The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Oak’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology, and Meanings November 11, 2018

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

A glorious oak tree in fall colors!

There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies.   As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges.  Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season, and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all.  Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring.   Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength.  All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.

 

This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more.  Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.

 

Oaks in Many Forms

In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home.  Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak.  In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant.  The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks!  And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.

 

One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk.  One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA.  Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk.   All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain.  Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.

 

Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow growing and long lived.  Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest.  A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel.  This is contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel.  Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.

 

Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as   writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.”  Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees.  The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.

 

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns from the Tree of Life

Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures

“The World looks different when you eat acorns.”  Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden

Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest.  According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years.  This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year.  Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak.  Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.

 

All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared.  Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts.  These nuts are also both delicious when roasted.  Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation.  Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour.  For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden.  Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen OceanEuell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.

 

The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes).  Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-Americans disdain for Native American peoples.  Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.

As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes.  In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom.  Through taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition.  We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.”  The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray.  This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce.  Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down.  You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.

 

Oak leaves in late fall

Oak leaves in late fall

In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic.  He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”

 

In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal.  She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!).  She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; it can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.

 

Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by jupiter and that the oak is known to to help resist poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.   

 

Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory  also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version).  Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.)   This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.

 

Oak as Herbal Medicine

Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue.  Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent.  I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium.  This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use.  Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree.  He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body.  He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically.  He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).

 

 

Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples

I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit Oracle

In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey.  Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall.  He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak responds.  Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors.  I mark the spot for their councils.  From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.

 

In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez.  In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast.  He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine.  There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.

 

In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again.  Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.

 

A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family.  She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible.  The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her.  He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night.  A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse.  A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.

 

The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America

An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe.  Here are three core meanings for the oak:

 

  • Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree.  All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom.  We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
  • Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality.  Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
  • Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions as well as certain native american lore, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so!  Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.

 

What can Druidry offer in dark times? October 7, 2018

Things seem broken right now. These last two weeks have been a very hard week for many people. The national conversation here in the USA grows more difficult by the day, and it seems nearly every nation is facing many kinds of serious issues. These challenges are happening concurrently at many levels—internationally, but also in communities we care about, in our families, in our homes. Things are tough. They seem tougher for many of us today than they were yesterday. Many of us fear that they will likely be even tougher tomorrow. This is the reality of industrial decline, the reality of the climate crisis before us.

 

The questions that I’ve had for myself, and my fellow druids is a simple one: what can druidry offer us in these dark times?

 

I’ve been thinking about the role of druidry in all of this, this question a lot, not only over the last several weeks, but over the last few years as it becomes more and more obvious that humanity has chosen for itself a course that we cannot escape from.  I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts and practices that you, too, may find healing and strength in them.  I’ll group my answers to this question in three areas, reflecting the three major branches of druidry: that of the bard, the ovate, and the druid, and then offer some overall thoughts on the tradition and druidic philosophy itself.

 

Bardic Responses: Within and Without

The bardic arts within the druid tradition are varied and multiplicitious. In my OBOD 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture, when I researched the bardic practices of almost 250 druids worldwide, I found that nearly all of them saw their bardic practices first and foremost as a spiritual practice that gave them peace, strength, and the ability to function better in the world. For a much smaller portion of people, art was a medium for them to express their feelings, hopes and dreams–about nature, about the crisis of our age–through their bardic expression. We’ll now consider each of these in turn.

 

Bardic Arts as Inner Healing

Art journals for processing and healing

Art journals for processing and healing

For many of us, during these difficult times, it is important to have something to retreat to.  Soemthing that calms us, provides us distance, space, and perspective.  For those of us who practice a bardic art, the practice of that art can certainly be a source of refuge. Druids from around the world use the bardic arts as a way of making meaning of the world, processing difficult things, and grounding.

 

Some bardic practitioners work best when they are in a “healthful” headspace, however, and feel that they can’t create something if they aren’t happy.  But my response to that is–create.  Express.  Get it out.  The audience for some of our bardic expression can be only us, never anyone else, and that is healthful and helpful for these dark times.  For me, I use art journaling as a bardic expression that is meant solely as a healing medium–one that nobody else has to see, and not even one I necessarily hold onto after it is completed (I’ve thrown many a journal in the Samhain fires to release the energy I put into them!). The point here is to find something you can do from a bardic perspective: song, dance, drumming, photography, artwork, writing, singing, movement, woodworking, and so on–and let it help you find peace.  If you aren’t sure how to get started in this, you might check out my Taking up the Path of the Bard series of artices here, here, and here.

