Tag Archives: strength

Cultivating Resilience as a Physical and Spiritual Practice

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

Staghorn Sumac: A tree that teaches us about resilience

Resilience is a term I first learned as a permaculture practitioner–resilient ecosystems are those that are able to withstand hardship, recover quickly when faced with difficulty, and had a capacity to endure. In other words, a resilient ecosystem can withstand drought, flooding, or other difficulties by being adaptable, flexible, and having redundancies. Which of course, is so critical in today’s ever-changing world fraught with climate change and instability.  Resilient plants are the often-maligned weeds: those weeds who take every opportunity to grow: who find a crack in the sidewalk and take root, who immediately start to grow after disruption, or who outcompete less resilient plants. They are able to be like weeds or opportunistic species, taking advantage of new opportunities, finding niches, and gracefully adapting to change. Think of the dandelion here, growing up through cracks in the sidewalk.  This same concept, I believe, will grow to be more and more central to both getting through the present and the future and central to the spiritual work we do. As humans, we can learn a lot about the concept of resilience from nature, and adapt it in our own lives.

And truthfully, in the wake of the present challenges and an uncertain future, it seems like a most excellent time to start cultivating resilience. When we grow comfortable in life we have worked hard to create, we are resistant to change and often hold on bitterly even after it’s obvious that change is needed. This is part of why we are still seeing so much inaction to climate change–as a species, we need to cultivate resilience, ingenuity, and creativity to step up to the challenges we face.  Unfortunately, the data seems to suggest that on a large scale, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. While I certainly advocate doing everything we can to cultivate hope and positive change in the world, there’s a lot that is outside of our control.  Given the age we live in, I’d argue that resilience is one of the most important 21st-century skills we can have and something that we can cultivate within and without.

Features of Resilience Learning from Resilience in Nature

We can begin by looking to nature for guidance about how to become resilient in an age of deep conflict and change.  By observing nature, we can learn some of the qualities that we can then apply in our own lives.  Here are some that I’ve understood through my observation and interaction with nature:

Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback or challenge.  We see evidence of the recovery of nature everywhere–how quickly the opportunistic species grow after an area is cleared by humans for new construction; how quickly a forest that is burned immediately starts to regrow; the ability of the tree to keep on growing even if it was knocked down. Nature is literally full of examples of an innate ability to recover and move forward with explosive growth.  Here on our homestead, three acres were logged before we bought the property–and we’ve really enjoyed seeing how quickly nature can grow back and be bountiful once again. The ability of nature to heal is one of nature’s lessons that I always return to and that I am always in awe of–nature is the master of resiliency, and we can learn so much through observing her at work.

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Dandelion as a symbol of resilience

Adaptability. Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. I look to the raccoons here, who are truly one of the most flexible, adaptable, and resilient of persons living in my own ecosystem. This past summer, the coons and I had an ongoing battle with the chicken coop feed storage in the shed. The regular feed bags I used to keep there were quickly raided. So I bought metal garbage cans for storing the feed. The coons figured how to get them open in one evening. So I bungee corded them together and that seemed to prevent them from getting in most of the time. But, we compromised by leaving them bowls of cat food and hot dogs on the back porch and now they leave the chicken feed alone and actually defend our land against other predators–and everyone wins.  This is a great example of the idea of both adaptation and pivoting–when confronted with one obstacle, they simply changed direction. 

Accepting Change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans.  In nature, changes happen all the time. Forest fires, floods, a tree crashing down during a storm, and so on. Rather than dwelling on what is lost, nature immediately springs to action and moves forward. When the tree drops, nature pivots and immediately fills in that space with new trees growing up to fill the canopy. The mushrooms come in, colonizing and breaking down the tree. 

Opportunistic. A few months ago I shared the magic of the understory, and how certain understory trees (Witch Hazel, Mountain Laurel, Spicebush, Rhododendron) and plants (Mosses, Lichens, wintergreen, partridgeberry) take advantage of the dark and cold months in order to make the most of the winter sunlight.  We can also look to the many opportunistic plants, like dandelion or burdock, who are able to easily take root even in the most adverse conditions. The quality these plants have is that they are opportunistic–they see a change and immediately pivot.  Or, they wait until the right time and then use the current conditions to the present situation. 

