Tag Archives: protection

Daily Rituals and Personal Daily Practices

Daily practices form the foundation of any nature-based spiritual or neopagan path. Daily practices give us a chance to dedicate regular time to our spirituality, to slow down and connect with nature, to protect ourselves from the daily energetic onslaught that is the 21st century, and to practice reverence and gratitude.  Each person’s daily practices are likely to be different, and as you walk the path of nature-based spirituality, the practices may also grow and shift as you deepen your work. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts about developing and maintaining a daily spiritual practice—different options, goals, and opportunities.

Daily Practices: Core Elements

There’s a pretty wide range of things you can accomplish with daily practices. I would argue that a good set of daily practices should, at minimum, help you do the following:

  • Offer energetic protection for daily life
  • Practice connection with nature / yourself / spirit / deity
  • Practice energetic cleansing
  • Practice gratitude, offering, and reverence

Additional things you might want to include are:

  • Engage in daily creative practices
  • Practice various kinds of energy balancing
  • Practice stillness and focus
  • Offer daily grounding and centering
  • Divination practices

I would argue that daily practices are the gateway and foundation to everything else. If you build the foundation of your connection, balance, and focus through daily practices, then you will be able to accomplish many other goals in your spiritual life.

Also, one carefully designed practice may be able to accomplish many points above. That is, if you do daily energetic working, it can provide protection, grounding, and energy balancing.  If you go out in nature, even for 5-10 minutes, you can practice gratitude, stillness, focus,  mediation, and do some cleansing.  So first, start figuring out what you really need to accomplish each day and then consider how you might get there.

Daily Ritual Practices

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree

Many spiritual traditions have some kind of ceremonial or ritual practice that is done daily. Given the challenges we are facing today, I would suggest to always doing a practice that offers grounding and protection at the bare minimum–this will help you in so many ways as you go about daily life.

If you belong to a druid order or other organization that has a set of core practices, you may already have one or more practices that fit this. The Ancient Order of Druids in America suggests daily meditation, a daily Sphere of Protection, and regular time in nature. The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids use the LIght Body exercise (this is energizing but not protective, so OBOD druids should practice something else for protection).

I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (SOP) as one of my primarily daily practice for grounding, balancing, and protection. The Sphere of Protection works with a seven-element system (Earth-Air-Fire-Water-Above-Below-Within). It invokes the four elements in their positive form and banishes the four elements in their negative form and also protects you.  What I like about the SOP is that it not only offers me a powerful protection that takes about 5 minutes a day, it also provides an elemental balancing, which helps me maintain my stability in today’s chaos.  Further, I use it to protect not only myself but our homestead and our animals each day.

The other ritual practice I use daily–at the end of the day–is a smoke cleansing practice combined with meditation. These two practices help me “bookend” my day–I’ll share more about that approach below.

Meditation

Meditation is a critical part of any spiritual path and can provide a wide range of benefits that are mental, physical, and spiritual.  Most forms of meditation include breathwork and focusing the mind (which could be empty mind, focusing on something like a candle, discursive meditation). Meditation can also be movement-based (like walking meditation) or even more in-depth, like spirit journeying. You can see more details about different forms of meditation in my Druid’s Meditation Primer.

If you want to hear the spirits of nature, connect deeply with the spirit world, connect to your own creativity, have more effective rituals, and accomplish many other things–committing to a daily meditation practice is the necessary path to getting there.  Meditation helps your mind become a powerful tool for any other work you want to do and is the foundation for everything else. Without meditation, you will continue to struggle to accomplish the basics because you have not trained your mind–think of this as a marathon.  Do you want to run a marathon? Better practice every day and build up to it.  Mediation is daily training for your mind.  I really can’t stress this point enough.

Druids Anchor Spot: Time in Nature

A place to come to meditate daily–the druid’s anchor spot and a nature mandala made in gratitude

The third part of my own daily triad is regular time spent in nature. My philosophy about this is tied to something I call a Druid’s Anchor Spot (a similar practice that the bushcraft and wilderness awareness communities call a “sit spot”).  An Anchor Spot is a place that you go to that is extremely easy to access (e.g. right outside your door, a 5 minute walk away) that you can visit ideally on a daily or very regular basis.

The Druids Anchor Spot practice can be as simple or as layered as you want it to be.  On the most basic level, you go to your Anchor spot and spend a little time there.  I like to spend time observing with all of my senses: attending to my sight, hearing, sense of smell, touch, and even taste (you might catch me nibbling on some Eastern hemlock needles, for example).  I also like to take a moment to check in with the genius loci, the spirit of the land, as well as other land spirits I am in contact with.  We might converse, do a short ritual, etc.  Sometimes I walk around the space and other times I simply sit.  I also like to set shared intentions with the space (e.g. what do we want to accomplish in the coming season?) and also do regular ritual work there. Even if I only have five minutes or there is a storm, I still make a point to visit for a few moments each day.

The other thing I do here daily is to offer some gratitude.  I have a hand-grown and harvested offering blend; I share a bit of this and offer my gratitude to the living earth and the spirits.  I have also built a shrine for making offerings and doing ritual work.  The space continues to evolve over time–this is also a central part of my land healing practices, so in addition to simply being present in the spot, I am working to physically heal the space.

Integration into Daily Life

As described above, you can see I essentially have a triad of practices–one that happens at the beginning of the day (SOP), one after I am done with work (Anchor Spot), and one that happens before I go to sleep (smoke cleansing and meditation).  These practices took a while to develop and a while to integrate into my life.  I’ve had many false starts and changes along the way, so I also wanted to share some ideas for how to get to the point where you have a regular, daily practice.

Calling up the sunrise with the Sphere of Protection in early spring with the geese

Calling up the sunrise with the Sphere of Protection last fall

One of the questions people often ask is–how do I actually build this into my day? My response is–how did you learn to brush your teeth? The principle is actually really similar: the goal is to create a habituated practice. This is one that you almost automatically do, and you are so used to doing it that you simply do it.  That’s the end goal.

To get there, you want to think about a few things.  First, consider how your overall day is structured and where it would be more seamless to build in those small moments.  A daily practice doesn’t have to take a lot of time–it can take as little as 5-10 minutes and you can always build from there. Find places that you might already have habituated or required practices and see if you can add a spiritual practice where you already have that time set aside. Also think about what would make the most sense for you in terms of practices based on the structure of your day.

Another thing that I have found very helpful is to really think about the transition points of the day–what does your beginning of the day look like? What might you build in there that helps launch you into the day?  Do you have or need a transition point after a certain point in the day?   What about your end of the day? Do you have a place to ‘wrap up’ for the day and transition to a good Dreamtime? If you can find those key transition points, and really work them to your advantage, then that is one way of making this all happen.

Finally, I think it’s important to understand your own nature.  Some people are very schedule driven and developing a daily routine is fairly straightforward. Other people are more whimsical and find it really hard to have a routine or even resist routines (I happen to be one of these people).  So you really have to work with yourself and show yourself some grace as you are working to establish daily practices.

Dana’s Example

To show you how this all first together, I’ll share my daily practice.  As I mentioned, these have undergone a lot of evolution and if I had a different lifestyle, I know they would look very different.  I also make allowances for myself–if I’m sick, traveling, etc, some of these would obviously be adapted. But I still try to make sure I do something every day.

Beginning of the Day and Sphere of Protection Ritual. Becuase I live on a 5-acre homestead, every day, I have animal care and farm chores in the morning. Since I have this thing I literally do every day, I always do my Sphere of Protection at the end of my homestead chores.  After the physical work of feeding, watering and tending the animals, I let the animals out and then I perform my SOP. It also allows me to offer energetic protection to the land and the animals–and it allows them to participate as well.

Anchor spot and unstructured time in nature. Then, I will go about my day.  When I finish my work for the day, I have found that I need a good transition point for whatever comes next, and that’s where the Druid’s Anchor Spot comes in. After working, I like to just unwind a bit by walking our land, walking meditation, observing, and then spending time in my anchor spot.  The time in nature is much less structured than my other daily practices.  I might find myself wandering, wondering, and simply creating the time to be present with the living earth.  There’s a lot of value in unstructured spiritual time.

Evening cleansing and meditation. After my time in nature, I will again go about my evening.  At least 4-5 days a week, that will include spending an hour or more in my art studio or doing some writing, dedicating time to my creative practices. Then, before bed (and before I get too tired!) I will do my end-of-day meditation and smoke cleansing. I like to do the smoke cleansing at the end of the day so that I’m not dragging any difficulty from the day into my dreaming (and I do practice sacred and intentional dreaming so that matters). Thus, I very intentionally clear any stress, problems, etc, that I’ve built up through the day with the smoke cleansing (I cleanse with my own herbal sticks that I make). Then will do some meditation before winding down for the evening.