 

Bardic Arts as Outward Response and Change

It has long been the case that artists, musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, and the like, helped carry parts of culture with them, respond to culture, and work to change culture through their art.  Consider the power of a photograph, a story, or a song. Sometimes, a single image can impact people–and enact changes in perceptions and behaviors–in ways other forms of communication cannot.

 

And so, for those of us drawn to it,  the other way our bardic practices may help us respond and deal with the crisis of our age is through external expressions–bardic practices that help us get our message out there, help us help others, help others see a new perspective, and so on.  Unsurprisingly, for me, that’s a lot of the writing I do on this blog–I can’t control what is happening more broadly, but I do feel, at least in this small corner of the web, that I am doing something good.  It doesn’t have to be big, the important thing is feeling empowered to do something.

 

Ovate Responses: Seeking Solace in the Living Earth

Part of the challenge in present culture is the constant flow of information, the constant bombardment. These larger cultural currents seem to crash over and over again like powerful waves, knocking us over, beating us up, and then knocking us over again. Finding ways of shielding against this flow of information and getting regular—and long—breaks from it can be very helpful. For this, I like to find quiet time in nature.

 

Grounding and Flow, or the Druid Elements of Calas and Gwyar

A while ago on a similar topic, I wrote about the interplay between calas (grounding/stability) and gwyar (flow/adaptablity) and how both are necessary in these times. Seeking solace in nature can offer us either–or both–of these things as we need them.

 

Seeking the stabilizing forces of nature can help give us strength in these difficult times.  Work with stones, the earth, trees, mountains, or caves can be particularly powerful to help connect with Calas and offer us grounding. The Oak tree down by the river is not going to throw re-traumatizing bullshit my direction, she is not going to bombard me with things I don’t want to see, or frustrate me with her lack of integrity. She is simply going to be as she always is: stable, welcoming, and powerful. When I sit with her, and simply breathe. I can sit with her for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and she will always offer me the grounding and stability of her presence.

My favorite spot for connection on my land

My favorite spot for connection on my land

 

Similarily, these times require us to be flexible, to be adaptable, and to be willing and ready to change, even if change is difficult.  Nature also offers us the energy of gywar for this purpose, primarily through clouds, wind, and water. When I go out on my kayak on the Clarion river, I am offerd both zero cell phone signal (so no unwanted intrusions) and the activity of learning to go with the flow, to float, and to let the river guide me. Likewise, laying on the solid earth and watching the leaves blow and the clouds flow is another excellent way to connect with this energy.

 

Retreat and Rejuvenation: Nature Heals

In this broken time, I like to places that are damaged and in the process of healing.  Nature is a master healer, and learning to read her landscape and the healing that happens in each breath can remind us of our own capacity to heal. Old fields that are now bursting with life, logged forests that are coming back into health. The dandelion, in her bravery, pushing up through the sidewalk and giving no care.  The mushrooms on the stumps that offer the promise of new beginnings from old wounds, breaking down the old so that the new can come in.

 

Here in Pennsylvania, almost all of our forests are in a state of healing. 100 years ago, according to the 1898 PA Department of Agriculture Forestry publication, 98% of Pennsylvania’s forests were logged. Stripped bare,, used to support mines, lay rails, and make charcoal for steel production. Some of these forests are so regenerated that its hard to tell that they had ever been damaged. Others show the tell-tale signs of ecosystems still regenerating.  I like to go to these places, these healing-in-progress places, and be reminded that nature can heal all wounds, given time. We are part of nature, and therefore, we, too, can heal. You can also take this idea much further by doing a druid retreat–retreat into nature for a time (a few hours, a day, a week or more).

 

Druid Responses: Stability in our Practices

Spiritual practices offer much in the way of healing and strengthening us in these difficult times, and in the druid arts, these primarily center around the practices of ritual and mediation.

 

Daily Meditation as Emotionally Beneficial and Balancing

Watching the healing happening--pain transformed into soil!

Watching the healing happening–pain transformed into soil!

Daily deep breathing, mediation (of any form, but especially nature based) and simply being quiet for a time can greatly aid us.  Even taking three deep breaths when we get upset, maybe closing our eyes for a few moments to let the intense emotions slip away–these simple mediative practices can be incredibly sheltering during these times.  More and more research is coming out on the benefits of mediation as a way of promoting more happiness, less anxiety, and better approaches to handling stress and strain.  A daily meditation practice offers you such benefits–and certainly, it is a core part of our tradition.

