The Druid's Garden

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

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

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A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing Part IV: The Process of Unfolding March 13, 2016

For the last month or more , we’ve been exploring the nature of land healing and we will continue that journey over the next few posts.  I’ve been doing this work intuitively for a very long time, and its taking time to unfold from my mind and spirit through my fingers and into written form!  In the first post in this series, we explored the different kinds of “healing” work that we could do both physical and energetic. In the second post, I shared the two kinds energetic healing through a visit to two sites – boney dumps (energetic healing) and fracking wells (palliative care). The last post examined what we mean by “energetic” in energetic healing.  Starting with today’s post, we are into the “how to” part of this guide–methods, rituals, ceremonies, and more of energetic healing. Today’s post explores the first of the magical practices for land healing – the process of unfolding.

 

The Preliminaries: Magic, Power, and Hope

The Promise of Healing

The Promise of Healing

Magic as a means of enacting physical changes upon the landscape has been around as long as humanity, and it wouldn’t have survived in such a multitude of ways and settings if there wasn’t something to it, something that worked. For a discussion of what magic is and why it works, and for those wanting a sound introduction to magical philosophy from a druid perspective, I’d suggest John Michael Greer’s Druid Magic Handbook as well as his Inside a Magical Lodge book (which is one of his most fantastic, if under-read, books). Any of the works of Dion Fortune are also very good for this (her novels are especially approachable). You don’t need these magical theories, but I find that they are very helpful for deepening your own understanding.

 

Whatever your philosophy on magic, the important thing is this–despite all of this destruction that you are bearing witness too, all over the lands–you are not powerless. We must shed that sense of powerlessness if we are to help the land heal at all.  An inner sense of empowerment is particularly critical for land healing work–if you go into the work saying, “I’m not going to make a difference, but I’m going to do this anyways” then you infuse your work with “I’m not going to make a difference.” If you go into it with the attitude of “I’m going to help heal this land” then that is what you infuse your work with. This is not to say that you can’t feel anything else–we are hit with a range of emotions when we see lands in need of healing. Those are human, feeling responses, and they too can be channeled into the work at hand. I would be more worried if you didn’t feel anything (and so many people don’t!)  What I am saying, however, is that the defeatist attitude of “I can’t do anything” is not one to bring with you into the healing work.

 

I want to say one more thing here concerning the preliminaries–anyone, anywhere, can do this work. You can be brand new to this work, to being a druid or new to walking any other earth-centered path, spiritual or otherwise–and that doesn’t matter.  What matters, here, is a willingness to learn, to grow, and to engage in the work of healing.

 

Step One – The Process of Unfolding: Deep Listening

The first step in any healing work–energetic, physical, or palliative–is to pay attention to the needs and messages of the land. You might think about this listening process as similar to building any other friendship. Let’s say you meet someone on the street and you get talking. This person appears fairly run down, old coat, worn gloves, possible chronic illness, and so on. You wouldn’t immediately give this  person $20 out of sympathy or a new set of gloves–perhaps she doesn’t want those things, or need those things, or perhaps you were mistaken in your assessment. The only way you can know for sure is to actually get to know this person and see if there is any actual help you can provide that is appropriate and reasonable. Lands, especially damaged lands, need the same kind of respect. They won’t automatically “like you” and be open to you; assuming what they need before actually finding out is a real problem.  In fact, many lands are quite the opposite–they have been actively harmed by humans and are very closed off to human activity. So the question is–how can you build that friendship?  How are you any different than others?

 

This first step is directly connected to both druid spiritual practice and permaculture design and represents a synthesis between them. On the side of druid practice, one of the very first things new druids often do is to to spend observing nature. AODA teaches this in two ways through spending time in nature in stillness and in focus. These ways of observing (which I blogged about in detail last year) help us see, on the physical landscape. But there is also the matter of observing with your intuitive senses, those beyond the original five (see Deep Listening, below).

 

Light through the trees--a sign.

Light through the trees–a sign.

Permaculture design also provides a similar suggestion to druid practice; the first design principle in permaculture being to observe and interact. Before we do any physical regenerative work on a site, we must first observe and interact with that site to understand it so that we are able to work with nature’s flows and rhythms. As a permaculture designer, this would happen through what we call site analysis and assessment–where we’d look at the wind, rain, slope, ecology, light, pollutants, and so many other features. As an energetic land healer, this assessment still takes place, but through deep listening.  In permaculture design, the recommendation for observing and interacting before making changes to the landscape is a full year.  The idea here is that we can’t get a full sense of the land or what changes would be best if we don’t spend time first understanding it in all its cycles and seasons–and this is wise advice for land healing. I don’t think that this longer time frame is unreasonable for land healing either in many cases, truthfully, and we can learn much from understanding that speed is not ideal in most cases (we’ll look at one case where it is critical in an upcoming post, however). I wouldn’t prescribe any set time for the process of deep listening as a land healer, but recognize that this first step may likely not happen in one sitting :).

