The Druid's Garden

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

Ecoregional Druidry and the Wheel of the Year: Rituals, Observances, and Activities September 3, 2017

Abundant crab apples (the first year after we wassailed!)

Abundant crab apples (the first year after we wassailed!)

A group of people gather in an orchard, the snows quietly falling, the cold brisk and clear.  Our voices ring to the heavens, toast is offered to the branches of the tree. We drum, sing, make noise, and scare away any spirits who would seek to harm the orchard’s harvest. We enjoy hot mulled cider and retreat back inside for feasting and community. This is a wassail for the health of the apple trees, an ancient celebration that is now very much part of my yearly wheel of the year (and one that I’ve described in some depth on this blog earlier this year and a few years ago). This is one of many rich traditions that we can engage in in honoring the land and living an earth-based path. In my last post, we explored how druids in various ecosystems might adapt the UK-based wheel of the year (a set of seasonal holidays) to their local ecosystems and cultural norms. Today, we continue this by exploring how to take your ecoregional wheel of the year you are developing and turn it into a set of rituals, observances, and activities.

 

Developing Localized Rituals, Observances, and Activities

After some research and reflection, perhaps you’ve started to put together your own wheel of the year (see my last post) that includes a series of astronomical observances combined with regional and local observances. And you look at your wheel and think, “now what?” The most immediate thing that comes to mind is that you have to do some kind of formal ritual to celebrate, and that is certainly a possibility.  Today, I’d like to suggest that there are at least three ways you can celebrate these events on your wheel of the year: activities, observances, and rituals.  Let’s now consider each of these in turn:

 

Activities

The first thing you can do to celebrate events on your wheel of the year is to engage in various activities that are associated with the event.  Activities are just that: things you can do, with sacred intent, but not necessarily with formalized ritual.  Activities might include outings/trips, arts and crafts, cooking/fermentation, foraging, gardening/planting/harvesting, making things, and so on.  I like to think of these as activities as supporting a larger seasonal observation or marking a minor seasonal occurrence.

 

Basket of freshly made smudges!

Basket of freshly made smudges!

For example, after the first hard frost (which is a minor observance on my wheel of the year), I go and harvest whatever aromatic plants are left that typically get some frost damage my garden: lavender, sage, mugwort, rosemary, thyme, etc..  I also visit some confiers that are my friends (white pine, white cedar, and juniper) and gather some branches.  I then open up a sacred bardic arts grove and make my yearly smudge sticks.

 

In a second example, as part of my Summer Solstice celebratory events, I have a whole routine I typically do that spans several days. This includes being up for sunrise to witness the sunrise on the longest day of the year. Typically, I make at least two different canned goods: an elderflower cordial from fresh elder harvested on the day of the solstice and a strawberry jam with home grown and wild strawberries (also harvested on or near the day of the solstice).  I open up a sacred grove in my kitchen for canning and do the canning as part of my celebration.  I then give these special labels and enjoy these during the winter months and share them with friends who need a bit of the light of summer in their lives.  Further, as part of my summer solstice celebrations, on the day before or day after, I also go out and harvest certain sacred herbs beyond elder such as yarrow and raspberry leaf for my use throughout the year.

 

In sum, a seasonal celebration can be as simple as a special actitivy you do once a year to celebrate the passage of an important moment.  It can be done with friends, loved ones, and family and doesn’t have to be an “overt” druid ritual (so you can quietly celebrate and still enjoy the company of others, even if they are on a very different path).

 

Observances

The second way you might celebrate one of the events on your wheel of the year is what I call an observance. It is less formal than a ritual (which I’ll cover last), but is still a kind of ceremony. I engage in a lot of observances with anything beyond the eight holy days on my druid calendar.  Observances usually do not take place within a formal open grove, but still with an observance you have the sense that you are stepping out of time for a moment or two in order to experience the sacred. An observance might be a moment of silence, making a small offering, chant a few Awens, drinking deeply of the first flow of maple sap, observe a sunrise, coming to a sacred place and saying a few words, reciting a poem, doing a simple divination, walking in nature and looking for messages, and so on.  These are minor things, yet powerful. They can be planned or unplanned.

 

For example, literally in the middle of me drafting this paragraph, a powerful summer thunderstorm came through. I stopped my writing and went out in it for a time, simply to experience its power and beauty, taking in the signts, smells, sounds, and feel of the rain and wind on my skin.  Then, I gathered a bit of the rain in a small bowl and lathed my head with it to keep the awen flowing, then, I came inside and continued to write. This was not a formal ritual, but it was a chance for me to experience the sacredness of the storm, step for a moment out of “normal time” and witness the power of nature.

 

Another such observance takes place with the first snowfall of the year.  During the first snowfall, I get outside as quickly as I can. There, I chant a number of “Awens” and catch at least three snowflakes on my tongue. Even if I am at work, I will go and quietly chant the awens and catch the three snowflakes, sneaking back into the building after visiting our Oak Grove on my campus.

Small Spiral in Snow honoring snowfall

Small Spiral in Snow honoring snowfall

 

A third such observance is when I encounter any place in nature that resonates with me in any setting. I usually carry a bit of home-grown tobacco offering (combined with lavender and rose petals, my favorite) and make a small offering to that place. I might do a full Sphere of Protection (from AODA‘s practice) or Light Body Exercise (from OBOD‘s practice) or sit for a time in reverence and awe at the moment.

 

I visit the forest once a week in the months of April and May to wait for the first blooming of the hawthorn. I have a particular tree that I visit, deep in the forest, that I wait to bloom. Once the buds open, I leave an offering (of home grown tobacco mixed with lavender leaf and rose petal) at the base of the tree.  Then, I create a floral water (by taking a glass bowl of spring water and holding it to the blossom for a few minutes) and then drink the water.  I sit with the tree in silence and honor the return of spring.

 

As the above indicates, many of the minor holidays on my own wheel of the year list are observances that are “in the moment.”  They are simple ways of connecting with what is happening in the broader world, and bringing the sacred to everyday life.

 

Rituals

The final way you might celebrate the turning wheel of the year is the most commonly known and practiced, and that is a formal ritual, wherein you open a sacred space, engage in some series of activities to celebrate the event (including raising or lowering energy, making offerings, reading poetry, and so forth), and then formally closing the space.  I’m going to have a separate post on ritual writing so for now, I’ll offer some basic information.

 

Having a consistent framework from which to do your ritual (which may include words, actions, or activities that are repeated over time) gives your rituals both power and meaning. Usually, this is done through set opening and closing rituals (of which both OBOD and the AODA offer good onesf or solidary or group use). Using a standard opening and closing practice from an established druid order also means that you aren’t going to miss important steps (like energetically sealing a space or releasing energy from that space once you are finished).

 

Eclipse at full strength near our ritual space

Eclipse at full strength near our ritual space

Assuming you have the openings and closings covered, typically what is missing is the “meat” of the ritual–that is, what is it that you are doing to celebrate it?  Consider three things: first, it should respond to the energy of the moment, second, it should be a ritual that serves a specific purpose that you set (your intentions or goals). and finally, it should also be effective and moving for you.

 

As an example, let’s look at a recent eclipse ritual that a few grove members and I did to see some of the building blocks of a celebatory ritual. In designing this ritual, we responded both to the classical interpreation of the eclipse (that it was a dire warning and a negative event) as well as the events of the last few weeks in our human community here in the US, and also our own challenges in the present moment). We opened up a simple sacred space in our permanent sacred grove in the forest as the eclipse grew in strength.  Given the challenges with today’s age, I played the panflute while my two friends worked to draw from the energy sources we had raised and visualized sending light out into the world (countering the growing darkness of the eclipse). Then, we smudged each other and used a lavender hydrosol (floral water). The smudge was to take away any pain and darkness we might be carrying and the lavender was meant to uplift our spirits and bring clarity.  We then closed out the space and basked in the sights and sounds of the eclipse.

 

So in this ritual, we have four parts: an opening, and acknowledging of the event, and two core pieces of work: radiating light into our human community and purification of our own bodies.  This was a successful and impactful ritual because it held meaning and significance for us.  We had no scripts, had simply talked through it in advance.

