The Druid's Garden

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

A Beltane Blessing: The Magical Art of Pysanky Batik Eggs April 30, 2016

Bowl of Magical Eggs

Bowl of Magical Eggs

When I was a child, my family and I would spend hours carefully drawing melted beeswax onto eggs and dyeing them, the rounds of successive colors growing darker and darker. Once an egg had been fully dyed and covered in wax, it was time to unveil the magical colors, the revelation of incredible, magical works of art.  Pysanky, or Ukrainian Eggs, is an old tradition still in practice here in Western PA; it was brought over from Ukrainian peoples and others of Eastern European decent and spread throughout the area (it was later suppressed in the old world by the Communists, who claimed it was a “religious practice” for a number reasons, some of which we’ll explore in this post).  I’m not sure how my family originally found our way into this practice, but every year, we would make our delicate and beautiful works of art and display them on a bowl in our living room. This year, my mother put a bowl of them out for Easter, and I wanted to get back into this lovely art form, this time with a bit of a magical twist! And so, today, we will dive into the art of crafting magical eggs using batik techniques!  This is an absolutely perfect magical art form to practice at Beltane–hence the timing of this post.

 

This Beltane-themed post has two parts–first, I wanted to explore some of the traditions and mythology surrounding these magical eggs. And in the second half of the post, I’ll show how to make your own psyanky eggs.

What is Pysanky?

Pysanky is a permanent art form where the artist uses a wax resist method to preserve colors during a dye process. The egg has all of its contents removed (yolk, white) and is washed out so that the shell is all that you are working on–this creates a permanent art form. Essentially, you add wax to the color you want to remain that color, and then dye the egg a darker color. Everything that isn’t covered by wax will take that new color. For example, if you want white, you start with a white egg and add wax to all areas you want to stay white, then dye the egg to your next lightest shade (usually yellow), then add beeswax to all the yellow areas. Then you dye it your next shade (green or orange) and add wax to all of the green/orange areas, and so on, until you end with some dark color, often black, dark blue, or purple. The beeswax is removed, and the brilliant colors are revealed. The choice of colors and symbolism adds various magical properties to the egg–this is not just me saying this, but this is part of the tradition. The egg is ready to display for a blessing of prosperity, health, or more!

A brightly colored egg!

A brightly colored egg!

Pysanky Lore and History

In Eastern Europe, and eventually the USA, the tradition of egg dying and egg marking is quite old. Its not just Ukrainian, but nearly all Eastern European peoples have traditions of drawing on eggs with beeswax and adding dyes. Scholars are pretty sure that this tradition dates back to pre-Christian times (so perhaps even the times the druids were hanging around in Gaul!) due to the nature-based symbolism and enormous amount of magic and folk legends surrounding the eggs.

 

One of the oldest traditions on the magic of Pysanky is from the Hutsul people, who believed that a evil serpent is bound to a mountain cliff, with heavy iron chains.  The monster has many envoys, who he sends to pay attention to people in villages–if he hears news that the people are ill, suffering, angry, or at war, he laughs and shakes the mountains, loosening his chains.  If this were to go on long enough, he would be let loose upon the world with his chains falling away and cause evil and destruction.  If his envoys tell him that people are happy and in high spirits, he grows angry and the chains grow tighter.  If people are making psyanky, that they are still making them and carrying the tradition forward, he gets very angry and thrashes about, which makes his chains grow even tighter!  His head beats against the cliff (thunder), his chains grow tighter, and sparks (lightening) begin to fly!  So this folk method suggests that the pysanky literally keep the world safe (more legends can be found here).

A druid's egg of the modern variety

A druid’s egg of the modern variety

 

There are a few other bits of information I’d like to share.  Many of these come out of really books and papers on Pysanky that are in my personal collection on the subject:

  • “The Egg, as the embodiment of the life principle, has been associated with mythical and religious ceremonies since the earliest pagan times…each province, each village, each family has its own special ritual, its own symbols, meanings, and secret formulas for dying eggs.  These heritages are preserved faithfully and passed down from mother to daughter through the generations.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “The custom of decorating pysanky is observed with greatest care, and a pysanka, after receiving the Easter blessing, is held to contain great powers as a talisman.  A bowl of pysanky was invariably kept in every home, serving not only as a colorful display but also as protection against lighting and fire.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)
  • “Peasants placed krashanka shells [krashanka are the solid, dyed eggs] in the thatched roofs of their homes and under hay mounds to turn away high winds.  Beekeepers put them under hives for a good supply of honey. On St. George’s Day, a krashanka was rolled in green oats and buried in the ground so that the harvest would be full and not harmed by rain or wind. The Krashanka was also credited with healing powers. A krashanka, blessed on Easter eve, was suspended on a string from the neck of a seriously ill person, or touched to infected areas on persons suffering from blood poisoning to effect a cure.” (From Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957)

I’ll get into more detail on the symbols themselves used in the eggs later, when I talk about how to make the eggs.  And so, what we see here is a lasting, magical tradition surrounding the creation of these eggs.

 

A Synthesis of Traditions: A Modern “Druid’s Egg”

So on the other side of Europe, we have the occurrence of the “Druid’s Egg” that is discussed in connection with the Ancient Druids.  I am not, in any way, saying that these traditions are connected or the same thing.  But I do want to consider some parallels.  Of the Druid’s egg,  Pliny writes in his Historia Naturalis of the ancient druids: “The magical practices of the druids, their knowledge of botany and the sciences.  They wore a distinguishing badge, a “serpent’s egg” worn on the bosom and regarded as a potent talisman.” Other writings, also from Pliny, show that these “druid eggs” were created naturally, in a snake pit, and that the eggs were very magical, protective, and held in high esteem by the ancient druids who wore them as protective talismans. People used these eggs to win court cases and gain “favorable reputation” with princes. And people were even killed if they had them in their possession due to their potent magical effectiveness. Obviously, in modern Druid Revival orders, we don’t take the idea of the druid’s egg quite so literally (after all, even historians aren’t sure what the druid’s eggs actually were), although the idea of the “druid’s egg” certainly is woven into some of our lore and practices.  I think this bit of history gives ways for new interpretations of the “druid’s egg” and how we can manifest it today, through the bardic arts.

 

There are some parallels between the traditions that are interesting to note. If we study the artwork of many of these pysanky, there is an “entwining” feature that naturally occurs due to the nature of the egg.  We can, in making these eggs, create entwining patterns that make a nod back to the original producers of druid eggs, serpents. Druid eggs were said to be highly magical and rare.  And the same can be said of pysanky: not many people do pysanky today either.  I’ll also note the importance of serpents in both sets traditions; in both they are dangerous, and the egg is somehow connected to them and their power. Finally, the magical powers of eggs in both traditions, especially for protection, blessing and power.

