The Druid's Garden

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

Foraging for Pigments from Local Rocks: Making Watercolors, Oils, and Egg Tempera Paint from the Land! May 12, 2019

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

Local Iron Oxide taken from a mineral spring, crushed, ground, sifted and made into paint!

When I walk along the landscape here, I am greeted with the deep oranges and yellow oxides of our soils laden with heavy amounts of clay and iron.  These colors are reflected each time I dig into the subsoil, and as I drive through the countryside where mountains were cut through for roads. In other places, I might be greeted with reds, blues, or greens, all reflected in the geology of the land. Each region carries its own colors, and you can find the palate of the land in every stream bed.  Even an hour drive in any direction puts one in a new geological region–and this changes the colors of the stones and the soil.   You might think about these colors like a language–each landscape has its own language that you can learn to read and speak. Each landscape has its own unique set of colors, found in every stream bed. Today, we can think about expressing that language in visual form.

 

In today’s post, I’ll talk about how to forage for local pigments and learn how to grind them and prepare them as paint. That’s right, you can make your own paint from locally foraged rocks!  What is amazing about this process is that each landscape is unique: your own land’s palate will depend on the local geology.  As you forage for pigments and then turn them into your own paint, you know exactly what goes into the paint, where it came from, and you know that any paint water or other materials can return to the land. You might discover things only you, in your unique ecosystem, can discover!

Boney Dump iron oxide - my favorite pigment to date!

Boney Dump iron oxide – my favorite pigment to date!

 

Getting into Pigment Making

Everything is derived from nature, but in the 21st century, consumerism practices and “distributed by” labels often mask manufacturing processes which almost never tell us how something was made, where the raw goods came from, who produced it and under what conditions, or, what it even contains.  Art supplies are notoriously bad; labels tell us almost nothing about the pigments, and art supply companies are very tight lipped about how they produce their paints. You don’t know what chemicals are in your paint, unless they are *really* bad and carry a CL warning or other kind of warning label. These kinds of warning labels mean they are toxic to you and should be used with care: but no labels tell you about the toxicity of your products for the planet.  This means, in my art studio and in studios all over the world, people often have no idea what they are using to produce art with or what the environmental cost of those materials may be.  And for something like paint, paint water and paint byproducts often get dumped down the drain, making their way into local water systems. When I use commercial paint, I literally have no idea what I’m putting down my drain–and by way of my septic drain field–out into the land and local waterways.  Since our spetic field sits about 40 feet above a local (clean) stream, this is of serious concern to me.

 

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Two finished paints: soot from my fireplace and iron from a local Acid Mine Drainage remediation site

Given these realities, as a serious practitioner of the bardic arts, I am always looking for better ways to practice my visual art that does not require me to consume, pollute, or create demand on fragile ecosystems. Before, I had played around with various natural arts, including making my own berry inks and dyes.  The berry inks and dyes are not usually lightfast, though, and can’t be taken with me in my watercolor palate. But most of the time, my artistic medium of choice is watercolor, so I wanted to learn more. After my favorite watercolor paint supplier no longer offered watercolors in the US late last year, I started researching alternatives.  One of the things I came across were tiny watercolor companies that sourced natural ingredients and charged quite high prices for their paint.  I was intrigued, and figured that if they could do it, so could I.  I wanted paints that were more sustainable and less questionable in terms of ingredients.  So this post will share some of my successes and ideas for how you can do this yourself!

 

 

Sourcing Natural Pigments

 

A stream bank behind the homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments....

A stream bank behind our homestead where I have been gathering pigment stones. Acorn is clearly hard at work finding pigments….after each flood, new stones wash up on the bank!

Natural pigments literally everywhere, and if you travel, you can find a wide variety of colors.  Most of these are colors of the earth; colors of soil and of sand and of stone.  Deep greens and oranges and the colors of sunrise and mountains.  Deep reds and browns, blacks, and grays. You can also get into other kinds of pigments (lapis lazuli has long produced blue pigment; malachite has long been used for green), but for our purposes here, I’m assuming that you are working to source things locally and are going to find stones in your ecosystem.

 

You can find pigments in a lot of places, but some places are particularly good.  Pigments can often be found in exposed edges of streams, rivers and lakes; the water will expose clay banks and stones, making it easy to find pigments. Around here, fabulous places to look are what we call boney dumps; these are old piles of rocks and other mine waste that have lots of different rocks on the surface. You can find some pretty neat colors in these places  (finally, a sustainable use for a boney dump!).  The boney dumps are particularly useful for pigments becuase they would set the mines on fire and somehow use fire to process certain ore; so you also get stones changed by fire (and fire can certainly change pigment colors).  You might not have these (and be thankful you don’t), but looking for other sites where earth and stone have been dug up or exposed is good (the exposed bank that was cut in for new construction, for example).  Anywhere that a lot of rocks are exposed is potentially a good site to pick up some pigment stones.

