The Druid's Garden

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

Sacred Tree Profile: Juniper’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings February 3, 2019

Here on the East Coast of the USA, we are still in deep winter. Soon, the maples will be flowing.  Soon, the winter snows will melt.  Soon, spring will return.  But until that time, the conifers, particularly offer strength and wisdom.  One of my favorite conifers is Juniper, also known as Eastern Red Cedar.  It is delightful to come across a wild juniper in the winter months, with her sweet and pine-scented berries and her delightful sprigs that offer friendship and hope through the darkest times.  So come with me today as we explore the sacred Juniper tree.

 

Juniper here on the land

Juniper here on the land

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, where I explore sacred trees within a specifically American context, drawing upon folklore, herbalism, magic, and more!  I think it’s particularly important that US druids and those following other nature-based paths in North America understand how the trees here might be different and just as magical as traditional European trees.  So this series does just that–providing research and insight on the many trees here in the US East coast.  Previous trees in this series include Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak. Let’s delve into the magic, medicine, and mythology of the Juniper tree!

Description

In Eastern North America, our dominant Juniper variety is Juniperus virginiana, also known as Eastern Red Cedar. Other names for Juniper include: red juniper, baton rouge, pencil cedar, savin, or just cedar. Despite being called a Cedar, Juniper is actually in the cypress family, offering different kinds of needles (which are technically leaves)-very sharp, pointed, and prickly when they are young, and flattened, scale like, and overlapping as they age. These older needles are reminiscent of Eastern White Cedar, perhaps this is why the two are sometimes both called cedar.

 

According to John Eastman, Juniper is a long and slow growing tree.  It can live 200-300 years, and prefers open fields and other sunny locations. Junipers can produce cones starting between age 10 and age 25; some trees bear female cones and other trees bear male cones and the cones are wind pollinated. The tree is not very shade tolerant, so needs the sun in order to thrive. According to Grimm, Junipers can grow up to 30-40 feet high with a trunk diameter of 1-2 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Juniper that large here in PA, as it is often instead found on dry or rocky soils, on limestone outcroppings or soils, and in abandoned fields. Unlike many conifers, Juniper cannot handle fire and can’t rehabilitate or re-establish after fire-burned sites.  However, Juniper is great at helping repopulate what are often called “wastelands” – overfarmed and abandoned fields, old gravel pits, and the like. At a distance, the Juniper tree looks like a flame, blazing up on the landscape–they are easy to spot and since they are conifers, they stay green year-round.

 

In the summer, you might come across a Juniper that looks more like an alien, with strange orange tentacles coming out of it everywhere! I remember the first time I saw this and I had no idea what i was seeing! Turns out it is the Cedar apple fungi (G. Juniperi-virginianae), which is largely harmless to the Juniper but which infect apple and hawthorn trees with a gymnosporagium rust. The rust is very detrimental to harvests of both apple and hawthorn, meaning that many who have orchards prefer to cut Junipers down rather than let them grow and possibly carry the rust.  You can tell whether or not a Juniper is infected with the rust–it will have large brown galls on it on the outer branches that have small holes within them, almost looking like potholes all over the gall. The orange alien-like tentacles come out of the nodules to spread the rust once a year–quite a sight to behold!

 

Juniper produces leaf litter that is high in calcium, creating slightly alkali soil (as compared to most conifers, whos leaf litter produces a more acidic soil).  Because of the increase in calcium, it is also an excellent place to find earthworms if, say, you wanted to go fishing.  Here in Western PA, we hae particularly acidic soil, almost too acidic, so juniper leaf litter is very useful for helping bring the acidity back into balance.

 

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Dried delightful juniper berries!

Further, almost 90 different birds feed on the fruit of Juniper, Birds help disperse the seeds, which require cold stratification to sprout.  Others who eat the delicious fruit include chipmunks, mice, and opossums, voles, coyotes, red squirrels, and foxes. In the late winter, you will often see multiple species feeding on a juniper tree when there is little else to be found!