The above qualities are present in all of nature–all we have to do is walk outside our door, spend some time in nature, and see how resilient nature can be.  So, to take this a step further, how can we apply these qualities to our own lives?

Physical Resilience

Resilience is something we can work to cultivate and resilience requires both inner and outer work. Resilence in our lives means being better prepared for things that may occur that are unprecedented, which is now the norm rather than the exception. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the systems upon which we build our lives are not going to continue to be stable, and it’s up to us to build skillsets that allow us to provide some of our own needs. When we think about our needs, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a good place to start.  We all need food, clothing, clean water, shelter, and in colder climates, heat.  At present, most humans have long depended on others (corporations, larger consumer systems, etc) to provide those basic needs.  Part of cultivating physical resilience is thinking about how to transition at least some of those needs to a community and individual level.

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Getting together as a community to plan for the future

Humans have always been tribal and social, as many of our animal kin.  Thus, rather than thinking about resilience as an individual problem, you might think about it as a community or group effort.  What can you do now to support a more resilient community?  Supporting a local food system and farmer’s market is a very clear choice–even if you aren’t able to grow your own food, network, and provide resources to those that are; the more strong a local and regional food system is, the more resilient your community is.  This is also where other community groups like permaculture meetups (that share tools, resources, and knowledge), reskilling communities (who work to build traditional skills among members), and earth skills gatherings can come in.  The point here is that you can cultivate a lot of resilience in your life by joining with others.

I do think its a good idea to cultivate some individual resiliency or family-level resiliency so that you can be prepared in the event of an emergency.  Thus, it might be a particularly good time to start growing some of your own food (Indoor or out), looking into food storage options like a root cellar and pantry, and making sure that you have several weeks, at minimum, of food stores to meet your needs.  Consider how different kinds of disruptions may occur, and do your best to do some minimal planning for them as you are able.  Even a little bit of planning can go a long way in an emergency. My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices offers many more suggestions for resilient living both at a community and individual level!

I also think it’s a good idea to learn a bit about how nature can provide for you directly–what can you ethically forage, harvest, or grow in terms of food, medicine, and your other basic needs? Take up an ethical foraging / wildtending practice, where you are gathering food from the local environment and also giving back. Learn about some abundant local herbs and how you can use them for medicine. Learn what you can eat in your yard or local park. Not only do these kinds of practices cultivate resiliency, but they also allow you to grow closer to the living earth.

Mental and Spiritual Resilience

The quiet that nature provides...

Nature heals!

I’m using “cultivation” of resilience in a very deliberate sense. Resilience is a lot like growing a garden. The garden isn’t going to grow without you putting in the time and effort (planting seeds, preparing beds, etc).  Resilience isn’t like an on/off switch, where you are either resilient or not. Resilience is a skill that you cultivate and a mindset that you create, and we can all be on the path to resilience.

When you study any kind of wilderness survival, one of the most important things you learn is to keep a positive mental attitude towards a difficult situation. That is, half the battle is staying positive, flexible, and having a good mindset along with the many skills above: adaptability, recovery, accepting change and being opportunistic.  This is not a skill set that many people are brought up to have. In Western consumer culture, we are purposefully taught to be passive recipients of culture, to buy our way out of problems, to allow others to take care of our needs, and not cultivate creativity in our lives.  In other words, if you live in any western culture, particularly here in the United States, you have been socialized into a set of behaviors that are actually taking you in the opposite direction of resilience.  Thus, it is worth some time to work to cultivate a new set of skills that can help you move in the right direction.

So how might we do this?  Here are three practices that I’ve used to cultivate resilience in my own life:

Meditation and Connection with Resilient Plants and Animals

We have a whole host of plants and animals in the ecosystem around us who are masters of resilience–I mentioned a few located here in Western Pennsylvania: the raccoon, the dandelion, the burdock.  In cities, this might be the pigeon, who has adapted incredibly to urban environments. Every ecosystem has these plants and animals: those cunning animals and resilient plants who are able to grow and thrive even in difficult circumstances.

Choose a plant, tree, or animal that speaks to you and who has some of the qualities of resilience you would like to cultivate and work with that plant or animal however you see fit. If at all possible, spend time with that plant or animal; observe and see how they respond to adverse conditions.  Work to bring that energy into your own life through reflection, energy exchange (if permitted with the plant/animal) and by working to cultivate these same qualities in your life.  If the plant offers, carry a piece with you.