 

You can do many different things as part of your own rituals.  Most often, the simple things without the elaborate scrips are the most effective and meaningful. Here are some of many possibilities:

  • Reading poetry that is fitting for the holiday (I love a lot of Wendell Berry’s poetry for this)
  • Speaking about the holiday, and reflecting on its energy in your life
  • Raising energy to radiate into the world as healing/light
  • Removing negative energy from ourselves (casting into a fire is a good one) or from the broader land (see my “Land Healing” series for more on how to do this)
  • Meditation
  • Inner journeying
  • Tending a sacred fire
  • Making offerings
  • Consecrating objects with the elements
  • Sacred movement (dance)
  • Sacred music
  • Moving through gateways (particulary at the equinoxes, moving into the dark half of the year)
  • Connecting with the energy of plants/trees through sitting with them, working with them, drinking tea, etc.

In the end, whatever you might do, it is your intention that matters, rather than whether or not you get the words perfect, or it works out just like you hoped it would.  What matters is the heart of it, the feeling, the experience.  If you mess up what you planned, laugh about it and keep going.  These practices are for us, for the land, for the spirits–and no one minds a few mistakes!

 

The Wheel Turns

As you develop your own rituals, activities, and observances for your own wheel of the year, your connection with the living earth and your sense of the sacred will continue to unfold.  Everything, ultimately, should have meaning to you and be rooted in things that give you a sense of the sacred, of significance, and of purpose.  As you develop these activities for your wheel and with each time you do them, your relationship  to the practices  will deepen.  Over time, some practices you setup will fall away and/or be replaced by new practices.  This is the natural evolution of your own spiritual practice.

 

I’ll continue this discussion next week with talking about localizing symbols and other things commonly used in celebrations and ritual activities.

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The Way of Wood January 22, 2017

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

Imagine sitting down to your holiday meal with loved ones and family. There is a feast before you–ham, turkey, potatoes, stuffing, corn, gravy, and various other family favorites. The table is decorated with colorful red tablecloths, the lights are low, the lights on the tree are twinkling….and you are given a Styrofoam plate! I’m sure this has happened to all of us over the years–and to me as well! What if, instead, you were given a beautiful hand-carved wooden bowl or plate to eat from? How would that change the experience of eating your meal? What if the meal was by candlelight, with engaging conversation, and took my time with the meal?  In fact, if you had lived in an earlier time, you likely would have had this experience, and it would have been the “norm.”

 

In fact, Eric Sloane describes the shifts in our relationship with lovingly crafted, wooden things in his On Reverence for Wood. In this passage, he describes America before the Civil War: “Wood was not accepted simply as the material for building a new nation—it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘A substance with a soul’. It spanned rivers for man, it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.” (Pg. 72)  I think this quote beautifully expresses humans’ relationship with wood in previous generations, and to me, helps fill a gap that I didn’t know was missing.

 

A lot of things I talk about on this blog are what I might frame as “big” things: working on land regeneration, sustainable living and permaculture, growing food, natural building, beekeeping and more…these big things seem important and relevant. But there are also the more subtle ways of shifting living and communing with nature that may be less obvious, but no less profound. I think that there is value in exploring alternatives to the everyday objects that fill our lives and that we interact with. How many times, for example, do I encounter plates, bowls, cups, and silverware each day?  How many times do I put my feet in a pair of shoes, or put a pair of pants on, or put my head on a pillow in a typical week?  How many times do I sit down to enjoy a simple meal? How do those simple, daily patterns, unfold?  And so, today, I’m going to explore a rather simple concept, in honor of the many feasts most of us attended as part of the holiday season over the last few months. I call this concept the way of wood.

 

The Way of Wood

What I’m calling “the way of wood” refers to, in a literal sense, spending more time and contact with wood that has been lovingly shaped by careful hands.  Wood that has a soul.  The wood’s origins are important–ethical resourcing of the wood is critical. These wooden objects come into your life either by trading/purchasing/commissioning it from those who work with wood or by honing your own skill in carving/woodworking/turning, etc.  So far, I am in the first category, having found woodworkers whose talents I wish to support, although I hope to turn my artistic sights on this beautiful art form quite soon!

 

The way of wood, in a broader sense, asks us to consider the nature and origins of the objects that we engage with in everyday life–and bring those objects more carefully and consciously into our daily living experiences. This, again, means considering relationships between the object, how it was made, where it was sourced, as part of an energetic relationship.  The way of wood also encourages us to seek deeper connection with nature through the creation (and supporting the creation) of homemade items from local sources over industrial ones.  In other words, we are looking for items that have “soul” and that are, likely created outside of the industrial/consumption/stuff-making system.  Of course, this “way of wood” doesn’t happen overnight, but as things wear out, we might seek to replace them with things of a different nature, a careful nature, a slower nature.

 

The curved spoon and others...

The curved spoon and others…

Why does the way of wood matter? Some history here has really helped my thinking–I hope it helps you too.

 

The Loss of Reverence for Wood

At one time, wood was the most important thing we had: we made everything from it.  It was, as the quote above suggests, “a substance with a soul.” Eric Sloane’s masterpiece, Reverence for Wood, is well worth reading on this subject. I’m going to briefly summarize some of what he shares in that book here to help us understand historically, humans’ changing relationship with wood and its connection to industrialization here in the US–but I encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to read his work.  Its a short book (about 100 pages) and filled with his incredible illustrations–a gem well worth your time.

 

Sloane’s book explores, century by century, in reverse chronological order, human’s changing relationship with wood. Of key importance to Sloane was the drastic shifts between the 18th century, when everything was made of wood (as described in the quote above), and the 19th century, with the rise of the age of iron and industrialization, where wood became used as the fuel of progress.  Much of this shift was firmly settled with outcome of Civil War in the United States, the war not only of slavery, but of an agrarian society vs. an industrial one. With the triumph of the Northern industrialized states, industry quickly transitioned the entire nation (as it was already doing in England and many other former colonies).

 

It was during this transition that wood, according to Sloane, ceased to have its value as something to be lovingly crafted for daily living rather than as a resource to fuel industry.  In fact, it is during this age that we see billions of acres of forests, cut to be “coaled off” to make charcoal for iron furnaces, cut to run locomotives, and cut to literally pave streets for higher volume traffic among many other things. This is certainly what happened to “Penn’s woods” in Pennsylvania, where, by the start of the century, less than 5% of the forests remained in many of the Western counties surrounding the big steel factories. Sloane reports that one English paper during this time wrote, “The English criticized us, saying that the Americans ‘seem to hate trees and cannot wait to cut them down” because the land was literally being stripped bare.

 

But the shift in consumer goods and industry weren’t the only shifts away from this primary wood-filled economy. In the late 1800s, American farmers had walled up their hearths and instead added an iron kitchen stove. Wood was added to this stove as Sloan writes “without ceremony,” shutting it up inside the iron box that didn’t need much tending. This, of course, eventually led to our modern furnaces and use of fossil fuels for warmth. Sloane gives many other examples as well–how the incredible array of objects once made from wood (pails and spiles for maple sugar, meat pounders, churns, knives, sleds, mallets, forks, shovels, spoons, and much more–were turned into iron instead and sold to folks). Wood became quite unfashionable and quaint, something for an older generation and day and iron was now on the rise.

 

To me, the shift from wood to iron represents a profound shift in humans’ relationships with nature as a whole and with trees specifically. In the earlier economical model, wood was a primary resource whereby humans interacted with trees, managed them carefully, cut trees and shaped them for their immediate needs (shelter, warmth, tools), and understood those trees as a resource upon which we clearly depended. Damage to the forest resource would result in direct damage to the ability of those humans to continue to provide warmth, shelter, and tools–and so, wood was deeply respected, coppiced, and managed. Also in this earlier economical model, wood was known deeply and intimately. In the 17th century, Sloane describes how a chair might be made out of as many as 15 different woods, each having their own unique characters and properties. People could tell what kind of tree was being cut by the sound the axe made in the wood.  Each wood has its own unique personality; likewise, people were often tied to tree personalities.

 

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

Beautiful bowls of a variety of styles (some are purchased from turners, others found at yard sales, etc!)