 

Given some of these parallels, I’d like to propose that one modern “druid egg” can be the pysanky, and its something we can embrace and practice as a magical art form.  So let’s get onto the best part: how to make these delightful eggs!

 

One of my favorite new eggs!

One of my favorite new eggs!

Materials Needed

Dyes for Eggs

Commercial, very bold and beautiful dyes for psyanky are readily available.  I’ve found that these dyes can be put in a wide mouth pint canning jar with a lid and used effectively for 2-3 weeks (after that they lose their dye capacity, and even reboiling them doesn’t allow for them to stick.  I’m still trying to figure that out).  A good source for dyes is at this Etsy Shop (Ukrainian Egg Supplies).

 

But the other option, and the more traditional choice, is to make your own natural dyes.  Kozolowski (1977, Easter Eggs…Polish Style) offers some ingredients traditionally used for egg dyes but doesn’t give details on how to make the dye.  In my experience, you can boil these down for a long period of time, add salt, alum or vinegar (or boil them in straight white vinegar) and strain them.  Its similar to how you’d make any other natural dye.  The list below is dervied from Kozolowsi with my own addition of other plant matter and berries that I often use for dyes:

  • Yellow: Onion skin, straw, saffron, dandelion flowers, goldenrod
  • Orange: Crocus petals, goldenrod
  • Red: Red beets, plums
  • Green: Spinach, grass, moss, buckthorn berry
  • Blue: Sunflower seeds, logwood, Huckleberry
  • Purple: Blackberries, elderberry
  • Brown: Alder cones, coffee, walnut husks
  • Black: Walnut shells, alder bark
  • Pink: Pokeberry

Of course, the problem is that not all of these dyes show up at the same time of the year.  I have had good luck in making the dye and then freezing it till the right time.  I’ve also experimented with drying the berries and trying to make dye later, but that has been less successful.

 

Tools and Materials

  • Kitska: You will need some tools to draw designs on your eggs. These tools are called Kistka (kistky; plural), for your eggs.  You can get them at the supplier listed above or readily online.  They are very simple tools–I like the ones with the little reservoir and the plastic handles.  You can also make your own.
  • Wax: You will need some beeswax in either little granules or a block.
  • Candles: You will need 1 candle per person to melt the wax.
  • Workspace Protection: You will want to lay down a plastic bag or newspaper around your workspace, especially the area you are dyeing the eggs.  The dyes can really stain a countertop!  You may also want to have some paper down around the areas where you are adding the wax.
  • Egg blower: You will want to invest in this little $12 tool–its an egg blower, and it allows you to easily blow eggs out prior to starting your dyeing.  When I was a kid, we used to blow them out by creating two holes, one at each end, and just blowing and blowing till all the insides came out.  For one, its a lot of work.  But for two, its now dangerous to do so due to the high level of salmonella in eggs today. The egg blower is amazing–you can blow out about a dozen eggs in 45 min or less!  Here’s where you can get a nice egg blower.

    Tulip egg my mother made

    Tulip egg my mother made

The Eggs

The eggs themselves should be carefully selected for the following qualities:

  • Eggs need to be whole (not cracked at all).
  • They need to have minimal bumps, and instead be smooth.
  • They need to have a pleasing shape (symmetrical) and of a shape you like.

You can start with white eggs or, if you prefer, you can start with a light brown, cream, or even blue chicken egg as the base color for your design.  I have found that getting an assortment of nice eggs at a local farm gives me a wide variety to work with.  The shells of these eggs are also usually thicker and better than those factory farmed eggs in the store.  You can also use duck eggs–but beware that some duck eggs have a film that you may want to scrub off.  I am really enjoying working with duck eggs!

 

The Process

So now I’m going to walk you through the full process of making your own beautiful pysanky!  As I said before, this is a great activity do do around Beltane.  I’ve taken to starting my Pysanky making at the Spring Equinox and wrapping it up around Beltane, so I have a full 8 weeks making these amazing eggs.  And without further delay, here’s how you make the eggs!

 

1.  Prepare your workspace and lay out your dyes. You will need to make your dyes according to the package instructions or according to natural dye making strategies.  Make sure you add vinegar to either kind of dye–it helps the dye take better on the eggs.  It is wise to place your dyes in a separate area (on a kitchen counter is good) and protect that area well.  I also like to get a bit of paper and dip a small piece into each dye and then put them in front of the jar so that you can see what the color looks like.  Here’s a dye setup (I’m using commercial dyes):

Dyes on the counter

Dyes on the counter

And here’s a setup for drawing the wax on the eggs.  The egg carton holds extra eggs, there are books for reference and a sketchbook for drawing out potential designs.  We have a roll of paper towels to keep fingerprints off of the eggs.  And of course, we have our candles and tools.  We have found that adding a little cardboard box below the candle catches drips and keeps them off the table.

Workspace for egg wax drawing

Workspace for egg wax drawing

2.  Select your eggs.  Select eggs that are free of cracks and that are smooth and well-shaped (see above).  Have some extras available, cause you will likely break a few in the drilling and blowing process (or even drop them at other points–try not to!)

A nice example of an egg.

A nice example of an egg. This one is setup to drill (see step 3).

3. Blow out your eggs. We use a Dremel drill to drill a small hole on the bottom of the egg.  I will sit the egg in a small cup, place a paper towel between the cup and the egg, and then drill the egg carefully. I usually drill about a dozen eggs at a time if several people are making pysanky. The second step is to use the egg blower to blow out the inside of your eggs (I blow them into a bowl, so that you can make a nice quiche later in the day!)  The third step is to add some water to rinse out the inside of the egg. and make sure the last of the egg is out (I don’t add this to my egg bowl).  Finally, you can let it dry out by placing it hole down in an egg carton or placing a little bit of paper towel up in the hole for 10 or so min.

Blowing out eggs

Blowing out eggs

3. Decide on a pattern or design.  This is my favorite part of the process–its here where you decide what your design will look like.  I like to use a pencil and very lightly draw my design (or design lines/guides) on the egg (the pencil will come off later in the process).  You can also use a string to wrap around the egg so that you get straight lines.

 

At this stage, you also need to get in your head how the dye process works and do some planning for the different colors you might use.  One of the biggest beginner mistakes is not to have enough contrast between colors–remember that its contrast that makes the different colors stand out.  If you end up with three light colors next to each other, the egg won’t be as beautiful.  But if you use light and dark colors next to each other, it makes the designs stand out more.

 

You also want to do your first few eggs simply. Maybe do a white pattern, a light blue pattern, and then dye it dark blue and that’s your first egg.  That will allow you to see how it works without getting too complicated for your first egg.