One of the resilient plants that I often look to for guidance is the Staghorn Sumac tree.  Staghorn Sumac is extremely resilient, often able to grow in places that have been disrupted.  We often see him here growing along the highways and persisting even after spraying and heavy chemical use.  I had a wonderful mature patch on the edge of my property and my neighbor cut the patch down, literally bulldozing it with a tractor two years ago.  I mourned this patch and harvested some of the wood to honor and work with as an artist…and then it started to regrow.  Two years later, what had been a mature stand of Staghorn Sumac is now a thicket of 6′ tall new sumac–all that the disruption did was make the patch grow back with more strength and power.  When I am feeling like I need the qualities of resilience, I sit with this patch, who has so strongly rebounded after such a major disruption, and draw upon those energies.  I leave an offering for the gifts and lessons that Staghorn Sumac teaches.  Since staghorn sumac is edible, I often will harvest the flower buds for a sumac aid drink as a magical aid in cultivating resilience (recipe in the link above) and also carry a piece of the wood with me.

Shadow Work and Meditation

It’s very helpful to take an inventory of what resilient skills you already have and which you might want to cultivate.  Knowing yourself and having a metacognitive sense of who you are (e.g. knowing your strengths, why you respond in certain ways, etc) can help you cultivate resilience. You can use a permaculture technique called a personal niche analysis to do some of this basic work or simply spend time meditating on your strengths and areas of struggle as a person. Another meditation that can be useful is to look back at times when you were faced with adversity–how did you handle it? What personal qualities did you bring? What could you have done differently the next time? 

For example, one important skill for resilience is how you handle difficulty or failure. Do you give up? Shut down? Berate yourself? Or do you rise to the occasion, trying something new and taking the difficulty as an opportunity to learn and try again?  Psychologist Carol Dweck calls this the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Culturally, in the United States, the education and workplace systems often cultivate fixed mindsets, creating people who have a great deal of difficulty with failure and struggle, and who believe that any struggle or failure on their part is a reflection of their incapacity as a person.  Conversely, people with a growth mindset see struggle or failure as an opportunity to grow, creating a resiliency that is a powerful force in their lives. (I’ll also note that in my professional life, I am a learning researcher and social scientist who studies this stuff, and it is incredible to see the long-term outcomes of these two mindsets and other core personality traits on people’s development!)

Seeking Opportunity to Practice and Reflect

Once you have a sense of your strengths and areas you want to improve, pick one or two features of resiliency that you want to bring into your life.  Find small ways of practicing these: at work, at home, at school, wherever you are.  Reflect, consider how you responded, and keep moving forward.  Over time, you can cultivate these qualities in your own life by putting effort in that direction.  Every new situation is a situation for you to cultivate the skills to be more resilient and become the person you want to be!

Taking up a Bardic Practice

Another great way of cultivating inner resilience is taking up a bardic practice or some practice that requires you to be creative on a regular basis. When we start learning the bardic arts, and as we engage in more challenging work as a bard, we are regularly confronted with difficult situations where we can cultivate resilience: creativity, adaptability, and take new opportunities. These practices require us to confront our own fears, our own struggles, and occasionally, deal with failures. If we can take what we’ve learned from these practices and connect them to other aspects of our lives, it will cultivate a general resilience that can be helpful. I’ve written a series about taking up the path of the bard, and I’ll refer you there for more details: part I, part II, and part III

Concluding Thoughts

Resilience is one of the most important skills that I think we can cultivate as people in the 21ts century.  It allows us to reconnect with our ancient ancestors, who clearly had enough resilience to survive and thrive in a changing world (particularly before the Holocene, where the climate was not stable) and allows us to become better people living in a challenging world. On the inner side, resilience requires us to adapt, be flexible, and be brave.  Practicing resilience asks us to deeply understand our own fears and shadow selves and to cultivate skills that will help us bring forth a brighter tomorrow.  On the physical side, practicing resilience helps us directly prepare for adversity and abrupt change–and allows us to build a useful skillset that can enhance our lives and our nature-based spiritual practices. 

I would love to hear more about how you are cultivating resilience in your life in the comments!

Sacred Trees in the Americas: Ironwood or Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana, Carpinus caroliniana)

Ironwood tree ecoprint from my upcoming Tree Alchemy Oracle!