 

 

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

So many potential pigment stones from one trip!

Because you want pigments that are easy to process, especially when you are starting out, good pigment stones are fairly soft.  You can sometimes tell a good pigment stone by rubbing it against a harder rock.  If it produces something that looks like paint or clay on the other rock’s surface, it is likely a very good choice.  You can see immediately what your pigment may look like. You want the consistency of the pigment to get quite fine.  Grainy rocks like sandstone can also be processed, but the processing is a lot more work and some you can’t get down that finely by hand.  Harder stones may be worth processing, especially if they have unique colors. Clays can make good pigments, but not always; you can dig them out, then let them dry, and then grind them up, removing any large or hard rocks. You have to really see which pigments work and which do not–some clays I’ve used have been wonderful, and others haven’t had much pigment at all and create a sloppy mess.  Each geology and ecosystem has something different to offer you, and it requires a lot of experimentation.

 

 

Other pigment opportunities also exist. Both soot and charcoal make great pigments, so keep this in mind if you are having fires indoors or out. Soot produces more of a warm black, while charcoal produces more of a cool black.  I harvested both from our indoor fireplaces. You can also make a “bone black” from burned bones, turned into charcoal.

 

A few years ago,  I visited a mineral spring and found loads and gobs of pigment flaking off the walls from the spring –I dried this and saved it in a tin for later use.  Recently, also, and what started me on this adventure, I was given a container of iron oxide from the Tanoma Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Remediation site.  This iron oxide is what makes many of our streams, creeks, and rivers too acidic; a site like Tanoma creates pools and uses a process called tromping to help precipitate out the suspended particles, clearing the water before it goes back into the stream.  After the iron precipitates, it settles to the bottom of the pools; this can eventually be collected and used by local artists! And it requires very little processing.

 

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Foraging for rocks at a local boney dump (where mine refuse is from 50 or more years ago)

Tools for Paint Making

You will need to gather some basic supplies for making your own paints from foraged materials.  While you can make a primitive paint literally by crushing the pigment between two rocks and adding some water or oil, the following supplies will help you create a more refined pigment that would be suitable for paintings. Tools for creating paints:

 

  1. A mortar and pestle, dedicated to this use. You don’t want to use a mortal and pestle that you use for grinding herbs or food; get a separate one for this.  Or you can use something else; two hard rocks from the land can also work great.
  2. A glass muller or other grinding agent  Again, this is not necessary, but most fine pigments need a final ground, and this works well.  if you don’t have a muller, other glass tools may work like the edge of a small round jar. The key is you want a wide, flat surface on the bottom of whatever you use as it grabs the pigment and binder and mixes it well.  This is the most pricey of the materials ($50-$90).
  3. A palate knife, cake decorating knife, or old credit card.  You need something to be able to scoop up the pigment.
  4. A slab of glass or granite.  You need something to spread your pigment out and mix the paints carefully.  Right now, I’m using a smaller granite slab that I’ve had in my studio for various purposes, but I want to use a piece of glass instead, and will get one when I can find something recycled.
  5. A very fine mesh sifter for sifting out larger particles.  This is really useful if you are grinding your own stones.  get the finest mesh you can find. I found a strainer with 0.2mm holes, and this produces a usable paint but for certain stones, may still be gritty. A strainer with 0.1 mm (called a 100 strainer) is even better.  Look for these with sides from a scientific supply.  It is possible to refine your pigment and separate out particles without a strainer through a water suspension method, but the strainer really helps.
  6. Containers for your paint and pigments (shells or containers for paints; jars for extra pigments).
  7. Googles, gloves, and a breathing mask.  Paint pigments are not good for your lungs, and you need to take serious precautions!

 

Materials for Paint Making and How Paint Works

In order to know how to turn pigment into paint, its helpful to know how paint works.  Paint consists the pigment (color), a binder, and usually things to extend the life of the paint or improve viscosity and flow.  A binder is what “binds” the pigment to the surface; if you used only water and pigment, the pigment would flake back off the page after it dried, and your paint wouldn’t last.  In other words, a binder helps keep the paint on the page.  Gum Arabic or Linseed or walnut oil, and egg yolk are common binders.  A lot of modern paints use chemical binders, so we want to stay away from that stuff.

 

Paint Supplies: Watercolors

Watercolors are made with a combination of gum arabic and honey; glycerine can be added as well to prevent cracking.  Gum Arabic is the most common binder; that which helps the pigment stay on the page.  Since its water soluble, Gum Arabic is a great choice for watercolors. Honey helps improve the viscosity and flow of your pigment, and glycerine helps prevent the pigment from drying out or cracking.  I am currently using honey and gum arabic in all of my homemade watercolors.  You can purchase 1 lb bags of gum arabic in powder form, which you can just mix up and store in the freezer.  This is really economical, compared to buying it already prepared from an art store.