Building Up

I think in the hustle and bustle of daily life, developing these practices is really critical.  Its so easy to get lost in the quagmire of modern living and all of the insanity that it brings. Like an anchor dropped on stormy seas, daily practices help you weather the storm, build your resilience and focus, and provide you with tools that can help you strengthen your own spiritual practice for years to come.

I would also say, allow yourself to shift and grow as you deepen your practice.  Find something that works for you right now, in this moment.  If your life changes or you have a new awareness or need something new, then by all means, change your practice to something that fits.  Just keep in mind the larger goals of what you want to accomplish.  For example, frequently, I also do daily divination, but right now as I’m the early stages of creating a new divination deck,  I’m staying away from other divination systems and simply allowing that new deck to come through!  Once the deck is a little further along, I’ll probably return to daily divination.

As we wrap up for today, I would love to hear examples of other ways that individuals have built daily practices into their lives. Please share so we can learn from your wisdom.

Bringing back the Hearth: Ancestral Fires for Protection, Connection, and Comfort

Sacred tea over the fire

Sacred tea over the fire

Fire is one of the most ancient tools that humans have and one of the things that separates our species from others on this beautiful planet.  Humans have an incredible ancestral connection to fire. Think about how a fire draws you in–when you see a campfire or fire in a hearth, you want to get close and stay warm. That is probably because we humans have been working with fire for somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million years. 1.5 million years ago, our ancient ancestors would have been Homo Erectus; and so, as we evolved into Homo Sapiens, it is very likely that fire was already with us. For more information on fire and ancestral fires, I suggest checking out this post!

Because of this deep connection, if we move forward quite a bit in time, we can understand why as people built permanent homes, the hearth–that which contained the fire safely indoors–was the center of the home. Yet today, fire is something that many modern homes have completely lost–where we’ve boxed up fire in stoves or use electricity or gas instead of our more ancient heat, light, and cooking source.  Most people in modern homes have almost no connection to the equipment that keeps them warm in the winter or cooks their food–and that ancient ancestral connection to fire is missing.  So in today’s post, I wanted to talk about working with a hearth in a magical way–how you can reclaim an abandoned hearth, create a “hearth space” indoors even if you don’t have a hearth, or create an outdoor hearth, all as part of sacred actions.

A Hearth

A hearth has different levels of meaning and rich history in many different cultures.  Let’s start with language because language can offer fascinating aspects of history. “Hearth” itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo European *ker, which has connections to modern words in English including hearth, coal, and carbon.  Anything that goes back as far as Proto-Indo-European demonstrates a very common thing present in very ancient human cultures situated in Europe and India, and is a little slice into that ancestral history.  From there, we see that Hearth is present in Old  English as ‘heorð” later moving into our more modern term.  Latin also gives us another clue, with the Latin word for hearth being “focis” or “focus”, demonstrating the importance of the hearth.  Thus, value and connection to fire and to a hearth is literally woven into our language as far back as we can trace.

Traditional peoples give us another insight into the importance of fire. As explained in Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe, Keeney describes how the Kalahari Bushmen, have the fire as part of the center of their community activities–the fire each night is where they share their stories of the day, eat, and connect with others.  Stories shared around this fire are the property of the entire community, and are a way for them to weave connection with their surrounding landscape.  Here in the US, you can see the importance of the indoor hearth by visiting our oldest houses or seeing historical reenactment.  In early US history, the hearth was centered in the home, massive hearths that measured 6 or more feet across with many different cooking tools.  These hearths started to slowly be replaced during the industrial revolution as a focus on efficiency and productivity became core values.  Thus, the traditional open hearth became replaced by more “efficient” and “hands-off” technologies in the last 150 or so years. In his book On Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane describes fire as being “unceremoniously boxed up” in boxes of Iron; he argues that this “boxing” of fire created disconnection both with wood and fire.  While the idea of a hearth may look different in different cultures and parts of the world, the fact that some form of fire and heat exists to cook, to connect, and to warm with seems to be a staple of human existence.

A very different kind of hearth--the earth oven at the druid's garden homestead!

A very different kind of hearth–the earth oven at the druid’s garden homestead!

The traditional hearth even inside a house is the center of the home, and I would argue the hearth functions a bit differently than any modern equivalent, like a kitchen. If you think about the center of the home now, depending on the home and family, it is likely the living room, where everyone crowds around the TV, or perhaps the kitchen table, where everyone eats.  But neither of these spaces has quite the same relationship with you in terms of comfort, protection, and warmth that a traditional hearth has. I believe that in moving away from traditional fire cooking and hearths, we’ve lost something important, something rooted in slow time and slow living that would be useful for us to consider bringing back.

Key Features of the Hearth: Physically and Magically

If we want to think about re-creating some of these important spaces for ourselves (regardless of whether or not we have access to indoor fire), it’s useful to understand the different features of a hearth from both a physical and magical perspective.

On the practical side, a hearth is first and foremost a fireproof surface that creates a safe space for your fire or stove to burn.  The hearth extends well beyond your open fireplace or stove, creating, literally, a safety net for any coals, sparks, or flames that may jump out of the fire. The hearth is what contains the fire, makes it safe, and also provides us additional tools to engage with it. If we consider this from a magical perspective, the hearth literally is built for physical protection, making it potentially very good to use for magical protective work.

There’s also a communal aspect to the hearth.  Prior to the replacement of open fireplaces with coal, gas, or electric stoves/boilers/heaters, the hearth was also the source of warmth, heat, and light for much of the year.  As the cold and dark closed in during the dark times, families would gather around the hearth to tell stories, share meals, work on various handicrafts and repairs, and spend time together. We see this feature in hearths whether or not it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Thus, the hearth is a space that allows us to share with each other and to stay warm and comforted–again, connecting to blessing, protection, and stability.

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

Fire provides us safety and life. Making fire is a critical skill for all humans (going back to my discussion of Reskilling at Imbolc a few weeks ago). Making fire was certainly one of the very first skills our ancient ancestors would teach their young, because for many, it would mean the difference between life and death. A fire can be the difference between safety and fear, between freezing and warm, and between safe water to drink and unsafe water. Again, we see the theme of safety and also having something that is a powerful tool to help us provide for our needs.

The hearth also puts you in direct connection with the elements. To make a fire, you would have to gather wood and prepare it–requiring knowledge of the land, how to forage, dry and store wood, tinder, and kindling. You also need knowledge for how to use those materials to start a fire through the application of air and friction. These require connection to nature through the wood and stones in the hearth, the element of air for oxygen which feeds the flame, as well as the element of fire itself through the blaze.

Finally, the hearth is where, traditionally, meals are cooked and shared.  Before modern stoves or burners, a hearth was the only source of heat for cooking, and people spent a great deal of time at the hearth. Unlike your modern stove, hearth cooking requires a lot more monitoring, knowledge, time, and skill. That is, you are tending the fire, you are working carefully with the coals, and you are building a relationship with it as you cook your meal. There is simply no equivalent to cooking over the fire vs. cooking over a stove.   So here, we see the principles of connection as well as slowing down.

Thus, like many things that were developed before modern industrialization, to truly experience a hearth in a traditional sense requires that we move back to “slow time”. A hearth requires that we attend to it regularly. As we build and feed the fire, the fire requires our time and energy.  We have to gather the wood, store the wood, bring the wood in.  We have to make sure the fire stays burning in a safe way.  As we put our time and energy into the hearth, we are rewarded with a deepening sense of connection to that space as well as the warmth, protection, blessing, and stability of that place.  Even if you don’t have a hearth in your home, there are things that you can do to create this sense of warmth, protection, and comfort.

Creating and Tending a Hearth space

Depending on where you live, how you create a hearth space will likely be very different.  I’ll cover some options based on your living circumstances.  Ultimately, not everyone has a hearth or hearth space in their house that they could already use, so we can get creative.

A Traditional Hearth.  If you have any kind of wood-based heating in your house that is in your living area, this would be your obvious choice for cultivating a hearth space.  I’ve been in a lot of houses where their hearth sits unused in favor of more modern heating and cooking sources. My suggestion to those who are blessed with this feature in their home is to use it if they aren’t already!  Make this the center of some activity, such as through reading, cooking, entertaining friends, or spending long cozy nights near the hearth.  Spend time decorating your hearth, making it feel welcoming and homey. Make it a point to start a fire and enjoy being near it regularly.  Perhaps learn some hearth cooking. Do what you can to make this space welcoming, sacred, and inviting.