With the end of the Civil War and the rise of industrialization, wood became a secondary resource, cut and shipped “away” for use in some other location and the resulting goods coming back to humans in a new form (iron). Wood was no longer a resource upon which people primarily depended upon for survival–the invisible industrial processes and consumer economy masked its use.  If a forest is cut and shipped to an industry far away, it is of no real consequence to those who live nearby, for they have ceased depending on that forest for their needs. Rather, they depend upon, primarily, that far away industry. This is true of the many things for which wood was used: wood is purchased from a store (who get it from logging and a sawmill); heat is purchased from several sources (with a small amount of people still chopping wood); tools are purchased with handles, sometimes wood, from an unknown source; chairs are purchased of wood from a store, again, from an unknown source.  There is no reason to preserve and protect the local forest because all of your needs come from the store, who gets it from a factory, who gets the raw resources from all over (including that local forest).  This disconnection does much harm, in my opinion. And so, it was during this time of rising industrialization that humans’ rich understanding of wood and knowledge was lost and largely replaced by iron and industry.

 

Over 150 years now, we have a profound loss of understanding of the nature of wood and connection with that part of nature. Most people can’t identify more trees than they have fingers on one hand, much less understand intimately wood and its qualities.  I’ve seen this over and over again when I’m teaching herbalism or wild food foraging classes–identification skills are quite poor for most folks.  The bad news is that some of this knowledge may have been lost–but the good news is that the new movements in sustainable living, woodworking, permaculture, and bushcraft are encouraging folks to begin to learn the way of wood once more.

 

(I’ll mention here wonderful song by fellow OBOD Druid, Damh the Bard, from his 2015 album Sabbat. Its called “Iron from Stone” and it tells this same story of the changes in the landscape and the shift into iron (and the human cost of such a shift.))

Finding our Way back to Wood Again

 

For me, it started with a single, lovingly crafted wooden spoon, a spoon with soul.  A number of years ago, a druid friend of mine had gotten into carving and I decided to commission him to make me a magical serving spoon. This spoon was no ordinary spoon–it was harvested from cherry right off of his land only several miles from where I lived, carved with a spiral handle, and carved with an Awen in the center of the spoon. It was amazing, and after cooking with it, I came to the conclusion that I needed a lot more wooden things in my life.  This, of course, was many years before I had read Sloane’s work or really understood the historical aspects of the loss of knowledge of wood.

 

Instead, that first spoon offered an emotional connection, a soul connection: I loved the way the spoon felt, I loved the way my food tasted when I cooked with it, and I wanted more.  Soon after, he offered me a regular eating spoon for my birthday. After that, I found some really nice old carved bowls at a yard sale, carved by the woman’s grandfather. Then, I met a local wood turner at our farmer’s market with beautiful live edge bowls…over time, I replaced nearly all of my everyday eating bowls and such with beautiful wood–wood that requires care, love, and that brings connection.

 

I’ve watched friends’ delighted reactions as they come to my home and eat from my wooden bowls lovingly prepared food–it makes the meal so much more magical, meaningful, and connected.  Maybe, they, too, are connecting to the soul of the trees that are still very much alive within those bowls.

 

What I have come to fundamentally understand through this process is that the energy that goes into an object infuses that object. And it infuses us.  There’s just something different and sacred about the wooden objects that you don’t get from the standard stuff of unknown origin and manufacturing. Taking up the way of wood is a very simple thing to do–pickup some books on woodworking or take a class and start learning to carve or turn wood yourself.  Or, start keeping your eyes out for woodworkers and wooden objects as you go about life–farmer’s markets are a good place to find some of them!  If you want the wood in your life, the spirit of the wood will find you.

 

Caring for wood

An assortment of spoons and knives

An assortment of spoons and knives

Part of the reason I think that the wooden bowls are wonderful is that they require attention and care. The wood was once a living being, and the wooden spoons and bowls, in their own way, still have spirit within them. The more we interact with them, the more we can understand the wood and connect with that spirit.  The physical aspects of the wood and the spirit of the wood both need our interaction and care.

 

In terms of daily cleaning of wooden objects: you don’t just throw them in the dishwasher–the dishwasher would quickly ruin them. Instead, you wash them lovingly by hand, making sure water/liquid doesn’t sit in them for long and making sure that you dry them carefully once you are done washing them. It is no trouble to quickly wash your favorite wooden bowl after a nice meal!

 

Every three or so months, you’ll also want to re-seal them. I seal my wooden items with walnut oil or of a combination of warmed beeswax and walnut oil. I get a clean rag (that you can re-use) or paper towel (the paper towel can be used to start a fire after you are finished oiling your wood). Add a liberal helping of oil to all your wooden objects and let them sit for about 30 min. You’ll see which of them are thirsty and which are saturated. Give them a second liberal helping of oil.  If there is excess, it is no problem, as you’ll wipe it off. I usually let this sit a minimum of a few hours–even overnight. I check them again, and see who among the wooden things is still thirsty, adding a third layer. At this point, I let them sit, shine/buff them to take off the excess oil, and begin using them again.

 

I remember to tend my wood based on the solstices and equinoxes–as each grows near, I know it is time to lovingly oil my wooden items again.

 

I’ll also mention here that wood, over time, moves and shifts as the seasons change and as time passes (no wonder wood has “a soul”!)  Sloane talks about this as well–how old barns move (even if the stone foundations under them do not, meaning that over a period of years, the barn grows less stable).  The same thing happens to wooden bowls and other wooden objects.  For a bowl, for example, if you had wood with a grain facing East to West, the bowl would slowly shrink on the North-South axis making the bowl more oblong than round as time passed.  In the summer, wood absorbs moisture and may swell and in the winter, it will shrink. Understanding this is all part of the character, and care, of wood.

 

Closing Thoughts

I believe that the small details matter–building these small, sacred, and simple acts into our everyday living can help us engage in more sustainable, sacred actions throughout our lives and reconnect with ourselves and the land around us. I think this kind of thing is like momentum forward–each small thing adds to the whole experience and moves us from a kind of “average” living that is given to us by corporations and industrialization to living to sacred living. Even small shifts, like the shift from using conventional tableware to something handcrafted, creates an energetic shift that reverberates. And when you think about how many times you encounter these simple objects each day, and the energies and spirits of those objects, this small shift really has profound implications.

 

Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil December 17, 2016

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences.  I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to underpreparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences.  This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all night vigil.  At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!

 

In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). Its a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun.  While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all night vigil.

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work.  The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on.  The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history.  The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons.  The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world.  And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old.  New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires.  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd.  Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice  (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.

 

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions.  So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.

 

All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil.  The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun.  Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe.  Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful.  Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay.  Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed.  Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!

 

The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.

 

Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense.  A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil.  Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry.  This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil.  I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire.  There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.

 

Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived).  What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably of natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets).  Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag.  All of these things can help you get through the cold night.  Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

Outer Preparation: A Good Fire.  There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night.  Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions.  If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK.  But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness!  If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above).  The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind.  This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer.  If I had had this kind of setup during my first  vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks.  The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available.  I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay.  A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks:Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year.  I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12 quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.

 

Outer Preparation: First Aid. Its not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization.  Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.

 

Outer Preparation: Seating.  If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind.  Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year.  To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp.  I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp.  Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.

 

Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil.  A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought.  It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump.  The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition.  Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider.  In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire.  The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.

 

Inner Preparation: The Mindset:  In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil.  If you fall asleep, is that ok?  What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.

 

Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to its limits.   Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours.  Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important.  Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time.  You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness.  The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn.  I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment.  My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun.  I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.

 

We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5pm on the night of the Solstice.  Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.

  1.  Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space.  In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
  2. The Vigil Opening Ceremony.  There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
    1. We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
    2. We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
    3. We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
    4. Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
    5. In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
    6. We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.

It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons.  These choices should be honored.  Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night.  There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony.  A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case.  This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

In my experience, there  are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of fesating and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark.  The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest.  I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the ewvening.  Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.

 

Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:

 

Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy.  Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm.  Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm. 

 

Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night.  The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song.  People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.

 

Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths.  As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.

 

Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.

 

Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep.  One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated.  So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others.  This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world.  There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.

  1. A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land.  They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
  2. Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
  3. Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
  4. Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns.  Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
  5. Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
  6. Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land.  I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land.  So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.

 

Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space.  Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!

 

The Summer Solstice Sunrise: A Journey and Ritual of Illumination June 18, 2016

All of us are on a journey. Perhaps it is a physical journey, traveling to distant shores or a new home. Perhaps it is an emotional journey, a journey of the heart and of healing. Perhaps it is a journey of self discovering or self fulfillment. Perhaps it is a spiritual journey to reconnect with the living earth. At each moment of the wheel of the year, the sun, too, is on a journey–to rise and fall. On the moment of the summer solstice, the sun rises at the apex of his power.