 

There are many options for designs and colors, as you’ll see under “symbols in pysanky” below–and all of these symbols and designs have meaning.  In addition to the traditional ones I’ve listed, we have an assortment of other kinds of symbols you can draw upon with meaning: spirals, celtic knots, awens, and more

 

Lines on an egg before I begin

Lines on an egg before I begin laying out my design

Symbols in Pysanky

The designs in traditional Pysanky all have meaning.  I have worked to compile the list of symbol meanings from various sources from my book collection on pysanky: Ukranian Easter Eggs by Yaroslava Surmach, 1957; Easter Eggs….Polish Style by Lawrence G. Kozlowski (1977); Ukranian Easter Eggs by Linda Gruber,  a handout by Martha Winchorek titled “Ukranian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) Designs) that is undated; and a handout titled “How to Make Ukrainian Pysanky (Easter Eggs) by the Pysanky Committee, Ukranian graduates of Detroit and Windsor (undated).  The traditional symbols and magical meanings are as follows:

  • Dots may represent stars or may be used in conjunction with lines to form a division on the egg
  • Ribbons, lines, or belts, those that encircle the egg, represent eternity (since they are continuous lines)
  • Lines in a pattern that would make a net are one of the most ancient designs, and are associated with the Hutzul people’s myth of the snake
  • Triangles are symbolic of the trinity, also the elements of air, fire, and water
  • A comb/rake is symbolic of the harvest
  • Flowers – symbolic of love and charity; happiness
  • Stars – An 8 pointed star has particular pagan connotations (it is connected to the pagan Sun god, Atar; connotes sunshine); stars are usually placed on the broad side of the egg and are very common
  • Pine tree or fir tree – symbolic of youth and health
  • Poppy or Sun – good fortune
  • Crosses – usually occur in the Greek style, with four similar arms; they can be symbolic of Christianity, but there are surviving designs and motifs that show this symbol is much older
  • Reindeer, Deer, or Horse– symbolic of wealth or prosperity
  • Rooster – Symbolic of fertility or the fulfillment of wishes
  • Birds – symbolic of happiness
  • Butterfly – symbolic of nature and resurrection/transformation
  • Horns, Spirals, Bends, Maidens: Combinations of spiral lines; these appear in several books but no meaning is given
  • Zig-Zag or Double-Zig Zag Pattern: (Called a wave or saw).  When this occurs in two parallel lines, it denotes death and was used for funeral palls.  So its RARELY used in Pysanki for that reason (the eggs are symbols of life and light!)
  • A spiral: Also used, connected to nature
  • A circle with a dot in the middle: represents something bright and noble; represents the sun and good fortune
  • A circle with a cross inside reaching the edges: represents the sun; good fortune

In Ukranian Easter Eggs Gruber writes, “Every mark that is placed on an egg has a meaning.  People with expertise in Pysanky can distinguish between eggs decorated in different sections of Ukraine and even between villages.  In the villages, certain families have come to be known for their distinct patterns” (3).   I find the symbolism here, pulled from old books, utterly fascinating.  Some of this same symbolism shows up, unsurprisingly, in the old esoteric lore! You can also use any other symbolism from within other spiritual or magical practices (such as some of the symbols I included here in an earlier post).
Ok, so at this point, you have your dyes made, your eggs drilled and blown, and a good design in your mind (and maybe drawn on your egg) complete with magical symbolism.  Now comes the fun part!

 

4.  Add your first wax layer.  Your first wax layer will be of your LIGHTEST color–that is typically white, but it might also be a very lightly dyed first color. You add the wax by heating up your tool, then scraping or dropping some wax into the tool, and wiping off the excess before drawing the tool across the egg.

 

Adding wax to an egg

Adding wax to an egg

5. Add your first dye layer.  Before adding your egg to the dye, you will need to seal up the drill hole with wax before you put it in the dye bath.  A little gob of wax does the trick here.  So, you can now dye your egg with the lightest color that you want to use in your design. Typically, this is yellow. The longer you leave your egg in the dye, the darker the dye will become on the egg.

 

Since your egg is hollow, you will need to weigh it down the egg so that it is fully dyed.  We found that a 1/2 pint jar works perfectly for this! I forgot to photograph this, unfortunately (so no photo here).  But basically you can use an empty 1/2 pint canning jar; it fit in a 1 pint widemouth jar that you are using for dye, and it will weigh the egg down.   Wait a few minutes, and pull your egg out often to check on the dye and see how you like the color.  Then when you are happy with the intensity of the color, pull it out of the dye and let it sit till it is dry again.  Its for this reason that we usually work on 2-3 eggs at a time–some are dyeing, some are drying, and one we are actively working on!  If you want a REALLY deep color, you can even put your egg in for several hours (or overnight) and you will get very intense colors.

 

6. Add successive wax and dye layers. You need to think about how the different colors already on the egg will interact with any colors you later put on the egg and plan accordingly.  This means you need to play for the dye path you will take.  So a few typical paths that you can use to dye include:

  • White–> yellow -> orange –> red  –> purple –> black
  • White –> Yellow –> light green –> blue –> purple –> black
  • White –> green –> blue –> Red (which makes purple) –> black

And so on.  Each layer gets darker, and its hard to go between complimentary colors on the color wheel (e.g. green to red makes a brown; yellow to purple makes a brown; blue to orange makes a brown).  As you work with the dyes, you can also experiment with different color combinations.

 

Here is an example of the successive layers of dyes that I used for my tree egg.

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg

Second layer of dye and wax on my tree egg; this was a sunflower yellow

 

Third layer of dye and wax

Third layer of dye and wax (egg is in the front left); its now a light green, which is going to be all of the leaves on my tree.

 

Fourth layer of dye and wax

Fourth layer of dye and wax.  I’ve taken it to red, which interacted with the green and gave me a nice dark red.  This is going to be the ground areas and trunk.

 

7.  Allow the egg to fully dry after the last layer of dye. I would recommend at least an hour total for the drying time before you proceed with removing your wax (although it is hard to wait!).  You melt the wax off by  holding the egg carefully to the candle for brief amounts of time and wiping the wax off with a clean tissue or paper towel (a tissue works better).

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

An egg that is ready to have the wax removed

 

Removing wax from an egg

Removing wax from an egg

8. Finish the egg and display!  You can leave a thin layer of beeswax and wipe it all over the egg to preserve it. A lot of people choose to use varnish on their eggs to help seal in the colors, but I haven’t done that and they last just fine. But at the end of this process, you have an incredible work of art! Here’s the finished egg from my earlier photographs:

Here's my completed tree egg!

Here’s my completed tree egg!

I hope that you’ve found this post to be an inspiration to you on your path deeper into the bardic arts!  I have found making of these eggs to be a wonderful, relaxing pastime.  They are unique gifts, full of magic and beauty!  Not to mention, they look great on your altar :).

Altar with eggs

Altar with eggs

 

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

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

 

Early Sunrise

Early Sunrise

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

Spirit of Chickweed Painting

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Get out into the world!