 

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

Watercolors made from local slate gathered on a hike on Ghosttown Trail (a local rail to trail)

I’m currently researching a more local ingredient than gum arabic.  I’ve read some old books that say you can use wild cherry sap, ground and dried, which makes sense as it is also water soluble.  Pine resins would not be an appropriate choice for this as they are not water soluable (but they have other uses). I’ll report back on the cherry sap once I’ve experimented with it, which will be over the summer once I am able to harvest and dry some.

 

Paint Supplies: Oils

For oil paints you’ll need linseed oil and melted beeswax along with your prepared dry pigment.  Walnut oil may be a more local choice for you, and it will work almost as well as linseed oil.

 

Paint Supplies: Egg Tempera

For this you’ll need an egg yolk, water, alcohol, and your dry pigment.

I want to note that you can also make your own acrylics, but acrylics are plastics, polymers, and those go right back into the ecosystem when you are done. The materials above are more naturally sourced and based and represent more traditional sources.

 

Preparing Your Pigments

To prepare your pigments, you will need to get them ground finely while not breathing in any dust. Connect with the energies of the earth during this process and embrace the time it takes to do this. I use the following approach:

 

1. Break up rocks into smaller pieces.   First you need to break up your rocks into pieces that can be finely ground down with a mortar and pestle.  I usually use a hammer for this and a plastic bag.  Break the rocks up as fine as you can using this method.   In my case, I am using a thicker bag that is non-recyclable (this is a bag that chicken and guinea fowl treats come in). This process gives this bag a bit more life!  Put the rocks in the bag and start the breaking down process. You should do this outside and if it isn’t windy, consider a breathing mask.  If the stones are particularly strong, you might want several layers of bag (or a thicker feed bag, old tarp, etc).

Rock breaking.

Rock breaking.

 

2. Grind the pieces down in a mortar and pestle as finely as you can.  After you get the pieces much smaller with the hammer, you can start to get them finely ground. I have a granite mortar and pestle of a fairly large size for this purpose.  I grind down the pieces, working in very small batches.  You can see this reflected in the photo below–I work with smaller and smaller batches as I work the stones down into a fine pigment.  Again, use a breathing mask and do this outside if you can.  Here I am grinding down the local slate stones a friend and I found on a hike.  You might notice that the color has changed from the stone to the pigment–that often happens!  Everything is a surprise.

Slate pigment at various stages

Slate pigment at various stages.  The pigments often are a slightly different shade than the rocks themselves.

3.  Sift.  Sifting is probably the most critical part of the paint–if you don’t have a fine enough strainer, your particles will be too big and your paint will be gritty.  The goal is to get the finest particles possible–below I am using a .02 mm x .02 mm sifter.   I will take whatever won’t go through the strainer back into the mortar and pestle for a while. You can sift multiple times to get a fine grind.

 

In this case, whatever isn’t sifted is put back in the mortar and pestle for more grinding.  You can also store the extras in a jar for the next time you want to make paint. I’ve been talking to other natural paint makers, and the grinding and sifting is really an art form in and of itself–some are easy to do, and some are quite difficult–depending on the stone. It all takes patience and can be a very meditative practice.

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar/pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter (I might add some simple "walls" to it at some point!)

Sifting process with pigment. The larger pieces go back into the mortar and pestle for more grinding. The hardest part of this is not getting little bits over the sides of the sifter.  Since taking these photos, I purchased two additional sifters that are even better than this one!

Another option if you can’t get your particles fine enough is to do the long route using water.  If you grind up a lot of pigment, you can put it in a glass jar with a lid (I use a 1/4 pint or 1/2 pint jar for this).  Shake the pigment up well, and then quickly pour off everything but the very heavy particles that sink to the bottom.  The lighter particles are suspended in the liquid; they will likely precipitate out to the bottom.  (If they don’t, some paintmakers use a bit of alum to help them drop out).  Otherwise, if you have a small amount of water, put it in a greenhouse, dehydrator, or other sunny location and it will dehydrate.  What you are left with is a *very* fine pigment, fine enough to be a high artist quality grade paint.  The heavy particles can be dried as well and further ground up.

 

Making Your Paint

For watercolor: Place your pigment in the center of your glass plate.  Add about 1 part Gum Arabic for every 2 parts pigment, and then about 1/8 part honey. Some paintmakers are also adding a drop or two of clove essential oil for preservation, but I don’t have any so I’m not using it at present.  You can pretty much eyeball this.  If the pigment is too dry, add more gum arabic.  If its too wet, keep working it and the air will dry it out in a few minutes.

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Some tools for paint making: board, cake knife/palate knife, gum arabic, and honey from my hives

Next, move to a muller or other tool that you can use to spread out and grind the pigment further. If you don’t have a muller, try something that can help grind the glass–like a flat glass bottomed jar. The muller is completely flat, and you can easily rub it over the surface to mix the pigment.  After you spread it out, use a palate knife to scrape up the pigment and use the muller again (see second photo, below).