 

Regenerating Damaged Landscapes

Juniper is quite good at growing in thin or depleted soils, or soils that are polluted.  This makes it a critical tree for replanting and regeneration of the land, particularly in the rust belt region of the USA.  In the Rust Belt, three centuries of heavy mining activity has left a lot of boney dumps and other kinds of wastelands–places where there is only shale, no soil, and it gets hot and its hard for any plants or trees to take root. Thus, we often see this tree planted as part of replanting efforts after mining efforts; the tree’s roots help hold back erosion and over time, build soil, and slowly regenerate the land.  I’ve been to areas where there are hundreds of acres of juniper and scrub pine (pinus virginiana) and little else. Eventually, these two trees will help replant the entire landscape, but for now, I’m glad there is *something* that can grow there and begin nature’s healing process.

 

 

Juniper Berries and Wood Uses

The heartwood of Juniper is a beautiful red, with the outer wood going to cream or white, making it a highly sought after wood for a variety of woodworking endeavors.  This includes making “cedar” chests and other furniture as well as using it for decorative wood paneling. A lot of pencils are made from the Juniper wood; you might remember those nice smelling #2 pencils from your childhood! “Oil of Cedar” which is frequently used in polishes, medicines, and perfumes is distilled from the leaves and the wood of the Juniper tree.  The inner bark has also been used to make a reddish dye–it is a very beautiful dark red and just delightful.

 

Probably the most famous use of Juniper berries is for flavoring Gin. Juniper berries are used for flavoring in many contexts. Juniper oils in the foliage are toxic in higher doses, so the berries are used almost exclusively for this purpose

 

Juniper berries are ripe when they are a dark purple/black, often with a white residue on the surface.  You can eat them throughout the late summer and into the late winter, and on an abundant and mature juniper, the tree can produce hundreds.  They do contain a center seed, which you want to remove, so you are essentially nibbling on the fruit on the outside of the seed (which is like a thin skin).

 

You can do a variety of wonderful things with the juniper berry, and wild foraged ones are oh-so-good!  One of my favorite things to do is to make an infused vodka by taking a nice high quality vodka and putting in a good handful of berries.  Let macerate for a month, and you have this delightful beverage to share with friends.  Another favorite of mine is including them in a tea, particularly with nettle leaf, mint, and oatstraw.

 

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Mortar and pestle use for mixing up incense with Juniper!

Tarot of Trees Incense with Juniper Berry

I developed this incense recipe as the perfect complement for the Tarot of Trees. This incense blend is a non-combustible powdered incense blend that you will need to burn on a charcoal block. Charcoal blocks can be purchased at most metaphysical stores and also online. You will need a mortar and pestle to grind your ingredients and tin or jar to keep the incense dry and fresh. The recipe is as follows:

  • 2 parts frankincense
  • 2 parts sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon (powdered)
  • 1⁄4 part sweet orange Essential Oil
  • 1 part juniper berries (dried or fresh, see below)
  • 1⁄2 part lemongrass (dried)
  • 1⁄2 part yarrow (dried)

In a mortar and pestle, powder your frankincense as finely as possible. Combine the frankincense with the sandalwood and cinnamon until blended. Set aside. In the mortar and pestle, crush the juniper berries. They will be fairly easy to crush if they are dried. If they are fresh, freeze them for 30 min or more and then crush them–they will crush much easier. Crush your lemongrass and yarrow separately. Combine all ingredients, including sweet orange essential oil, in the mortar and pestle and blend thoroughly. Enjoy!