Get out into the world!

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Cycles of the Sun and the Moon in Our Lives October 8, 2015

Humans evolved in alignment with the movement of the sun and the moon. As the sun moved, so did human camps of hunters and gathers. As the sun moved, so still move many birds, fish, and mammals as they migrate to avoid the biting cold. As the moon moved, so do the cycles within our bodies, the tides and flows, and wildlife. The sun and moon cycles are literally woven into our blood, into our DNA, and however disconnected some of humanity currently is from the cycles of the sun and moon, they are still there, ever present. How many friends or co-workers still talk about the full moon and how intense people get? How many people in the USA celebrate thanksgiving and a harvest season? How many people feel like staying inside during the darkest time of the year? The cycles of the celestial heavens are there, shining each day, if we only heed them. So today, I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the cycle of the sun in our lives, and how we can use this cycle within and without. This is especially pertinent because, at least where I live, the grumblings of winter have already begun and reflection helps us through the cold and the dark times.

 

The Moon and the Sun’s phases repeat themselves throughout our lives (whether or not we want them to), and we can see their same patterns occurring again and again. The graphic that I’ve used as a teaching tool that accompanies this post helps explain one way we can interpret these phases of the sun (and also we can apply this to understanding the moon phases as well). These are my own interpretations, but they are drawn from many years of living by the seasons as a homesteader, herbalist, and wild food forager, as well as 10 years of study in two druid orders, where we celebrate and meditate upon the cycle of the seasons.  Even if you don’t celebrate these events as holidays, they still have much to teach all of us in terms of life cycles.

Wheel of the Sun

Wheel of the Sun

The yearly cycle of the sun encourages us to understand that there are times of scarcity and abundance in our natural world, that there are times of high energy and growth and times of death and quietude, and that everything has a season. Why does winter come? So the trees and land can rest before spring is reborn anew. This cycle encourages us to understand that we must have both of these times in our lands and in our lives. The summer solstice (Alban Hefin in the druid tradition) is the high point of energy of the year, with the longest day. The winter solstice is the low point of energy of the year, with the longest night. On either mid-point, we have the equinoxes–the explosive growth and time of new beginnings at the spring equinox, and the harvest and reaping rewards and winding down at the fall equinox. The Sun’s full phase takes 365.256 days, and often teaches us lessons that are more long-term in nature (as each “year older” we are is a passing full phase of the sun); while the Moon’s full phase is 28 days (with each phase 7.38 days), and mirrors the phases of the sun in a shorter period of time. As the moon goes from dark to full and back again, it energetically creates periods of growth and beginnings, building energy, peaking energy, falling energy, and quietude.

 

Each of these phases is consistent, unavoidable, and part of the human experience. I think we’ve forgotten this quite a bit in our modern world, where each day is regimented into work weeks and we are always supposed to be at our peak performance. Dear workplace and modern life, it is not always high summer in our lands–why should you expect high summer performance 365 days a year? There isn’t a time for rest, there isn’t a time for reflection–its just go, go, go. Modern life gives us no time for anything but full “high summer energy” from us, and yet, that’s not realistic of human limitations and needs. This unrealistic expectation and leads to the glorification of busyness and the burnout of so many of us.

 

I think its interesting that we talk about it as a sun cycle, because that’s how we see it from earth. But its really an earth cycle that we are talking about–the movement of the earth around the stationary sun. The cycles are affected by the sun, but they are really earth cycles–how the sun is impacting the earth. The sun is masculine, and it is protective in nature. The moon, on the other hand, revolves around the earth and is impacted by earth much moreso than the sun–and the moon is the passive and feminine principle. So even the movement of the celestial bodies themselves reflect the principles they embody.

 

One of the wheel’s main lessons is that everything comes in a season and a cycle—if we feel we are in a time of darkness (as we might find ourselves in the Winter Solstice), we know that this will pass and that the sun will eventually be bright and full again. The cycle of the Sun, therefore, provides us the promise of change and growth.  Let’s take a look at each of these periods of time:

 

Balancing and Planning: Its during the Spring Equinox (March 21st) that we can first look to the start to a new season and begin to cultivate plans in our lives. The spring is a time where, after the long rest and rejuvenation of winter, we are able to start anew and build new ideas.  When we are excitedly making plans for the future, the message of balance is a critical one, and one that physically manifests during this period. In the physical landscape, by this point, farmers and gardeners have ordered their seeds and have begun to start them; and while we don’t see much in the way of new growth in many places in the Northern Hemisphere, the melting snows and returning light show the promise of spring. I remember on my homestead in Michigan, as soon as the pond ice would melt around this time period, you would see life in the pond. The water was only a few degrees above freezing and the ground was still covered with snow, but there was all this moving about on the warm edges of the melted water!

 

Sowing: May 1st marks the point where the “spring” energy is really coming back into the land. Traditional celebrations around May 1st (May Day) involve many fertility symbols, like the maypole or the Beltane fires. The energy of this time isn’t only about physical fertility, but rather how we might sow seeds for many other kinds of things: creative projects, more positive relationships, finding ways of expressing ourselves, and more. This is the time when the flowers come back, when the nectar begins to flow, and when green is slowly returned to our lands.

 

Energizing and Growth: With the sun shining at its brightest and strongest of the year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice is a time of energizing and growth! The sun provides Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that supports strong bones and teeth—the very foundation of our bodies. Upwards of 60% of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D–we are all in need of more sun. Spending time observing nature at this time shows us that we are in the height of summer—the first summer berries are in, the plants are growing vigorously, the trees are thick and lush, and much herbal medicine is ready.

 

Celebrating: Its not surprising that July and August are traditionally the months where people take a vacation—these months, even in a traditional society—were less busy than the coming fall harvest season. We don’t take enough times in our lives to truly just celebrate the positive things in our lives and simply spend time with those we care about—and this period of the sun’s cycle (around August 1st) encourages us to do this. These are the lazy days of summer, before schools begin again, when there is time to camp, to frolic in the fields, and to enjoy the coming harvest.

 

Balancing and Harvest: With all the work of planting, sowing, and growth comes the expectation and excitement of the harvest—when all of our hard work pays off. The land, too, is literally bursting at the seams in late August and throughout September with many of the traditional foods that would sustain people through the long winter: nuts, fruits, apples, pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, and more. The Fall equinox (Sept 21st) also marks the point where we move from the light half to the dark half of the year—and a time for us reflecting and regaining balance in our lives.

 

Composting: We are uncomfortable with compost in this culture. Things are thrown away, discarded, but not always composted. The lesson of this time in the sun’s cycle can be a difficult but necessary one. As things that are no longer needed or no longer serve us build up around us, it is critical to clear them away and transform them so that we can move forward in our lives. Composting, in a physical sense, is what happens when the trees drop their leaves each season—these leaves turn into soil over time and that soil is host to a whole web of life. In the life of a farmer or gardener, this is when you clear out the old annual plants, trim things back, mulch your perennials, and prepare for the cold season—this is necessary work if anything is to grow. Failure to clear out the old prevents the new from coming forth. And by Samhain around November 1st, the land (at least where I live) is cold and appearing lifeless.