A Hearth Shrine and cozy space.  Many people do not have a traditional hearth space–maybe you live in an apartment or a more modern home that does not have a fireplace.  For many years, I was in this same situation, and I discovered that there are many other things that you can do to still bring that energy of protection, comfort, and fire to your life. Using the principles above, consider how you might create a space that is cozy, comforting, and that puts fire at the center. For example, place a shallow bowl with sand and add a number of beeswax pillar candles to the bowl–this will create a “fire area” that you can then safely enjoy.  Or, you can use a candelabra or some other candle holder, decorate it, and place it in a central space where you often spend time. I have found that using multiple candles really helps you get this “fire” effect.  The other piece of this is to make it comforting, inviting, and a place you want to spend time.  You can set your hearth candles up each time, or you can give it a permanent place in your home.  You may also be in a living circumstance where candles aren’t allowed to be burned (such as a college dorm or apartment).  In that case, you might look to electric candles or even those little plug-in fireplaces–something that will give you some fire-like effect. Around your hearth altar, you can practice bardic arts or crafts, read, meditate, eat your meals, spend time with others, and really practice slowing down.

An Outdoor Hearth Space.  Another option for the warmer months is to create an outdoor hearth space. Using the same principles as an indoor hearth, you can create a central firepit that can be lit regularly or even an outdoor kitchen, earth oven, or another outdoor cooking area. Outdoor hearths can be wonderful spaces to spend evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, and still practice connecting with fire, slowing down, and connecting to the living earth.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we’ve been working on building an outdoor kitchen–we have our cob earth oven mostly finished, we have a completed rocket stove griddle/ maple sap boiler, and we’ll be working on some rocket stove burners and a naturally built pavilion in the years to come.  This has become a center point for us–with cozy chairs and a warm fire, you can stay out near the outdoor kitchen and use it for sacred activities.

Hearth Space Activities

Now that you have created or reclaimed some space where you can have a hearth, you might wonder what kinds of spiritual activities and sacred work can be done at the hearth.  I would suggest a number of both mundane and magical practices.

Slowing down. Tending a fire requires us to slow down and move with earth time.  Committing to a hearth practice is a commitment to taking your time to tend a fire and give that space some of your attention.  Relaxing, breathing deeply, and simply getting into the rhythm of the flames is an extremely relaxing and important thing to do. One of the things your hearth space can remind you to do is just to slow down, breathe, and relax.

Cooking. If you are working with a fire, cookstove, or outdoor space, learning how to cook on the fire can be a really wonderful thing to do–it puts you in a much deeper relationship with food and with fire. I’ve started learning hearthside cooking in the last few years.  Fire cooking does require different tools than you might use in your traditional kitchen–one of the most useful is a cast iron dutch oven with small legs, which is typically used with coals.  You simply take coals from your fire and place them on the bottom and top of the oven (or set the oven in a fire that has gone to coals) and wait. Other useful tools are any cast iron pans (you can use them both on the fire and on your regular stove), griddles, trivets, and other tools.  Antique stores are one of the best places to pickup cast iron cookware–and this cookware will last you a lifetime. Once you’ve gotten your hands on a piece of cast iron or two, you can make many different dishes and start to explore this ancient art.

Spiritual Activities:  A hearth is an amazing time for any number of spiritual activities. Meditation, spending time connecting with the elements of fire and earth, ritual work or spiritual study are all good choices.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles--you can see the light of sunrise coming back in!  The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles–you can see the light of sunrise coming back in! The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

Ritual activities: Your hearth can also be the center of ritual activities, particularly those in the dark half of the year if you are indoors, or outdoors during the light half of the year. Around our hearth we have in our home, we’ve held grove events and rituals that have centered on the hearth. For example, we have built ancestor altars using the mantle above the hearth, where then the ancestors are invited in for the rest of the gathering.  We have also used the hearth for celebrating the winter solstice, where we place 14 candles (representing the 14 hours of darkness) and each candle (for more on this, see The Druid’s Book of Ceremonies, Prayers and Songs, which has an entry by Robert Pactti on this approach).

These are just a small taste of the many things you can do as you are thinking about connecting with the ancient element of fire, connecting with nature and the living earth, and learning how to more fully embrace the ancestral ways–which will also be the ways of the future.

I would love to hear stories of your own fires, hearths, and work in this area!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Holly (Ilex Opaca) – Magic, Meanings, Ecology, and Divination

American Holly is one of the most wonderful trees for getting us through dark times.  And as the season of darkness is upon us once more, it is a good time to consider the magic, meanings, and mystery of this incredible holly tree!

American Holly has many names including white holly, prickly holly, Christmas Holly, Yule Holly and Evergreen Holly.  It is quite similar to European Holly (Illex Aquifolium) with similar leaves, berries, and an overall growth habit. The American Holly has larger, brighter leaves and berries, but the trees are otherwise quite similar. While I often argue against importing meanings and uses of European trees into American contexts (with Ash being a great case in point), in this case, I think that the myths and old-world understandings of Holly apply!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Beautiful holly berries in late fall

The native range for American Holly spans from Rhode Island and New England coastal regions down into Florida and across the midwest to Louisana and Texas.  It can be found throughout the south-eastern and Eastern United States, and beyond its native range, is widely planted as an ornamental, thus, is frequently found in urban and suburban areas. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled in a city or new area is a chance to connect with American Holly in some form: tree, shrub, or small bush!  In fact, it is so popular as an ornamental that you can find up to 1000 different cultivars. It is shaped into shrubs, trees, and even holly hedges.

In the wild, American Holly is primary an understory tree, thriving in shaded woods, along streams and creeks, and can handle both dry and wet conditions, but not flooding or wetland conditions.  It does prefer slightly acidic soil and sandy soil and will grow in full sun to full shade. If the soil is too alkali where it grows, the leaves will turn a brownish-yellow.

The American Holly is an evergreen tree that can grow to 40-60 feet tall.  It has evergreen leaves that grow in an alternate pattern with a leathery feel.  The holly leaves are fairly unmistakable and easy to spot because of their depiction in modern culture: they are 1-3″ long with spiny tooths coming out of them in a regular fashion.

It provides food for birds (cedar waxwings, songbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, bobwhites) and small mammals (turkey, quail, white-tailed deer, squirrels). It is a nursery plant for Henry’s Elfin butterfly. It also provides excellent cover and shelter for birds–we have an American Holly growing next to our house and every year, the cardinals make a nest within the densely packed branches.

The holly tree blooms with white (sometimes greenish-white) flowers in April-June that have four petals and a balanced fourfold shape.  You can tell the male from the female flowers because the female flowers appear in clusters of 1-3 while the males appear in clusters of 3-12.  Male and female flowers often occur on separate trees. These make way for green berries, who finally turn to the classic bright red as we move into the late fall (Samhain) and winter months (Winter Solstice). Only the female tree produces holly berries.

Human Uses

The Holly wood is a beautiful, strong, fine-grained white wood that can be sanded, stained, and worked.  It is often used for furniture, woodwork, carving, engraving, cabinetry, and other fine woodworking.  It is not in high commercial demand because hollies never get that large, but among folk artisans and woodcarvers, it is often sought out and used.

Holly (both European and American) is tied to the winter months, the dark half of the year, and the Yule season.  These traditions of “decking the halls with boughs of holly” were imported from the old world and then applied to the American Holly.  I’ve used Holly extensively as a natural decoration for Yule and it is just lovely on the mantle–it stays green and the berries stay red long after the plants dry out.  We usually have to trim our Holly to keep it away from the sidewalk–and these trimmings are all we need to provide delightful Yule decorations for our home.  With this said, the demand for holly decorations has caused a decline in wild-growing holly in some parts of the US; given this, it is wise to cultivate a holly or two in your yard if you want to have these decorations or source them sustainably.  As with anything else, commercial demand causes a decline of the species, and we very much want to attend to this issue when buying any plant matter at the store.

Edible and Herbal Uses

All of the Ilex species (which includes all Hollies) are somewhat toxic if ingested.  The berries of the holly are poisonous and will cause diarrhea, sweating, vomiting, and dehydration–so while you can use them on your mantle, you don’t want them in your stomach!  However, if you wanted to induce vomiting (emetic action) these berries are one thing you could use to do so as they are a traditional medicine in this regard.

The roasted leaves of the American Holly can be made into a caffeine-free herbal tea. This tea has a rich history, including drinking as a tea substitute extensively during the American Civil War when resources were scarce. The tea has some medicinal properties and was used to treat colds, although I couldn’t find too much more information on the specific medicinal uses, as it is not listed in any herbal that I own.  In fact, many holly species also have leaves that can be made into tea, but you want to make sure you identify the species properly. A good guide for this is Eat the Weeds, which offers a thorough discussion of how to make tea (with caffeine) with some holly species. They discuss how some communities have made a tea of the young leaves of the Gallberry holly (Ilex glabra) which can be a good source of vitamins and minerals.  Make sure you have the identification right on this holly though, because others (like the Yaupon Holly, lex vomitoria ) have leaves that make you vomit.

Western Occult and American Folk Magic Uses

Holly is, as mentioned above, inseparable the Winter Soltsice/ Yule and it has been tied for milleniua with bringing brightness into the dark half of the year. Holly was, of course, one of the seven chieftain trees of the ancient druids, and thus, a very magical tree throughout the world.