 

 

Herbalism and Juniper

Juniper has been used in multiple traditions (western, TCM, Ayurveda) as a blood tonic and blood purifier.  In folk herbalism, it was considered a “fall tonic” plant, to compliment Dandelion and other spring tonics, and would be used to help support the kidneys and “clear” or “thicken” the blood.  What this essentially means is that in both spring and fall, our bodies need to prepare for the extremes: the heat of the summer sun and the work of planting and harvest, and the cold of the winter with less food and activity. Juniper, as a fall tonic plant (along with Sassafras and Sarsaparilla) helps prepare us for the cold of the winter.  Most of the fall tonics are warming and are said to “thicken” the blood (in folk herbal terms) so that you will stay warm and healthy during the winter.

 

Translating that folk wisdom into modern herbal practice, we know that Juniper has an diuretic action on the kidneys, meaning it helps flush the kidneys through urine production.  Stagnation is one of the worst things you can have in terms of the body, and keeping the kidneys moving and healthy is key to a healthy elimination system.  Juniper is a wonderful complement to that system, along with a number of other herbs such as dandelion leaf and nettle.

 

Juniper also has strong anti-inflammatory action, with at least three specific chemical constituents that help reduce inflammation in the body, and it is often taken for this purpose as well.

 

Magic of the Juniper in the European and Western Traditions

In the Western Esoteric traditions, Juniper has a long history of use, particularly tied to the work of fire, as a purification herb, and as something used to drive away disease. Its interesting always to see how the herbal wisdom ties to the magical uses and practices surrounding plants–and we can certainly see that at play with Juniper. We’ll now consider some of these uses:

 

John Michael Greer in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic suggests that Juniper is tied to the element of fire, with its astrological aspects being Mars in Aries (can’t get much more fiery than that!) Juniper was traditionally used in spells to get back property that was stolen and as a deterrent to theft. It was also used in purification rites, as it both helps purify and drive away lingering spirits. We can see this from its use in the Key of Solomon (which lists Juniper as a herb tied to invocations of Saturn). The purification uses of Juniper go back to the Greeks, who burned it and to the Egyptians, who used it both medicinally and to embalm their dead.

 

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree

Amazing cultivated miniature juniper tree; it is often used as a bonsai

Culpepper suggests that the Juniper is a “solar shrub” and the berries are hot in the 3rd degree and dry in the first degree.  He notes that they were used as a counter poison, against venom and other kinds of poison.  He also notes that they are “as great a resister of the pestilence, as any growing.”

 

Juniper seems to have a connection to animal purification as well. In Scotland, a tradition developed of fumigating animals, barns, and homes to prevent disease.  In “A Journey in Southern Siberia” Jeremiah Curtin (1909) describes how the Siberian Shamans used the smoke of juniper to purify animals prior to their sacrifice.

 

A book specializing in lore from Italy, “Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition” (1892) from Charles Godfrey Leland describes a charm.  In the book, a woman has a beautiful baby and it is attacked by a cat; she believes this attack was caused by witches.  She creates a charm to protect her child, and that charm includes the protection of the juniper berry, along with the cat’s hair, frankincense, cumin, salt, bread crumbs, iron filings, and much more.

 

Magic of the Juniper in North American Contexts

In an North American context, Juniper has uses in folk magic, hoodoo, and Braucherei, particularly surrounding getting back stolen property. Juniper is used in Hoodoo, and is interchangeable with any other Cedar.  It is used, according to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic, when a “benevolent power” is needed for various activities: to rent one’s home, to get someone to move away (like a neighbor), or to get your love to move with you.  This same kind use of Juniper can be seen in Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, or Braucherei, as described in Long Lost Friend by John George Hopman.  In one particular charm, a juniper tree is used to help get the Thief to return stolen goods.  In this case, the tree is bent towards the rising sun with the left hand in a kind of sympathetic magic (which is a lot of what Braucherei is). As the Braucher bends down the tree and ties it fast as part of the magic, the magic will bend will of the thief to return the stolen goods. Finally, Juniper berries in Hoodoo are also used for romance and sexuality-oriented workings.