 

Resting: Despite modern surrounding productivity and cultural values encouraging staying busy and being workaholics; the lesson we learn from the sun cycles is that in order to be abundant and produce a harvest, we must rest, and this rest must be equal to every other phase in our lives. It is at this point, during the darkest night of the year (December 21st), that we can look to nature for guidance. The trees are still, their roots growing deeper into the earth; the perennial plants are alive and yet resting in their toots; living off of the stored nutrients of the past year. The beehive is sealed up, living off of honey stores, waiting for spring. Even many animals rest and hibernate during this part of the year. Without this resting period, the land would quickly be worn out. Without rest, we too are quickly worn out. This period of the sun’s cycle also provides an additional lesson: this is the time of darkness on our lands, but it is a naturally occurring process. This does not suggest that the dark are evil or to be avoided—they are a natural parts of our lives, and we can learn from them—and look forward to the sun’s light again.

 

Rejuvenating: As part of our rest in the dark half of the year, we need to find ways of rejuvenating our bodies, our minds, and our spirits—and February 1st is a perfect time to do this: light candles, take hot bubble baths, drink warm teas, find creative time, and get a weekend away! Rest is different than rejuvenation—after a period of rest, we are ready to inspire ourselves, treat ourselves, and start to look ahead.

 

Even if our lives in practice don’t reflect the cycles of the sun, what they do reflect for us is the importance of these periods of time in our lives. Do we get real relaxation? Do we get to nurture our own creative energies and birth things in the world? Do we have times to celebrate, to harvest, to compost, and to simply be still? The sun is there, each day, teaching us its careful and patient lesson. The moon, too, is always in her phase bringing in her quiet light. These cycles give us deeper understanding of ourselves, and principles to live by, principles that can help us create harmony and balance in our lives every day of the year.

 

I like to take time regularly to reflect upon the sun and moon cycles in my life. They help me balance, they remind me to rest, they comfort me when the composting or dark times are happening. I hope they do the same for you.

 

For more writings on the yearly cycles, see my posts on the Druid Wheel of the Year, a guided meditation, and Sustainable Activities for the Fall Equinox, Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, and Summer Solstice.

 

The Wheel of the Year and Sustainable Action: The Spring Equinox March 19, 2015

I began this series of posts with examining sustainable actions for the winter solstice. Today’s post celebrates the current holiday–the spring equinox–and suggests activities for sustainable and spiritual actions that are appropriate for this delightful season. (I will note that these activities are appropriate for readers who reside in the Northern Hemisphere who are coming into the springtime–for those in the Southern Hemisphere, look forward to my Fall Equinox post later in the year!)

 

A few words about the spring equinox–the spring equinox is a time of balance, when day and night come in equal parts. The spring equinox is a great time to clear away the old habits and clutter that no longer serve us and that pull us back into unsustainable patterns and behaviors. The spring equinox is also a great time to start new activities, hobbies, actions, or even reorient our way of seeing. Given the energies of the Spring Equinox, I’ve compiled a list of things that you can do to help engage in more sustainable and earth-centered practices during this most sacred time!

 

On Personal Rituals

I like celebrating the eight-fold wheel of the year because it brings a sense of ritual and consistency into my life. I have crafted a series of “personal rituals” for each of these sacred days (like the inner spring cleansing, the first item below), and doing these with regularity each year gives me some balance and focus.  So you might also think about how your own personal ritual and spiritual work fits with the season at hand.

 

Beautiful spring violets!

Beautiful spring violets!

Spring Cleansing/Balancing (Inner). The spring equinox is a time when the darkness and light are in equal balance. And truly, this is a time of balance, a time of introspection when we can understand how to achieve inner balance in our lives. I think this is important because so many of us don’t take the time to do such balancing and cleansing work in this busy world, and an inner imbalance can lead us towards all sorts of outer imbalances and cause chaos and pain for us. How does one seek inner balance?

 

One suggestion is a practice I started few years ago on the spring solstice: I started with a list of all of the things that make me happy: writing, painting, being outside, being with family and friends, growing things, spiritual practices, sitting by the fire, spending time in the woods, teaching, mentoring my students, etc. And then I kept track of how much time I spend on everything for one week–its like a time diary. I kept track of it as precisely as I could (if anything took more than 5 minutes, I wrote it down). After one week, I evaluated how I did and how many minutes, of my 24 hours in each day, I spent doing things I really loved. I also meditated on the list, trying to work through my week, and worked to eliminate anything that wasn’t helping me. The following week, I tried to increase the time I spent on my favorite things by 5%; then I again evaluated my successes. Slowly, over time, I was able to clear extraneous things and time sinks (like Facebook!) and focus really on what made me happy. This led to inner balance and, honestly, a new way of seeing and living. To keep myself on the right track, I do this activity each year for at least a week as part of my spring equinox celebrations–to reinforce my goals and spiritual path.

 

Spring Cleaning (Outer Living Spaces). Now is also a great time for outer work–work that can help you live simply and more meaningfully. Part of the reason we have “spring cleanings” is that spring is really a great time for all kinds of cleansing work. The accumulation of excess stuff that we don’t need can energetically hold us back and keep us from moving forward. For example, I had a friend who had a serious accumulation of things–a lot of it was junk, but it had piled up in his living space to the point where he couldn’t walk or really do anything. He would spend many countless hours and days organizing his things, but the stuff always seemed to get the best of him because while he shuffled it around, he never actually got rid of anything, so the clutter and energy remained. Eventually, he was forced through external circumstances to do some serious spring cleaning–and energetically, his creativity started to flow again.I found this to be true with myself as well–after some life changes, I ended up unloading about 40% of my stuff–with each bag or box I donated, I felt lighter and happier. I’m in the process of unloading even more stuff to prepare for some more big life changes this summer. The more I donated and rehomed, the easier it was to let go of more. The clutter really does stagnate us energetically and harms our living spaces and inner work. Once we’ve done such an external spring cleansing, we can evaluate what is really needed for a happy and fulfilling life and only bring those things in that fulfill us, not bog us down.

 

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Foraging for Spring Greens. Depending on where you live and the temperatures in the year, in the next few weeks, you can likely begin foraging for the first spring greens. In my neck of the woods, these are cattail shoots and poke shoots (both to eat like bamboo shoots), dandelion greens, nettles, burdock root, and a bit later in the season, ramps. For the poke, you can have them as long as there is no pink or red coming up the stalks.