In the American Hoodoo tradition, as described by Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic,  Holly leaves are burned with other blessing herbs to protect the home and bring good luck into the home.  Placing holly above the door to the home also protects the home and draws helpful spirits.

In Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, she describes some of the mythology surrounding holly, including its connection to immortality.  In the old world, people were encouraged to bring the holly into their homes to ward against elves, fairies, and other spirits that could otherwise cause harm.  Holly’s bright berries and leaves also helped people with winter depression and help us get through the darkest time of the year. The holly was always required to be removed from the house by Imbolc eve or it could bring misfortune. In Ancient Rome, the Romans gave gifts of Holly during the five-day festival of Saturnalia, which took place at the winter solstice. These eventually gave way to the Christian imagery, which still uses Holly, in December. Even though Christianity has shifted many of the ancient pagan beliefs, the remnants of these can still be found even in modern-day celebrations here in the US.

The Holly King and Oak King legends are also powerful and enduring; both evolved from earlier indigenous and pagan depictions of the green man or the spirit of the forest/plants as well as the virility that is necessary for life to continue.  Paterson notes that the oldest depictions of the Holly King were of a wildman holly god, and Christian suppression later turned him into more of a “king” like figure without sexual virility.  Regardless of the shift of this imagery over time, the Holly and Oak kings rule over the year and are two sides of the god of nature and his cycles.  The Oak King comes into power at Midwinter (when we move from the lowest point to the highest), while the Holly King comes into power at Midsummer (the waning part of the year).  The Holly, therefore, represents the growth, light, and harvests of the rest of the season to come.  Many rituals in the modern druid tradition acknowledge the power of the ancient Oak and Holly kings as part of our ceremony.

Holly is one of the sacred trees in the Ogham, the Celtic Tree Alphabet. The Holly, Tinne, is tied to the letter T and the Ogham letter that has three upright lines.  According to Steve Blamires in Celtic Tree Mysteries, the evergreen nature of the Holly tree can be tied to a “link” as in a link in a chain, which is one name for Tinne.  This shows Holly’s link not only with the oak (from the ancient lore) but also between our world and the otherworld.

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer describes holly as being firey and warm in the second degree.  Astrologically, it represents Saturn in Leo.  It is a very protective tree and is thought to ward against lightning and also against hostile magic and hostile spirits and otherworldly beings.

Divination and Magical Uses

Based on the ecology, folk uses, and history of holly, the following are three divination and magical uses for this incredible tree:

Darkness. Holly has long been associated with the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year, and seeing Holly come up in a divination reading may signal that a time of darkness is upon you.

Light in the Darkness.  Tied to Holly’s theme of darkness, however, Holly reminds us that there is always hope.  The triumph of the Holly king over the Oak king in the ancient myths ensure us that even when the light is all but extinguished from the world, the evergreen leaves and bright red berries will be a sign of coming out of this dark time and hope in the future.  Stay strong, for spring will return.

Protection in Dark Times. We are continuing to live in darker and more uncertain times, with more and more of us losing basic faith in our institutions, culture, and civilization.  It is certain that human civilization is on a dark path.  Thankfully, trees like holly can offer us basic protection from the hostile energies of this age.  And that’s exactly what she does!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the incredible Holly tree.  If you have additional information to add or stories about the holly, I would very much love to hear them!  Blessings to you, my dear readers!

Beltane Gardening Rituals: Garden Blessings, Standing Stones, and Energy Workings

Here in the Laurel Highlands of Western PA, Beltane marks the start of “planting” season, where we move our indoor seeds out into the greenhouse to harden off, where many seeds like carrots and beans start to go into the ground directly, and where the land is budding and blooming with the joy that spring offers.  And so in today’s post, I’m going to share some Beltane spring garden blessing ideas for you, as you can craft your own sacred “druid’s garden”.

One of our amazing sacred gardens here at the Druid's Garden Homestead!

One of our amazing sacred gardens here at the Druid’s Garden Homestead!

The concept of “blessing” is quite wide-ranging.  In the broadest sense, a garden blessing is any working that offers positive energy and protection to a growing space for a season, ensuring your plants a bountiful harvest, long life, and joyful existence.  Blessings can be extremely wide-ranging and pretty much anything you do can have some positive effect if you set to it with the right intention.   In the tradition of this blog, I’ll offer three possibilities for doing garden blessings at the start of your growing season: prayers and offerings, rituals to raise positive energy, and creating a standing stone shrine.  These blessings can be worked directly into a Beltane ritual or at any other time of power when you want to create a ritual link to your sacred gardening practice.

Preliminaries: Blessings, Energies, and Standing Stones for Sacred Gardens

I have a few preliminaries for consideration before we get into the Beltane blessings. First, you want to be clear about your intentions for growing plants or blessing this garden space.  Are you growing annual vegetables (tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, beans, etc) for your family? Are you creating a sacred garden for growing offerings, smoke cleansing sticks, or other sacred tools?  Are you cultivating a perennial flower bed for pollinators?  Does it do a bit of all three or something else? I would suggest spending some time thinking about your intentions for the space you are blessing so that you can choose the right kind of blessing and establish your intentions clearly.  Those intentions are set in part I of the ritual.

The second thing is that everything with the land should be done in a place of reverence, respect, and reciprocation with the living earth. I write this again and again on this blog for a simple reason:  here in the USA, at least, we are so indoctrinated to take what we want from nature, see nature as a thing in service to us, and do damage to the living earth through our action that it is often a subconscious behavior.  Thus, it takes a lot of mindful distancing and reprogramming our brains to think differently all the time.  So as you do any of these blessings, bringing in that feeling of reverence, respect, and reciprocation is critical to this work.

The three aspects that I am sharing can be used together in a single ritual or they can be used individually.  If you are planning a single ritual with the three, you will want to open up a sacred space as befitting your own practice (I use the AODA’s Solitary Grove opening, as AODA’s druidry forms a core of my practice).  Once you have your space opened, you can engage in the three activities–or just do one.  You can also adapt these specifically for your own needs.

I’m using the example of dedicating a newly expanded garden space that exclusively grows herbs for sacred uses (I will share more about this space in an upcoming post and how I developed it). I have a new bed that grows various sages, sagebrush, tobacco, and sweetgrass–all of these I use exclusively for sacred purposes such as making smoke clearing sticks and offering blends. I may give some of these plants away to friends and fellow druids, but I do not sell them. So my example below uses this in context: you should adapt this as necessary for your own needs.

A slate standing stone. I found this kayaking last year and it wanted to be in the garden. It took a few years to find this!

For part 1, you will want rainwater or other sacred water, incense or a smoke clearing stick, and an offering (water with liquid gold, something you’ve baked, or your own offering blend), and some form of divination. You can also set up a simple altar with anything else you would like to dedicate the space.  For Part 2, you will need a shovel or trowel, a small standing stone (any stone that can be placed 1/3 of the way in the soil and 2/3 out), healing waters, and spring flowers or other markers of the season (use what you can find locally).  The stone can be as small as 6″ tall or much taller as you can find!  Please make sure the stone is willing to serve in this capacity before you put it to use–sometimes finding a standing stone can take time and you can skip over part II and do it later if you don’t have a stone available. For part 3, you only need yourself.

This ceremony draws from several sources, but the most prominent is the Sphere of Protection used by the Ancient Order of Druids in America (which is adapted used in the 3rd part of the ceremony).  For more on the magic of setting standing stones and on how to learn the sphere of protection, I recommend The Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

Overview

The first practice is a simple one of acknowledgment, respect, and dedication–setting your intention for space, making an offering, and offering prayer and blessing for the garden. The second part of this ritual sets a standing stone in the center of the bed.  Ancient cultures, including those who set stones throughout the UK, recognized that a standing stone offers light and blessing to the land.  In the druid tradition, we recognize the power of standing stones, both to connect us to our ancient ancestors and also in radiating the solar current down into the telluric. The third part creates a sphere of protection for the garden for the coming season by drawing upon the energies of the seven elements.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part I: Intentions, Prayers, Offerings, and Messages

Open up your sacred space.

Start by setting your intentions for the garden space.  This should come from the heart.  You can adapt the following:

“Spirits of place, spirits of this garden, I dedicate this new garden bed for the purposes of growing herbs for my sacred work in walking the path of druidry and healing the land.  Sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, lavender, and mugwort, may you grow tall and strong.  May you thrive in the heat of the summers, and may your roots and seeds rest with the deep winters to emerge again in the spring.  May we work in partnership and joy this day and through the coming season.” 

Make your offering to the garden bed as you see fit.  I like to place mine just in the soil.

“I make this offering in friendship and respect.  With my hands and my heart, I will work to prepare this space for you to grow and thrive. May I always remember to take only what you are willing to give, and may we work in partnership.”

Now, pour the rainwater over the bed.