 

Incredible sunrise in the mountains with the windmills

Incredible sunrise in the Allegheny mountains with the windmills

I have found that going on a journey, a physical one, to see the summer solstice sunrise is an extremely powerful initiation into deeper mysteries at the time of the summer solstice–including 3 days before, and 3 days after. My summer solstice ceremony is quite simple–well before dawn you do a night hike (not using any artificial illumination) to a high point, where you watch the sun rise and be illuminated as it occurs (I’ll share more specifics of the ceremony below).

 

I see this night hike seeking the illumination of the Solstice Sunrise as the same kind of ceremony as an all night vigil at the Winter Solstice (which I will talk about near the winter solstice)–in both cases, some of the work is readying yourself to be greeted by the rising sun.  It is the journey that matters, for illumination only happens after deep reflection and a long path traveled.  This is one path of initiation, the path into deeper mysteries, communion, and wholeness.

 

The Solstice Sunrise Journey

Choosing the Right Day. In terms of the timing of the whole ceremony, there are a few considerations.  First is the consideration about the day of the solstice–which not all people can manage, due to work obligations. I’ve done this anywhere from 3 days before to 3 days after the summer solstice (although I really try to get it “on the mark” if possible). This year, my first of these hikes (I expect to do at least one more) was 3 days before. The other consideration, of course, is whether or not it’s raining.  Sometimes a light rain is actually ok (that’s what happened to me on the one I’ll describe below) because the sun rose up, was beautiful, and then skirted into the clouds and the rain came down more.  But if it’s an outright downpour, you might want to wait for this particular ceremony (although I will likely still go out; I found bunches of Elderflowers last year at the summer solstice on a rainy morning when the cloud cover prevented me from witnessing any sunrise!)

 

Location. Location to me is one of the most important considerations for this kind of summer solstice ceremony. I usually scope out the location of my journey potentially months in advance, often finding the “right spot” sometime during my hikes earlier that year or even in the fall of the year before.  (Sometimes, the location finds me and I’m at the right place and the right time, like it did this year!)   For me, the perfect spot as an Appalachian mountain druid is one of high elevation, above the valley, where I can see an amazing panoramic view.

 

Scoping out your Spot and Hike. Visiting your spot in advance is important for a few reasons: one, as a night hike, you are going to be needing to rely on senses other than sight to get yourself up to the place where you are going. And having memories of something you traveled only a day or two before helps you through the night hike.  But second, it is about timing. You need to know how long it takes you to get up to your spot so that you can make sure you don’t miss it.  I missed it a few times because I was still hiking rather than sitting and witnessing the rising sun.  You need a lot more time than you need, and sunrise happens actually kind of quickly!

 

Still dark as I approach my viewing spot

Still dark as I approach my viewing spot

The Night Hike. Yes, you can do this, you can do it without a flashlight, and you can do it alone (or with a group).  Once your eyes adjust, you will be surprised at how effective they are at seeing in the darkness–we just don’t do it much these days.  So turn off the electronics and lights, and use your full senses to get where you are going.  This is an important part of the journey.  To me, it represents the long journey we need to have in order to reach illumination.  It also gives me great insight about myself, how I deal with problems, and so on.  You might stumble, you might run into some cobwebs, and you might be fearful of things in the dark–but trust me, this part of the ritual is worth it.  If you are traveling with a group, grove, circle, family, etc, I would suggest that you agree to do the walk in silence so that each person can experience their own journey unfolding.

 

The timing of the night hike is critical.  Ideally, you should leave an hour before sunrise, spend 15-25 minutes getting where you are going and then sit, watching the sunrise unfold fully, over the next 30-45 minutes.  Each part of the sunrise is a tapestry of colors, especially on this most magical day.  Each sunrise has a unique message for you.  The problem I’ve had in the past with this ceremony is that sometimes I don’t wake up early enough to make it happen, and then I’m still hiking and missing the sunrise.  Trust me–for this ceremony, the extra 30 minutes of sleep is simply not worth it.

 

Now, once you get to the top, if you have the time, for added punch, you can do a short ceremony.  I like to do the AODA’s sphere of protection before the sunrise, meditate and say the druid’s prayer for peace while the sunrise is rising, and then, as the sun rises higher into the air, do the OBOD’s light body exercise.

 

Illumination. The forest (or wherever you are) appears differently at the edge spaces between day and night; dusk and dawn are powerful times.  This allows you to enter a sacred space and experience some form of illumination, presence, and communion with the spirits of the land.  This is very individual, so I’m not going to say more here except listen, observe, and be open to whatever unfolds.

 

The sunrise peeking through the trees!

The sunrise peeking through the trees!

My first Solstice Sunrise journey this year took place the week leading up to the Solstice, and it was certainly unplanned. I had been at a research writing retreat for my research team (this is a yearly thing we do, since we are scattered all over the country) and we had rented a house in a very wooded and secluded area on one of the Appalachian ridges near Berkeley Springs, WV. I had done some walking while at the retreat, and had noted the sharp rise of the mountain behind our cabin. One morning, after it was light, I walked up there and spent several hours, and received the clear message that although it was a bit earlier for my solstice walk, indeed I was do to the solstice walk and journey up to the ridge where I could see the scene unfolding through the trees. That night, I had three powerful dreams, messages that are in line with something I’ve been working toward for many years.  The last of which woke me up at 4:30am (and sunrise was at 5:45 that morning), just 5 minutes shy of when I had set my alarm. I pulled on my clothes and shoes, carried some water from the spring, and began my journey up the mountain. There was no real path, but it was a serious climb, and I had to stop a few times to catch my breath as I continued my ascent. By 5:10, I had reached the spot where there were a few windows through the now-sparse trees, and a perfect spot to see the rising sun. Rocks were everywhere this far up on the ridge, and I found a nice one to sit and observe. After an hour of observation, the energy shifted, my work was done. The rains came, and I went down to join my team for breakfast.

 

I hope this ceremony and perspective on the summer solstice is useful as you plan your own solstice journey!  I’ve published it a few days before the solstice, so you should have some planning time if you want to try it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and also your own ways that you celebrate the summer solstice!

 

PS: The Ancient Order of Druids in America just released its third volume of Trilithon, the order’s official journal.  I serve as Chief editor for the journal, and it is packed full of amazing articles about the druid path, earth-centered living, and more. I would highly recommend you check it out!

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part IX: Healing Our Lands Physically, Energetically, and Spiritually May 29, 2016

Alternative Front Yard full of healing and habitat

Alternative Front Yard full of healing and habitat!

As I walk through my neighborhood in this quiet Pennsylvania town, I am struck by the contrast. On one hand, many of my neighbor’s lawns are monocropped with grass–one after another, green expanses stretch on and on. Dandelions are quickly sprayed, and uniformity reigns supreme. This is the language of “progress,” the look of industrialization, and the announcement of humanity’s dominance over nature. But yet, on many blocks, one or two households have embraced a different paradigm: kale and strawberries along the front green area between the street and the sidewalk growing for any who want to harvest, pumpkins climbing through hedges, a completely alternative lawn full of herbs that requires loving care, but certainly not mowing. A fully abundant 1/10th of an acre with fruit trees, raised beds, grape arbors, and beautiful carved wooden sculptures. This is a sign, to me, that change and hope are possible and that the language of healing, the language of regeneration, touches the hearts and souls of so many here.  Part of this is facilitated by community groups: this town has held an Herb Study Group for over 30 years as well as an avid group of gardeners, and alternative lawns and growing spaces are accepted here (although still not the norm by any means). The contrast between these two spaces, both energetically and physically, is quite impressive. And this isn’t the only kind of regenerated space you can find nearby: after the strip mines complete their work, they are now required by law to return the landscape. Usually, this means planting scrub pines and watching the goldenrod come back in with very limited biodiversity, but occasionally, you find a druid wandering among those places, spreading magic seed balls infused with the energy and light of healing or planting nuts in the bare soils–and the seeds of biodiversity that can help this land transform and regrow the many things that were lost.  Now, new ecosystems are being reborn in those places that were once stripped bear.