 

Spring Tonic Greens and Tonic Teas. Unsurprisingly, once you are able to find those spring greens, they make a great spring tonic blend. The idea behind a tonic tea is that the winter would leave one rather malnourished–so the early spring greens and roots often helped to nourish and revitalize the body. This is not a “cleanse” in the popular sense of the word but more of a revitalization for long health. There are lots of ways to make a tonic blend using the early spring greens–you can make up a spring greens stir fry (with dandelion greens, nettle, and burdock root) or you can just make yourself up a dandelion root-nettle tea. Regardless, the early spring greens can be consumed early and often and will leave you feeling revitalized for the coming months!

 

Evaluating Spending and Reducing Excess. Part of the challenge for those of us living in western industrial civilization is that everything encourages us to spend, buy, and consume, very often when we don’t need it.  think there is often confusion over what is a need and what is simply a strong want. This is a good time to year to analyze spending habits and work to reduce excess (a great book for this is called Your Money or Your Life and it will help you break down your necessities and what you really need–a fascinating and highly recommended read).  Evaluating spending and reducing excess in our lives is well-suited to be combined with any external or internal spring cleaning we are ready to enact.

 

Sacred space

Sacred space

Planning a sacred space. Early spring is still a great time for thinking about creating outdoor spaces–either on your own land or in out of the way nooks and crannies in public lands. I have found that the longer I hold an intention of creating such spaces in my mind, the better such spaces become when I enact them in the world.  Meditation and visualization to plan the right kind of sacred space is useful as well. I have several posts on sacred spaces: developing sacred spaces, stacking stones, bee and butterfly gardens, stone circles and spirals, shrines and more.

 

Reskilling. While any time of year is a good time to reskill, the spring is fantastic because it is a time of new beginnings, a very good time to clear away the old and bring in the new. Reskiling, or the practice of learning skills that allow for more sustainable skills, can help us begin to make the transition to lower-fossil fuel and lower-impact living. I have a post on reskilling where I cover the basics of this practice.

 

Seed starting. At this point in the spring, if you haven’t already started your seeds or are considering a veggie garden, this is a great time to start those seeds!  A lot of farmers and gardeners in my zone (Zone 6) plant their gardens on the 31st of May, so this is the time to start the plants that have an eight-week indoor growing time–and that includes most of the nightshades, such as the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Some info on seeds and seed starting is found here and here!

 

Learning Homebrewing. There are a fantastic array of spring beverages that one can craft–elderflower wine, spruce tip ale,  ground ivy gruit, and my favorite, dandelion wine. If you want to learn about some of these unique brews, you can check out Stephen Harold Buhner’s book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Ancient Art of Fermentation. You won’t be disappointed!  There are also many recipes to be found freely online, such as at the winemaking site.

 

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Amazing scenes from early spring!

Early Spring Observations. I recommend that you take every opportunity to be outside, to live and breathe the spring air, to watch the ice melt, and generally experience the seasons.  The melting ice, the rise of the crocuses, the running of the sap, the unfurling of the leaves–there is just so much magic in the land this special time of year! Spending time walking outdoors, being still, and focusing your awareness on the landscape and the tiny details can reveal profound insights and draw you closer to the land. I think one of my very favorite moments of the year is when we have the big melt, and being outside as much as possible during those amazing days!

 

Reading and Study.  Like the Winter Solstice, for many of us, the spring equinox still has much snow on the ground and its an excellent time to read a few good books. I have a list of books recommended for homesteading here, and I also have listed some books for sustainability and druidry here.

 

May the blessings of this Alban Elier be upon you! /|\

 

The Wheel of the Year in the Druid Tradition – Description of Druidic Holidays April 6, 2013

When we think about the practices that various groups and cultures did on a yearly cycle, agricultural holidays are some of the most prominent.  The modern Wheel of the Year in the Druid tradition seeks to re-establish a set of holidays that clearly align with the changing season and with earth-based practices.  Therefore, many druids celebrate the “Wheel of the Year” or a set of eight holidays occurring every seven weeks. The holidays in the Wheel include include the solstices and equinoxes (which we give special names in the Druid Revival tradition, see below) as well as the four fire festivals (which occur at the halfway point between solstice and equinox/equinox and solstice).

The following material comes from a workshop that I wrote a while ago to introduce new druids into the wheel of the year. It started with a guided meditation for the wheel of the year, which I posted a few weeks ago on the blog. I thought this might be of use to others, so here it is!

The following graphic shows the holidays as we progress from Alban Arthan, the Winter Solstice and the time of greatest darkness, to Alban Hefin, the Summer Solstice and time of the greatest light. As you can see from the graphic, Alban Eiler and Alban Elfed fall on the midpoints—they provide us two balance points of the year where the darkness and light are equal.   The other six holidays firmly sit within the light or dark half of the year and reflect the themes of growth, harvest, compost, and rebirth.

Druid Wheel of the Year Holidays

Druid Wheel of the Year Holidays

Recognizing these holidays as part of a never-ending cycle is important.  This cycle is repeated in our weather, our light patterns, and our growing and harvesting seasons externally.  Internally, it can also be reflected in our own lives.  We must have times of light and times of dark, times of harvest and times of sowing, times of high energy and times of quite reflection.  Celebrating the wheel of the year allows us to recognize this in our lives as well as balance our own energies with those of the land.

 

Celebrating the Wheel of the Year

As we begin to celebrate the wheel of the year, many druids express a growing sense of closeness to nature and an appreciation for the seasons.  The wheel gives us a sense of balance, of marking the passage of time, and recognizing what each season can teach us. Druids often celebrate the Wheel of the Year in a variety of ways.  Both spiritual/magical and more mundane/physical activities are appropriate for the celebration of the holidays.  Her are some ideas:

  • Celebrating the holiday with grove ritual, food, and companionship.
  • Building outdoor/indoor shrines and decorating a personal altar for the season
  • Planting or harvesting herbs, fruits, leafy greens, etc.
  • Engaging in various bardic arts such as wildcrafting, painting, music, writing
  • Donating your time to others, such as participating in in environmental clean-up,
  • Celebrating the holidays through personal ritual (it might be really useful to you to create your own meanings and ritual celebrations for each holiday)
  • meditation, reflection, and engaging in divination work.

    

The Wheel of the Year: Holidays

 

Samhain / Samhuinn – Approx. November 1st

Samhain was traditionally the Celtic New Year, a time when the veil between the worlds grew thin and the Celts honored their ancestors. Druidry often recognizes three kinds of ancestors: ancestors of our blood, ancestors of our lands, and ancestors of our spiritual tradition.  Samhain is usually our most solemn holiday, where we recognize the death that fall and the dark months bring, the need to compost and go into stillness, and the coming of the cold months.