 

In some Native American legends, juniper berries are featured prominently as a nutritious food important to the people.  This is the case of the the Hopi Legend Balolookongwuu and the Coyote, as well as the Apache legend, Turkey makes the Corn and Coyote Plants it.  Another Hopi Legend notes that Juniper is one of the chiefs of the world.  In one Navajo legend, Juniper helps two monster slayers overcome noxious vapors from a monster that they killed. They chew on the juniper and it offers them recovery. In a Blackfoot Legend, Sacred Otter, it describes an altar to the sun, with juniper laid upon it. In one of my favorite Seneca legends, one I’ve written about on the blog before, the Junipers are one of the many conifers who stand against old man winter and bring the return of spring.

Juniper’s Magic and Meanings

To summarize, Juniper, particularly through her wood and berries, is an absolutely wonderful tree with a wide range of uses.  In terms of overall meanings in a North American context, we might summarize with the following:

 

Juniper here on the land ...

Juniper here on the land …

Juniper is about warmth and fire. Juniper helps warm people up and is a strong fire-dominant tree, suggesting many associations with fire: passion, energy, warmth, and the sun.

 

Juniper offeres hope in dark times.  Juniper’s berries have long been a staple through the darkest of winters, and I see this both physically and metaphorically.  Culturally, we are in a period of darkness, and trees like Juniper can help see us through.

 

Juniper offers regeneration and bringing things back. Juniper’s ability to grow in places few other trees can demonstrate that this tree is a true land healer, offering us hope in these dark times and sharing the critical message of the healing power of nature. I also think this is tied to its sympathetic magic uses in the American magical traditions–Juniper helps bring things back.

 

Dear readers, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of the juniper tree!  I would love to hear any stories or additional insights about the Juniper tree that you are willing to share. Blessings of the Juniper!

 

 

The Plant Spirit Oracle Project September 16, 2018

 

Spirit of the Oak!

Spirit of the Oak from the Plant Spirit oracle!

As we’ve been exploring over the last few weeks, plant spirit communication can take many forms.  The rustle of leaves outside of your window, the inner knowing, or the song a plant sings to you as you honor it for the harvest. These simple messages weave a complex landscape beyond what we can sense with our fives senses, and invite us deeper into the mysteries of the earth and all living beings. And as we’ve explored, the voices of the plants, the spirits of the plants, take a number of forms and can appear to each of us uniquely. What is clear is that the more that we open ourselves up to understanding them, honoring them, and working with them, the more connection we have with the living earth in her many forms.

 

Part of the reason I’ve been sharing so much about plant spirit communication over the last few weeks is that it has been on my mind and part of my active practice for a long time–and like a lot of things on this blog, at some point, I have enough to write about and share. Part of this is that I’ve been in development of a new oracle deck over the last few years, which I am calling the Plant Spirit Oracle. Since the project is about 80% complete, I decided it is time to share more about it with my blog readers and launch a website that describes the project a bit more. So I thought I’d share some of the project here and invite those of you who are interested to learn more at my project site:  www.plantspiritoracle.com.  You can also get regular updates on my instagram account @Druidsgardenart.

 

Some of you may know that I painted and self published the Tarot of Trees almost a decade ago. That was a 3.5 year project of 78 tree-themed tarot cards. It was just as I was beginning to establish my style as an artist, and it really was an incredible journey to embrace the bardic arts, learn tarot, do all of the paintings, and so forth. In 2015, I started paintings in a new series, tied to some of the pathworkings I was doing as part of my studies through the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn. These pathworkings were facilitated by an inner guide.  I had been very active in my herbalism studies and practice, and when I asked for a guide, a plant spirit–black cohosh, specifically–came and we went on a journey together. She asked me to paint her, so I did, and it was a fun experience. Then it happened again, and again, and again. It was a set of paintings that were derived from spirit journeys–but in each case, I had a clear visual of what to paint. These paintings are certainly some of the best I artwork I had ever produced.