Mulling pigment. This one doesn't have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.

Mulling pigment.

This first photo doesn’t have a fine enough ground, which is why you can still see some of the particles inside.  If your pigment looks like this, it needs a finer grind and will be very gritty when complete.  You might need a finer sifter or to separate it with water.

What you are looking for is a very smooth grind.

The difference between these the above photo and this one is striking–and so are the results.  The second pigment here (iron oxide) has a very, very fine ground!

 

Here's the slate pigment--it turned into a pretty nice paint!

Here’s the slate pigment–it turned into a pretty nice paint because I was able to get a very fine grind and sift.  It still had a little bit of graininess to it, but works great.  A water separation or a finer sifter would have helped get the particles even smaller.

 

You may have to mull it for quite a while to get all of the pigment and binder together.  Usually 5-10 min. Once you see it as completely consistent, you can scrape it all up with a paint knife and put it in small containers to dry.

 

I have been using sea shells that I’ve had sitting around to put my paint in, but anything that has a lid (like an old Altoids can or lip balm can) would work just fine. I also had some empty plastic half pans I picked up at a yard sale, and I have also been using them.  If you want a full container of pigment, you usually have to make paint several times and add layers to the pans (as the pigment dries, it shrinks and cracks).

 

When you want to use your paint, rewet it and use it like any other watercolor.

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board

A glass muller and grinding board with finished paint, scraped into containers board.  This is a fireplace soot paint.

 

For Egg Tempera, you will want a small jar.  Start by removing the egg yolk from the white.  Egg yolks have a sack that holds the inner yolk; break the yolk and remove the sack.  This is accomplished by either puncturing the yolk and letting it drip in, or simply fishing out the sack after you’ve gotten the yolk punctured.  Add a small amount of water (1 tbsp) and put a lid on the jar, shaking your paint until everything is mixed.  Now, place your pigment in the center of your glass plate or other non-porous surface.  Add small amounts of alcohol to your pigment, and grind it or use your knife or muller (see photos above).  Finally, add enough yolk water to you get to the consistency you want and grind it some more.

Egg tempera is best used within a week; without preservatives it will go bad fairly quickly.  I will keep mine in the fridge between uses.  I don’t make these very often, but they are nice for certain applications (like traditional folk painting).

 

For Oil Paint, The process for making oil paints is the same as above, only instead of gum arabic and honey, you are adding linseed oil and a small amount of melted beeswax.  If exposed to the air, oils will eventually dry out within a week or two (just like commercial oil paints).  A lot of people will purchase metal tubes so you can keep your paint in a metal tube, just like commercial producers do ,when making oil paints – as it would be hard to mix up a whole palate anytime you wanted it!

 

Using Your Paint

Once you have your paint made, you can use it on anything!  I like the watercolors best for this process because they don’t require special storage–you just dry them out into cakes, and then they can be used and rewet as needed.  If you get a fine grind, you can make watercolors and other paints even *better* than what you can find in the store: rich, inviting, and completely made by you!

Primal Water from the Plant Spirit Oracle; tan paint is from Tanoma Iron Oxide!

The Water Card from the Plant Spirit Oracle; The tan paint in the roots is from my own handmade watercolors: the AMD Iron Oxide–the first paint I made using this method!

 

watercolor swirl painting--all of the browns were from foraged paint!

Watercolor swirl painting–all of the browns were from foraged paint!

I hope this has been inspirational and informative. Now that spring is here, I am excited to see what pigments my landscape offers and do some western PA specific paints with this local and eco-friendly palate of colors!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks off from blogging as I am in the final preparation for releasing my Plant Spirit Oracle deck, plantng out our gardens on the homestead, and attending the MAGUS druid gathering and doing some camping.  I’ll resume posting in early June!

 

Spiritual Practices to Finding Equilibrium in the Chaos: Grounding, and Flow through the Druid Elements July 22, 2016

A tremendous amount of really difficult occurrences are happening in the world right now. It seems like the more time that passes, the more we balance on the edge. The edge of what exactly, nobody can say.  But the edge of something, and likely, not something any of us are looking forward to. Things seem to be spinning faster, and faster; the light growing darker and darker.  A lot of folks are having difficulty just coping with reading the news or even being on social media, the enormity of everything–social, political, environmental, personal–weighing down.  Responses to this range from rage and anger to numbness. There is a heaviness in the air that cannot be discounted.

A good place to seek the stability of calas

A good place to seek the stability of calas

 

And so, many of us turn to spiritual practices as a way of helping make sense of it all, to find a way forward, finding a way to keep ourselves sane and to levy some positive change in the world. For me, any outer healing or change in the world begins with my own inner work, finding my own inner equilibrium in order to compassionately respond and enact change. I find myself returning, again and again, to the elemental work I did in my AODA and OBOD curriculum: working with the healing power of the elements, seeking balance within. And so, I’m not going to talk about everything that is happening (as a lot of it is well outside of the scope and purpose of this blog), but I am going to share with you some ways of self-care and balance seeking that I’ve found helpful in dealing with all of this. Specifically, I’m going to use the framework of the three druid elements: gwyar, calas, and nywfre, and discuss how we might use those elements (particularly the first two) to help maintain our own equilibrium during difficult times.