There are actually two tree species that are known as both “hornbeam” and “Ironwood” along the US East Coast and into the midwest: The American Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).  After doing a lot of research and interaction with both of these trees, I see them as interchangeable.  First, they are both in the Beech family (Order: Fagales, Family: Betulaceae). They actually have a very similar growth habit and look to their bark (like muscles), their wood is quite similar, and the hop-looking fruits are similar on both trees.  Thus, if you can find either of these trees, you can apply the information I’m sharing.  I have primarily focused on Ostrya Virginiana (Ironwood/Hop Hornbeam) in my comments here as it is the more dominant tree in my specific ecosystem.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series.  In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

The Ironwood (Ostrya Virginia) has many names in the US, including leverwood, ironwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  These names can teach us quite a bit about the uses of this tree.

Ecology

Ironwood is a small, native tree to the Eastern and Midwest in the United States.  It is an understory tree, and thus, even the largest specimens are typically under 40 feet tall (I have yet to see one even that tall).  These trees are widely dispersed in the US, spanning from Minnesota and down to parts of Louisana and the whole way up the eastern seaboard to Maine–and everywhere in between.

The most distinct feature of this tree is the muscle-like quality of the wood–the wood is a smooth gray and as it grows, it twists and turns, looking almost like biceps or muscles–this tree has clearly been working out!  The tree has leaves like beech and can be mistaken for the American beech upon first glance.  The trees often lean and grow crooked; the largest specimen here on our property is growing in a haphazard way over the stream and into the bank!  The crown is often flat-topped and open, partially because it is a fully shade/understory tree.

I have always seen Ironwoods in forests or along streams, although their growth habit may be different outside of the Allegheny Mountains in Western PA.  I typically see these trees 15-20 feet tall, often thriving in deciduous forests in large thickets.  Most often, you can find them in deciduous forests growing alongside sugar maple, beech, oak, hickory, and birch. They are typically found in shady forests, on damp hillsides, and especially along the edges of streams, where they can handle occasional seasonal flooding and prevent erosion.

John Eastman writes about this tree in his Book of Forest and Thicket.  He notes that the tree is important to wildlife.  Birds, including pheasant, ruffed grouse, and northern bobwhites eat the catkins.  In the winter months, warblers, foxes, the game birds above, and squirrels eat the nutlets.  Beavers also use them in their building and white-tailed deer can eat the foliage, particularly in the winter.

Historical and Herbal Uses

The strength of these trees is incredible–the wood is very tight-grained, white, and quite dense.  I cut some rounds a while ago for woodburning and had to significantly turn up the heat on my burner to make any mark (usually the highest is reserved for ash, hickory, or oak, but it had to go higher than those three!)  Historically, it was used for handles and fence posts for this reason and while it has a small circumference, it is a mighty tree. As I described above, there is some historical record of this tree being used for handles and smaller wooden objects.  However, primarily due to its size, it is not a tree that is part of the lumber industry.  John Eastman notes that if you attempt to chop down this tree, the axe will literally bounce back at you–hence the well-earned name of “Ironwood.”  Finally, Eastman notes that because of its density, its charcoal was once used in making gunpowder.

Erichsen-Brown in Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants describes a range of uses that Ironwood had in historical times in North America.  Of the physical uses, the heartwood of the trees (the strongest part) were used for things requiring strength such as ox goads, cogwheels, handles, sleigh runners, and finishing poles.  Erichsen-Brown notes that the Chippewa used the wood for the frames of their dwellings and as poles in wigwams.

Erichsen-Brown also notes some of the traditional Native American uses of the tree as medicine.  The strong decoction of the heartwood of branches was used for a general tonic, having actions on the liver, kidneys, and muscles.  A strong heartwood decoction was used for “auge” (general sickness), particularly with intermittent fever.  It was considered an alterative, supportive of the liver function and for dyspepsia.  The Chippewa specifically used the heart of the Ironwood along with the inner bark of chokecherry and roots of the hazel and white oak to address lung hemorrhages and other lung conditions.  Again, the heartwood was used as a strong tea to support kidney function and those dealing with stiff joints or rheumatism.  Likewise, the Potawatomi used it as one of several “cramp barks” and to treat the flux.

