The Druid's Garden

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

A Spring Equinox Message: The Gifts of Druidry in the World March 20, 2016

Today marks the Spring Equinox, Alban Eiler, a time of new beginnings, of the balance between light and darkness, between summer and winter, between hope and despair.  Given the energy of today, and the challenges before us, I’d like to take some time to frame what I see as some of  druidry’s gifts to the world–the things that a druid path can do for the land and its peoples. I’m particularly  motivated to write this post today because today marks the end of my 10th year as a druid and I am moving into my second decade along this path–and so I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve had along the way.  I want to start with a disclaimer–as the adage goes, if you ask 5 different druids what druidry means to them, you’ll get 10 different answers. I am not speaking on behalf of all druids or for all of druidry, but here today, I am speaking my own truth and path, as I am apt to do on this blog :).

 

Early Sunrise

Early Sunrise

Look around at the land and waters that–in whatever shape that landscape is in.  At one time, that land was deeply loved and respected. Humans who lived there cultivated a sacred connection and awareness with it. All indigenous cultures have cultivated such relationships, and all of our bloodlines trace back to some indigenous culture or another if we go far enough back. Before industrialization, or even agriculture, our relationship with the land was much, much different. Our ancestors, rooted in the places they were, knew every inch of the edge of the river and how to build rafts to navigate the rocks and fish. They knew the medicine of root and stem and seed. They knew where the harvests came at what time of the year, and how not to take too much. They knew the names of the trees, the spirits of the animals, and were intimately connected with their surroundings. They knew that their own survival depended on the delicate balance that they had the privileged and responsibility of maintaining. The plants evolved with humans, so much so, that many of the most food and medicine-rich plants depend on us for survival, for nurturing, for scattering their seeds. How did that happen? Over countless millennia, we evolved together, creating mutual dependencies. This is why Pennsylvania forests used to be 30% chestnut–that wasn’t by accident, that was by human design (for more on this, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild). Imagine being the land, the spirits of the land, and holding those memories of the time before.

 

And then, many things changed and time moved on. Knowledge and sacred connections lost, so much so that today, most people can’t identify more than a handful of plants or trees and do not even have basic knowledge of the world around them.  Instead, humans today in industrialized countries are sold a myth, the myth of progress ,strong as any other of religious belief, and embraced with the same kind of furor (see John Michael Greer’s works, particularly Not the Future we Ordered for more on this perspective). Wrapped up the myth of progress are myths of the importance of consumer goods, of smartphones and electronics that must be replaced every two years, of chemical-ridden pesticides that lace our foods and invade our bodies.

 

Supporting that myth allows the whole-sale pillaging of the land and its inhabitants. Supporting that myth allows national forests to be fracked, the same patches of forest to be repeatedly logged for two centuries, our waterways to be filled with poisons, our mountaintops removed. These are things that I witness every day here, in my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western PA. If relationships to the land were a pendulum, we humans of toady have swung so far in the other direction from our indigenous ancestors, or even those living closer to the land a few centuries before.

 

Our lands, waters, and plant spirits still hold the memories of those who came before, of the relationships that once were cultivated.  There is, among them, a great mourning and loss collectively. They hold memories of humans who used to care for them so carefully. Here in the Americas, at least here in Pennsylvania, that sacred relationship between land and human was abruptly severed several centuries ago with the driving out of the native peoples and the re-settlement of Pennsylvania by those of European decent. With the new humans, the last centuries saw tremendous amounts of pillaging and destruction, fueled by the myth of progress.

 

Since that time, and to today, the myth of progress changes our behaviors and relationship radically with nature. Humans, here in the US, now spend 87% of their time indoors and another 6% of their time in automobiles or other forms of enclosed transit.  That means just seven percent of the average American’s life today is spent outside. And of that seven percent, how much is spent mowing the grass? Spraying dandelions? Walking on pavement among tall buildings?  How much of that seven percent is spent with our heads in our phones rather than looking around us?  And beyond these statistics, I think there’s a general disregard for life, for nature that is dominant in our collective cultural understanding.

 

Druidry, I believe, is one good sign that the pendulum is starting to swing back in the right direction. Humans are once again are seeking that ancestral connection to the land that is still in our blood, and in the memories of the forests, the stones, the rivers. Learning how to see, and interact, with nature is critical to helping that pendulum swing back in the other example.  As a very simple example, last week, I was walking back from campus after teaching, and I came across a cluster of cut-back bramble bushes. I looked at those canes, getting just ready to bud, with tiny tufts of green coming from out of the buds, and I could see the promise of spring there. I was looking forward to the Equinox, and also feeling the sadness at seeing things budding a month earlier than usual due to climate change. The tips of the canes, too, held a tremendous surprise–when sliced longways (which someone had done recently to trim them), the cane of the blackberry bush forms a 5 pointed star, a pentagram, not so dissimilar from the pentagram I found in the chickweed plant some years ago. This cultivation of the sacred is, in part, observing sacred patterns of nature, unfolding around me, on my daily walk home from campus. And noticing the nature–the birds, the trees, appriciating them and knowing their names. And its more than patterns–the bramble holds medicine, food, protection–and as a druid, I’ve worked to learn about all of its gifts.  As I look in awe at the bramble, I wonder how many people have cultivated such a sacred relationship with the land in this area? That even would look at the bramble and be willing to look closer?

 

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

As a Druid, you might be the first adult person in several generations to see that land with something other than indifference, profit, or going into the land for the sole purpose of taking. As a druid, you might be the first to enter those lands again, in a long time, to see those lands not only in appreciation, but as sacred spaces. You might be the first who is willing to tend those lands again, to help heal, to help regenerate, to give rather than pillage and take. When I, as a druid, walk into the forest, I am often aware that I am reconnecting with lands that have not been thought of, or engaged with, as sacred for a very long time. What a gift it is to the land, to really see it. To interact with it. To hold it sacred. To be willing to learn and grow with it–in it–through it. To walk and see the buds on the trees, to see the medicine growing up out of the cracks of the sidewalks. I’m not just talking about the wild places here, but all places. You can sense the sacredness of the soil, even below the buildings that sit on it. You realize that there is no unsacred space, that all spaces and places, regardless of their damage, are still part of this great living earth–as you, too, are a natural part of it.