 

And, a place I’ll be visiting this summer to do some backpacking is the PA Wilds region, an area with almost 1.5 million acres of forests. These forests were once desolate, logged areas, with almost 100% of the forests being clear cut about a century ago, much of the logging to fuel industrialization and expansion. While these forests are still under threat from fracking and oil exploration (especially in the Allegheny National Forest), many of these lands are regenerated with abundance and life. Even wild elk roam once more!

 

Truly, as a land healer, being part of spaces that can be, or are being, actively regenerated–and healed– is my favorite kind of work. I say it’s my favorite work because the other work I’ve talked about, in the last four or so posts in this series, where you are witnessing, holding space, sending energy deep into the heart of the earth is all really hard–energetically hard, emotionally hard, and can be physically draining.  Its even hard to write about it, which is part of why this has taken me so long to finish what I thought was going to be a short series on the subject!  But the work of regeneration, of taking damaged lands and helping them heal–the work of this post: it is work that regenerates the spirit. It grows as you grow, it unfolds and you unfold with it is perfect harmony.  This work allows us to share our gifts of creativity, nurturing, healing, and joy and reconnect with the living earth around us.

 

Layers of regenerating forest!

Layers of regenerating forest!

I’ve really been talking about this subject of land healing seriously for over a year now from different angles, especially focused on the physical regeneration of the land through my posts on healing hands, on refugia gardens, on seed saving and spreading seed balls, on alternative front and back lawns, and even further back on homesteading and my own regeneration work in Michigan. As you can see, I’ve written a lot on this blog about physical work of land healing as spiritual work, and I want to talk today about the linkages between the physical and spiritual dimensions and the more energetic aspects of this work.  Because while the land always has the power to heal–energetic work on our lands can help it heal much, much, faster.  Consider this like a burst of healing energy to get the land abundantly growing again!  This is, for now at leats, the final post in my Druid’s Primer for Land Healing series, although I do have some more specialized topics planned in the future. You can read the full series of posts here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII.  And once you’ve done that, come back, and we will talk about how to heal our lands!

 

Where Healing Can Happen

I want to return to my very first post in this series briefly, and remind you about the places and spaces that land healing–land regeneration–can happen. This direct healing work should be done not on sites that are actively being damaged outside of your control (repeated logging, strip mines, etc)–this is the work of palliative care, and I refer you to earlier posts in this series. Nor is it the work of a site that is going to be destroyed–this is yet another kind of spiritual and energetic work. Today’s work is for sites that have had damage (whether it is that the ecosystem has been removed because of construction, mining, or even replaced with a lawn) and is in a place that it can now heal again and is free from possible damage in the immediate future. This is really an important distinction to understand, because the wrong kind of energetic work can be damaging. Here’s what I mean: a lot of the techniques I will describe in this post are techniques of the energy of spring and that of fire–its about waking up, getting things flowing again, coaxing the spirits of the land out of deep slumber and hiding.  The last thing you want to do is do this work if the land will end up being destroyed so soon again. That’s like rousing a sick person out of bed, and moving, when all they really need to do is sleep through the worst of it.

 

Preparing for Healing Work and Building Relationships: Feeling Your Way Into the Work

If the land has been damaged for some time, the spirits of that land may have fled, gone deeply underground, or are otherwise closed off. I experienced this on my land in Michigan when I first arrived. I remember standing beneath the giant white pine tree, next to the second white pine stump that was it’s partner and had been cut off haphazardly by the previous owners. I sensed the spirits were there, but there was tremendous sorrow, anger, and resentment of all that had been done to the land. I began, before doing any healing work, with the work of apology and witnessing, acknowledging what had been done and showing that I was a different kind of person and was here to help. I don’t think, at first, I was accepted as someone who would heal. And so, I  my waited, knowing that things would unfold in their own time and in their own way.  The only thing I did during this time was clean up active piles of garbage (like a burn pile) and scattered debris, and then I enacted the first design principle of permaculture: observe and interact.

 

Time for some regeneration!

Time for some regeneration!  This is one site I’m working with at present.

Shortly after I moved in, a racoon that had distemper showed up in my yard in the early morning hours. The racoon was out in the day, and after I determined that he didn’t have rabies based on his symptoms, I sat at a distance, holding space with him, knowing that his time was near.  He passed a few hours later. I dug a deep hole, blessed it with flowers and sacred water, and had a small ceremony for him.  I covered him up and piled a cairn of rocks quite high, knowing that if his body was left out, the disease would spread.  Sure enough, over the next few days, a number of critters tried to get into that hole, but were unable to do so due to my careful burial. The distemper was stopped from infecting any other animals.  After the raccoon incident, the land opened up, and the actual healing work could begin.  I realized that the raccoon was a test, and apparently, I had passed.  It was at this point that the spirits of the land spoke to me, shared with me the healing work that was to be done, and I began in earnest.  I will also say that that wasn’t the only test, and they come at unexpected times!

 

A Patchwork of Approaches

No single person’s approach is the “right” approach to land healing work.  You may have a very different skillset or background than I do, so I would suggest that you take the approaches here and use the ones that work for you (and I am very interested in hearing approaches you have used–please share!)  I would also really strongly encourage you to bring others in for the healing work.  For example, my sister is a Reiki Master Teacher, and the way she moves energy is very different than the ways that I do as a Druid.  It was a welcome thing for her to come, after I purchased my land for example, and do her own kind of energetic healing.  Another friend was an incredible musician, and radiated his healing energy out to the land with a series of wonderful folk songs.  And so, you might think about the land healing work you do like a colorful patchwork quilt with different designs: many approaches can work, and the more, the merrier!  So with that, here are some that I have found particularly effective.

 

Physical-Energetic-Spirit Connections

The most important aspect of all of this work, whether you are doing music, reiki, ritual, or other sacred work that I describe below is that you understand the relationship between physical healing and energetic healing.  You might think about this in an analogy with human beings: we have a physical body, we have emotions/heart, and we have a soul. These are all interlinked, and yet, each needs a different kind of healing energy.

  • Our physical regeneration of the land, through tending the wild, scattering seeds, replanting and regrowing, is like the physical regeneration of our bodies.  This is building habitat, reintroducing species, creating spaces for life.
  • The energetic regeneration is a lot like helping heal a person’s emotional scars: this is a completely different kind of healing, done by different strategies or even a different kind of healer. This is rebuilding the human-nature connections that have been severed, reconneciton, rebuilding trust.
  • The healing of the soul–is like the deep spiritual work we do as humans. I tie this analogy to that of the spirits of the land, those non-corporeal beings that reside in our lands and make magic there. River spirits, tree spirits, larger guardian spirits, animal spirits, plant spirits–so many live in our lands.

It is on all three levels that we can work to provide the most benefit; but work on even one of these levels also benefits the other two in the long run.  And, so, today, we explore the healing work we can do on the energetic and spirit levels: that of ritual, sacred spaces, gaurdianship, and more.

 

A Full Season of Rituals: Infusing with the Blessing of the Sun

I’ve mentioned before the method of drawing energy down from the sun and infusing the land with light as a way to clear energetically bad places, and we are going to build upon that method (which I shared in my last post in this series, including a barebones structure of a ritual that you can use).  In the case of land healing when the land is ready for regeneration, I would suggest more than just a single ritual for this work; where in the case of palliative care, one ritual is all you need or want to do. In the case of land healing,  I would suggest either a full year of rituals (four, minimum, at the solstices and equinoxes) and, if possible, the setting of a standing stone to permanently channel that light down and within (I explained the standing stone technique more fully in my earlier post I linked above).

 

In the case of energetic land healing, I find that most of the work I do in this area is drawing energy towards the site and infusing it with healing light.  The ritual that I most often use for this is one from the AODA, our seasonal celebrations, which works directly with the three currents and which serves as a land healing and blessing, drawing down the light of the celestial heavens and the sun.  I’ve shared a barebones structure of it in my last post.  You can purchase the AODA Grove Handbook for a complete version of this ritual for a group (or if you are a member of the AODA, we will be releasing a New Member Guide soon that will include solo versions of the ritual).

 

The power of the sun!

The power of the sun!

You can use the structure I provided in my last post, with one major exception: you are doing a series of rituals instead of just one.  The first ritual you do should be the one I outlined in the last post–clearing away the energetic darkness. Think of this like the pain and suffering that need to be healed, and only once they are healed, then the light can come within the land. I kind of see this akin to a clay pot–when you start land healing work, the pot is often filled with negative energy, with darkness, and the first thing you have to do is clear out the stuff that’s already in the pot before you can fill it with something better.  So the first ritual does that.  You can use any other structure as well, with the intention of clearing the space first.