 

Equilibrium

We have a lot of terms that get raised when we are faced with instability (instability of any type: culturally, locally, politically, or personally). These terms most often focus on grounding, but may also include balance, composure, equilibrium. I actually prefer the world equilibrium, for a few reasons. One dictionary suggests that equilibrium is “a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced.” What I like about the definition and concept of equilibrium is that it doesn’t require one response (e.g. grounding) but rather a range of responses based on the needs of the moment.

For example, if I am feeling really disconnected, scattered, and unfocused, I might do some grounding techniques that help more firmly root me back in place. But there are times that being rooted firmly in place is not the best idea, and instead, I need to let go and simply learn to flow. Equilibrium implies both of these things: finding and maintaining it is situational based on the context and your own needs.

 

Grounding, or the work of Calas

When I talk to spiritual friends about these times and all that is happening, I think a lot of them talk about “grounding” and grounding strategies. Grounding usually happens when we connect with the energies of the earth, of stability, of calm. In the three druid element system, this grounding is clearly represented by calas, which is the principle of solidity and substance. Calas represents the physical substance of things, the strength in the cell walls of the plant, the stones beneath our feet, the stable and unchanging fathoms of the deepest caves. When we ground, we plant ourselves firmly and solidly on the living earth–we plant our feet strongly and with purpose. We stand our ground, so to speak, we dig in our heels, we spread ourselves out upon the earth and feel its stability and strength.  Now, there are times when grounding is the correct response, and there are also times where I actually think it does more harm than good. The key questions to determine whether or not grounding is an effective approach seems to be: do I need stability in my life right now? Do I need something firm to stand on, to hold on, and to simply be present with? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then by all means, ground away. But recognize that sometimes, holding fast to something is a reactionary response, rather than the best response.

 

There are so many practices and ways of grounding–I’ll just share a few of my favorites.

Earthing and forest walking. I really love to take a barefoot walk through a path in a very familiar forest (even better if it is raining, lol).  I wouldn’t do this in an unfamiliar forest, or one that has a lot of poison ivy or brambles. But certain forests, dirt paths, and mossy areas lend themselves really well to this kind of activity. It is the most simple thing–you take off your shoes and socks, and simply walk on the earth.  Feel the land beneath your toes.  Walk, perhaps in movement meditation, for a period of time. You can combine this with energetic work.

 

Energetic work. When I do the forest walking, I like to stand a spot and envision the energies of the telluric current, those of the deep earth (envisioned in green-gold) rising up through my soles of my feet and into my body, clearing me and filling me with a sense of calm and stability.  The OBOD’s Light Body Exercise, for those that practice it, works quite well as a grounding and clearing activity.  Really, most kinds of energetic work can be good during the forest walking.

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

Some shagbark hickories can provide amazing grounding!

 

Weeding and Garden tending. Spending time with earthy things, like in the garden, can be extremely grounding and stabilizing. Planting, harvesting, weeding–even laying in the garden with a good book is a sure way to help do some grounding work.

 

Working with the stones. Carrying a small stone with you is a grounding activity in and of itself.  I have one that I’ve been placing above my heart if I am feeling really awful about all this stuff–I clear it once in a while by placing it in running water or sunlight, but at some point, I know I will be casting it off back into the earth permanently. This stone work is good for trauma and really deep healing.

 

Eating nurturing and nutrient-dense meals. Sometimes, when we are upset, we forget to eat.  But food has always been a grounding thing, and the more nutrient-dense and protein rich, the better.  An omelette of sausage and eggs and kale, for example, is just about as grounding as one can get!  Remember to eat.  The body and the soul both benefit.

 

Burying your feet in the earth. Similar to my earthing and forest walking, I have found great comfort in taking a shovel, digging a hole in my garden, and sticking my feet in it, covering them up with the soil. Sit there for a time in quietude, doing perhaps energetic work as well, or simply being and soaking up the sun while you sit. It works.

 

Sitting with Hardwood Nut Trees. When I am feeling ungrounded, I seek out hickory or oak trees and spend time sitting with them or hugging them. There is something about the energy of the hickory that I found extraordinarily grounding. Many of the hardwood nut trees also have this quality, as well as some others. I’m not sure I’d use a walnut, they have a bit different of an energy, like an expelling energy, which also has its own magic (but is not really well suited for this purpose). .