 

For many druids, interacting with the land in a sacred way is one of your gifts to the world–and it is an incredibly powerful gift that takes a lifetime of exploration to truly understand and realize.

 

The act of opening yourself up to these experiences are, for many, the first steps down the druid path. As one of the Archdruids in AODA, I spend a lot of time talking with new druids on the path and mentoring druids who are just starting their journey and studies. I read letters that they write that tell us about why they want to become druids, what they hope to gain from druidry. So many times, it seems that rebuilding that connection to nature is one of the key reasons that they join. To many people, when they first find druidry, are excited.  They often say, “This is the path that describes me, as I already am!”  This gives them a word that finally fits their self-image, the person that they are becoming with each passing breath and each cycle of the sun and moon. And every one of those letters, without fail, talks about reconnecting to the natural world!

 

Another tragic part of the myth of progress, asks us to give our power, especially our creative gifts, up and to let others provide us entertainment.  It saps our creative energy, and we are disempowered as creative thinkers and doers in the world.  Therefore, a second major gift of druidry, I believe, is regaining that creative force, the flow of awen, and using it for good in our own lives and in the lives of others in the world. Even the act of meditation alone allows us to “clear” our minds; the AODA’s sphere of protection or OBOD’s light body exercises allow for the Awen to flow within us again. And we desperately need these creative responses here and now–through music, poetry, artwork, dance, painting, crafts, the written word–to help us make sense of, process, and respond to what is going on. The creative arts help us make sense of the world and what is happening and can reach people meaningfully and deeply in ways that we otherwise could not.  At least in my own experience, my path in the bardic arts helps give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves and to cultivate reconnection through my writings on this blog, my artwork, my teaching, and more.

 

Get out into the world!

Get out into the world!

The world is changing quickly around us, and for many, darkness appears to be settling in. Things are growing more frenzied, more desperate, more terrifying. The true tolls of incessant pillaging of the planet are now so visible and known, and will continue unfold in the years and generations to come. Just a few weeks ago, we passed the 2 degree threshold that so many have said, over the years, that we shouldn’t pass.  Those in denial are, well, still in denial, and the temperature keeps rising. But the rest of us must understand and work with our own grief, our own responses. Many come to druidry because they are looking for some path forward through this mess, and Druidry helps them take such a path, a path deeper into the landscape, into their own creative gifts, and through the difficulty that we are all facing.  Druidry, perhaps, gives us hope and reconnection–exactly the kind of thing, I believe, we need as we move forward into this unknown and terrifying territory. Many druids find themselves integrating spiritual responses with other kinds of responses–permaculture, for example, is a fantastic “get your hands dirty” compliment to this path (and certainly, its a big part of my own druid practice).

 

To wrap up, some of the greatest gifts I see of druidry are (in true triad form):

  • A gift to the land through the cultivation of a sacred relationship, awareness, and active healing work, but also through recognizing, confronting, and doing something about the predicament we face as a planet.
  • A gift to its people through the cultivation of the creative human arts, to give the land voice in the world through music, story, song, artwork, dance and more.
  • A gift to ourselves and to the nurturing of our souls, to give us tools, and outlets of response and the freedom to engage in bardic arts that reconnect humans and their landscape.

 

Finding the druid path is a gift, a blessing, and the ramifications of it go well beyond just ourselves. Often, for the first few years down this path, you are absorbing, like a sponge, all that you can–and things are very inward focused. You have a lot of healing work to do on your own inner landscape, and that’s critical work to do, work that will take a lifetime. But at some point, that sponge becomes full, and you are now ready to reverse the process, and give those gifts back to thee world. Druidry is a gift to the world, if we make it so. And on this sacred day, when so many things hang in the balance, it helps us re-balance our own lives, hearts, and souls.

 

Seeking Sacred Springs for Inspiration and Healing February 5, 2016

Heffley Spring in June 2015

Heffley Spring in June 2015

The druid tradition–along with many others–is full of stories about sacred waters. From the Chalice Well in Glastonbury to the invocation of the “Salmon who Dwells Within The Sacred Pool,” we’ve got our water going on. Imbolc (which happened earlier this week) is often a holiday associated with flows, and many of us do workings with water and healing with water in various ways. More than this though, water has a number of key places within our conceptual frameworks in the druid tradition.  In the four element system so commonly used in earth-based traditions (that has been part of western thinking for a very, very long time), water represents our emotions, our intuition, and our connection to our spirituality. In the druid revival’s three element system, water is connected with Gywar, the principle of flow. It is Gywar that helps us move forward and to grow–it is the principle of change and fluidity. On a physical level, since our bodies so fully depend on water and water flows, and we are made up of mostly water, the water is a fundamental part of living and being. So, it is fitting for American druids to consider how sacred wells, pools, and springs may fit into our own paths. In fact, today’s post will discuss my experiences of being led to a sacred spring and the work of water upon the landscape.

 

Sacred Waters, Challenging Times

Sulphur Creek

The lifeless Sulfur Creek with Acid Mine  Drainage

While we venerate and work with the water, we also recognize the duress that our waters have been facing for centuries due industrialization and pollution. Perhaps in the United States, Pennsylvania, my beloved home state, has one of the saddest of tales.

 

Our rivers have long been poisoned by mining and industrial activities; in fact, we have nearly 3000 miles of poisoned rivers from Acid Mine Drainage due to abandoned coal mines. I went to high school on the banks of “sulfur creek”; a creek that was a sickly yellow-orange where no life was present and stunk like sulfur.  It was severely polluted about 4 miles upstream from a long-abandoned coal mine.  I completed my undergraduate degree on the banks of the Monogahela River, which was ranked the most endangered river in the USA in 2010.  This poor river is very sick–it had (and still has) this opaque sickly blue-green hue and a horrible smell. No life lives there; it has millions of pounds of toxic waste from factories dumped in it each year. Finally, where I now teach at a university in Indiana, PA, we have tremendous amounts of natural gas wells and fracking, which threatens underground aquifers and all sources of surface water–many people’s wells are polluted and in very bad shape. Needless to say, water is a real issue–and clean water, pure water, is not always easy to find.