 

So a yearly ritual structure for intensively providing energetic healing support to the land might look like this (using the energies of the season for a guide).  I’d personally start this work if possible in the Winter Solstice, but starting the work anytime is also appropriate.

  1.  Winter Solstice and/or Spring Equinox: Clearing out the darkness and bringing in some light.
  2. Spring equinox and/or Summer Solstice: Infusing the land with light for a blessing.
  3. Summer Solstice and/or Fall Equinox: A second infusing of the land with light for a blessing; establishing guardianship (see below)
  4. Fall equinox and/or Winter Solstice: A third infusion of the land with light for a blessing; deep listening on the next steps to take.

If you are also setting a standing stone (or even building a stone carin), you can focus your ritual on the stone itself.

 

For the differences in these four kinds of rituals, visualization is effective: imagine the energy coming down from the star, through the sun, and down into the earth, filling the land with light.  Purging of darkness, and then, seeing the light infuse into the land, up into the roots, and so on.

 

Creating a Sacred Space

I have found that establishing a permanent sacred space on the land (even around the entire land that is undergoing healing, if appropriate) is very effective. I have written on this particular thing in a number of posts, so I refer you to my sacred space series of posts for more information on how to do this.  One key here is to listen carefully, and to build a sacred space that you can tend and visit often.  This might just be leaving a small offering, sitting quietly, observing, meditating–the important thing here is that a sacred space is created by the union of yourself and the land, and your presence is needed for it to continue to function.  In the case of my homestead in Michigan, I established the whole property as a sacred space, and worked it diligently in a number of ways.  And you should have seen how it grew!

 

Communing with Spirits

On the matter of healing the soul of the land, we must reach out to the spirits of the land if we are able. Some people have particular gifts in this area in terms of direct communication, while others’ gifts lead them in a different direction.  Divination tools can be useful here. I would say, if nothing else, leaving an offering for the spirits (possibly at a shrine you construct as part of the larger sacred space, above), acknowledge the spirits, and most importantly–welcome them back. Let them know that you are doing work here, that the land is no longer in danger, and that it is safe to return.  They will take their time, perhaps, in manifesting, but be patient. And look for signs of any kinds (see my Druid’s Tree Working posts for how to commune with them, the strategies are very much the same).

 

Re-establishing Eldership

The Ancient Maple - An Elder of the Land

The Ancient Maple – An Elder of the Land

One of the problems that happen, especially with forests and logging, but really with any site that has been destroyed, is that the land loses its elders.  You’ve probably met those elders areas in lands that are whole–the ancient wizened oak, the tall white pines, the ancient elk with a massive rack of horns.  These elders are those who have inhabited the land for many cycles of the sun and moon, and who hold presence and history in those spaces.  They are like a nexus of energy, with many linkages throughout the forest. They have tremendous energy surrounding them, a strong spirit, wisdom.  The English language fails me here, but I hope you understand. The problem that new lands face is that they have no elders, that presence may have been lost.  I have found that part of healing is helping to establish the patterns of eldership. You want to do this carefully and in full support of the land and her spirits, but here are some suggestions.  These suggestions really apply to the plant kingdom; I have less experience with animal eldership (but perhaps one of my readers does):

  • Stones, rivers, and other inorganic features have been around a very long time.  Some stones even hold the patterns of fossils of ancient trees.  They can temporarily hold this kind of energy until a living elder grows and is established over time. Living elders are important, however.
  • Bringing a piece of an elder from another place can sometimes work.  For example, First, find an elder in another place, and see if that elder will let you move a small piece of themselves (like a branch) and place it somewhere you are led to place it.
  • Finding the offspring of an elder who was cut (in the case of a tree, as these elders are often trees) and nurturing that new offspring can also be done.

 

Re-establishing Guardianship

The sacred compact between humans and the land, and the symbiotic relationship between them, is destroyed when the land is stripped bare or otherwise damaged. Re-establishing the human’s role as a guardian and tender of that land is important–and that is something that you can do if you feel led–but only if you feel led.  This involves a few steps.

  • First, feel this out out very carefully, making sure that this is something that the land wants and that you can do.  The land may want to be left alone to heal on its own for a time, and you don’t want to be there if you are unwelcome. It also needs to be something that you are making a long-term commitment to, so make sure you are stable enough, and rooted enough, for that kind of commitment.
  • Two, if it appears appropriate, making an oath to the land establishing guardianship (I will usually do this as part of a regular ritual at an appropriate day, such as at one of the solstices or equinoxes).  Make it clear what you are swearing to, and make sure whatever you swear to, you intend to uphold.
  • Three, regular visitation, vigilance, tending, and time spent–the work of the guardian.  This can be anything: from going to the land and visiting, being open and listening, to picking up trash, paying attention to the needs of the land, to protecting it from those who would seek to harm.
  • Regular work on the land should include gaining knowledge about the land: learning it’s history, learning the dominant species and how they interact, studying botany, learning the names and uses of the trees–enough to know if something is amiss.  Spend time on the land–overnight, in quietude, moving around–in all those ways.  Build sacred spaces.  Bring people there to help heal and grow. Think of this land like your focal point for much of what you do!

The role of guardian of the land is not one to take on lightly, but if you feel compelled to do so, it is a wonderful way of reestablishing those connections and helping the land heal.  It is really a lifetime commitment, and I only mention it here because it is so effective for land healing.

 

The Magic of Seeds

I’ll end my discussion today with two physical healing techniques that I’ve mentioned before: as I discussed in my series of posts on refugia and seed arc gardens over the winter months, land that is physically healing. When the land has been stripped bare, it needs the genetic material to regenerate.  This requires a knowledge of botany and ecology, but you can easily find lists of plants common to your bioregion, including those endangered. The same is true of endangered mammals, birds, amphibians, and bugs–and the kinds of ecosystems they need to be safe.  I very much believe in the work of scattering seeds, of tending the wild, and doing this intentionally as a land healer.

 

These days, I take my magic seed balls–of several varieties–with me everywhere.  The wet woodland blend includes seeds of ramps, stoneroot, blue cohosh, and mayflower.  The fields blend includes New England aster, milkweed, pluresy root, echinacea, and stinging nettle (all of these plants are on the United Plant Saver’s list, save stinging nettle and NE Aster; these two I added because we just need more of them around!)

 

A Permablitz

Finally, there is a tremendous amount of power in a group of people, a community, coming together to enact healing work. While this can be done doing ritual, like I described above, it can also be done through the physical work of healing the land.  In permaculture terms, we call this a permablitz, and it’s a way for people to come together and quickly replant, regrow, and tend the land.  I held a number of permablitzes at my own property and also helped many others in blitzes of their own.  The land appreciates this so much, as it provides a counter narrative to the many hands who had worked to destroy a place for their own gains.  These blitzes are generally focused on a restorative approach–perhaps earthworking (like swales) to hold water, almost always some planting or scattering seeds, and other kinds of work.  People want to feel like they are doing something, and blitzes are not only a great way to heal the land but also to help reconnect many with the living earth.

 

Tree in the fall months!

Tree in the fall months!

Concluding Thoughts (for now)!

This series has been going on for quite some months now–I must say, I was surprised by how much I had to say once I started writing.  It took a while to come forth, as some of the subjects were quite difficult to talk about, but I hope this material was useful.  I hope it is useful as you engage in your own land healing work, whether you’ve been doing land healing for a long time, or whether you are new to this process.  I think this the last post, for now, but I expect that this will be a topic I’ll continue to return to from time to time, as I learn new things and grow in new ways.  Thank you for staying with me throughout this journey, and I wish you the best in your own land healing endeavors!  I’d love to hear from you more about your own land healing work, and also, as you use these techniques covered in the nine posts, I would love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and experiences.  Blessings!