“The waters of life bless you, this day and always.”

Light the smoke clearing stick and blow the smoke gently across the bed.

“May the fire of the sun and the ashes of these herbs bless you this season.”

Pause and simply take a moment to enjoy being in the presence of the new garden bed.  Pull out your divination system and ask, “I would love to hear what messages you have for me, that might guide my work with you this coming season.”

Use your divination system (drawing a card, using inner communication, drawing an ogham, whatever you best use)

If this is the end of your ceremony, close out your grove.  If not, move to part two.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part II: Setting a Standing Stone

Hold the stone before you (or touch it, if it is quite heavy): “I honor this grandmother stone.  She who is millions of years old, and who carries with her the wisdom of the earth mother.  Dear stone, will you aid me in bringing blessing and light to this garden?”

Wait for a clear indication to proceed (this may be an inner response or some positive feeling).

Placing standing stone in the bed

Dig your hole to place the standing stone.  The stone should be placed 1/3 of the way into the soil and remain 2/3 out, reaching to the sky.  Once you’ve dug your hole, pour the healing waters in the hole and say, “Cradle of the earth, accept this stone and the blessing of these sacred waters.  May you be blessed and nurtured this day and always.”

Place your stone.  As you place it, intone the words of power, “Awen, Awen, Awen”.   Pack the soil tightly around the stone.  Pour the remainder of the water on the stone, saying “I offer you this water as a symbol of gratitude for your blessing in this garden.”  Circle the stone with spring flowers. “I adorn you with flowers, honoring the life that you will bring.”  Chant additional “Awens”.  As you chant, feel the rays of the solar current descending into the stone and radiating out into your garden bed.

Close your sacred grove or move to part III.

Beltane Garden Blessing, Part III: A Sphere of Protection for the Garden

Say, “Now that this garden is blessed and the stone is set to radiate energy to this land, I offer a weaving of protection for the season to come.”

Move to the east and call the east in whatever format you see fit or use this: “Spirits of the east, powers of the rising sun and the hawk of May soaring in the heights of the morning, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.” Feel the powers of the east present in your space.

Move to the south and call the south in whatever format you see fit or use this: “Spirits of the south, powers of the summer sun and the stag in the summer greenwood, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.” Feel the powers of the east present in your space.

Move to the west and call the west in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the west, powers of the salmon of wisdom in the sacred pool, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”  Feel the powers of the west present in your space.

Move to the north and call to the north in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the north, powers of the great bear in the starry heavens and the tall stones, I call to you to protect this sacred garden, this day and always. ”  Feel the powers of the north present in your space.

Place your hands on the soil of your garden bed.  Call to the telluric currents of the earth in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the land beneath this sacred garden, spirit below, telluric current of energy that flows through this land, I call to you to well up and protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”

Stand up and raise your hands to the sky.  Call to the solar currents of the heavens in whatever format you see fit, or use this: “Spirits of the skies above this sacred garden, spirit above, solar current of energy that flows from the sun and the turning wheel of the stars, I call to you to descend and protect this sacred garden, this day and always.”

Final Standing Stone with Stone Altar

Place your hands upon the stone at the center of your garden (or on your bed if you did not do part II).  Call forth to the six elements and ask for their protection.  “By the six elements here invoked, and here present, I call upon the lunar current, spirit within, the spark of life within all beings.  May these elements combine and form a sphere of protection around this sacred garden, this day and always.” As you do this, envision the elements coming together in the center of the stone and then radiating outward to form a multicolored sphere that protects the garden bed.  Firmly establish this image in your mind.

Step back and offer gratitude, “I thank the powers for their blessings on this garden and on this working.”

Close your sacred space.

 

Dear readers, I would love to hear how you’ve done garden blessings and if you decided to use this at any point.  Blessings of Beltane!

The Butzemann (Magical Scarecrow) Tradition at Imbolc and through the Light Half of the Year

Last year’s butzemann, dressed in her finery (Technically, she was a Butzefrau!)

For the last three years, I’ve spent part of my Imbolc celebration making a Butzemann for our land.  The Butzemann is a really interesting tradition from PA Dutch (German) culture called the Butzemann (literally, Boogieman).  In a nutshell, the Butzemann is a magical scarecrow that protects the land for a season.  He is created at Imbolc from natural materials and given clothes and a heart. At the Spring Equinox, the Butzemann is shown the property and the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann, naming him/her for the season.  Then the Butzemann is displayed prominently throughout the season to protect the and.  Before or on Samhain, the Butzemann is burned and the protective spirit is released and then at Imbolc, a new tradition begins. Today I thought I’d share this tradition with my readers, in case they also wanted to build this tradition into their celebrations.  The time is right to start thinking about creating your Butzeman for the coming season!

As I mentioned, this tradition comes to me from a few sources: the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage that is part of my ancestry, talking with local people about how they construct scarecrows in my region, and also some of the fabulous research of the Urglaawe community, who have been working tirelessly to develop a PA Dutch heathenry and who have done much research on the folk traditions surviving in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a very magical land. With the founding of Pennsylvania, William Penn offered more religious tolerance than could be found in most parts of Europe during the colonial era.  Thus, we had large groups of Germans (PA Dutch or PA Deutsch) among other radicals like Quakers and Shakers settle in Pennsylvania. As you drive through Pennsylvania, it is not uncommon to see pentacles and pentagrams protecting houses or hex signs on barns.  Even as you drive through the countryside, you can often see the scarecrows (Butzemann) in the fields, homemade and protecting the crops. And of course, we have the most famous weather prognosticator in the land: Punxatawney Phil, the magical groundhog!  These traditions were passed on in small ways through my grandmother to me, and I’m proud to continue them as part of my own spiritual path.

When the Butzemann tradition was taking root in Pennsylvania and being adapted from the old world, most of the people living here were farmers or depended in part on raising their own animals and growing their own food to feed themselves.  Having a blight strike the crops, having animals sicken and die, or having a drought could be the difference between thriving and starvation during the long winter months.  Given this, doing magical work to protect the home, the land, the crops, and the animals was central.  Even if you don’t have crops or farm animals to protect, you can certainly create a Butzemann to protect your home or place of dwelling.  As a homesteader with many bird flocks and gardens, this tradition is an extremely important one to my own practice and something I do every year.

In my own research, I have found that the Butzemann tradition has many different varieties here in Pennsylvania. In speaking with several of my German friends from Germany, I have also been told that this tradition has a number of approaches in Germany.  One of my German friends told me that I could certainly make a “Butzefrau” (a female Butz) if I preferred–so I’ve included instructions for both.

Imbolc: Constructing your Butzemann or Butzefrau

The Back of the Garden Butzemann!

The first step is to construct your Butzemann at Imbolc. I like to go through the woods and our fields and glean dried grasses, corn cobs, gourds, and so forth to make my Butzemann. Sometimes, I gather these in the period between Samhain and the Winter solstice if I feel led, or sometimes I just gather them in the week or so leading up to Imbolc. This includes anything leftover from the garden, straw, etc. You can also create a lifesize Butzemann by sewing old clothing shut and then stuffing your entire Butzemann with straw.  This kind of Butzemann looks great watching over a garden!  Really, there is no right or wrong way to construct your Butzemann except you want to explicitly use materials from the land where the Butzemann will be protected if at all possible and everything should be natural so that it can burn.

Here are some of the features of a traditional Butzemann as you are constructing yours at Imbolc:

  • The Butzemann is constructed or filled with herbs, leaves, straw, sticks, and other natural materials from the land over which they will protect.  This is very important–they must be physically connected and constructed from the specific land.
  • The Butzemann is given clothing (regular size or smaller that you sew) out of natural materials that can burn.  You can also give them a hat.  Remember that all of the clothes on the Butzemann are burned at Samhain, so keep this in mind. The clothing is the first “gift” to the spirit who will reside in the Butzemann.
  • The Butzemann is given a heart  (I like to use a dried nut or acorn for this) to help bring the Butzemann to life.  You can put additional symbols, sigils, or words on the heart to assist the Butzemann.
  • If you want, you can put other things in the Butzemann (runes, ogham, prayers, slips of paper, and so forth) to help with protective magic and enchantment.
  • The Butzemann should have some representation of eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth.  This helps them have all of their senses, which is necessary for protecting the flocks, home, or land that they are placed on to guard.

As you are creating your Butzemann, a name may come to you.  Or, it may come later as we approach the Spring Equinox.  At this point, the Butzemann is not yet a magical creation–it is just the shell.

Spring Equinox: The Breath of Life and Protecting the Land

So much harvest thanks to the protection of the Butzemann!

The Spring Equinox is the time where the breath of life is breathed into the Butzemann and where he goes from being a simple shell to a house for a protective spirit that will guard your land for the coming season.

