from my AODA 3rd Degree Process

I started the Druid’s Garden blog a little over three years ago.  I started this blog specifically as a way to document my journey while completing my Ancient Order of Druids in America’s 3rd degree program, which was a self-designed program where I proposed and enacted a project focused on investigating the relationship of druidry and sustainability and building more sustainable practices in my local community.  I have now successfully completed my degree!  Despite this, I plan on continuing this blog as a way to keep moving forward with my efforts, as there is so much left to do and learn about.  So in this post, I wanted to share some “take aways” I had in the reflection and completion of my 3rd degree project, which will hopefully help others and generate some conversation.

 

Scarlet Runner Bean in the Garden, Summer 2013

Scarlet Runner Bean in the Garden, Summer 2013

Changing Interactions–Actions as Sacred.

One of the “take aways” from this process was a shift in how I view and interact with the world.  After reading books, attending classes and talks, and really thinking through these issues, I worked to   integrate principles from permaculture and sustainability into my life.  As this progressed, I experienced what can only be called a “paradigm shift” (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term for it). The spiritual perspective that I’ve taken to sustainability allows me to see every action as a spiritual act, with every decision one to enact more sustainable practices or continue as an average American.  This isn’t a binary fallacy, instead, it represents a choice that one must make over and over again, and one that I seem to find myself in often.  Our society encourages certain kinds of behavior, mostly surrounding/encouraging/demanding consumption, and shifting away from that is a continual process with continual choices.  But when we start viewing every action we take as a sacred interaction with the land, and thinking about ourselves as belonging to a greater whole, those actions become easier and easier!

Druidry and Sustainability.

After hosting a few of our permaculture meetups, something magical started happening.  I don’t often come out and say “We had a grove here, I’m a druid” but people started asking—“I saw that you had a stone circle back there…” or “I saw your nature altar in your house, can you tell me about it?” or “You seem to be really spiritual about plants. What’s the deal?” and suddenly, we had all these people who were already interested in sustainability now interested in our grove and in druidry. I spoke to John Michael Greer about this a bit when he visited in April, and I think what is happening is that concepts like Deep Ecology are making their way into the sustainability community because deep work in closeness to the land leads to a spiritual perspective. Although concepts like Deep Ecology are useful in that they provide a spiritual side to sustainability, they also lack the deeper tradition of magical practice, philosophy, and history that Revival Druidry can provide. Since Revival Druidry has several hundred years behind it, and draws upon the western Esoteric traditions that span much longer, it is standing on firm magical ground. Reviving and adapting old traditions (like a Wassail) has been a long-standing practice in revival druidry, and I think we druids have much to offer the sustainability community (and vice versa).

Leek going to seed, Summer 2013

Leek going to seed, Summer 2013

Druids as Keepers of “Oak Knowledge”.

The concept of the druid as a holder of “oak knowledge” draws upon the etymology of the term “druid.” I’ve been contemplating what we mean when we say “oak knowledge” for quite some time through my studies with the AODA.  Knowing even a little about plants, for example, being able to point out poison ivy at a wedding when we are setting up seating areas can save a lot of suffering later. Knowing about herbalism comes in handy when you are working with a group of people for long hours, and you walk outside and find a few sprigs of sage and rosemary to lift the spirits of everyone involved. Or, another recent example, when you are camping and a young person in the group slashes his hand up, knowing a bit about healing herbs (such as plantain) can quickly help seal the wound. I can see why the ancient druids engaged in 20+ years of study….even though I have some knowledge now (certainly much more than I had at the start of my journey with AODA coursework) I have much more to learn.  The idea of being a lifelong student in the pursuit of Oak Knowledge is an appealing one!

The Blending Inner and Outer Worlds.

Sign says it all!

Sign says it all!