 

Further, water has been the focus of a lot of recent discussion and scrutiny–and a challenge many humans face.  Again in the USA, we have the long-standing drought in California and Texas, the complicated “water rights” of the US West, and most recently, the poisoning of several generations of Flint, MI residents. On an international stage, melting ice shelves, warming oceans, and rising waters are a source of continual–and increasing–concern.

 

As a whole, humanity has some major challenges with water. I believe the challenges with water don’t just appear on our outer realms, but on our inner realms as well.  If we poison the very source of life–the waters–how can we not reflect that within?  And so, working with the water, healing the water on all levels, can be part of the sacred work that we do in the world.

 

While we have these challenges with waters ongoing, we also have other challenges in embracing the sacred–as many fellow American druids well know, finding and working with existing sacred sites in an American context can be extraordinarily challenging (due to the many issues outlined in my earlier post).  While trying to avoid tourists, not engage in cultural appropriation, deal with pollution or ‘development’, or find a quiet place to do rituals and venerate the land.

 

Today though, I want to share some insights on my experiences with natural springs. I want to tell a magical tale of unfolding, of discovery, and of a deeper connection with another sacred site that I discovered by accident–and the rich rewards this work has brought.

 

Finding Heffley Spring

Heffley Spring Sign

Heffley Spring Sign

I didn’t arrive in PA and intent on finding a sacred spring–but the universe has a way of unfolding and leading us on a path we are to travel.  Just after I arrived, I was on my way to visit my parents, who live about an hour from me.  There are a few different ways to get there, and I decided to try one that was a little longer, but possibly more scenic.  On my drive in, I passed something on the side of Route 56 just north of Johnstown, PA that looked like a few pipes coming out of the side of the mountain and running into a drain with a few people gathered around getting water. I didn’t have time to stop that day, but I made a mental note to return, and on my next pass through, I did just this.

 

Upon my return, the constructed rock face, a sign displayed “Heffley Spring, Rebuilt 1970.”  When I stopped this time, two people were there.  One was a middle aged woman with a fan literally full of glass jugs, who told me ,”This is the best water around.  It comes right out of the state park in the mountains. I come out here ever two weeks for my family.  I won’t have them drink anything else.” Another older man with a beat-up pickup truck was filling up smaller vessels to pour into two large cisterns on his truck.  He smiled and said, “My family has been coming to this spring for generations. I remember coming here with my grandfather, before it was rebuilt.  This is for me and my chickens.  I won’t drink that crap the city calls water with fluoride in it.”  I asked them both, “Is it safe?” thinking about the many poisoned water sources around. They both nodded emphatically, and the woman said, “I watch out for my kids. Penn state just came down and tested it a few years ago.”  The man laughed and said, “People around here have been drinking it their whole lives. There’s nothing up on that ridge except trees” as he pointed to the steep mountain ridge going up at least 2300 feet.  Just then, a long-distance biker pulled up, nodded to all of us, uncorked his water bottle, and took a swig.

 

And so, following suit, I took my glass water bottle to one of the three pipes and filled it up, then drank deeply.  The water was delicious, cold, refreshing.  But not just on a physical level, on an energetic one.  Druid revival lore speaks of the high concentration of telluric energy (the energy of the earth, the light of the earth) that flows forth from natural springs.  This water had it in abundance–I didn’t feel like it had only nourished my body, but my spirit as well.  I could sense the water rejuvenating and energizing me to my very core.  It was more than just typical water–it was healing and sacred.

 

As I sipped on the water from the spring, I took a look carefully around the site.  The rock face of the spring was in the shape of a Keystone, the symbol of Pennsylvania–a symbol of heritage and tradition for this land, but also one of deep spiritual significance. The patch of hemlock trees, nowhere else along the mountain, grew up from above the spring itself.  This, to me, was a very good sign: hemlock trees cannot tolerate water pollution and like moist areas, so seeing them reassured me that this was a safe source of water.  The cars to and fro on the highway, zipping past behind us.   It wasn’t the first idea in my mind for a sacred site with all of the hustle and bustle, but the seed was planted.

Spring overflows in June 2015

Spring overflows in June 2015

 

Over the next six months, I returned to the spring many times.  Once, I took an old friend who was visiting, and she was so delighted to stop there, sharing her memories.  She hadn’t been to the spring for nearly 30 years, and as she drank the water, she had this smile on her face that stretched from ear to ear.  Each time I visited the spring, I met a few more interesting characters–those who come to the spring for nourishment and renewal.  Once, I met a woman who was dipping her rosary in the pouring water.  She said nothing, and got back into her car quietly.  The last time I visited, to gather water for my Imbolc celebration, I met a man who had a beat-up pick-up truck with huge wheels with a wild beard and a gleam in his eye.  Given that it was only about 20 degrees out, I said to him, “I wasn’t sure if the spring was going to be still flowing, given that its winter.”  He laughed and said, “You must be new to this spring. Everyone knows it never stops flowing.  It doesn’t matter if there is a drought, a blizzard, nothing will stop it.”  I thanked him and we continued to fill up our vessels on that cold late January day.

 

I also asked my family about the spring, and my mother told us that she remembered going there and getting water as a child.  This past Christmas, my parents found an old movie projector (the kind with the reels) and old movies my grandfather had made in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  We watched the movies over a period of weeks–and there, in one of the movies, was my young grandfather and grandmother with their three children (with the fourth, my uncle, still in the belly!) getting water at that spring.  I jumped up excitedly, and my cousin, who has also recently started going to the spring, hugged me.  “Its a family tradition!”  This was particularly exciting for a group of people who had very limited traditions and passed down heritage of their own.

 

Of course, there is still much mystery surrounding this particular roadside spring.  I’m really interested in now in studying more about Heffley Spring and its history.  What did it look like before it was rebuilt in 1970?  A trip to the Johnstown library and discussion with other people at the spring when I visit are next steps for me on this journey.