Despite these sources being detailed in Erichsen-Brown, a thorough read of my herbal books comes up empty–suggesting that this tree is not well used, if at all, in the herbal community here in the US or beyond.

Magical Uses

Despite a range of uses physically and herbally, I was unable to find any reference to this tree in any magical sources, including in the American Hoodoo tradition, within traditional Western occultism, or in folk practices.  This isn’t surprising to me–many of the trees that are dominant in North America and that do not grow in the old world do not get any treatment in typical magical texts.

Divination Meanings

Since there is not a magical or mythological tradition associated with this tree, I’d like to propose three things that are tied to the ecology, history, and herbal uses of this tree.

Strength. The first and obvious choice for a  tree called “Ironwood” is unyielding strength.  The wood is beyond strong, toughest in the face of floods, axes, and anything else.  Thus, we can gain tremendous strength from this tree.  I also think that we can tie this to traditional Native American herbal uses of this tree–the heartwood of this tree, the very core of the tree, offers relief from a variety of ailments.  I plan on making a decoction of Ironwood heartwood and using it to strengthen and endure.

Endurance and Stamina. The second obvious choice for Ironwood is stamina and endurance.  I learned this by observing the Ironwoods that grow along the creek behind my house.  We had several 100-year floods in 2019.  These are floods that are supposed to happen once in a hundred years, but with the extreme weather events that are too common in the 21st century, we had three of them in a month.  The mighty Ironwoods by the stream were 3 feet under the flood waters…when the waters receded, the ironwoods were still there–leaves and all!  These trees endured countless floods that year–and held the riverbank firm.

Small but Mighty. The final meaning that we can derive from the Ironwood is that one can be small, even underwhelming, but still mighty.  The ironwood is one of the smaller, less noticeable, and less known trees of the Eastern US–and yet, it is one of the most mighty.  Stronger even than oak, hickory, or ash, the Ironwood teaches us that you don’t have to be flashy or large to carr ya quiet strength.  As someone who is routinely underestimated because of how I look, I really appreciate this energy present in Ironwood.

Well, dear readers, those are my thoughts, experience, and research on the amazing Ironwood tree.  I would love to hear from you–do you have stories or experiences to share that can help us develop sacred uses and divination meanings for this tree?  Blessings!

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

Druidry for the 21st Century: Druidry in the Anthropocene

Druidry is rooted in relationship and connection with the living earth: the physical landscape and all her plants and creatures, the spirits of nature, the allies of hoof and claw, fin and feather. The land and her spirits are our primary allies and energies with which we work as druids. The question I keep coming back to is this: how do I practice a nature-centered path in a time when nature–those of the hooves, fins, feathers, and claws–are going extinct and dying all around me? How do I practice druidry when everything that I hold sacred and love  is under severe threat, and when it is likely that in my lifetime, I will witness severe ecological collapse in multiple ecosystems.  How do I practice druidry with my “eyes open” to all of this, and honor nature in this great extinction event, and still say sane? How do I do this “druid” thing, given these challenges?

 

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

Druidry in the 21st century is a complex topic, and I’ve been trying to work my way into it in different ways on this blog. I started this by thinking about how druidry offers coping mechanisms for those of us faced with the many challenges of our age: that is druidry offers refuge in dark times. I think it’s critically important to acknowledge that first and foremost, we need self care to do it well.  While all humans need self care in these dark times, our spiritual relationship with nature requires it. I followed this up with a post about the future of human civilization (Druidry for the 21st century) and made the argument that one way druidry may serve the future is through developing and providing paradigms and mindset shifts.  The idea that druidry is the seed of something different; that druidry offers us new paradigms and hope; paradigms to replace the thought processes and civic ideals currently driving post-industrial civilization to the brink of global collapse.  These are two useful responses, but they certainly aren’t the end of this conversation–not by a long shot.  So today’s question is a serious one: What can druids do about what is happening to all of nature now and what will continue to happen in the foreseeable future?