While all of this “outer” work I been describing in this blog was going on, I also experienced deep transformation on an inner level. As part of my 3rd degree, I continued the daily magical practice (Sphere of Protection, meditation) and regular other practices (divination, rituals, seasonal celebrations with the grove, reading and study, spiritual mentoring, etc.) that I had developed through my years of study. But these practices changed and melded in new ways. The Sphere of Protection, a daily magical protective practice we use in the AODA, it turns out, is a wonderful way to bless and consecrate a growing space….the panflute I learned to play during my AODA 2nd degree music spiral is great for calming chickens or encouraging seeds to grow. The ritual work I’ve learned (and developed) can be used to help prepare a harvest or for planting new trees. The holidays, the turning wheel of the year, took on much more meaning when I was living so close to it—I started understanding why these festivals took place, their importance, and their power. I found that my spiritual

practices became my sustainability practices, and each melded with the other—deepening both. I really learned to LIVE druidry, and started seeing every action, every interaction as sacred. This is not a new concept for me—its something I discovered quite a bit through my earlier druidic work. But I think the concept has worked on me in a much deeper level.

Oak Knowledge: Value of Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Knowledge

In the ancient celtic world, the word “druid” meant “oak knowledge” or more broadly “deep knowledge” (Cunliffe, 1997). This likely referred to the wide variety of activity that druids participated in and the knowledge they held–the knowledge of the law, of nature, of astronomy, of mathematics, of the bardic arts, of the spirit realm.  I’ve understood this in an abstract way, and have worked to integrate these different aspects of druidry into my life.  This weekend, my recent experiences in officiating my sister’s wedding really reinforced for me the incredible power of “oak knowledge” in action.  I share this story with you to demonstrate how powerful the different kinds of knowledge that we druids embrace can be.  These different aspects of druidry, the bardic arts, the knowledge of the ovates, and the leadership of the druids, can empower us, and can help us grow with the world around us.  This oak knowledge is sacred knowledge, its knowledge of the lands and of the soul.

 

My sister invited me to help plan her wedding and to serve as a co-officiant.  This was my first opportunity to officiate a wedding although I have been ordained through the Ancient Order of Druids in America for about 2.5 years (since finishing my second degree studies with the order).   I didn’t really advertise my ordination widely, but sought the ordination so that if anyone in our grove or area needed such services, they were available (and this is the subject of an upcoming blog post!)

 

The White Pine Grove

The bride and groom, Briel and Jonathan, who are “spiritual but not religious” people, wanted to make the ceremony respectful to multiple faiths.  They also wanted to have both a male and female as officiants for a duality/balance of energy.  Therefore, I co-officiated the wedding with Jonathan’s father, Robin.   Robin and I came from different paths but from a position of mutual respect, and worked in the months leading up to the wedding with Brie and Jonathan to create their ceremony.  I think that even in my interaction with someone of a different faith, druidry, and its emphasis on diversity and embracing difference played a role. The ceremony itself was beautiful, and had various elements brought in from druidry including three deep breaths, the celebration taking place in a sacred grove and in a circle, and rooting their union in water and earth.

 

Most officiants are good at rituals and public ceremonies; they think about how people enter the space, how the ceremony flows,  how to craft the ceremony specifically for the couple, and how to make the day as special as possible. And certainly, my training with the AODA and OBOD and my experiences in writing and running rituals for our grove and the East Coast Gathering has prepared me to do that kind of work.  This is one small part of the “Oak knowledge” that druids provide.  But since I had a co-officiant with more experience in wedding ceremonies than I did, I found my role a bit different and it was due to my training in other areas of druidry.

 

The second kind of “oak knowledge” comes from an understanding of the natural world in terms of ecology, plants, and foraging skills. The wedding was performed in a lovely white pine grove near a lake and a wooded hillside. I had spent some time exploring the grove prior to its selection as the wedding site. After we choose the the grove for the ceremony, I was quick to point out the poison ivy vines growing near the back of the grove.  I taught the wedding party about how to identify a poison ivy vine (by its massive amount of roots attaching to the tree and its leaf pattern).  This way, as we were setting up for the ceremony, nobody would accidentally sit too close to one of the vines.  I also showed the wedding party the bountiful amounts of wintergreen that was growing in vibrant green and red just below the white pine needles on the grove floor.  I harvested big bowlfulls of autumn berry, which were growing bountiful in the region (my cousin, who abides by a raw foods diet and lives in NYC, was particularly appreciative of such knowledge!).  We had autumn berries in salads and in our oatmeal for breakfast. I picked wood sorrel and purslane, which was a bit beyond their season but still tasty, and added them to our salads.  I taught others how to identify these plants, when they