 

The Spring as a Sacred Site

And so, given these experiences, I have concluded three things:

 

1) This spring is a sacred site to the local community.  I say this because that’s what many sacred sites are:  sites of value that people return to often, spend time at, and that they work to protect.  Witnessing the woman cleansing or blessing her rosary in the waters confirmed that more is going on here than meets the eye.   I’ll return to this in the next section.

 

2) This spring also is the site of a rich family tradition, being visited at least by my grandparents, but my guess is much later.  As I’ve written about before on this blog, I’ve often felt estranged both from my larger family heritage (since I’m not Christian) but also a deep sense of loss of the older family traditions that would have come from the countries of my ancestors (Ireland, Germany, etc).  I am so thrilled to find this small piece of history here.

 

3) This site is rare–so many of our waterways are poisoned.  This one has escaped it for a few key reasons including being outside of the major Marcellus shale zones (so no fracking), not being near any major coal veins (so no fracking) and having its water source within the mountain, the same mountain ridge that holds 13,000 acres of protected lands (Laurel Ridge State Park).  Because of this, it has a tremendous potential for healing in the broader landscape.

 

I believe that many such springs have these same qualities–and seeking them out is a wonderful way to reconnect not only with the sacred waters of the land, but build traditions rooted in local experience.

 

Spring still flowing in January!

Spring still flowing in January!

Sacred Springs and Healing

These experiences have taught me many things about the nature of sacred sites in the US and the importance of these springs.  And so I want to conclude with some general thoughts about the nature of sacred springs and how we seek them out and build them into our own local druid traditions.

 

The Modern Sacred Site.  Vising Heffley spring has encouraged me to expand my understanding of a sacred site. If we work with the definition of it as as a place having significance and value (although not necessarily spiritual value), in a community, then springs that people visit for water certainly fit this bill.  After finding Heffley spring, I’ve begun to seek out other sacred springs in the area. I’ve since visited two springs to conduct more observations and gain more insights.  A visit to Roaring Spring (PA) and Berkley Springs (VW) reveal more of the same patterns–in this case, entire towns are named after the springs, and both of these springs are centerpieces in the towns.  This means that the whole of human activity was once centered around these springs.  And today, of course, people visit these springs, they take the water within, and they value them.  This isn’t probably a radical observation in other parts of the world, but here in the USA where so many are so disconnected, it is profound.

 

What this means, in essence, is that not only is the water coming from these places empowered with the telluric currents, it is further empowered with the visitation, value, and respect that so many ordinary citizens hold for these springs.  In this way, they function as true “sacred sites” in ways few other places may do at present.

 

Waters of Healing and Soothing. This means that we, too, can visit these sacred springs for healing and magical work.  One of the reasons I was visiting Heffley Spring in January was because I needed water for a healing ritual that I had planned on doing at Imbolc.  I wanted to take this rich, telluric energy enriched, pure water and, after blessing it, and take a bit to our most polluted water ways in the area to help do some energetic work.  There’s regenerative work I can do physically, but my research and intuition on these waterways is that this kind of cleanup work, stretching 1000’s of miles, or the ongoing fracking issues, are certainly beyond any single human being.   All that we can do is respond in some way, in a positive way.  These sacred waters can be like a soothing balm to the more damaged waterways.  It is our prayers, our holding space, and our magic that is one of the few things that can currently help these spaces.   I would also mention that for healing work of this kind, make sure you store your water in pure glass jars or jugs–you can find these for reasonable prices at your local homebrew store (I really like the gallon jugs I got there for about $5/each!), use old wine bottles, or use a mason jar.

 

Waters of Physical Healing, Flow, and Creativity. The other side of this is the personal healing and inspiration you can get from these .  Drinking water often from such sources of telluric light can facilitate healing and transformation within.  For one, I have found that in drinking water from the spring, I feel more energized, awake, and alive.  Its hard to explain using words–but my body literally feels scrubbed clean and fully awake, alive, and healed (its not that dissimilar from when I drink a good reishi or chaga tea).  For two, I have found that the water from these springs facilitates the flow of creativity in my own life–such as the writing of this post, which is flowing out of me on Imbolc itself, as I sit and drink deeply from the waters of this spring while I compose these words.  A glass of water from this spring in the morning along with my other daily ritual practices is an incredible start to my day! The water from these springs is truly a gift to be cherished and valued.

 

Gushing water from the Spring in June!

Gushing water from the Spring in June!

Seeking the Springs

I would encourage you to seek out sacred springs in your own region or in places that you visit.  The best place to start is in two directions: first, ask older relatives and friends if there are any springs nearby that people would visit (or even drive to visit).

 

Second, look at the map.  Places like “Indian springs” tells you something of the history of that place–my guess is that at one point, some “indians” had a spring there or other source of water.  This alone has helped me find many potential sites for such springs.  You might find that some springs only flow in the “spring time” (not a coincidence) when the waters are flowing, but other springs, like Heffley, might flow year round.  You may also find that there used to be a spring there, but its no longer maintained–but its still worth finding! I hope others consider finding such springs a worthy endeavor–I’d love to hear your experiences and stories!

 

 

 

Building Sacred Relationships with Food: Seasonal Food Rituals, Agricultural Blessings, Prayers, and Honoring Our Food May 28, 2015

Modern culture prevents many of us from engaging in a critical part of our human heritage—developing a sacred relationship with food. I’ve talked about developing such a sacred relationship with food on this blog before with regards to growing it and/or foraging it—how gardening allows me to develop a sacred relationship with plants, how seed saving and starting completes that cycle, how wild food foraging and medicine making allow for that connection, and how locally-based seasonal diets can help reconnect us.