 

And after about six months of regular meditation and journeying, I had 10 plant spirit paintings.  I laid them all out and realized that it was a second oracle project, my follow-up to the Tarot of Trees. Just like the Tarot of Trees, I wasn’t clear that it *was* an oracle project at first.  A lot of the techniques I am sharing in my plant spirit communication series actually directly stems from my work with the plants in this series.  I moved to a new state, took a new job, and my paintings on this series ebbed and flowed.  In 2018, however, I really dove into the project again, and decided I wanted to finish it and release it sometime in 2019. At this point, I’ve painted, 35 cards, 33 of which will certainly appear in the oracle.  I am planning for about 40-45 in total.

 

So, today, I wanted to share some of the cards from the Plant Spirit Oracle and some of their meanings for you to get a sense of the project.  The finished project will not only include divination meanings and information but also herbal preparations and other ways to work with the plants!  We now delve into six of the plants from the Oracle: Yarrow, Witch Hazel, Comfrey, Apple, Blackberry, and Poison Ivy.

Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow

Spirit of Yarrow

Yarrow is common throughout the world and has long been associated with invisibilty.  Yarrow keeps things hidden, just as the image for this card–painted in 2017 at the full Lunar Eclipse–also conceals much.  The luna moth comes out at dusk and flies in the night, a sign of concealment and yet beauty.  The yarrow flowers spiral ever inward.

Divination Keywords: Invisibility, Hiding, Protection, Being Unseen

Witch Hazel

Spirit of Witch Hazel

Spirit of Witch Hazel

 

Witch Hazel has the unique feature of blooming in the late fall and early winter, when everything else is dying, brown, and still. Witch hazel, therefore, is like a beacon in that dark time. The left half of the painting shows Witch Hazel during the light half of the year, with green leaves and dried seed pods. During the dark half of the year, Witch Hazel turns crimson and orange and then, even after her leaves drop, she blooms. And blooms, and blooms. As the snows come down, she blooms. Her song of hope and change is played by the babbling brook which flows between the dark and light half of the year. Witch Hazel offers us a very powerful message for these dark times—not to give up hope. Our children’s children’s children are waiting for us to become ancestors.

Divination Keywords: Shining in the darkness, overcoming difficult odds, hope for the future, music of the earth, spirit songs

 

Comfrey

Spirit of Comfrey

Spirit of Comfrey

Comfrey is one of the most well known medicinal plants on the planet, well loved and well respected by herbalists.  She is known by many names, including knitbone, boneset, and mending plant.  This is because of her many uses for mending bones, healing serious wounds, and healing the body inside and out.  Comfrey also is an amazing garden plant; she is what is known as a “dynamic accumulator” meaning that her deep tap roots can pull up nutrients and make them available to other plants.  She also is a summer long producer of nectar for insects and birds. In the card, we can see the hummingbirds feasting on her nectar while her roots hold the power of the planets.

Divination Keywords: Resources, personal action, leveraging one’s skills and abilities, favor from the heavens, astrology, manifestation, recognizing the opportune moment, “stars” aligning, taking action now

 

Apple

Spirit of the Apple

Spirit of the Apple

There is nothing quite like finding an apple tree in full fruit in the fall months. A single apple can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit and each apple tree, particularly those that are wild, offer incredible diversity in their fruits. The Apple tree has had a tremendously long history with humans. Ancient humans, and some modern, engaged in rites to “wassail” the tree so that she would produce more apples, which could be dried, turned into sauce, butter, fresh cider, or hard cider. Truely, Apple is a tree of fertility, offering many blessings and gifts with her magic.

Divination Keywords: Magic, Fertility, Creativity, Nature Connectedness

Blackberry

Spirit of Blackberry

Spirit of Blackberry

If you’ve ever tried to pick wild blackberries in the height of the summer, you likely will have paid a price for those delicious treats. Wild Blackberry produces amazing, large, juicy fruits, but she often demands a blood price from those who seek her fruits. The deeper you get into a blackberry patch, the more difficult the patch is to escape from. In my region, we call her a “jagger bush”, and getting “tangled in jaggers” is not a place you want to be! The blackberry painting features a huge tangle of bushes growing from a porcipine—another creature that enacts a strong price if you get too near. The blackberry, therefore, teaches us that actions have consequences and to tread carefully.