This quote, gives you a sense of our Samhain ritual (adapted from the OBOD ritual) is telling of this holiday: “It is during this time that the last of the leaves are blown off the trees, that the ground becomes cold and frozen.  Like an egg or a womb, the Cailleach (known also as the crone) gives the land and us time to rest, to dream, so that in the springtime, the land and her peoples may awaken anew. She is nothing to fear—she is but part of the cycle that the lands, and that we humans live in the course of our lives.  She walks in the space between worlds, to our land.”

 

Alban Arthur / Winter Solstice / Yule – Approx. December 21st

This is the second of our “dark half of the year” holidays; the time of the greatest darkness in the year. In the druidic tradition, darkness is not something to be feared or something that it is evil—it is part of the cycle; we cannot appreciate the light if we never experience the darkness.  So we use this as a period of rest, of gestation, of recognizing the need for the cold and dark of the winter months for the land to rest and regenerate.  In our grove, this is when we traditionally give gifts, burn the Yule log, and work to bring light back into the world.

Here is part of our Alban Arthur ritual (adapted from the OBOD ritual): “Now is the time to acknowledge all that has gone before and is no more. The warm breezes of the high summer are but a memory, we are far from that place and now we witness the darkest point. The oak is bare, the earth is cold, the sky is black—from where could hope arise? Our eyes are wet with the tears of dreams lost to the dark.  Our inner vision is misted by grief. Let the darkness be felt within our minds and our hearts.  Only out of the darkness does light arise….only when we have mourned the passing of the old can rebirth occur….we know well that there will be a new dawn tomorrow, after this the longest of nights.  Yet we often forget this simple truth: When we let go of our longing for the past, we are free to nurture the still small light of hope in our hearts.”

 

Imbolc – Approx. February 2nd

The third of our “dark half of the year” celebrations, Imbolc was traditionally a Celtic festival that celebrated the first sign of spring—and for most families, this was the lactating of the ewes, showing that they were going to give birth to lambs.  Although it seems still very much winter in South East Michigan during this holiday, we recognize the importance of the turning of the wheel and the brightening of days.  In our grove, we do healing of ourselves and our lands and recognize this holiday as one of reflection and rejuvenation.  We usually also focus on the element of water during this holiday.

Here is a quote from our Imbolc ritual (adapted from OBOD):  “Imbolc is a time when we begin to see the first stirrings of spring in the world.  Although the world is still plunged in darkness, we are moving towards the light half of the year; the snow is melting into water to nourish the land. Imbolc is a time of renewal and rebirth, a time of purification and starting anew, a time of quiet anticipation and reflection.  This is a time that we seek healing for ourselves and for this land.”

 

Alban Eiler/Eilir / Spring Equinox – Approx. March 21st

The Spring Equinox is one of our two “balance” holidays, or when night and day are in equal balance. The Spring Equinox allows us to step from the dark into the light half of the year, and for Michigan, truly does give us the first signs of spring in the land.  This is the time when we recognize the importance of planting, growing, and nurturing new ideas, projects, plans, and yes, even plants.  We seek balance in our lives and recognize the importance of balancing our activities in the greater landscape to minimize our impact.

Here is a quote from our Alban Eiler ritual (adapted from OBOD):  , “Today, as we celebrate the balance of the light and the dark and the first day of spring, we recognize that our path is not one we walk alone.  Just as the earth begins to awaken from her slumber, so too do animals in hibernation begin to emerge forth once more. The summer birds return from their long winter months in the south, and the amphibians come out from the watery depths to seek the light coming back into the world.  It is today, we honor the coming spring, planting the seeds of change, and seeking new beginnings.”

 

Beltane  – Approx. May 1st

                  Beltane is the third of our spring holidays, and celebrates the return of fertility to the land. Beltane is a holiday about fertility—bringing back the fertility to the land after the long winter, as well as bringing fertility to the land’s people.  The Celts celebrated Beltane with maypoles, dancing, fires, and the great rite.  Cattle were traditionally driven through the smoke of the bonfires to bless them with health and fertility for the coming year.  In Ireland, the fires of Tara were the first ones lit every year at Beltane—all other fires were lit from Tara’s flame.  For our ritual, we raise a maypole (symbolizing the union of masculine/projective and feminine/receptive energies) and walk through the Beltane fires in blessing.

Quote from our Beltane Ritual: “Beltane is a time to bring abundance and fertility to your life—whether you are looking to conceive a child or birth an idea, to enjoy fruitfulness in your career or creative endeavors, or just see your garden bloom.  Beltane is one of the two times in the year when the veils between the worlds are thinnest—this is a time of “no time” and is associated with the otherworld/fairy/spirit realms.”

 

Alban Hefin/Heruin  / Summer Solstice– Approx. June 21st

Alban Hefin takes place on the summer solstice, where we celebrate the heat and light of high summer and the fire of the sun.   For our grove and the broader OBOD tradition, we really take the time just to “be” during this holiday—to be present here and now and simply enjoy the bounty of the summer.  This is also a great time to gather herbs (for magical or mundane purposes).

Here is a quote from our Alban Hefin grove celebration: “Today is the celebration of the Summer Solstice in our part of the world. The Turning point – The longest day and the shortest night. This is a time of fullness, of life in blossomed expression, of the forest filled with creatures awake and moving. The summer solstice is marked throughout the whole world and belongs not to one area or people, but stands for truth universal.  As one we stand in this circle, we attend the triumph of the light.  Now is the time to celebrate the sun, the fire that burns to give us life, and the fire that burns within us.”

 

Lughnasadh –  Approx. August 1st

Lughnasadh is one of the four traditional fire festivals and is the festival of the first harvest.   In early August, the tomatoes and vegetables ripen, the grains grow heavy in the fields, and we celebrate the bounty—and future bounty—of the land. In Ireland, this festival was (and is) celebrated with games, festivities, and the gathering of the berries and fruits of high summer.  Our grove, likewise, celebrates this with games and also offerings to the land in thanksgiving.

Here is a quote from our Lughnasadh ritual, “Lughnasadh marks the time of the beginning of harvesting which is then completed by Alban Elfed, the Autumnal Equinox.  This is a time of joy and of preparing for the Autumn and winter months.  It is now that we begin to reap what we have sown, and it is now that we understand the wisdom of careful preparation, of the sowing of good seeds in our lives, and in the lives of others.”

 

Alban Elfed / Fall Equinox  – Approx.  September 21st

                  Alban Elfed represents the eighth holiday in our wheel of the year.  We return once more to the time balance, when we enter the dark half of the year.  Alban Elfed is the third of the harvest holidays, and a time when we recognize the need for balance in our lands, our lives, in what we harvest, and what we store away for the coming winter months.   Alban Elfed is also the time of the OBOD East Coast Gathering, a gathering that takes place in Eastern Pennsylvania and that many of our grove members attend.