 

Sitting with a flock of chickens. Maybe this is just a personal thing, but I get great stability out of simply being near chickens. Chickens do many of the activities on this list, after all: dust baths, burying their feet in the earth, eating nutrient dense food, walking on the land barefoot–and they have tremendous connection to the energies of the earth. Spending time with them can be very grounding.  It is fun to watch them find bugs, peck, scratch, take dust baths–and most flocks that were raised with love will welcome your company and companionship.

 

Truthfully, as delightful as the above activities have been, I haven’t been drawn to grounding much lately–it seems like, in some ways, I am already too grounded and connected to what is happening.  Like my feet are planted so firmly that maybe I’ll just fall over if the wind comes by.  And so because of that, I have really been embracing the second druid element this year: the principle of gwyar.

Flowing, or the work of Gwyar

The element of Gwyar, often represented by water, represents the principle of fluidity and of flow.  Gwyar is the principle of change, opposite of the stability of Calas.  All things grow and change, and sometimes, we must learn to be adaptable and embrace that change.  Water teaches different lessons than the grounding of the earth–it teaches us the power of flow.  The babbling brook cascading over the stones, the water flowing off the leaves during a storm, the air flows pushing clouds and rain further across the landscape, the constant flow of time: these are all part of the power of gwyar.  Like Calas, there are times when embracing Gwyar is the right approach, and there are times when being too “go with the flow” is not the right strategy.  Questions I like to ask to determine this are:  Am I in need of letting go? Am I in need of trusting the universe to guide my path?  Am I feeling to rigid or inflexible?  Affirmative answers to these questions suggest a need to embrace Gwyar.

I have found that embracing Gwyar has been helpful for me as there are a number of things in my life, and certainly in the broader world, that are out of my immediate control. As much as I would like to control them, I am unable to do so, and attempting to exert control is only going to lead to my own suffering.  Instead, I must learn to accept these things at present, and flow with them, and the act of releasing my attempted firm hold is in itself a very powerful magical act.  And so, here are some ways to embrace the power of flow:

 

Getting on the water!

Getting on the water!

Get on the water. This summer, I bought a kayak, and have spent nearly all of my free time out on lakes and rivers, learning how to flow with the waves.  This has its own kind of healing work, but in a watery sense–rather than being firmly planted, I am learning the power of flow.  Of riding the waves, leaning into the current, anticipating–and simply moving along.  Not fighting the current. Putting up my kayak sail, and simply letting the wind and waves take me on an adventure.  Kayaks and other water vessels are easy to come by–you can rent them at many state parks or local lakes; you can also ask around and I’m sure at least 1-2 friends will have one you can borrow.  I would suggest a kayak, rowboat, or canoe for this kind of flowing work–you want to be closer to the water, as close as possible.  The other option is tubing–a lot of rivers offer a tubing option where you rent a tube, bring a cooler, and spend the next 4-6 hours floating down the stream.  This is really, really good for connecting to the principle of flow.

 

Whitewater Rafting: If you really want a more extreme version of “getting on the water,” whitewater rafting or kayaking is a good choice.  The stronger currents force you even more to get into the physical embodiment of flow and adaptability, which is a powerful spiritual lesson. In fact, the reason that this post is two days early from my normal schedule is that I am getting on the extreme waters this weekend and heading out to one of my very favorite rivers, the Youghiogheny, for some rafting!.

 

Water observations. Sitting by moving water (or even still water) can teach you a lot about flows and the importance of going with the flow. I love doing this by small streams and creeks–playing with the rocks, seeing the interplay between gwyar and calas as the water tumbles through and down the stream.  What amazes me even about still water, like lakes, is that the lakes themselves change as the weather conditions change–from choppy waters to still and clear waters–and this, too, is a powerful lesson.  As I observe the water, I think about the places in my life where I need to embrace gwyar and flow, and the places where calas is a more appropriate path.

 

Energetic work.  Similar to the work above, I have found that I can connect to the element of gywar energetically, especially at points of water or other kinds of movement or flow (a dance, for example).

 

Mindful drinking of water.  Drinking high quality water mindfully, paying attention to the taste and the feel of it as it flows, and sipping it quietly while you mediate, is another simple activity that you can do.  Try to find local spring water, if you can, for this, but any spring water or well water would do nicely!

 

Bathing.  We all need to be clean, and bathing rituals and activities can certainly help.  Even if it is simply a matter of turning your awareness for a few minutes to the flow of the shower around you, or the comfort of the tub, it can be tremendously useful for  connecting to gwyar.  I sometimes will let the water drain out of the tub as I sit within it, feeling the waters flowing around me and cleansing.

 

Getting in the mud....

Getting in the mud….

Standing and walking in the rain.  Take a walk in a rain without an umbrella (and preferably without shoes). Pay attention to how the water feels as it soaks you, flows around you.  Pay attention to how it runs down the road, down the trunk of the tree, see where it goes afterwards.  This is tremendously useful and I try to do it often!