 

Meditation in the druid tradition is often combined with being in nature–walking meditation, meditation in stillness or focus, or simply, sitting quietly and not allowing your thoughts to overtake you.  Discursive meditation also ofters a powerful tool to step back from emotions and think through them.

 

Here are a few powerful tools:

  • Observation meditation: Find something you want to observe for a period of time (an intricate flower, a lizard, a bird, a tree).  Do three deep breaths, then return to a normal breath pattern.  Observe and be in stillness.
  • Oneness meditation: Similar to the above, find a part of nature with which you want to connect.  A waterfall, a stone, a tree, etc.  Mind your breath and then imagine that part of nature encompasing you, and bringing you in line with its energy.  Take that energy within you with each breath, and on each outbreath, release any pain or suffering.
  • Discursive meditation.  Discursive meditation helps with focused thinking; the idea in a nutshell is that you choose a theme for meditation.  This can be something that is causing you pain or something you want to understand more.  Now, think deeply about it, following one thought to the next.  If you find yourself deviating from the original thought, trace it back through.  I have found this strategy particularly helpful for working to get at the root of emotions–why am I having this emotion? And once I have the root, I can work on it directly.

 

The Wheel of the Year and Ritual Work for Clearing and Healing

In the Druid’s wheel of the year, we recognize that the dark times are part of the natural cycle of things, that they are part of life and the passage of time.  Still, it is difficult to live in a time of decline, when we know that winter is quickly approaching, and there is nothing we can do to shelter from that storm. Take advantage of the season that is upon us for introspection and healing work that the dark half of the year provides.  It allows–and encourages us–to go deeply within, to cast off that which no longer serves us, to re-orient our relationship to the darkness of this time, and to bolster ourselves and strengthen ourselves for what is to come.

 

Ritual work can be highly effective for this goal.  Writing simple rituals for yourself, tied to the wheel of the sun and the phases of the moon (or simply, when you need them) can greatly aid you in these dark times.  Rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs, they can be simple.  Some ritual actions you might take include:

  • Releasing: Letting go of emotions, feelings, pain, other things that are not serving you any longer.  Rituals where you throw things into water or where you release things with water are particularly helpful here.
  • Cleansing: simple rituals to cleanse you (particulalry after releasing) can also be helpful here.  Smudging with herbs, asperging with water, doing a naked or barefoot forest bath, clearing yourself with the energy of the sun–all of these can be powerful cleansing rituals.
  • Energizing/strengthening: Bringing in energy to help bolster you during these difficult times. Drawing in the power of nature, the energy of the sun, the strength of the oak–whatever you need to help strengthen and ground you.
  • Shielding:  Shielding rituals are particularly effective in this day and age, and I suggest every person develop one and use it if they don’t already have one.  I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (which offers banishing, energizing, and shielding in one 5 minute or less ritual)–using this daily helps clear me and offer me balance and strength.

These are just some simple ideas–the important point here is to work with nature, work with whatever other powers you have, to find ways of strengthening you, cleansing you, energizing you, shielding you, and releasing the pent up emotions of these hard times.

 

Druidry as an Alternative Life Philiosophy

Observing and interacting with nature in a sacred manner offers us much in the way of re-aligning ourselves, and our worldview, towards that of the living earth.  Modern industrial and consumerist culture has a set of beliefs that have spiraled us into many of the challenges we face–and druidry offers us alternative perspectives and philosophies that can be counter-balancing in these times.  These include:

  • Tertiary thinking. Tertiary thinking encourages us to avoid false binaires and to consider alternative perspectives beyond those which are given
  • Recognizing the cycle and season. Modern American culture (and I suspect many others) demand that we are always in what I’ll call “high summer.”  High summer is high energy, with lots of activity, long days, lots of abundance. But life isn’t like that–and the more that you follow and align yourself with a wheel of the year and the cycles of nature, the more that this view will shift into a view that embraces, or at least accepts, that we also go through cycles in our lives, and cycles in our culture.
  • Nature as sacred and healing. Unlike much of culture, which sees nature as something that can be exploited, we druids recoginize the sanctity of all life, the sacredness of the living earth, and her power to heal.  This can, by extension, put us in different relationship with everything–for all things, ultimately, come from her and return to her.
  • Understanding time differently. Living by the seasons and wheel of the year also puts us in a different relationship with time; rather than time being a line, time can be a circle or spiral, which offers us powerful tools for reflection and strengthening. I wrote more about this in my series on time a few years ago here, here, here, and here.