The first thing that is done is that the Butzemann is ritually named and a good, protective spirit is welcomed in.  You can create your own ritual for this or you can use this one from the Urglaawe community.  The steps of the ritual are:

  • Open up a sacred space (being aware you will be moving through your property so make it large enough to do so)
  • Breathe life into the Butzemann (literally breathe or blow on the Butzemann); this invites a good spirit to enter and stay for the season
  • Give the Butzemann a name (see naming, below)
  • Close the space.

As the second part of your ritual, you should walk your Butzemann around the property they are to guard. Then, place them somewhere prominently so that he can see the area they aree to guard clearly.  It is good to make regular offerings to your Butzemann, speak to them by name, and visit them as the season progresses.  This helps establish reciprocation between you and the guardian spirit of the Butzemann.

Naming conventions for both Butzemann and Butzefrau

The Butzemann tradition has some very specific naming conventions.  Each generation of Butzemann you create takes not only his/her own name, but the names of his/her predecessors.  The naming conventions are a bit tricky, so I suggest looking at this link  for more detailed information.  In a nutshell, the first generation will have a name with “der Nei” indicating the first. Everything after the first generation (each year you create a Butzemann) will have additional names and the first generation name.

If you are working to create Butezmann you would use “san” (the family name, which is likely a derivation of “son”).  This is the traditional way. Example:

  • Year 1: Gerania der Nei
  • Year 2: Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 3: Sage Thyme Gerania Geraniasan
  • Year 4: Parsley Thyme Gerania Geraniasan

I consulted with my German friend, and she thinks that “San” is likely a derivation of “Son of” and may not be appropriate for Butzefrau.  Thus, if you are making a female Butz you would want to use “docha”.  So this would look like this:

  • Year 1: Gerania der Nei
  • Year 2: Thyme Gerania Geraniadocha
  • Year 3: Sage Thyme Gerania Geraniadocha
  • Year 4: Parsley Thyme Gerania Geraniadocha

Samhain: The Burning

Burn Butzeman, burn!

Burn Butzeman, burn!

At or before Samhain, your Butzemann must be burned.  At Samhain, the Butzemann’s spirit will leave and if you do not burn it, a bad spirit may take up residence.  Thus, you should burn your Butzemann before the end of Astrological Samhain.  I like to build a sacred fire as part of my Samhain festivities.  When it is time to burn the Butzemann, I begin by scattering some of the season’s herbs into the fire as an offering, also sharing my gratitude and thanks.  I carefully place the Butzemann on the fire and watch the Butzemann burn. This is always a very magical experience to watch the Butzemann burn–it burns in such interesting ways.  I put the ashes in the garden, and wait for Imbolc to return.

The Cycle Begins Again

After Samhain, we reach the full cycle of the Butzmann tradition.  The flocks are snug in their coops while the snows fall, and the land once again falls asleep.  But as soon as the sugar maples start running, the Butzmann tradition can be born.  Since we started doing a Butzemann here on our homestead, we have noticed a difference: less challenges with predators, abundant harvests even through a drought, and a general presence on the land that supports everything we do.  I think this is a wonderful tradition to start and continue, and I hope some of you will consider it!

Another Butzefrau! This is a design I like a lot  with the hydrangea/willow circle and arms, and then you can construct frau butz on top of that frame!

Sacred Tree Profile: Devils Walking Stick (Aralia Spinosa)

The mighty Devil’s walking stick in early spring–look at those spikes!

The Druid’s Garden Homestead is located on a 5-acre parcel of land in Western Pennsylvania that is currently regenerating from intense logging. Three years ago, just before we bought the property, the family who owned it logged about three of the five wooded acres.  This has led to a host of possibilities where we can work on forest regeneration, observing the changes in this damaged place as it regrows, and certainly, opportunities for wildtending and creating food forests. As you walk through this regenerating landscape, one of the most striking understory trees is the Devil’s Walking Stick, Aralia spinosa. Looking like a very spiky and menacing walking stick (it has a name fitting of its visage), this tree is also known as Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash, Shotbush, Pigeon Tree, Angelica Tree, or Hercules club. These varied names really speak to the grotesque and yet wonderful nature of this plant and, I believe, give us some sense of its deeper meaning and uses.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

This entry is going to differ somewhat from my previous entries in this series for a simple reason: there is almost no mythology, herbal, or magical knowledge about this tree. The giant stack of books and online databases of mythology that I regularly consult when developing this series have come up empty on this tree. Thus, I am going to rely much more on ecological knowledge, historical uses, and personal observations.  Regardless of its lack of use traditionally, I think this tree is worthy of our attention and fills an important niche in the ecosystem of the US East Coast as a dominant pioneering tree with powerful energy.

Ecology

Aralia Spinosa, or the Devil’s Walking Stick, is in the ginseng family.  It prefers part shade, moist soils, and can tolerate a range of soil conditions (fertile to poor, a wide range of PHs, and a wide range of soil types).  As an aggressive pioneering species, it comes in after disruption in forest and field conditions, where it colonizes predominantly through rhizomes and sending out roots in different directions.   The range of the Devil’s Walking Stick is quite widespread–it is native from Maine to Texas and grows up and down the entire eastern seaboard the whole way to Florida.

Devils walking sticks in early winter (mature)

As the USDA Plant Database suggests, the Devil’s Walking Stick grows to a height of 35 feet, although as it is colonizing new areas, you can often find much smaller specimens. The leaves are compound and opposite, and every stalk literally is covered in spikes, even below the leaves and onto the leaf stems. The entire tree is covered in spikes, which do thin out as it gets larger. Some sources report that this tree can cause contact dermatitis if the roots or stalks are handled, but I have not found this to be the case (and in fact, have worked with the wood of it without any trouble!).

We actually have some very mature Devils Walking Sticks behind our garden, which are about 30-40 feet tall, and when they are in bloom in August, you can see thousands of butterfly moths, bees, and other insects all over the blooms. Their blooms look a lot like angelica with large umbles of small white flowers–the umbles can reach 12-24″ across and are massive on older trees. After the flowers go to seed, you can often see small birds feasting on the seeds along with deer and other wildlife. In the fall, the foliage turns dark yellow or purple and then pretty quickly drops from the leaves.  The berry clusters remain a little longer and are early winter forage for birds.

One of my favorite quotes about this tree comes from the University of Florida State Extension office, “Devil’s walking stick…literally thrives on neglect.”  It is also listed as “too aggressive for gardens”.  Thus, if you want to plant it, the best thing to do is plant it and then leave it alone (and understand that planting one will lead to many as they colonize by roots and suckers!

Plants for the Future suggest that this tree may be very ancient and that the spines covering the stem and leaves are an earlier evolutionary development to dissuade larger herbivores (read dinosaurs, mammoths, etc) who might seek to eat it. Deer and elk do not browse on it.  Given its very defensive and menacing appearance, that makes sense.

History of Human Use

Devils Club in late Winter getting ready to sprout

One of the few recorded uses of Devil’s Walking Stick is that it was grown in gardens in the Victorian era as a “grotesque ornamental.” The  Victorians were notorious for their love of the grotesque–those are things that are strange, hideous, or unpleasant while also being somehow mysterious, fantastical, or magnificent.  In some ways, it was the juxtaposition of something that was fantastical aong with being unpleasant or strange that lead to the idea of grotesque. I actually think that this “grotesque” concept is an excellent fit for Devil’s Walking Stick, which is certainly a slightly weird, wonderful, and yet disturbing tree to come across!

Another recorded use of the Devil’s Walking Stick was with the Cherokees, as described by Hannah Dinkins in Plants of the Cherokees and their Uses.  They were reported to harvest and roast the older roots and use them as an emetic (emetics are herbs that induce vomiting) or into a salve for healing old sores. Only the older roots were used this way, however, the young and green roots were considered poisonous.  The other use is, which is clearly a more energetic healing approach, is to burn the wood, and then as the wood burned, the smoke was blown on a person who had paralysis to treat the paralysis.

In the New Garden Encyclopedia by L. D. Seymour, Seymor notes that herbalists have used the root of devil’s walking stick, which they dry and grind into powder, for treatment of rheumatism, asthma, and coughs. In all of my years of studying herbalism, I have not come across any teachings of this plant that were not in obscure references and there are very few listings (none in places like Wood’s Earthwise Herbal).

Plants for the Future notes that eating large amounts of the berries are poisonous. They suggest that the young leaves (with their slender spikes) must be gathered before the prickles harden and then can be finely chopped and used as a potherb). While this might be the case, even the young plants are pretty vicious and I’m not sure this plant has any desire to be eaten!

Really not something you want to grab hold of!

The wood itself that comes from the trees is extremely light, soft, and brittle.  It has a lot of larger air holes, making it akin to something like young elder or staghorn sumac, but not as firm. Because of the nature of the wood, it does not have many human uses (although it will certainly start a decent campfire).  I’ve worked with it a bit and have found that you can certainly make small things from it like wands, a walking stick, or staves, but I’m not sure you’d want it for any tough job (like a handle).