 

Swimming in a lake or stream. Jumping in the water, and floating for a time, is a really fun way to embrace gwyar.  I have been combining this with kayaking–I kayak out to a secluded spot and then jump into the water for a bit.  It has really been great.  I’ve also been working to visit the many local swimming holes near this area!

 

Sitting with a flock of ducks.  If chickens epitomize an earthy and grounding being, the duck is a good representation of gwyar.  I like sitting with ducks a lot–they have a very different energy than chickens, and observing them can help teach the principles of flow.

 

Some Methods of Bringing Balance and Unity of Calas and Gwyar

A third possibility, of course, is that in order for equilibrium, you need both the energy of gywar and calas.  I have found that if I’m generally just so overwhelmed, feeling both ungrounded and unadaptable, the unification of these two elements in my life can really help me find my footing.  You can combine activities above together, or engage in activities that innately emphasize the unity of the two elements.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

Playing in mud puddles. Playing in the mud should never be discounted as a fantastic method for seeking equilibrium.  We knew this well as children, but have often forgotten the most important truths as adults.  Wait for a good summer rain (it has been dry here, but I am waiting) and find a puddle in the field or abandoned dirt road somewhere–somewhere safe and clean.  And get on the oldest clothes you can, take off your shoes, and just jump in it. Or make your own mud puddle with the hose.  Make mud pies, just like when you are a kid.  This is a most healthy antidote to present day reality!

 

Natural Building. An alternative is to visit a natural building site and become one with the cob.  Natural building requires initial flow and wet materials that dry into strong structures.  Making some cob with the feet and the hands, and plastering it on there, is a great experience.

 

Frankfort Mineral Springs - Embracing Gwyar

Frankfort Mineral Springs – Embracing Gwyar

Visiting Springs.  Springs are another place where you can see the interplay and balance between gwyar and calas in a natural setting. I have been visiting springs all over Western PA since moving here a year ago. I recently went camping at Raccoon Creek State Park and had the delight of visiting the Franklin Mineral Springs while I was there. It was really a cool spring–completely unexpected–with heavy content of iron (I shared a photo of it above). It had a basin where the water flowed so cold–I dunked my head in it, soaked myself up in it, and observed the flow of this spring. It was awesome! What I have found about these natural springs is that, at least here, they really do represent the intersection of gwyar and calas–the flow interacting with the stability of the stone.  This particular spring resonated strongly with balance of the elements: the stone where the water issued forth and the basin for stability, the ever-flowing gush of the water from the stones, and the mineral content in the water itself representing the unification of the elements.

 

Stillness. Stillness of the body and of the mind is another way to embrace the intersection of gywar and calas.  We spend so much of our time running around, dashing to and fro, and never really just being present in the moment, in ourselves. After the AODA’s practices, I like to sit in stillness in nature, quiet my mind, and simply be present in the world around me. This work requires us to both physically stop moving and be more stable, but also flow into the moment and simply observe what comes. It is powerful and profound!

 

Dancing: The principle of dance is all about the intersection of the stable earth and other objects with flow, and participating in some dance yourself (even if you aren’t very good, it doesn’t matter, go do it in the forest or wild areas where nobody can see you). I like to do this with ribbons or flags or something to even more appropriately attend to the energies of flow.

 

Throwing Pots. Any art forms that encourage the intersection of calas and gwyar are useful activities for seeking equilibrium. I have found that pottery, for example, is one of the best ones (for reasons similar to natural building/cob building, above). The intersection of the water to shape the clay, and then the application of heat, offers powerful spiritual lessons and opportunities.

 

As we all navigate these difficult times, I hope that the above material will provide you with some strategies for seeking equilibrium.  Blessings upon your path and journey!

 

Building Sacred Outdoor Spaces, Part 1: Stone Carin Building / Stone Balancing / Stone Stacking May 20, 2012

Me with one of my creations!

Me with one of my creations!

I think its important that, as druids, we work to build sacred spaces within the landscape.  Yes, many would say that all land is sacred, and I’ll not disagree.  But at the same time, there’s quite a difference between a parking lot or a strip of land between two segments or highway and a quiet forest glade or a stone circle set upon a hillside overlooking a river. Whether in your own home garden, in a corner of a local park, or in the forest behind your workplace, you can build and maintain small sacred spaces that can provide peace, restorative energy to you and the land, demonstrate reverence and respect.  In my own property and in other wild places I visit, I’ve been working to build small natural sacred spaces and wanted to share my experiences and insight.

This post is meant to be the first in a series; I will detail other building techniques in the next few months.  Some of these will include a set of smaller projects that you can undertake in as little as 10 minutes or larger projects which may take days, weeks, months, or years to complete.

Stone Cairns / Stone Balancing / Stone Stacking

The first “Sacred Space” building technique that you can use is building stone cairns, also known as stone stacking, stone building, or stone balancing.