Here is a quote from our Alban Elfed ritual: “I proclaim the festival of Alban Elfed, The Light of the Water, at the time of the Autumn Equinox! I proclaim the symmetry of day and night! I proclaim the balance of summer and winter! But balance lasts but for a moment, for from this very time, night becomes longer than day for a full half-year, until at the other side of the Wheel, when we reach the moment of the equinox again, and day gains in strength and exceeds the time of night for a full half-year again.  Today we seek balance in our lives, drawing upon the energies of the four elements and this sacred time of balance.”

 

The Process of Tapping Trees and Making Maple Syrup – A Blessing from the Maple Trees March 15, 2013

Sap in buckets on trees!

Sap in buckets on trees!

This time of year, something magical happens to the maple trees. When the temperatures drop below freezing at night and then goes above freezing during the day, the maple sap runs.  In South-East Michigan, this usually occurs in late February and throughout March. Maple sap, of course, becomes Maple syrup or Maple sugar depending on how far down you want to boil it.  A group of us, including some grove members, are tapping trees and learning about this process this year.

Maple is a sacred tree, and the Native Americans were the first to tap it and discover its incredible sap. The sap, and the syrup that results from the boiling of sap, is the lifeblood of the maple tree. In taking part of that lifeblood into ourselves, we receive the blessing of the maple tree. Partaking of such a sacred thing should be done with reverence and respect (and thanking the trees for their offering, of course!)  The process of making syrup also has links to alchemy, and truly, I see it as one of joining opposite elements–we have the cold of the sap and the wet of the snow, the application of heat and flame, and the required persistence and diligence–and the resulting amazing syrup, which tastes like liquid gold and stores for many months!

The process of making Maple syrup is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. I’m going to walk through the process step by step.  Ours is a very small-scale, home operation, not a large commercial operation.  It can be done with a minimum of equipment and an investment of time.

Equipment:

To tap trees, you’ll need some equipment including:

  • Tree taps
  • Small buckets for collecting sap (ours are 1 gallon each)
  • Storage tanks / bins for sap (ours are 40 gallons each)
  • A drill (electric or hand-cranked)
  • A source of heat (we are using hardwoods from dead trees)
  • An evaporating pan to boil off syrup (this process should be done outside)
  • Measuring stick for measuring the evaporation rate of the sap
  • Screens/straining equipment for filtering out impurities

A few other things also help:

  • A secondary heat source and sap boiling apparatus (does not have to be large), this substantially speeds up the process
  • A group of friends (because many hands make light work and this is how we build community)
  • Several 5-gallon buckets (we used these to transport sap from the tree buckets to our storage tanks)
  • Something to take sap home in, assuming your site is not at your property–we’ve been using pressure canners with locking lids)

 

The Process

1.  Identify maple trees of an appropriate variety and age.  Sugar maples work best for tapping (hence the name) but all sorts of maples can be tapped (including box elder, red maple, etc.). We’ve tapped all sugar maples for our syrup making, as they have the highest sugar content (and high sugar content equals less work). The first step in our process is to tie a bright-colored strip around each tree so that we can clearly identify the trees.  You can do this work at any time in the year, but its a lot harder in the winter if you aren’t that familiar with tree identification.

Trees tapped with buckets

Trees tapped with buckets

2.  Tap your trees when the time is right. When the weather will be above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, go ahead and tap your trees. Tree taps also usually have a little bucket holder so you can place your buckets.  We tapped about 50 trees, which is quite a lot, but there were about 8 of us and we all wanted lots of maple syrup.

Running sap!

Running sap!

3.  Collect sap. We collected sap each day in the evenings until we had about 40 gallons (and 40 gallons will make 1 gallon of maple syrup).  This evening collection took us three days when we were starting out because the sap ran slow, but quickly, we were collecting more sap than we could boil in a day!  Depending on the size of your buckets, it may actually be that the sap is flowing so well that you need to empty them twice a day.  If the sun is shining brightly and its warm, the sap will flow quickly! Since our trees are spread across about a 4 acre area, we used the 5 gallon buckets and the larger bins to transport sap to our boiling area.  We find that many hands make light work of this process.

I should also add here that the sap, in its unaltered form, is an amazing beverage.  We fill our water bottles up with it and drink it and its so good.  Its just slightly sweet at this stage.  If you want it sweeter, you can boil it for an hour or so, and then it takes on a very mapley quality but still is not too sweet.   We’ll be using some of this for our grove’s upcoming Spring Equinox celebration!

Sap in storage bin.

Sap in storage bin full of syrup (yes, it freezes at night sometimes!  That’s ok!)

4.  Boil off the excess water.  Our setup for evaporating off the excess water involves a 24″ x 24″ evaporator pan (which was custom made by a neighbor) and an old stove that has the lid cut out of it.  The pan, then, sits directly on the heat from the fire.  We lay the pan right on the stove, stoke the fires, and boil the sap down all day.  As the sap boils down, we add more and keep track of the evaporation process.  This allows us to have a sense of how many gallons of sap we’ve added and how much resulting syrup we will get.

We found that anything we can do to maintain a good boil is worth doing. You can see in the photo below that we are also using the stove to heat up/dry out our wood which keeps things hotter.  After a few days, we got smart and brought out a second little stove and pre-heated our sap on that stove before adding it to the evaporating pan so that the sap wouldn’t cool when we added more.  This probably made us 20% more efficient.  As a complete aside, we also built ourselves a temporary rocket stove for heating up food :).

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Boiling sap to make syrup!

Setup with wood pile nearby

Setup with wood pile nearby; wood is covered with a tarp to prevent excess moisture buildup

 

5.  Boiling at home, part 1.  Our rule of thumb has been that we boil as long as we can, and the syrup takes on an amber quality over time.  We boil till the evening and it gets dark, and then at that point, we take it home to finish it off. As the syrup boils down, you’ll see that it will take on an amber quality.  This was the syrup as I started to boil it down in my pressure canner.  You want to boil it down about halfway where it needs to go one evening, then pour it into jars and let the jars sit. All the debris from the trees and outside will settle to the bottom after 12 hours or so.  You pour the good syrup off, then boil it down until you are happy with the thickness.  If you boil it too much, it will crystalize and turn to sugar (and then you have maple candy!)

Finishing syrup

Finishing syrup

Straining the syrup

Straining the syrup

 

6.  Enjoy your syrup! The last step, of course, is to eat it.  We’ve found that our syrup, using hardwoods to boil it down outside, takes on a different quality than the syrups you purchase from larger operations.  Our syrup has a woody/smoky flavor to it that is so incredibly good, and so incredibly hard to describe.

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

Liquid gold- the finished syrup

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing into this process–its so much fun, and despite the long hours and heavy lifting, the results are 100% worth it!  Commune with the trees, eat some pancakes and maple syrup, and enjoy the Spring Equinox that is almost upon us!