The Magic and Meanings of the Devil’s Walking Stick

I was unable to find any specific mythology or magic surrounding the Devil’s Walking Stick tree, despite its widespread growth here in the US.  Based on the above information, we might consider at least three possible meanings for this tree:

Opportunistic and cunning. The Devils Walking Stick offers very opportunistic and cunning energy.  It grows in areas that have been disrupted (like our logged forests) where it quickly colonizes and spreads, growing quickly and taking the opportunity provided.

Over-the-top Defenses. The Devil’s Walking Stick is one of the most defended trees here on the US East Coast.  While its toxicity and thousands of thorns, nothing is going to get through to eat this tree.  I think this tree obviously signals that defenses are needed, perhaps more than are necessary.  I could see this tree being of use if you were feeling like you were being attacked or under duress.

Overcoming Adversity and Exorcism.  The energy of this tree would be good for helping you overcome any kind of adversity that you face and exorcise unwanted things from your life (physical or metaphysical).  This tree pulls no punches and stands in its power–and it will help you to do the same.

Don’t mess with me! Devil’s Walking Stick

I will also note that if you are developing a local ogham, Devils Walking Sick could be a potentially very good replacement for the Ogham Straif (Blackthorn).  Like Blackthorn, Devil’s Walking Stick is a pioneering species with a host of defenses and, frankly, the right kind of energy

I think that because this tree does not have a rich mythology or magical tradition, there’s a lot of opportunities to work with it, to experiment, and to see what comes.  I would love to hear from you, my readers, about any insights, stories, or experiences you may have with the powerful Devil’s Walking Stick!

 

Additional Sources:

https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=arsp2

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=arsp2

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c294

https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/1764

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st080

Ritual for the Burning of the World

As I write these words, fires are ravaging Australia. It’s a bleak situation, ecologically and politically. The firest at this point are about the combined size of the entire state of West Virginia and are all through the entire continent, particularly along the coasts. Ecologically, this is a disaster with severe and long-ranging consequences for Australia and the world. While billions of lives have been consumed in the fires (animal, insect, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, plant and fungi), the Guardian reports that it is likely that numerous species will go extinct from the fires because sites that house critically endangered species are all burning—in some cases, all of the protected habitats of these species are on fire. The situation in Australia is being made worse by current Australian leadership, who, rather taking a firm stance on climate change and human causes, instead are digging in their heels and pandering to the oil industry. Unfortunately, we are seeing much of the same pattern from world leadership (such as the recent fires in Brazil). Regardless of how many ecological crises we see, leadership is more concerned with pandering to money and greed than actually doing something.

 

Fires burning

Fires burning

 A Collective Responsibility

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen wildfires, floods, or other weather-related phenomena beyond what is considered normal. While fire is an integral part of many ecosystems—grow larger and more furious because of climate change. Humanity is responsible for many of these cataclysms. Often, humans prevent areas from burning in ecosystems that have evolved to have natural burning, and thus, when fires rage, they are much worse than usual. (as we often see in the case of California). On the broader scale, every one of us humans has caused large-scale changes to our climate patterns and an increase in the overall global temperature. It doesn’t matter if you live near the fires or not—we are each responsible for our part in global carbon emissions and climate change. Thus, I believe it is our responsibility to respond as we are able to these kinds of situations. We have both an energetic responsibility as well as a physical responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible. In this post, I’ll offer three techniques drawn from different traditions that can be done to help assist the situation in Australia or in any other fire-ravaged place. In next week’s post, I’ll share some techniques we can use to help psychopomp the loss of life and species in this case.

 

Rituals and Sigils for Rain and Protection

What a fire-ravaged place needs are gentle rains and cooling temperatures to stop the fires. This is particularly true of Australia as they are only beginning to enter their regular fire and hot season and otherwise, these fires could burn for months. I’m sharing three techniques here that can be used—individually or combined—to help bring rains and stop the wildfires and such loss of life. I will also note that some may also ask to pray for wisdom in leaders and protection for those fighting the fires–all of these are potentially good approaches. I’ve focused on the fires themselves and protection in these three approaches.

 

Rain Visualization. Visualization is a powerful tool used in many traditions to help bring forth change. For this first technique, begin with some deep breathing. You might choose to open up a sacred grove/space for yourself from your tradition if you so choose. Find yourself in a place of quiet, of grounding, of connection to the land and world around you. Feel that peace within you. Now, visualize the continent of Australia and see the fires burning there. As you visualize, imagine gentle rains coming to calm the fires, putting them out. Imagine the animals, insects, and all life returning to these ravaged places.  Send peace, calm, and healing to those lands.

 

Object Focus Work. You can combine the above visualization with a simple physical representation. Gather something you can use to represent the land in Australia—a stone, a leaf, a stick, a slice of wood, or even a piece of paper with the shape of the continent drawn on it.  Now, take some pure water (rainwater or snowmelt ideally, or spring water from a good source like a healing spring) and as you visualize, flick some drops of water onto the object. You can do this daily to help send that energy forth.

 

A Rain and Protective Sigil. Drawing from the folk traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch (German), which is part of my own heritage, we can use hex signs as another way to raise and direct energy. Throughout Pennsylvania, farmers paint various hex signs on their barns so that they can protect their crops, call the rain, protect livestock, and bring abundance and fertility to the land. These hex signs are colorful, always circular, and have embedded layers of meaning. Thus, we have many different kinds of signs in the tradition, including symbols for protection and for rain. A rain sign is typically  raindrops swirling around each other. A simple protective sign is a pentacle or pentagram, orate or simple—both of these kinds of signs are commonly found on barns.

 

I’ve combined these to create a unique hex sign that aims at offering both protection and rain.  Protection to those who are struggling to survive the fires or fight the fires.  And rains to cool and soothe the fires. You could use a symbol for rain from any other tradition if you have one instead—this is just one that I’ve worked with and works for this purpose. I’ve used this symbol as a meditative focus for these kinds of fires for some time, and it has power.

A Hex Sign for Rain and Protection

I share all of this with a caveat:  be very, very careful in your wording and intention of this kind of work. Weather magic is notoriously challenging and fickle—inadvertent weather magic can cause floods, hail, and more, shifting the balance from one extreme to another. As an example, some years ago, when I was less wise than I am today, we were in a pretty severe drought situation in Michigan. We were experiencing weeks of 100+ degree weather and everything was wilting and dying. I decided to do some planetary sigil magic (working with one of the talismans of the moon I had created) to help bring rains. The first time I activated the talisman, within 30 minutes we had a horrific thunderstorm with wind and hail, damaging local crops, cars, greenhouses, and more. From Eastern PA and PA Dutch country, there is a story of a man who created a barn rain hex sign and prominently displayed it in his yard, upturned to the skies. For the next three weeks, rains came down so hard that it caused flooding and four million dollars in damage and flooding. Finally, his neighbors forced him to remove it. The point is that we are seeking balance with any kind of weather visualization, object work, or sigil work—we aren’t seeking to move to another extreme (like a monsoon).  What we are seeking is a balance between two extremes.

 

I would certainly welcome any other ideas and suggestions from readers on how we might help with this situation and others like it  More and more often, we are experiencing these kinds of situations globally, and they are having a global impact. It is useful to build a body of knowledge that we could use together to do what we can.

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a general health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 British pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on the quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  It’s unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+-year-old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longevity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana)

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

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Ode to the Rooster

The Chinese New Year is now being celebrated, and it is once again the Year of the Rooster. I see this as a tremendously positive and powerful sign–a message of light and hope in this time of darkness. In honor of the rooster, I offer two stories that demonstrate how powerful and protective the rooster is–and how the rooster’s energy this year can lend us power and strength to drive back the dark. So now, pull up a chair by the fire, and hear two stories of roosters and their magic.

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

Painting of Anasazi Rooster

As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, a group of us held an all night vigil for the winter solstice.  This is not an easy ritual–it is about 15 hours of darkness, in the cold months of the year. Our ritual started well enough: we had a glorious sunset, a lovely ceremony, a great feast that put warm food in the belling, and music, storytelling and conversation by the fire. That got us from about 5pm till about 11pm, and folks started going home to their warm beds, until only a core group of five of us were still present for the long haul till sunrise at 7:30am. We sat in the hours and hours of darkness with nothing but the fire to keep us company while the Yule Log burned away into coals. The moon continued to come across the sky, ever-so-slowly.

 

In those deep and dark hours, as you are holding vigil, a number of things happen within and without. For one, the time can be altered–the night is much longer than it seems, as if you had been sitting in darkness for days or weeks, not mere hours. You get lost in the darkness of your own thoughts. You wonder, in those deep, dark hours, if the sun will ever return.  The circle grows quiet, and each person battles with his or her own darkness. The darkness seems all encompassing. More than once we asked, silently or to each other, will the sun ever return? Will this long night ever end?  For it is in this darkness that we face our fears, our sadness, and our sorrow. And it is this darkness that can hold so much power over us. This vigil experience parallels, to a large extent, what so many are facing now as darkness seems to be descending upon us culturally.