 

However, I’m staying with my family for a few weeks before making my official move to PA, and trying to eat as I usually do (locally, seasonally, organically) has presented some serious challenges. The truth is that in poor, rural areas in the USA, organic and local food is simply not as available (or affordable) as it is in the cities or suburbs. In other places, poor areas of cities may also have no access to food. Where my parents live, farmer’s markets are practically non-existent out here, at least that I have been able to find. When I went to purchase some food I can get locally in Michigan, the markup around here was incredible ($12 for a tiny jar of tahini (not organic) compared to a much larger jar of organic tahini for $6 in Michigan, $2 for a single organic orange (compared to a bag of organic oranges for $3.99, $4.99 for gluten free noodles (also not organic) compared to $1.99 organic brown rice noodles, and so on. I was used to paying half of that for these kinds of staples, even in a much more expensive and wealthy area. So, given this situation that I’m seeing here, I’m using this blog post to explore other options for creating a sacred relationship with food that doesn’t have to do with the procurement or purchase of food itself.

 

The question is, what can we do to honor our food if buying local and growing our own food is off the table? This post explores other ways we can use prayer, ritual, and celebration to help bring the sacred back to our food—of any origin.

 

Everyday Prayer and Energy Blessings for Food

Special food created for a feast!

Special food created for a ritual feast!

The tradition of praying over food is used in many religious traditions, and it certainly has a welcome place within earth-based spiritual traditions and druidry. Prayers don’t have to be complex, but taking a moment to honor our food acknowledges the life that was taken (either plant or animal) to eat that meal. I also think that simple prayers can offset the problematic energetics that accompany industrialized foods. Here’s are two simple prayers that I use to honor the food (using the five elements):

 

With the blessing of the earth, I honor the lands that sustained this meal.

With the blessing of the air, I honor the hands that prepared this meal.

With the blessing of fire, I honor the labor that produced this meal.

With the blessing of water, I honor the lives that were given for this meal.

With the blessing of spirit, I wish a safe journey to those who now move on.

In gratitude, love, and peace, I recognize that all are part of the great web of life and that I, too, will one day return.

           

Another simple “prayer” was taught to me by a friend who runs a sustainable living center, Strawbale Studio. She has people of many faiths and traditions visit each month for full moon potlucks and began doing a simple physical energy blessing. Since nothing is said during this prayer, its very appropriate for mixed groups, and it works surprisingly well on its own.

 

Start by rubbing your hands together, generating heat and friction. After a few moments, when you feel your hands tingling, place your hands over the food and send the positive energy that you raised into the food. Then, move your hands outwards to face any others in the room, sending positive energy in their direction. Finally, sweep your hands above your head and circle them down to the earth below to bless the land and all its inhabitants.

 

Food as a blessing to others

A special apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!

A special and protective apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!  And yes, it was the best pie I ever made!

I like to give others the blessing of an extra special home-cooked meal or beautiful and tasty dish for difficult times or special occasions. This was once a common thing–to bring an elderly or sick neighbor a hot meal, to show up on a new neighbor’s doorstep with freshly baked bread to welcome them, or even to give food as gifts for fiends and family.

I like to continue this tradition as much as possible. Even this simple little gesture really brings a sacredness to the food, showing them that you were willing to cook it, to think of them, to bring it to them.  This kind of food is appreciated so much mroe than normal food–it lends a positive energy to the whole experience.

 

Blessings for the Land – Traditional Ceremonies

Traditional cultures had many blessings for the land—in fact, this is where most of the festivals associated with the Wheel of the Year came from—all had something to do with the crops, the livestock, the harvest, the dark and cold times. But for now, let’s look at some specific ceremonies that anyone can do and that function as land blessings directly tied to our food system and lands that produced them.

 

Many traditions had blessings specific to treecrops and harvests. For example, Native Americans blessed maple trees in the late winter before the sap ran to ensure a good maple sap harvest (given that maple sap was one of their only sources of sugar, it was a very important harvest)! Dancing and erecting a maypole is also a wonderful way of bringing fertility to the surrounding land. In the United Kingdom, Wassail traditions were used to bless apple orchards to encourage bountiful apple harvests—again, apple was a critical crop for both food and drink. This is a tradition that I’ve been blessed to participate in while living in Michigan. Wassail ceremonies can also be adapted more broadly to honor all of the food-bearing plants on the land—and they very much appreciate the positive energy such a ceremony provides!

Part of Wassail Ceremony

Part of Wassail Ceremony

I think there are many places we can draw upon for inspiration to engage in land blessings—and blessing the land that provides our food is a way of honoring that food, that land, and bringing in a sacred awareness of our dependence upon the soil, sunlight, rain, microbial life, plants, bees, and so much more.  Even if you aren’t eating locally, the blessing radiates outward to all life. We can begin to enact them again with our friends, family, and in our communities. This work is powerful, meaningful. The first time we put up a maypole, the land was blessed. The first year we did a wassail, the trees were piled with fruit!

 

But we can also create simple new traditions that honor the land—and by extension—the food we eat. An example of a very simple ceremony is putting out home-cooked food for the land as an offering. I like to put out homebrew (wine or cider) with cakes that I bake especially for the ceremony. This can be done at any point, although you could time it astrologically to make an offering on the full moon (or another auspicious harvest day—any old Farmer’s Almanac will provide all such days for the year). I like to make regular offerings in this way, taking some of the best food I prepare and leaving it as an offering.

 

Truthfully, whether or not you draw upon an ancient tradition like the Wassail or something right out of your head is not important—the important thing is to honor the land from which all of our food flows. I think we have a great opportunity to spread “oak knowledge” by offering such blessings of the land and inviting others to do the same. The land in our world today, at least here in America, often get no such honor.  Through these kinds of celebrations, we can shift our consciousness and recognizing the importance of maintaining a physical and spiritual connection with the natural world upon which our food systems and lives are based.

 

Seasonal Ritual Feasts and Dinners

Feasting and ceremony have a tremendously long history, and using food and the act of partaking in sacred rituals surrounding food goes back before recorded human history—in the USA, of course, Thanksgiving is our traditional ritual feast, honoring our history and seeking to be thankful for what blessings we have been given. Its unsurprising that in this massive age of consumerism, our “giving thanks” and partaking a traditional, seasonal meal has been subsumed in the consumerist hysteria of black Friday.