 

Divination Keywords: Enganglement, Consequences, Wrapped up in Troubles, Rewards after a long struggle, Doing things the hard way, Paying a price

 

Poison Ivy

Spirit of Poison Ivy

Spirit of Poison Ivy

 

Poison ivy is one of the most feared and avoided plants in the natural environment due to the contact dermatitis it creates after several days of exposure. Because many have had a previous run-in with poison ivy with lasting consequences, it encourages people to learn to recognize it, to avoid it, and to avoid areas with it. In other words, poison ivy, through its hard lessons and pain, teaches us to be aware of our surroundings and stay guarded.

And yet, this defensiveness can go both ways. When I encounter poison ivy, I see how it protects places—growing thick so that none can get through. It especially grows thick along the edges of forests and fields, in “edges” where the wild lands are meeting cultivated lawns and other human-dominated ecosystems. It works, in this way, to be strongly and visibly defensive: growing to keeping people out. In fact, it is this “edge effect” that has allowed poison ivy to substantially spread its range due to the increasing disturbances caused by modern building and lawns, and is, in some ways, nature’s response to human incursions and lawn cultivation. Today, it is much more common than several centuries ago, primarily due to the amount of disturbance in the landscape that humans have created and due to the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This ecological reality parallels its divinatory meaning.

If you’ve ever suffered from poison ivy, you know that the more that you scratch it, the more you spread it, offering yet another powerful lesson: sometimes we have to just let things run their course and not do anything to further upset the situation.

Divination Keywords: Defensiveness, Awareness, Hard Lessons, Letting things run their course, Caution, Danger

 

 

Closing Thoughts and Links for More Information!

The plants have much to teach us both physically and in spirit.  I hope this look into the Sacred Plant Oracle has uplifted your spirits and brought you joy. Thank you for reading! To keep updated about the Plant Spirit Oracle (and be notified when preorders are available, likely early 2019) please visit this page!

Spirit of Calamus / Sweet Flag

Spirit of Calamus / Sweet Flag

 

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect February 4, 2018

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!

 

 

Introduction to Incense Making for Druids September 27, 2011

Tree Divinition Incense

Tree Divination Incense

The basis of this post is handout I used for the OBOD East Coast Gathering (2011) for my incense making workshop.  I added in additional details based on what we discussed in the workshop, and I wanted to expand upon this handout and provide some info on finding local materials and intentions.

This is an introduction to incense making. If you have never made incense, start here and then see my blog posts on Bardic Incense, Ovate Incense, and Druid Incense for more specific recipes.

Incense in the Druid tradition

Incense-making has a long history in spiritual, religious, and esoteric traditions.  In Druidry, we might use incense to help us enter a deep meditative state for working within our inner groves or to aid in our ritual activities.  Incense crafting itself can be a very personal and spiritual experience.  I use incense in my druidic practice very frequently, usually several times a week.  I have crafted a number of incenses for different purposes, including those for different kinds of work (Bardic Balance, Bardic Creativity, Ovate Divination, Ovate Healing, Druid Focus, Happy Plants, etc.).

Ingredients

Some of the best incense materials (energy and smell-wise) may be local to your area or grown in your garden.  For those that aren’t available locally or able to be grown, there are several good companies online who can sell ingredients.