 

Today, then, I’m going to talk about death.  I’m going to talk about nature and relationship, and I’m going to talk about extinction. Maybe you want to stop reading at the words “death” and “extinction”; these are things we don’t talk about.  These are things our media refuses to cover. These are things overwhelming to even well meaning people, people who love the land, people like you and me. These are things that bring tears to my eyes when I read them or think about them.  But it is necessary that we honor and acknowledge those parts of nature that are no longer with us; that are dying and may never return because of human indulgence. To avert the eyes is essentially allowing a loved one to suffer alone.  If your grandmother were dying in a hospital, would you ignore her, or would you go visit her? (For more on my idea of “palliative care” and why witnessing is so important, see here and here).  If your sacred companion on the druid path–nature–is suffering and dying, can you really pretend everything is ok? I don’t think I can just go into my woods and do some woo-woo and get healed by nature and call that druidry.  Druidry is not a one-sided relationship.  If we want to gain our strength, wisdom, peace, and healing from nature, we must also offer something in return. I believe that now–in the 21st century, in the Anthropocene, nature needs us just as much as we need her.

 

The Hard Stuff

So let’s start with the hard stuff. Scientists are clear that the world’s sixth extinction-level event is underway. “Biological annihilation” is the phrase used to describe what is happening–since 1970, at least half of the world’s animals are gone. That means that we had twice as many animals living on this planet in 1970 than we do today. This isn’t some far-off future prediction. It has already happened. It is continuing to happen as you read this. It has happened in the time that you have been present on this earth. Here’s a list of the “recently extinct” species–those who have gone extinct primarily since industrialization. There are many more who are not on this list because they weren’t discovered or documented before going extinct. A 2017 study, examined 27,600 land species and found that all species were showing huge amounts of population loss, even among species of the “lowest concern” with regards to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s guidelines (which sets guidelines for endangered species).  This study suggests that 80% the traditional territories of land mammals have been eradicated, making way for cities, people and shopping malls–this is the “biological annihilation” that they speak of.  The study also indicates that this trend will likely increase in the next two decades with the rise in population and continued rising demands on the earth. Another piece of this comes from the work of Bernie Krause, who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra (which I discussed a few years ago on this blog).  Krause’s work focused on recording nature sounds, and he demonstrates that the sounds of nature are simply vanishing, along with the life and species.  These issues are also not limited to vertebrate species–another study, released in October, showed a 75% decline in insects in protected ecological areas in Germany.  The problem isn’t that change is happening; the problem is that it is happening so quickly that natural evolutionary processes (processes that allow species migrations and adaptations) cannot occur.  And so, how do we honor those animals, plants, insects, trees, amphibians, reptiles and so forth that have passed, many unnoticed?

 

One more piece here, that I think is critical to consider. All ecosystems have what is called a “carrying capacity.” That is, given the resources available (sunlight, soil, plant matter, water, weather, etc) the land can reasonably sustain so many lives of different kinds: so much insect life, so much plant life, so much animal life, so much human life.  Ecological collapse refers to when an ecosystem suffers a drastically reduced carrying capacity–that is, the ecosystem can no longer support the life it used to because of one or more serious factors.  These factors are usually compounded and may include the loss of a keystone species, general pollution or degradation, deforestation, ocean acidification, over-hunting, you name it.  Its like a domino effect–sometimes, all it takes is one core species to go.  Climate scientists call this the tipping point–think of it like a chair.  The chair is being held at 45 degrees, and just a fraction more, and it will crash.  It is almost certain that we are heading into a nose dive of ecological collapse.  Ecological collapse doesn’t just affect all of nature–it affects humans too.  So while we should care about even one life, a single species, we also need to be concerned deeply for all life.  This will happen in our lives–how do we spiritually prepare to support nature when it does?

 

Now, put this in context. While we practice druidry, while we enjoy nature’s benefits and her healing, this is happening. When we are honoring nature, celebrating the wheel of the seasons, this is happening. Its happening in every moment of every day. This is part of our reality, as nature-honoring people.  Given that this is the reality, responding to this should also be part of our druid practice.

 

Exoteric / Outer Works: Refugia

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

Druidry is about nature and relationship.  Its about your relationship with nature both exoterically (that is, in the material world) and esoterically (that is, in the world of spirit).  In the case of this information, I think it’s really important that we develop a range of responses, both esoteric and exoteric.  In terms of the outer world, I’ve long advocated on this blog a very wide variety of things that can aid the land in healing, regeneration, and growth.  I think that each of us can do something, and that something varies based on our life circumstances.  All of us can attend to our ecological footprint, consumption behaviors, transit, energy use, and all of the usual things.  I think that’s part of just being a druid–living your practice.