The art of balancing stones has origins in many cultures. In many parts of Asia, stones are balanced and stacked as a sign of prayer and meditation. In North America, native Americans used stone cairns to watch over animals and forests while humans were not present.  As druids, we often meet among stacked stones (such as the OBOD events at Stonehenge each year)  or in stone circles.  I see stone balancing as a kind of natural poetry–an aesthetic that is difficult to put into words. When we balance stones, we connect the depths of our souls to the depths of the earth and create something of beauty and harmony.  What do the stacked stones convey? Ask them, and you may find out.

"Thor's Gate" Style Cairn, complete with spiral drawn in clay

“Thor’s Gate” Style Cairn, complete with spiral drawn in clay

Stone balancing is a very simple, yet profound activity.  Stone balancing allows you, at its core, to connect with the ancient energies of the earth.  As you stack stones, you can enter a deep communion with the land, a kind of movement meditation. You might begin stone balancing by simply seeing how stone A stacks upon stone B and stone B stacks upon stone C.  Try these kinds of stacks for a while, and once you get the hang of simple stacking, you might want to try more complex stone stacking, where stone C depends upon both A and B, or where B and C need each other to sit atop A.

When I started stone balancing, I made stone stacks very simply with the larger, round stones found so commonly in south-east Michigan.  I have several active stone stacks in my yard which I maintain–these simple stacks of rounded stones would fall over each time the weather changed by more than 20 or 30 degrees.  But over time, I started adding complexity to my stone stacks–when small pebbles were added between the larger stones, I created a more solid structure that can withstand the changing seasons, wind and rain.

I also began experimenting with different kinds of stacks and designs, such as the design I’ll call “Thor’s gate” and the “Yggdrasil” designs in the photos. When I went to Western PA (which is where I grew up), I found that the rocks there were much more conducive to stone building–nice, flat rocks allowed me to stack in many different patterns.  Most of the cairns I am posting on this blog are from PA, where the stones love to be stacked!

When you are working, its important to pick out a good site to begin.  Something that is firm for a base (a stump, a stone in the ground, a bit of flat earth with the leaves cleared away).  You should also start with an ample supply of good stones in the area (for the reason, building stone cairns nearby or in rivers/streams is an excellent activity). As you are working, let the shape of the stones determine how you work with them–they will speak to you and the stone building will just flow.

Yggdrasil-styleCairn on stump with light shining through

Yggdrasil-style Cairn on stump with light shining through

I have found stone balancing to be a wonderful activity for both my own property and for visiting natural areas and leaving a tribute.  In my own property, I build them in different parts of the property as altars/shrines.  For example, a stone cairn I maintain every day is my “Shrine to the Fallen” which sits on top of a white pine tree stump from a tree that was cut before we moved here. This shrine, aptly named, reminds me each day of the ongoing struggle our planet and our lands face; the trees cut in the name of “human progress” and the species threatened with extinction. In addition to the stones, I add symbols of rebirth and renewal such as pine cones and evergreen boughs  to this shrine.  A second stone cairn is a set of numerous stone stacks near a large oak and series of smaller sassafras trees, which I also maintain daily as a “Reverence to the Land” shrine.  This shrine is where I might leave some seeds or pumpkin cakes as a “thank you” to the earth which provides all.

A second activity involves building stone cairns on public land where I am visiting: state parks, local township parks, along city walking paths, etc.  Make sure you aren’t disrupting local wildlife with your stone building.  I have some stone cairns that I return to often or once a year, and some that I build and never come back to again. Sometimes, I have found that if you build an impressive enough and visible enough cairn, others may add to your stone cairn or build others around it, creating a kind of shared poetry.

I have found great joy in building stone cairns in streams or along riverbeds.  Recognize that spring rains and swollen rivers will eventually wash your cairns away; however, there is something inherently magical in seeing a stone cairn sitting in the middle of a tranquil brook.

Stones as Shared Poetry

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

The Stone Cairn in the Stream

The photo to the right and below was a small stone cairn I built while exploring the forest with a group of three other women.  While none of them were druids like myself, all were spiritually aware and respectful of the land.  When I finished building the cairn, I asked each of them how the stone cairn spoke to them; if they had happened upon it in the forest, what would it say to them?  Here are their responses:

  • If I had come upon this stone cairn without knowing it was built by human hands, I would have thought that it rose up from the earth on its own.  The earth had built it just to communicate with me.
  • I go hiking often, and many trails have these cairns as markers.  So I see this cairn as something that helps guide you along your way.
  • I see it as a place for the energies of the forest to converge.  A focus  point.  I also see it where the water and the earth meet.

My own intention was that the cairn was built to revere and respect the land.  But the beauty of the stone cairn is that it allows for many kinds of interpretation and communion with the natural world.

I hope that you will be inspired to post your own stone cairns!  And if so, please post in the comments and share some of your work and experiences.

Another view of the "Shared Poetry" Cairn

Another view of the “Shared Poetry” Cairn within the small stream