Wildharvested Ingredients:  In South-East Michigan, I am able to find a variety of materials that can be used for incense recipes.  When you are wildharvesting, make sure you do not take the whole plant, but only a small part enough to allow it to continue to grow.  Only take plants that are numerous–check plants that are on endangered lists in your area and make sure you are taking only well-established species.  I also make it a point to ask and be thankful before I take; the plants and spirits of the land appreciate this. Here are some of my favorite wildcrafted ingredients:

  • Conifer resins.  We have a number of fantastic confiers that produce great resin incense.  White Pine is one of my favorites and produces a wonderful vanilla-pine scent.  Scots pine produces a much more musty scent, still very nice.  To harvest a conifer resin, you can just look for drips from a tree–a freshly trimmed branch will leave a lot of gooey resin; you’ll want this to dry hard before you use it like any other resin.
  • Sassafras Roots: These aromatic roots, when chopped fine, work wonderfully in non-combustible incenses!  Sassafras produces offspring by sending off “runner” trees–so you will likely find a ton of little sassafrass trees very close to a big one.  Usually harvest them by removing the runner shoots that would otherwise not make it.  You can also occasionally find a Sassafrass uprooted by a storm and have as much as you want.
  • Wild Rose Hips: We have many of these wild rose bushes in the yard, and the rose hips are smaller than traditional rose hips, but still wonderful for incense.
  • Yarrow and other wild herbs: A field or edge of a forest can be a wonderful place to find yarrow, nettles, violets, black raspberries, alfalfa, etc.  Many of these make wonderful incense ingredients–usually for their energetic properties rather than their smell :).
  • Juniper Berries: Even in areas it isn’t a native species, you can find juniper as an ornamental shrub or bush.  The berries have a wonderful piney smell that is just irresistible!

Ingredients You Grow: Many ingredients, especially herbs, can be grown in your garden.  You harvest, dry, and preserve these just like you would cooking herbs.  Some commonly used herbs in incense include: bay, sage, rosemary (smells wonderful when burned!), lavender, sweetgrass, lemon balm/mint, and basil.

Ingredients You Purchase:  Depending on where you live, there are a lot of ingredients you simply can’t grow or find–but these ingredients are often crucial to successful incense. You can purchase many incense making ingredients.  I try to purchase most of my ingredients through Mountain Rose Herbs, as they are an ethical and sustainable company.  If you are starting from scratch, a few good ingredients to have on hand are a few wood powders (Red Sandalwood, Cedar, Palo Santo wood), resins (Frankincense, Myrrh, Dragon’s Blood, Copal, Benzoin) and then other assorted herbs depending on your purpose.   Some can also be found at your local grocery store, such as star anise, cinnamon, or nutmeg.

 

Incense-Making Materials

In addition to materials, you’ll want a few other ingredients on hand.

  • A mortar and pestle is absolutely crucial.   If you are making incense and bulk, a dedicated coffee grinder can also be helpful.  I find it particularly helpful for juniper berries!  But I don’t use it much at all–I prefer the natural grinding of ingredients, which allows you to add your own energies as you work.
  • You also will need a censer and some charcoal blocks.  You can purchase the cheap self-lighting ones, which work fine if you are outdoors (these go most often under the “swift lite” brand).  These ones also really stink, which can reduce your enjoyment of the incense–and make it more difficult to smell the true smell of various ingredients.  If you are inside though, I strongly recommend purchasing pure bamboo charcoal–it has no nasty, carcinogenic smells (like the self-lighting ones have) and is fine for indoor use.  Here’s one such example.  You also need some small measuring spoons. I really like these ones for measuring out incense powders!

 

Energy and Intention

Before you make incense, you’ll want to think about what your goals are for the incense, and work to build in appropriate energies and intentions into it. If you are making a cleansing incense, you might want to create it during a waning moon; likewise, an incense that aids in balance or grounding might be made at the Fall Equinox.  Same with the actual movements you make in crafting the incense–clockwise motions add a different energy than counter-clockwise. With all things druidic, however, using your intention and experience is best.

Incense measurements

All of the recipes I’m posting here use a “part” as the primary measurement. A part can be anything–a 1/2 teaspoon or 1 teaspoon as a basic “part” works well for most.  If you go larger than that, you are apt to have a lot of incense–probably more than you can use!