 

Deep Listening. To begin the healing work then, we need to do deep listening to the land on the inner planes and outer planes (please see my my posts on tree workings for additional specific methods of doing this deep listening). This deep listening to the needs of the land is critically important for the healing work you are going to undertake–what does the land want and need? How can you best serve the land? The question of how to go about this healing is an important one. Depending on how long you’ve been on this path, and what your own gifts are, you may not need any advice in this area. But for those of you who are newer to this work and are still developing your gifts, there are many ways to listen, and here are a few of them:

  • Gut feelings  and inner knowing. All of us have “gut feelings”, although the nature of them depend on how much we’ve honed that intuitive gift.  Sometimes, when I meet new land that is in need of healing–and in want of that healing–I get a strong gut feeling about it. I just know what I am to do, its like it unfolds from within. I won’t immediately act on it, but rather check it with other methods of deep listening.
  • Listening on the outer planes. Deep listening involves listening with both your ears and your soul. Just like you were sitting with that person you met, listen to the sounds and the silences of the landscape. The silences are just as important as what is said. This is particularly true as the silences of the natural world are descending on the landscape–what sounds should be there but are not there? What else do you hear or not hear?
  • Other Senses on the Outer Planes. When we listen to someone, say, a friend who is telling us of his suffering, we don’t just listen with our ears.  We look at them, we may use our sense of touch or any other senses.  Your other physical senses are also part of this deep listening work.  By this, I suggest paying attention to the plants, animals, waters, wind, birds, etc.  Walk around the site and observe.  Sit still–for at least 30-45 min–and observe. The land can speak through many forms–pay attention to all that you see.
  • Listening on the inner planes. Deep listening involves listening with both your ears and your soul. There are many strategies for inner listening, and I gave a number of them in my post on Druid Tree Workings (and I refer you there). One of the best strategies I use for meditation is to sit still, quieting my mind, and opening it to the land and see what messages come. This takes practice–we have to quiet our own thoughts enough to hear the land.  But with pratice, and time, messages will come. Messages may be in many forms, depending on your own gifts–you may hear inner messages, see images (like see you doing something), get a strong feeling, etc. If you are new, it might be that you will learn how to do this through the process of deep listening in this particular spot–so come back often, and know it takes time to develop these senses. Be open to these, and don’t doubt your intuition.
  • Divination. I usually like to check my responses against some form of divination. You can use tarot, geomancy, a pendulum, iChing, ogham, etc.  Use that to ask questions about the nature of the messages you receive.  I like to use this as a secondary approach, to confirm my suspicions.

 

Small, Slow Solutions. The second principle of permaculture that interacts with this step is the idea of small, slow solutions. Land healing is a process of unfolding.  Its a process that may unfold over seasons or years–this is the time under which the land lives–and these are the same cycles and seasons that govern our own lives, even if we have become disconnected from them. What this means is that sometimes, this listening will take time, many visits, and intuition. You may not get a clear sense of what to do on your first visit. The land works on the seasonal cycle and moves at a different pace than you do. Nature heals slowly, but surely, and so it may take time for you to ascertain what, if anything you are to do. Begin by taking the time, the real time, to listen to the land.

 

 

Step 2 – Ascertaining the Nature of Healing Work and Building Trust

The whole point of step one is to take the time to ascertain the nature of the healing work on two levels. First, ascertain the kind of work that needs to be done: Is this physical land healing work? Energetic healing? Palliative care? Should I be doing any work at all? The most important thing you can do, if you are doing energetic work, is ascertain which kind of healing you should be engaging in or should not be engaging in. Part of this is that you need to understand the history of the land in terms of past use by humans, present use, and future use by humans.  Some of my earlier posts in the series looked into this in more detail.  And so, this second step is about now that you’ve done your deep listening, you can ascertain the nature of the work at hand.

 

Sometimes, the path leads away....

Sometimes, the path leads away….

One of the key questions above is the last one I listed–should I be doing any work at all?  In some places, nature prefers to heal on her own and does not want outside help. And if that is what your deep listening has revealed, respecting that boundary, and honoring it, is a tremendous healing step forward for the land. I know this seems counter-intuitive, but I encourage you think about it this way: the land has repeatedly had boundaries crossed by humans without its consent. A human who respects and honors a boundary is a tremendous step forward and shows the land that not all humans are there for exploitation. So if this is the message that you receive, do as is asked, and understand that that, too, is a deep kind of healing work.  It might be that you are asked to walk away permanently, or, perhaps at a later point months or years later, when you return, you are then invited to do healing work.  Walking away can be a kind of test, or it might be the genuine desire of the land at that time.  Regardless, when you are told not to engage, respect that voice and leave.

 

A good deal of this initial work–deep listening, walking away, planning for healing–also functions to build trust between you and the land.  If you are healing land, its because something or someone (most likely humans) damaged it. Trust is critical for real healing to begin.  \Again, I’ll go back to our human analogy here–someone who has been tremendously hurt by others may not want you running up and giving them a big bear hug–trust is slow.  The land is no different: trust must be built.

 

Conclusion

I think some might respond to what I’ve written in this blog post today and say, “wait, there’s no actual magic here!”  Yes, what I’m talking about above is magic, although not in the ceremonial or ritual sense. You can’t be effective in a ritual sense if you don’t do this magical groundwork.  In fact, you’ll notice I’ve been taking quite a bit of posts to get into the actual magical practices of land healing work. This is very much by intention–the groundwork, the preparation, is so key for this. If you don’t do this work, the rituals will not have the effects you want them to have. I think there’s this idea in the earth-based spiritual communities of finding a ceremony or ritual or whatever, from whatever source, that sets the intention and then doing it. You look it up in a book, do the working, and wait for the results. Land healing is not like this and because it’s healing work, it must be done slowly, intentionally, and respectfully.  The magic is in the process of unfolding, and the ritual or ceremony is the final stages of that work in some cases. I also want to mention here that not all healing is ritual or ceremony–there are many other ways of healing, and we’ll be exploring those in detail as well. So if you’ve followed along this far, hopefully what I am saying here is clear to you–next week we’ll delve deeper into the magic of land healing and move onto the next steps! (And yes, the ritual and ceremony are coming, when we are ready to talk about them! :P)