 

Autumn Berries in Abundance!

were in season, and other look-alikes to avoid.   I found a yellow-jacket nest in a field where people were walking and pointed it out so that people could avoid the area and a confrontation with the hornets.  I learned from another forager who came from the groom’s family about making rope from dog’s bane. All of this knowledge, this natural world knowledge, added something unique to the ceremony. All of this knowledge was the “oak knowledge” that we druids have–and I was also able to add to my knowledge through learning about dog’s bane and rope making!

 

In addition to the ecological knowledge, I was able to share with Briel and Jonny information on the magical and spiritual aspects of their chosen location.  We spoke of the white pine as a magical tree, and its benefits.  I told them of the positive energy they brought by choosing to hold their ceremony in an evergreen grove and with a second evergreen plant (wintergreen) below their feet.  From the earth and up into the sky, they had the symbols of eternity and everlasting unions around them.

 

The training in the bardic art of music and the arts represents yet another area of druidic “oak knowledge.”When it was revealed a week before the ceremony that they needed more live music, I brought my panflute, which I have been playing since working on my AODA 2nd degree music spiral and my OBOD bardic grade.  During the ceremony I played two songs.  I also played my flute and the drum during the talent show (eisteddfod!) that we had the evening before the ceremony.  Prior to the ceremony, I crafted their wedding gifts (handmade teas), their guestbook (from recycled and handmade papers), and their wedding invitation painting.  All of these bardic arts also added positive energy to the ceremony!

 

Partridge Berry

My gardening and work in sustainability, which I speak of much on this blog, also found a home in the weekend’s activities.  I canned and brought a number of jars of homemade pasta sauce, which we shared with friends and family.

 

Part of their ceremony involved working with earth and water.  To supplement the energies of their ceremony, I brought sacred waters that came from many different places: the headwaters of a local stream where me and my sister grew up, the headwaters of the Huron river in MI, waters from two great lakes, water from our grove’s Imbloc ritual last year, water from the Delaware Water Gap, and water from Iona, the Island of the Druids.  I’ve been collecting such water for some time, and I hope it brought blessings to them.

 

Finally, when things became stressful and tensions ran high, which is all too common at any intensive weekend like a wedding, I was able to draw upon the druidic value of peace and my own work with daily meditation to smooth over not only my own emotions, but help others in my family.  Silently reciting the druid’s peace prayer and seeking the forest for grounding, I was able to remain calm.

 

When I think back upon this weekend, I realize how much the druidic path, and its multiple foci on the bardic arts, knowledge of the natural world, practice with meditations, ceremonial knowledge, and knowledge of the spiritual and magical world has enriched my own life, and now, enriched the lives of our two newly joined families.  I think this experience was unique in that it showed me just how much seven or so years of dedicated druidic study can offer–not just to the individual who studies, but to the world at large.  And I want to stress–before druidry, I would have been able to offer none of what I was able to offer above.  My story is not a testament to my own creative abilities, its a confirmation of the power of druidry and its dedication to different kinds of knowledge paths.

 

And there’s one more thing I want to say.  When people ask about druidry, as several did, I usually like to talk about what I *do* rather than what I *believe.*  I think this action-based druidry, and introducing my family (including many of  those who were previously unaware of my path) to druidry through action is much more powerful than saying “here’s what I believe.”  I didn’t talk much about druidry last weekend.  But I embodied it.

 

And so, fellow druids and earth-path walkers, embrace the idea of “oak knowledge” and the activity that it can bring.  After seeing its power in such a direct and meaningful way, I really feel that its not just about being good at one aspect of druidry.  Its about having a solid understanding, a generalist knowledge, in all of the aspects of druidry.  This is is useful knowledge, practical knowledge, knowledge of this world and of the ones beyond.  This is oak knowledge.