 

Given this, we can again, draw upon ancient traditions or create our own traditions and rituals surrounding food. For me, at least once a year, I like to hold a ritual dinner, honoring my food, eating in silence, and simply being with it. This is usually done by cooking one of my last harvests of the year, right before I pull out the main part of my garden. I cook all my food from the garden, say prayers, make offerings, and generally just be thankful for the food and my opportunity to develop a relationship with it.

 

A second kind of simple seasonal food ritual is simply creating a meal based on foods available at that season. Root stews with beans in the winter, greens and salads in the spring, corn and potatoes in the fall, and so on. You can create a whole menu of seasonal, special foods and recipes that you create to honor the season (and tie these with the wheel of the year). I have done this—and some of the recipes shared on this blog, like dandelion wine, are part of seasonal food preparation that I’ve done to honor the land and develop a deeper connection. While my recipes are tied locally to my land, they don’t have to be, and I think the attempt is what is important.

 

I hope what this post has suggested is that there are many, many ways in which we can develop a more sacred relationship with food–even when certain options are closed to us. There are so many other kinds of things you can do with ritual and food—and the sky is really the limit!

 

Resources to Learn the Inner and Outer Worlds of Herbalism: Plants, Books, Courses, Lore, and More April 4, 2015

drying herbs

drying herbs

I have been doing an ongoing series of posts about herbalism: herbalism as a druidic practice, my path into herbalism, and medicine making during sacred times of the year. Given the fact that its early spring, and the herbs are starting to emerge back into the world, I wanted to follow-up with another post about how one can go about learning to be an herbalist and some of the resources to get you started.

 

There are a lot of ways to become an herbalist, but I would start by saying that the study of herbs is no quick thing. Like anything worth doing, it requires dedication and practice. Traditional western herbalism contains an immense body of knowledge that requires not only good memory and study skills, but also intuition, observation, and reasoning. You will be challenged, fully, by studying the herbs, their medicine, and their work upon the body. It will take years to develop enough knowledge to be a deeply effective herbalist, but you will also learn things even on your first day of studying herbs that you can apply to better your health and address various ailments.

 

Taking a Local, Sustainable Approach. I want to start by emphasizing that traditional western herbalists, myself included, try as much as possible to take a local approach to plants. This means getting to know local plants that grow or that can be cultivated, gathering them or growing them yourself, and using them rather than those that perhaps are more widely commercially available, but are not locally grown. Many of the really popular plants that are commercially available, like Goldenseal, Osha, or Black Cohosh also suffer from serious overharvesting and and are threatened–this is not sustainable.  There are ways of getting these plants sustainably, specifically, from small herb farms who cultivate them and harvest without disrupting wild populations. But those farms’ products are likely not found in your typical heath food store and have to be sought out.

 

As a locally-based herbalist, using the local plants will allow you to monitor the health of the species and grow some yourself.  Even if you have no land, a trip into the nearest farmer’s field, your family’s front yard, or a nearby forest can greet you with a wealth of herbs (in fact, the first herbs that are easy to learn like dandelion, plantain, violet, strawberry and ground ivy can all be typically found in most lawns). But also, being able to grow and gather your own plants puts you in a relationship with that plant that you would not otherwise have. There’s a huge energetic difference between harvesting stinging nettles fresh vs. opening up a plastic bag that you’ve purchased–a difference from a sustainable perspective, but also a difference from an energetic perspective. Using plants that are more abundant, too (read= invasive) can also help control their populations. For example, purple loosestrife, much maligned throughout Michigan, makes one of the best remedies for conjunctivitis.

 

Taking a local approach to plants is especially important to note because so much of our culture (and our own behavior patterns) is designed to fuel consumptive behavior.  If we really want to break free of consumptive cycles, it means doing a lot more things ourselves, and gathering and growing our own herbs is one of them.  I know there are a lot of well-meaning herb companies, but they still ship their herbs using fossil fuels, they still bottle or bag up herbs in plastic…all of this can be avoided (or mostly avoided) by taking a local approach.

 

Dana's herb class - 2014

Dana’s herb class – 2014

In-Person Herbal Intensives. One of the best ways for finding information on locally available medicinal plants is by learning it in person from someone who practices herbalism locally or regionally, which brings me to in-person herbal courses. I strongly suggest that if you are serious about learning herbs, try to find an in-person herbal intensive. Better yet, if you can take classes from a few different herb teachers, do so. I had read herbals before taking my year-long herbal intensive class, but learning herb through plant walks, lectures, and discussions fit my mode of learning much better, and allowed me to ask questions and also learn from other students. Plus, my herb teacher is one of my favorite human beings–many herbalists are cool, quirky, weird people who are fun to learn from and get to know. Mountain Rose herbs maintains a list of herbal schools here. Some herbal schools are in-person only (like my class from Jim McDonald); others offer distance courses, such as Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class.

 

Wilcrafting Plants: Plant Identification. If you want to be a locally-based herbalist and use plants in your area, you want to learn not only about the herbs yourself, but how to grow and/or wildcraft those plants. Wildcrafting medicines and growing one’s own is actually, in my opinion, not only encouraged by necessary for good herbal practice. We have this tendency in our culture to just be willing to purchase everything–and certainly, plenty of herbal supplements, tinctures, or dried plants are ready to be purchased (and for some without access to plants or with limited mobility, this may be the only option). But if you have the means, invest the time in learning the plants and how to use them. If this is your goal, you  will want to get out there and start finding things! I want to refer you to my two-part series on wildcrafting as a good start (these articles include information that is applicable for wildcrafting herbs for healing/medicine). I’ve mentioned a few books really good for plant identification before–one of my favorites is Oslund and Oslund’s What’s Doin’ the Bloomin? You can also get many different kinds of apps and other resources–these are plentiful and a library has much to offer! Look also, for older plant taxonomies and guides–there are some lovely books easy to find and usually quite cheap that can teach you about tree identification, flowers, etc. The Audobon Society puts out a series of compact field guides will full color photos.  You can also get apps, like the free Leaf Snap, that can be super helpful if you are into the smartphone thing (I’m not, lol).