 

And then, suddenly, close to 4AM, as we were still wrapped in the swirling darkness of the night, a call came out, ringing across the fields. A call that brought us back into our own bodies, back to the presence of our loved ones and the fire–a call that promised the return of the sun. That was the call of the rooster: cock-a-doodle-doo! One of the farm’s roosters, before the sun was anywhere near ready to rise, let us know that everything was going to be alright–for he was here to work his magic and to raise the sun. We heard him, and the inner darkness began to recede. He continued his calls every 15 or 20 or so minutes, letting us know the sun would rise again and he was seeing to it personally. The second rooster on the farm, a tiny fellow with the cutest little high-pitched crow, began his own crowing as we grew closer to the morning rays of light. The two of them, in unison, called up the sun.  All we could do was wait for them to finish their work.

 

As the gray turned to blue and the blue to yellow, the little rooster came down from his tree where he roosts at night and stood on the fence behind us, looking at us with his orange rooster eye, and he crowed and crowed until that sun came up above the mountains. If roosters weren’t there to pull up the sun in the depths of that solstice morning, I am not sure it would be able to rise at all. I thought then, about the millions of roosters across the land bringing up the sun in an ever-moving circle.

Rooster who crows up the sun!

Rooster who crows up the sun!

This experience resonated so powerfully with me partially because these were not the first magical roosters that I had encountered. Although I had raised chickens as a child, and grew up with them as friends at my parent’s homestead, we never had roosters, for fear of what they neighbors would think and their crowing. So we kept hens, and I loved those hens, each and every one of them.  When I came to my new homestead in Michigan seven years ago, I did as we had done before–purchased some day-old peeps, all hens, so that I could have a new chicken flock for companionship, eggs, garden assistance, and most of all, joy.  Roosters hadn’t yet crossed my path, or my mind!

 

My little hens stayed at first in my art studio in a warm large box with straw and a heat lamp. Since it was already summer, they got to go into the garden each day and search for bugs, bathe in the beds, and bask in the summer sun. After two weeks, they grew too large for their box and were moved to a larger area in my garage. Each day, they would get to go outside and enjoy the sun. We continued this pattern as they grew feathers on their wings and tails, and then on their bodies, as their little combs and wattles started to grow red.  Soon, they were like little miniature chickens, running around, enjoying bugs and scratching at the dirt.

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

The girls when they were young, before the rooster came

It was soon after they moved into their permanent coop at 12 weeks old, that the rooster first came. I spotted him from a distance–a beautiful rooster with large cockle spurs, a gold/orange head, his body giving way to black with bold green and blue highlights and gray feet. He had a magnificent comb and bright orange-yellow eyes. And he saw me, and my little hens, and let out a crow. I had no idea who this rooster was; I had no experiences with roosters. I sat and watched him, and he stood and watched me. The hens crowded behind me, afraid. And in their fear, I realized he must be a scoundrel, not a gentleman.  I told him,”my hens are too young for you! Stay back!” And he listened, but watched them intently.

Beautiful Rooster!

Beautiful Rooster!

Each day as summer turned to fall, the rooster would mysteriously show up.  He never came too close to me, or to the hens, but he stayed at a distance and every so often, let out a glorious crow. With each visit, he inched a little closer to the hens.  But each night, just as mysteriously as he arrived, he vanished down the road, disappearing quite quickly.  Like clockwork, each morning I was awakened with his crowing–there he proudly stood on top of the coop, asking me to let the ladies out. I did so, and watched as they came near him, looking at me with questions in their eyes. I continued to wonder, as before, if he was a gentleman or a scoundrel.

 

I called up my neighbor who had a farm, with many roosters and hens.  He lived in the same direction where the rooster mysteriously disappeared each night.  My neighbor told me, “Yeah, he was mine all right. But he was too gentle and the other roosters kicked him out of the flock in the fall.  Now, he lives in the tree near my house. I can’t believe he’s alive–he spent the whole winter in the tree by himself!” I responded, “Do you want him any longer?” And he said, “If you can catch him, you can keep him. But best of luck catching him–nobody can get close to him, even to feed him! That rooster’s something else.”

 

And so, I knew what my task was to be–wooing this beautiful rooster into the homestead as a permanent addition–after all, he had already made himself at home here on my land, and now I just had to find a way to keep him here. I figured that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so I began to offer tasty morsels of food when he showed up for his daily visit. Eventually, trust grew between us, and he allowed me to get within 10 or 15 feet of him. Trust grew between he and my hens as well, and they began foraging closer together, and they grew to understand that he was going to protect them. But every night, as before, he disappeared down the road. Perhaps this story would be better if he disappeared at the stroke of midnight or turned into a pumpkin or something, but that was not the way of things.

Where is that roo?

Where is that handsome roo?

Eventually, he began coming to me for food, and then I knew I had him. I threw some food into the run of the coop, and in went the rooster and the hens. I quietly closed the gate to the run while they were busy enjoying the food, and then tossed more into the coop itself.  He refused to go in.  I waited. The sun began to set, and he looked at me, knowing if it grew too dark, he couldn’t return to his tree 1/4 mile away.  But then, the hens went into their coop.  He followed them and I locked them all in. The hens piled all into one of the nest boxes and looked at me with a look that said, “You really just locked HIM in here with US?” and I smiled at them and wished them all a good rest.

 

I kept them all in the run for the next few days so that the new roo would see this as home, and after the third day, I let them back out to free range. The real test would be to see how they were getting along and if he ended up back in his tree. He did not, but instead, crowed around the coop four times, once in every direction. A good rooster, indeed.

Coming out of the coop together!

Coming out of the coop together!

I had named each of my chickens different names of beans, in honor of “bean” who was one of my most beloved chickens as a child (she knew her name and came when you called; she once got attacked by the neighbor’s dog and the vet had to put 37 stitches in her and she lived another 4 years!).  Each of the chickens then, was a bean or pulse: Lima, Adzuki, Pinto, and Lentil. And, in honor of a beautiful bean I was growing in the garden that I just harvested for the winter months, I named the rooster Anasazi.

 

The next years of my life were good ones. I quickly began realizing how many hawks we had in MI (never a problem in PA), and Anasazi repeatedly demonstrated his worth.  He would let out a shrill call and the hens would run.  He was, in fact, a gentleman, finding food and calling the hens to him to share it–saving for them always the most tasty grubs and best morsels.  He was not rough with the hens, as some roosters are apt to be.  He danced around them contentedly and put on a show before mating. Once, a neighbor’s dog came for the flock and he threw himself at the dog and then led it far away to keep the hens safe. I started wondering how I ever had got on without a rooster–and the truth is, I would have lost my whole flock that first summer to predators without him.

Dust bath

Dust bath

Anasazi worked magic on the land. When I would go out in the morning to do my daily ritual, Anasazi was there, crowing at each of the four quarters, and once each for above, below, and within. Each time he crowed, he helped protect the land and the homestead, and we were all safer with him there. He helped herd and guide the hens. He would lead the hens into the sacred stone circle, they would forage once around in a circle, and then exit at the appropriate gate. I began to understand the importance of his early morning crows to raise the sun–Anasazi had tremendous power in the sun, but no power in the darkness. He was a being of protection and of the solar current.

 

I grew quite unhappy in Michigan and was contemplating whether to stay or to consider applying for a job in Western PA, the land of my blood and birth. One night, not long after I began considering this, a badger broke into the coop in the darkest hours.  The coop was far enough away from the house that I did not hear what happened and remained sound asleep. But in the morning, I found the door literally ripped off of its hinges.  Inside, intact but frightened, were all of the hens–and not a trace left of Anasazi. In his life and in his death he protected his flock above all else. His death was a powerful sign for me–a sign that I had to move on, from my beloved homestead, returning to the mountains of my birth. For I realized that I could not run my homestead without Anasazi; he was such an integral part that it was not the same without him. My dear hens found good homes with a friend, and I packed up my things and headed East towards the rising sun, back to the mountains where I belong.

 

It has taken me three years to write about Anasazi’s tale, because, until I experienced the rooster calls this past Winter Solstice, I still did not fully understand all that happened and all of the rooster’s power and magic. However, I know this for certain: I am thankful that the rooster is guiding us this year, of all years, for I would rather be under no other being’s protection. I know that those of us, in the US and in many other places in the world, are facing times of tremendous darkness. I point to the roosters in my first story, those who brought us holding vigil out of darkness and who crowed up the sun, as a sign of hope and light in these dark times. I also point to Anasazi, who protected his flock against any harm, and know that we, too, can be under the protection of the rooster this year.