 

To be more specific to the material above, however, I’ll share what I consider to be my key method for responding this kind of extinction level event: building refugia. Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader changes that destroyed most habitats. Pielou describes specific isolated pockets of life that survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so forth, while the rest of the land was covered in ice. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America stripped bare by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions. In the 21st century, in the time of human-dominated land use, things are not as different as you might think from our glaciated pre-history. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can be found in the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation in the US or the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland in the US. Many areas that aren’t lawns or farmlands are subject to other kinds of stresses that create inhospitable lands: pollution, resource extraction, deforestation, and so on.  Refugia allow us to create small pockets of biodiversity–which is going to really, really matter in the next 20-30 years.

 

Refugia are all about individual action.  While no average person has control over what much of what is happening in the world around us, even in the landscape around us locally, we can create refuges for life. Refugia are small spaces of intense biodiversity, critically important during this time of mass extinction and habitat loss. Cultivating refugia allows us to put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands. That is, refugia is that they are little arks of life, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again. A network of refugia created by 21st century druids may be the difference between extinction and thriving for many diverse species.  What you do can make an incredible difference–it could save a species.  I have written more about how to create a refugia garden here and here!

 

Esoteric / Inner Works: Honoring the Fallen through Ritual, Shrine, and Sound

Given the state of nature and that we practice a nature-oriented spiritual practice, I think it is necessary to directly honor the massive loss of such life through rituals, shrines, moments of silence, psychopomp work, and other practices.  I would argue that this work should be a regular part of our practices as druids. I’m going to share two ideas here, and next week, I offer a larger set of suggestions on psycopomp work for the animals and the land.

 

Ringing the Bell/Sounding the Bowl

After reading the Great Animal Orchestra, I thought it would be very appropriate to honor the loss of life through sound.  Since we are missing the sounds of that life, and the world is growing silent (or replaced by human sounds), I wanted to create space in my rituals to honor the loss of life.  There are lots of ways you might do this, here is mine:

 

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

Anytime I open a sacred grove to do ritual, I have begun with a simple sound ritual to honor the life that has passed.  I have a small singing bowl, and I go to each of the quarters and ring the bell in each direction.  Sometimes I do this silently, and sometimes I say some simple words, like “honoring those who have passed on in the east.”  I allow the bowl to resonate until it is completely quiet again, and then move on to the next direction.  I’ve found for typical OBOD or AODA grove openings, this is best done just after declaring peace in the quarters.

 

You don’t have to do this in ritual; you can do it anytime.  I like doing it in ritual because it is in ritual that I’m drawing upon the land and her energies, and I want to honor and acknowledge the suffering of the land before I ask for anything else (that’s why I do it early in the ritual rather than after I’ve called the quarters and established the space).

 

Honoring the Fallen Shrine

I also maintain two shrines–an indoor shrine and an outdoor shrine–to honor the many lives that have passed.  I often will do my sound ritual above and leave small offerings (like my offering blend).  These shrines are simple–a pile of stones outside on a stump, I add bones and other things as I find them on my walks.  Indoors, I have smudges I make special for this shrine, usually of rosemary (for remembrance), bay laurel (for passage), white cedar (for eternal life), and white pine (for peace) and I burn these regularly.  I sometimes print out pictures of animals or other species, and add other things of significance.  Like most things, it is the intention of this shrine that is critical.

 

Council of All Beings and Other Rituals

At least once a year, if not more frequently, I also like to engage in ritual (group or solo) to directly honor and support the land.  One of my favorite things to do with this comes from the work of Joanna Macy (who has many great ideas for group rituals and group healing and processing of what is happening now).  She has a ritual called the Council of All Beings (the link will take you directly to the ritual).  I like this ritual because it allows us to give voice to those who do not normally have it, and it helps all participants get into a frame of mine that acknowledges and honors other life’s suffering. I think its important to engage with this not only for ourselves, but with others–talking about it, sharing what we do, and working on doing some things together.

 

I also think that general land healing and blessing ceremonies are useful and important to do regularly and help energetically support the land and her spirits during this time. I wrote a series on land healing; this final post links to all others.

 

There’s so much more to write and say here, but alas, I think this post is long enough.  Dear readers, I hope you will share some of your own thoughts–how do you answer the many questions I’ve posed in this post?  I would love to hear your ideas and stories.

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

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?

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

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

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.