 

Learning about the Body: Energetics and Actions. Picking up an herbal and saying “oh, such and such plant is good for X” is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble–and while this method may work for simple ailments (like a burn, which is always in a hot state) its not good herbal practice. Why? Because traditional western herbalism doesn’t work like alleopathic (mainstream) medicine. Traditional western herbalism recognizes that each person’s “energetic” state in their body is different and how illness manifests in the body likewise, may be different. This means, in order to treat something, you need to know enough about energetics (called “tissue states“; the link gives Matthew Wood’s take on it) to give the right herb that will compliment and address the person’s energetic state manifesting in response to a condition.

 

Here’s what I mean–if you have a cold, your cold might be manifesting as cold (meaning you have the chills) and stagnant (meaning nothing is moving, the snot is stuck in your head) or you might have a cold that is hot (you are running a fever) and damp (you have a damp, wheezy cough, your snot runs profusely, and so on). These all very different states that the body is in–and require different herbs.  I’d use warming and stimulating herbs to treat the first condition while I’d use cooling and drying herbs to treat the second; for both I’d use immune system aids to aid the body along. If I gave the hot/damp person hot herbs, that may aggravate the condition even if the herb also had some sort of immune system boost.

 

So, the solution to this is before you dive into the herbs themselves, you should learn about how energetics work.  For this, the best book I have found is Matthew Wood’s The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism: Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. If you want to get started, my herb teacher, Jim, has a guide posted here. The second thing these books and resources will teach you is about herbal actions, or what effect the herb actually has on the body (e.g. plantain coat and soothe the mucus membranes with its mucilaginous quality).

 

Once you understand basic energetics, you can move on to using and understanding materia medicas (that is, herbal books)….

 

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures–in this case, from queen anne’s lace–from wildcrafted ingredients

Learning about herbs: Materia Medicas. Over the years, many different guides to specific herbs–Materia Medicas–have been written by skilled herbalists. There are several for free online, like Grieve’s Modern Herbal and Culpeppers Herbal. These are great resources and places to get started! My personal favorite herbals are Matthew Wood’s two Earthwise Herbals (Vol 1 and Vol 2). You will need to purchase both to have a full range of herbs. I also really like Adele Dawson’s Herbs: Partners in Life which as gifted to me about a year ago by two dear friends. Dawson doesn’t just talk about remedies, she also gives recipes and her innate knowledge of herbs. I think each herbalist will have his or her own favorite books–but the ones I’ve just listed are some good ones to consider.

 

Making Plant medicine. One of the areas I enjoy the most with herbalism is making various plant medicines. I’ve had a few posts over the years that detail some of my recipes, like Jewelweed Salve, Dandelion Bitters, Sore Muscle Rub, or Steam inhalations. The two books that are my go-to guides for these are complimentary and both excellent purchases: Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine and James Green’s The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook. These two present you with all of the principles you need to make awesome goodies.  If you want specific recipes and suggestions, you can pick up one of many Rosemary Gladstar’s books.

 

Plants as Teachers and Allies. A critical part of learning how to be an herbalist is working with the plants themselves as teachers, allies, and guides. While different herbalists have various views on the inner worlds of plants and their teachings, one of my favorite teachers in this regard is Stephen Harrod Buhner. His Secret Teachings of Plants, Sacred Plant Medicine, and The Lost Language of Plants are great places to start.  Many of my writings on druid tree workings and other spiritual practices can also aid you in reaching the plant realm.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I think my earlier druid tree working posts covers a good deal of the basics :).

 

Learning about the Body: Anatomy and Physiology. But wait, isn’t this about plantsWhen I dove into herbalism a two years ago, I was surprised at just how much I had to learn about the body and its functions…and wished I had taken an anatomy and physiology class while still in college!  Herbalism was just as much about plants as it is about their interaction with the body. The book I’ve used for this is Pip Waller’s Holistic Anatomy: An Intergrative Guide to the Human Body. There are really good Youtube videos on the subject as well.

 

Learning about food and nutrition. Good eating is the cornerstone to good health. Working to heal your body and keep it in prime health means that you not only need to understand about plants as medicine, but realize that everything that you eat also has the power to heal (or to harm). This was made very abundantly clear to me when I worked with a nutritionist and herbalist to heal my asthma.  In the case of my asthma, which was brought on by a gluten sensitivity, herbs would only take it so far (and would be treating the symptom). By changing my diet and adding herbs, I was able to address the root cause instead. This is all to say that its important to learn about nutrition and healing foods as much as it is to learn about healing plants. Jim Mcdonald has some good links on herbs and nutrition in his master index here (which is great to check out for many more reasons!)

Dried herbs and old kettles!

Dried herbs and old kettles!

 

Getting the right tools and equipment.  Starting out in herbalism doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything–the plants are freely available on the landscape. However, as you go on, you might find some tools and equipment helpful. Much of this you can repurpose or build yourself.

  • Dehydrator and/or drying rack – to dry herbs for later use, including teas. Teas are best made with dry, not fresh, herbs because the drying process breaks down cell walls.
  • Jars (I use mason jars, reusable and infinitely useful) – for storage of dried herbs, tinctures, infused oils, and more.
  • A double-boiler for making infused oils and salves (I found mine for $20 at a garage sale).
  • Tincture press. These are super expensive online, but I made my own for super cheap (instructions are here).
  • A few of the tools for harvesting and foraging: bags, basket, a pair of scissors, gloves (for nettles and prickly things), and a hori-hori knife (these and more listed in this blog post).

 

Herbalism Conferences are wonderful ways to learn from various teachers, attend plant walks, learn about energetics, and more. If you have the time and funds, an herbalism conference is well worth attending! Some conferences include the Herbfolk Gathering, the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, and the Great Lakes Herb Faire.

 

Growing Herbs. You can also learn a lot about herbalism just from simply growing a few herbs in your garden. For a full introduction to this, you can see Cech’s The Medicinal Herb Grower.