 

Two Types of Incense

Scott Cunningham, in The Complete Book of Incense, Oils, and Brews, identifies two types of incense that you can make.  I think his descriptions are pretty useful.

Non-Combustible:  Non-combustible incenses are those that do not burn on their own and usually come in powder form. They may be resins, dried plants, herbs, flowers, essential oils or mixtures of various ingredients. They must be burned on charcoal blocks. These are easy incenses to make and great for the beginning incense-maker becuase you can have a wide range of experimentation and really create some beautiful blends.

Combustible: Combustible incense, in the form of sticks, cones, and coils, burn on their own without the aid of charcoal blocks.  When you buy incense sticks in the store, they are typical “combustible” incense.  Combustible incense is more challenging to make because it requires that you have a high ratio of burnable substances (8 out of 10 parts including woods or plant materials).   Combustible incenses typically have a base (the burnable wood substance); a binder (that which holds the incense together, typically Guar Gum or Makko); and aromatics.   When making combustible incense, it is very important to get everything powdered as small as possibly.  Large chunks of anything, especially resins, will prevent it from burning properly.

For combustible incense, you want to have 3-4 times more woody base than anything else.  You want to limit your use of resins, because they don’t burn well.  I usually have combustible incense recipes that look like this:

  • 4 parts base (sandalwood, cedar, etc.)
  • 1 part binder (usually guar gum)
  • 2-3 parts aromatics (rosemary, orange peel, etc.)
  • several drops essential oil
  • Enough water to make into a paste

If your combustible incense does not burn after you make it, you can grind it back up and add more woody base.

You can also use an extruder designed for polymer clay to help you roll it out.  I purchased my extruder from a local art supply store.

Two Druidic Incense Recipes

The following two recipes are original creations that I’ve made as part of my druidic work.  They are free to use for your own personal purposes :).

Tree Divination (Ovate) Recipe (Non-Combustible)
This is a recipe I created for use with the Tarot of Trees.  Its also an all around wonderful smelling and working for any kind of divination.

  • 1 part frankincense (powdered)
  • 1 part red sandalwood (powdered)
  • 1 part cinnamon
  • 1 part crushed juniper berries
  • 1/20th part sweet orange essential oil
  • ½ part lemongrass
  • ½ part yarrow

Directions: Powder the frankincense and juniper berries separately first. Resins are tricky to powder–a circular motion works best.  Juniper berry likewise can be tricky–sticking it in the freezer for about 20 min makes it way easier to make smaller – it doesn’t really ever “powder” completely.  Once those two ingredients are ground down, add the remaining ingredients into the mortar and pestle and grind them together.  A Once it is all nice and mixed, add the oil and ground together.  Let sit for a few weeks for the incense scents to meld.

Elemental Balance (Bardic) Recipe (Combustible)

  • 10 parts Cedar (Fire); Base
  • 6 parts Sandalwood (Water); Base
  • 1 part Honeysuckle (Earth); aromatic
  • ½ part lemongrass essential oil (Air); aromatic

To bind:

  • 1 part Guar Gum (Binder) (Guar Gum can be
  • Water to make the incense into a firm dough

Powder all ingredients very, very finely, again, adding the oil at the end of the grinding process.  Once all ingredients are ready, you can add Guar Gum, mixing well. Add enough water to create a firm dough–if you use too much water, you can add more cedar or sandalwood powder.  Once your dough resembles play-dough or sculpey, you can roll out and cut, or shape into small incense cones/blocks/sticks.  Allow it to dry for 2 weeks and then store in a nice container with a piece of quartz.  Quartz represents creativity and spirit!

Storage

Once you’ve created your incense, you’ll want to store it in a cool, dark place.  I like to use metal tins (as pictured in the photo above) and add little handmade paper labels to them or else find interesting bottles or tins at a thrift store.  You can also use wooden or glass containers–anything that keeps it sealed and dry.