 

Embracing the Darkness at the Winter Solstice December 19, 2015

The period of time around the winter solstice, when the light of the sun is weak and our days are so short, is a period of difficulty for many. Darkness is something that we fear in industrialized cultures; it is something that we work to drive away through our own inventions and ingenuity. We instinctively feel the need to light up our lives every waking moment–our houses at night become as bright as the sun, the various screens projecting intense light, keeping us up and wired late into the night. If a room’s lights aren’t bright enough, we call them “dim” and see this as a deficiency, working to make them brighter. Even as I’m walking down the streets of my town at night, motion sensor lights blind me as I walk past people’s houses on the sidewalk. Consciously, automatically, and unconsciously we are continually working to drive away the dark–and in the process, fighting the natural cycle of the seasons.

 

For a moment, in the span of time reading this blog post, let’s consider an opposite approach–that is embracing the darkness this time of year. Before we continue, I’d like to suggest setting the right mood.  Start perhaps turning your screen down to a lower brightness setting, turning the lights off, and if its getting dark or is already dark, perhaps lighting a candle to get in the mood. Ok, that’s better!

 

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Sunrise with Spruce, Maple, and Cedar in the Winter

Our Problem with the Darkness

Our problem with darkness likely stems from a lot of different sources–major religions being one of them. Many of the major world religions have spent literally millennia emphasizing driving away the darkness with holy light, in ascending beyond this world, and in associating the “light” with the good.  These same religions have taught us that anything associated with the earth, the dark, or the depths of the earth are somehow corrupt and not good–and that is now woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness and our culture’s mythologies.  Think about how many stories you know where something dark and evil comes from below! I think it is this reason that we are driven to turn on the lights at the first sign of darkness, to quest to drive it away.  This “obsession” over the light, however, blinds us–by denying the darkness we deny part of our own souls.

 

Another reason that we fear darkness, I think, is the secret fear fear of losing the ability to see. Works like Blindness Jose Saramogo, epitomize this fear–that of not being able to physically see or going unexpectedly blind.  I have watched a good friend of mine go blind due to medical complications over this last year, and its been tremendously difficult to watch her struggle with it–the darkness in her eyes has literally turned her whole family’s world upside down.  Seeing such a good friend struggle with blindness, I think, is a lesson to me as to why we work so hard to drive away the dark.  The hidden fear of losing our sight–either temporarily or permanently–is one that perhaps resides in each of us.

 

Modern technology also hasn’t helped our relationship with darkness–new CFL bulbs, computer monitors, phones, ipads, and so on all function on a blue wavelength–the same wavelength of the morning sun. This tricks our bodies into thinking its early morning even when its late evening, reducing the production of melatonin which allows for restful sleep (its so bad that we can now buy meltaonin in pill form to force it into our bodies–but our bodies should be producing it).  Physically, we need darkness to stay in good health.  Darkness helps cue sleep and a host of other beneficial hormones that help us regulate our sleep patterns–and sleep is one of the keys to a long life.  The lack of darkness is attributed by a number of researchers to be at least one cause of the rise in depression and obesity in many industrialized nations.

 

Finally, the holiday season and the associated frenzy that goes along with it also doesn’t help our relationship with the darkness at this sacred time of the year. In ages past, people slept more and rested during the dark months.  In temperate parts of the world, when the darkness came was after the last of the long harvest season was finished. They would fatten up on the last of their fresh stores this time of the year, and enjoy each others’ company, burn yule logs, and take this as a time of rest. But we are now in the throes of a massive holiday rush–running, buying, doing, parties, activities, the frenzy of the holiday season each year growing in intensity.  I’m weary just thinking about it, even as I have worked to distance myself from it.

 

Embracing the Darkness

Living by the seasons and with the seasons means shifting our mindsets and practices to align more closely with nature’s rhythms–and darkness is part of that cycle. The darkness in this season functions much like the “hanged man” in the Tarot–we draw the hanged man when we are in need of a new perspective. Darkness, even darkness in familiar spaces and ways, gives us that perspective fully and powerfully.

 

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

The Inverted Tree (Hanged Man) from the Tarot of Trees

Jessica Prentice has done some of the best research and writing I’ve seen on the importance  darkness–her writings have certainly inspired this post. Her book, Full Moon Feast, describes humanity’s relationship to the dark and cold months of the year beautifully and compellingly. She notes at least one African tribe that sleeps for 14 hours in the darkness, and who uses that extra time for visionary and spirit work. Without this darkness, she says, our souls are robbed of this opportunity to engage in a deep level with our souls.

 

I think maybe that’s part of the challenge we face–the frenzied culture works hard to keep us always going, going, going, doing, doing, doing, and time for deep introspection and reflection is generally not encouraged. The darkness asks us, individually, to be with only ourselves and our own thoughts. It is this darkness where we can commune with spirit, in waking dreams or in sleep, in meditation, and in visionary work. Part of this is because darkness is that it functions through visual sensory deprivation–but when our external visuals shut down (as in meditation, dreaming, journeying), our inner visuals have the ability to be developed and honed.  It allows us time to sort through things, it gives us space and distance from everything that surrounds us, and allows us rest and quietude.

 

And darkness serves us as a negative space to compliment the other spaces in our lives–the middle points as well as that of the light. We appreciate the light all the better if we are not always in it.  It gives us balance and perspective. Darkness, furthermore, allows us to have some sacred distance between ourselves and the many inventions that our lives are full of–distance from electronic devices, from artificial blinding lighting, from television, and so on.

 

As the darkness came across the land, starting at Samhuinn, I have worked to embrace the darkness and live more fully present in it during this time. Some of these were full immersion, while others were just steps to reduce artificial lighting–but all were meaningful and helped me get into better tune with the season’s time of low light and darkness.  This has led to a number of activities and insights that I’d like to share today that can help you do the same.

 

Candlelight Evenings

One of the most simple, and yet profound, shift you can make is to shift from electric lighting to candlelight evenings.  These are evenings where you light your living space using oil lamps or simple candles (instructions for candles are here, and I’m working on a post forthcoming about easy olive oil lamp designs using recycled/rancid olive oil).  Besides being an earth-friendly practice, its not that hard to do at all, and you’ll find that you quickly adapt to this lifestyle.  Your eyes adjust, your rhythms change, and the world seems to slow down.  Peace and tranquility are present in these candlelit evenings.  Sleep comes much easier, and stays much longer. Its almost hard almost to put into words how profound of an effect this can have on your living this time of year–or any time of the year.

 

After switching to candlelight evenings earlier this year (and doing occasional ones in years past),  I along with friends and family who were visiting and who took part, noticed a substantial increase in our sleep and restfulness as well as our general well being. I would say to give one evening a week a try for a while and see how you like it–I first started doing the candlelit evenings occasionally, and now I do them nearly as they have really improved our quality of life. I have even done some painting and artwork in candlelight, and that has given it a really different kind of quality than artwork done in full daylight or electronic light.

 

A few tips for candlelight evenings are as follows:

  • If you have animals or children, observe them carefully around open flames. My two cats took some adjustment, but both now know they cannot go near the flames.  I’m assuming children could be likewise taught to respect fire.
  • A good stock of candles is a necessity and it pays to source them carefully.  I wouldn’t go buy new candles because the cost can quickly add up and we don’t want to create additional consumer demand for “stuff”. Thrift stores always carry them cheaply, as do yard sales and auctions.  I recently got a HUGE box of candles of all sorts at an auction and this box will probably last me for at least several years. If there is a local beekeeper, they will likely offer beeswax (in candle form or just in block form that you can turn into your own candles). Beeswax is extremely efficient and burns beautifully when compared to paraffin or even to soy.  It also smells amazing.
  • Be aware, however, that some really old candles have leaded wicks–we recently discovered one such candle in our stockpile and quickly put it out after it started dripping little molten silver balls into the wax.
  • To maximize candlelight for reading or delicate work (like painting), I would suggest an alternative to the “lots of candles” technique.  And this is to use an old-style candle lantern that directs the light all in one direction (here’s a photo of one from Wikipedia–I’m traveling and forgot to take a photo of mine!)  I bought an old metal scoop at a yard sale that has a flat base and works for this purpose–and even a tin can cut in half would do just fine for shorter votive candles.  The point here is that you can carefully direct candlelight to be more efficient for your needs.
  • Likewise, good candle holders are a must–but make sure they are not made of wood, as forgetting about one can lead to a fire hazard (I speak from near-experience)!  A good candle holder has a handle so you can take it with you and a dish for catching wax.  The little ones that are meant for dining tables are much less useful when you are walking around your house.
  • Old oil lamps are not hard to find, they are really efficient, and worth having around.  I got to know these well with the amazing amount of power outages I experienced while living on my homestead in the Detroit metro area!  The issue that I have had with these practical lamps is that they burn kerosene or lamp oil, and both of these are derived from fossil fuels.  They are also really stinky when they burn–kerosene is insufferable, but even the more “refined” oils are kinda smelly.  And other oils for these are not easy to use–they won’t typically burn olive oil or other vegetable oils that are more sustainable due to the fact that vegetable oils aren’t as flammable and don’t draw well through the wick. However, there are alternatives to this for oil burning–you can purchase little vegetable oil burners, or you can make your own. I’ve been experimenting with using rancid olive oil (leftover from herbal oil infusions that sat on my shelf for too long) and various olive oil lamp designs–I’ll be posting on this in an upcoming blog after some more testing and development!.