 

On the process of learning. I think I mentioned on this blog before that part of my research as a university professor is on how people learn. Since undertaking any new learning has its own set of challenges, I’ll conclude with some brief advice from the science of learning that can help you more successfully take your first steps into traditional western herbalism.

  • On setting yourself up for success. Recognize how you learn best, and make your learning conducive to that approach. Perhaps you are a visual learner: seeing the plants, looking at pictures, engaging in observation and study: these will help you learn best. Perhaps you need to learn the big picture first–learning about the big picture of energetics will help you before delving into the herbals. Perhaps you need to learn by doing: find some youtube videos and follow along yourself. The key is to figure out how you learn best and use that strategy to maximize your success.
  • Learning from someone else. Even if you aren’t able to take a class (or even if you are) you’d be surprised who has a bit of herbal knowledge around you. Ask around for people who make teas, use salves, and so on. Its really wonderful to find someone to learn from, even if its just a friend teaching you a few things.
  • Pair up and learn together. Its also wonderful to take a class with a friend or family member or to self-design a curriculum you can use to learn about herbs together. This will lead to rich conversations and keeping each other moving forward.
  • On challenges. If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, we don’t grow in the same way that if we are to challenge ourselves frequently to use–and learn new–knowledge. If you want to be a good herbalist, you have to find ways of challenging yourself to grow your herbal knowledge. Maybe tackle a big herbal project, like making a small family herbal medicine cabinet. Whatever it takes to have you grow each time you try something new.
  • On the nature of expertise. Any serious profession or subject requires considerable effort and practice to move from being a novice to to being an expert. Being an expert herbalist may not be your goal, of course.  But for many subjects, research has suggested somewhere between 5000-10,000 hours are necessary to have real “expertise.” Even if being an expert, practicing herbalist, isn’t your goal, realize that learning anything as complex as herbalism does require hours and hours of investment. So be patient and give yourself the space and time to learn.

 

I hope this post has illustrated some ways to learn about herbs and that you find it useful!  I would love to hear your ideas and experiences with herbs, dear readers!

 

Sustainability as Sacred Action January 12, 2014

The common bond that unites druids, and other earth-centered spiritual paths, is a deep respect and reverence for the living earth. We celebrate the turning wheel of the seasons, we revere the plants, and we speak to the forest spirits.  But what does having that connection with nature mean, and how can we deepen that connection into every aspect of our lives? How can we ensure our actions nourish, nurture and support in all ways?

 

Aster flower in late summer

Aster flower in late summer

For my own practice of druidry, building a more sustainable life and teaching others about sustainability and permaculture, is my cornerstone. Why? First, because the more deeply in tune with the natural world I’ve become through my druidic practices, the more I’ve realized that my own relationship with the land started out more passively damaging than actively nurturing.  How could I say I followed an earth-based path when I engaged in so many practices that were destructive—even  if I didn’t realize/intend they were destructive?  When I purchased products that supported companies actively damaging the land, harming my fellow humans, and so forth?  With this series of realizations, I began to radically shift my own life to align my daily life with my spiritual belief; this process is ongoing. For anyone who has been attempting to live more sustainably, the odds are stacked against us in a culture of consumption—but it is possible with knowledge, determination, and a community of support.

 

As druids, the land speaks to us in important and informative ways. The land of the two communities where I have spent the most time—South-East Michigan, where I live now, and Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, has much to teach us about the need for sustainable living. These connections helped shape my path.

 

In south-east Michigan, we are truly “on the front lines” of many of the energy and post-industrial challenges that we face in the world. These challenges include a declining industrialized society with dwindling resources, increased illiteracy and poverty in both rural and urban areas, rampant environmental destruction for cheap energy (such as fracking and oil pipelines), an automobile industry pushing in unsustainable directions, and local government structures that seem to hold the economy as sacred at the disregard of everything else. This situation has prompted many of us here to more carefully pay attention, to become informed, to learn from each other, and to ultimately begin to build communities that are more sustainable.

 

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

In south-western Pennsylvania, where I grew up, the landscape tells another tale. In their exploration for coal and steel production, numerous companies built up an industry in the 1800’s and 1900’s. They dug up the land, put men in the ground, dug out the coal, shipped it to the cities, and used it to produce boatloads of steel.  Of course, these companies have long since left (and some are still in business in places like Mexico), the individuals profiting from them long ago passing on, taking their profits with them. As part of the mining process, the mining companies created mountain-sized “boney dumps” that still remain a century later.  The dumps, the same size as the Appalachian mountains that surround them, contain a lot of the materials that weren’t usable. These dumps, exposed to the elements, make their way into the waterways. .The land suffers from the runoff of these old boney dumps: nothing will grown on their toxic contents, which include mercury, sulfur, and many other heavy metals and toxins.  Many of the creeks in the area, which locals dub “sulfur creeks” are so polluted that no life can be found in them. Cancer rates are high, along with asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases (all found in my family and in the families of everyone else I know).  Some of the streams are bright yellow and full of sulfur; others are a pale cloudy blue/gray—all are devoid of life.  And of course now, fracking also is taking place throughout Pennsylvania. It is just one more blow to the land that has been repeatedly logged, poisoned, and now, fracked.

 

Jewelweed for medicine

Jewelweed for medicine

Examining my own landscape as well as my own actions in a spiritual manner over time encouraged me to realize that every action, every choice, however small, could be done in a sacred, intentional manner. Each choice was sacred: from bringing my own bags to the grocery store to picking up “treasures” in my neighbors’ trash to use in a new way,  to offering land freely for friends to learn how to grow their own food. It wasn’t not just sacred when I walk into that forest and honor the spirits there using ritual—but its sacred when I am going to work, paying my bills, spending time with my family.  And how do I ensure that the forest will be there in the future? That it isn’t fracked, sold off, or developed? I started to realize that my offering, and my path, was how I lived my life, each day, and how I interacted with those around me.  Everything became a potential for sacred action.  We are facing increasingly difficult times, where the lands we love are under serious threat from so many forces–including from ourselves.  For me, finding ways of living the sacred of everyday, and finding ways of engaging in nurturing traditions has what has helped me begin to make this shift.