 

Druidry as A Response to this Age

If you think about what druidry does, what the different paths do, it very much is a way of reconnecting us with those things that are the most important: our connection with nature, our connection with core practices that sustain us, and our connection with our creative spirit. It offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, relfect, and ground.

 

Druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age.  As druidry develops, as we figure out what the druidry of the 21st century should be (as opposed to the druidry of the 19th century or even druidry of the 20th century), I think all of us have much to contribute to this conversation.  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us during these dark times.

 

Awen!

Awen!

 

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection May 14, 2016

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

 

A Journey to the Source of a River – A Metaphor for Sustainable Action January 21, 2013

I wanted to spend some time in my blog describing a journey I took last summer to see “the source” of a river.  My work with the OBOD Druid grade initiated this journey, and it lead me to important insights about our world and how to create meaningful change in it.

 

The little crick

The little crick

Behind my parent’s house, in the forest to which I belong, is a creek (not quite a river, and not quite a stream). As children, we called it the “big crick”, and we spent much time on its banks, watching it flow over rocks, moss, and between hemlocks, beeches, and maple trees.  This creek was located in the  Appalachian mountains in West-Central PA, and unfortunately, the forest has been logged repeatedly, damaging the land in numerous ways.  And yet, damaged, logged, and repeatedly violated, the spirit of the land is strong and has much to teach.

 

I set out on a journey to find “the source” of this river. I had a vision of what the source of the river looked like—it was tranquil with moss-covered stones. I had no idea how long it would take me, but I planned for being out the whole day and took food, drink, and a friend along for company. It ended up being about a 10 mile hike through the forest—and not just any forest, but forest that had been logged and otherwise terribly mistreated, so the going was slow. I went deeper into the forest than I ever had before, following the river.  I saw a rare flower, which I discussed briefly in an earlier blog post. Each time it branched, I took the largest of the branches, continuing to work my way up the river, watching the river grow smaller. When I finally found the source of the river, of the largest branch, it was exactly as my inner vision had showed me—three branching streams, with the largest beginning in a spring with moss-covered stones. I sat there in meditation, and there, I had a meaningful vision. This was the message of my vision, and I know its something that I need to share with others:

 

When you follow a river to its source, follow the water’s path upstream and take the largest of the tributaries each time the river splits. This gives you a unique perspective, in that you can witness how the river, at its current size, is built of smaller tributaries.  These tributaries, some permanent springs and other rain gullies and other seasonal contributors, aren’t just part of the river—they are the river.  If you follow the river to its source, you will learn that each river starts off as a tiny stream or freshwater spring; the river only later grows larger as other tributaries feed into it. Each one of us is that stream; each one of us has the potential of that spring that starts the river off.  It is only through the power of others, flowing together in unison, that we can be a river. The strength of a great river cannot be ignored—it shapes the landscape around it and brings significant change. We must unite, have a shared vision, and be that river.

 

The “Big Crick” is otherwise known as “Otto Run” and is located in Western Pennsylvania behind my parent’s home. This river has particular significance in expanding the general metaphor, so I’ll describe it here. Otto Run flows into the Little Conemaugh, which is a river of historical importance in my region’s history. The Little Conemaugh was once dammed up in the 1800’s, and in 1889 after severe rains and equally severe mismanagement of the dam, the dam burst and the resulting wave of water killed almost 3000 people in Johnstown, PA.  This in itself has many lessons to teach us, including the importance of working with nature, rather than trying to tame her and bend her to one’s own will; she may resist such taming and break free.

 

The Little Conemaugh flows into the Conemaugh which flows into the Allegheny, which meets in Pittsburgh, PA with the Monogahela to form the Ohio. The Ohio leads right into the Mississippi river, one of the largest and most important rivers in the USA. Each of these rivers, with their many tributaries, creates the mighty Mississippi.  And as our recent series of floods in 2011 and droughts in 2012 have demonstrated, despite the best efforts of many humans, the Mississippi cannot be tamed.  This too, is a lesson for us.  In these difficult times of struggle and environmental challenges, we must look to the lesson that the river teaches us.  Each of us is that tributary, and by flowing in unison, we become as strong as the Mississippi.  And nobody can stop the Mississippi.

 

So friends, remember the lesson of the river.  United, we are strong.  United, we can change this world into a better, more sustainable place.