 

Night walks and Night Rituals

A second way of embracing the darkness is to do simple night walking and dark night rituals. Taking a walk in the dark–on any piece of land, without a flashlight–can teach you a great deal.  Full moonlight on a clear evening provides not only ample light, but so much light that you can see a moonshadow (and don’t you know, the sun shows the shadow of your body, the moon, of your soul!). Even waxing or waning moonlight, however, can be sufficient for walking without lights (note that the brightness of the moon varies based on where you are living–its much brighter in the tropics than it is in the northern-most and southern-most parts of the earth). Try it–its amazing. When I had my homestead, each night near the full moon, I would take night walks–walking around the pathways of my property. Even though I  knew the paths so well in the daylight, in the night, they surprised me, opening up mystery and wonder. Now, I walk the streets of my town at night, without light (its a very safe town) and really enjoy the experience (although its hard to get your eyes adjusted because of all of the lights from the cars).

 

A step up from this is to do darkness rituals, such as the one I’ll describe below.  The idea here is that you create a ceremony that honors and embraces the darkness in some way–there are lots of ways to do this.  This past week, a friend and I did both did a night ritual and night walk as an early Winter Solstice celebration. Above my town is a mountain that has a park–the park includes an overlook, the highest point in this area.  Its a bit of a steep climb, but well worth it.  We bundled up (it was cold that night), took skins to sit on, took two flashlights as backup, and set out about an hour or so before sunset to climb the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun went over the horizon. We then opened a sacred space, and sat, watching the town lights come on all around us and watching darkness fall. Several deer came to greet us, and we simply sat in the darkness, taking it all in, doing personal visionary work and meditation as we each felt led.  The moon came out (she was only in her first quarter, but our eyes were adjusted and she shed plenty of light) and as our eyes adjusted, we gained deep awareness and insight.

 

A part of me, inside, was afraid of making our way back down the mountain because parts of it were very rocky and steep–but we did, easily, using nothing but moonlight to guide us the entire 30 minute walk home.  There was no need for our backup flashlights!  I think this was me battling my secret fears–the fears we all have–of trying to move about in the dark.  But you really do get your “night eyes” and the world is very bright, even in the darkness! When we came out of the park, we were blinded by the headlights of the cars–it was really intense. But regardless,  my fear was laid to rest, and I learned a valuable lesson about the darkness.  It took care  to make it down the mountain to avoid roots and rocks on our path, but it was a delightful experience, and we experienced that path so much differently than in the day.

 

I did something similar, but in the opposite direction, on the Summer Solstice–in that ritual, my mother and I drove out to a secluded overlook in the hour well before dawn to see the rising of the sun upon the landscape.  It had a very different energy, one appropriate for the Summer Solstice!

 

Darkness Vigil

Going along with my night walks and night ritual above, you do a simple darkness vigil. And by this, I mean sit in the darkness for a period of time, longer than you are comfortable with, preferably for at least an hour or more and definitely outside if you can manage it.  I really like doing this at dawn or dusk because if you are outside, this is when the animals are on the move–if you are sitting still somewhere, they will walk right by you oftentimes. I would suggest that prior to your vigil, you open a sacred protective space using whatever methods or traditions that you typically use (I use either the AODA’s Solitary Grove Ritual without any tools or just the Sphere of Protection for this purpose).

 

The idea here is to do this without fire or light–sit in the darkness itself. The light, even candlelight, creates a different relationship with the darkness on the land–and you want to bring it in fully.

 

Its cold this time of year for many of us, of course, and to address that, I use the “hot rock” method that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The method is simple: you you heat up something that has good thermal mass (a rock, brick, or fire iron).  You can heat it by placing it close to an actual fire (I would place mine on top of my woodburning stove); alternatively, if you don’t have an actual fire, you can place it in an oven. Then you wrap it in an old towel, and take it with you.  It holds the heat well for quite some time–usually a good hour or more.  I usually stick this in my lap if I’m doing a winter vigil, keeping my hands on it and pressing it against my belly. This, warm layers of clothing, and something to keep the cold off of your butt (like a skin or yoga mat) will really help keep you warm.  You could, of course, also use hand warmers, but they have a lot of chemicals and plastic–the hot rock method is heavier, but no less effective.

 

Of course, the question you might be asking is – what do you actually “do” at one of these vigils?  There are lots of things you can do.  Start with your feelings–explore what you are feeling and work through it.  Pay attention to the land, especially the movements of animals, wind, trees, sounds, and the like.  Ask questions, aloud, and see what animal or plant messengers answer.  Take in the darkness, and use it to work on a soul level with your own darkness, hidden spaces, fears, dreams, the things that are unspeakable in the bright light of the sun.  Open yourself up to it and see what comes.

 

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Embracing the Moonlight (small painting)

Lunar Tea infusions


This is an idea I learned from Rosemary Gladstar–the lunar herbal infusion. An infusion is a tea, specifically of delicate plant material like leaf or flower, where the hot water is poured over the tea, covered, and allowed to seep for as long as you’d like (sometimes overnight for the strongest medicinal extraction).  You can do this and then allow your infusion to sit in the moonlight or in the darkness overnight.

 

I have made a few teas by boiling water, pouring them over herbs in a mason jar, sealing it up, and then sitting it in the moonlight for the evening.  I have been using this method using plants that gain deeper awareness and insight: Indian ghost pipe, lemon balm, and hawthorn being one such recent combination that had meaningful effect on helping me shift my senses and embrace this dark time. Another good combination is bay, lemongrass, and peppermint.  (You can also use cinnamon here as well, and its a very powerful visionary herb, however, it is a demulcent herb, so it will thicken up your brew–excellent for a sore throat, but a little weird if you haven’t drank it cold before). You can use these infusions as part of your night walking, night rituals, or any other spiritual practice. Think of it like drinking the moonlight!

 

Electronic Light Mitigation

If you are going to use screens (TV, computer, phone, etc) at night or use light bulbs, there are better ways of using them that pay homage to the darkness. Various dimmer programs exist for computers–my favorite program is a free program called F.lux. It automatically adjusts your color and brightness as the evening progresses, so even if you are on your computer later at night, its not blazing blue light at you. It makes a world of difference–I’m writing this now mostly by “computer candlelight” thanks to f.lux.

 

Its worth paying attention also to the kind of lightbulbs that you use: the older ones often are more yellowish or cast a yellowish hue  is better on the eyes.  Lower wattage and lampshades also help. I also have an old-school lava lamp that creates really diffused light–I often use this for providing some low light to my main living area, and supplement it with candles or oil lamps for moving about the house.   Its not much different than a good oil lamp!

 

Activities in the Dark

Another thing I like to do is to do various activities in the dark that are traditionally done in the light–exercise or yoga, for example, is delightful in candlelight or no light.  I also enjoy playing my panflute in the dark–no need to see, and the darkness makes the music more beautiful. Even eating a meal in candlelight or near darkness can be a special treat–the shutting down of the visual senses allows for the other senses (including inner senses) to be emphasized.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that you find these suggestions enlightening (or perhaps, dimming?) as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice.  I think that a lot of us see the wheel of the year as a string of rituals and celebrations–and it certainly can be that–but it can also be more.  Really to embrace and live in that energy of the season can make a world of difference–we go from fighting against it, and wanting it to be over, to really living in the present moment with it.  I’d love to hear of your own suggestions for embracing the dark season this year.

PS: I’ll also direct your attention to my posts on the Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice, for those of you in the southern half of the planet) and sustainable activities surrounding those days–I’ve finished that series of posts, but they are still some of my favorites :).