Tag Archives: Wildcrafting

Wildcrafted Druidry: Using the Doctrine of Signatures, Ecology and Mythology to Cultivate Sacred Relationships with Trees

A stream in winter

Nature spirituality is most obviously tied to one’s local nature–the trees, plants, animals, landforms, and other features of what makes your own landscape unique. One of the formidable challenges before those of us practicing nature-based spiritualities in the United States and other “colonized” regions is that not only do we not have the right/access to native traditions on local uses of plants, we also have systems that are inherited from other places and may not properly fit. Ogham is a good example of this: if you use the traditional ogham in the US, it is kind of like wearing a pair of ill-fitting shoes: you can get by, but the system isn’t working with what is outside your door.

With that said, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a language of trees, a system that we can use for magical and divination purposes. But as I’ve shared before, Ogham presents challenges for several reasons: First: I’ve never met a good number of ogham trees. I have no idea how to work with an abstract concept, like Heather or Blackthorn, without actually experiencing the tree itself. Second, feel a need to work closely with dominant trees that are present in my ecosystem (Sugar Maple, Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Wild Cherry, Rhodendron, etc) who have no ogham equivalent and whom are overlooked by many magical systems. Finally, the situation of some of the trees in North America is very different than where the Ogham originated. I point to Ash as the most prime example of this; when you read my write-up of Ash, I significantly altered the meaning of this tree due to the presence of the Emerald Ash borer which is decimating tens of millions of mature ash trees. This is all to say that the situation with Ogham can be pretty complicated, even for those of us who are pretty adept at tree lore, ecology, foraging, and occult practices.  The clear choice is either to adapt your own ogham or create your own tree divination system.

In this post, what I wanted to do was create a bit of a road map for sharing how you might create your own local ogham and/or other divination/magic system tied to local plants or trees.  You could use this roadmap either for adapting an Ogham to your local region (see my example of the Allegheny Mountain Ogham).  You could also use this roadmap to create a much larger and more robust divination/magical tree system of your own. 

The Path of Mountain Laurel! So beautiful!

Before I go any further, I also want to share a few thoughts on why this work is so important.  As I’ve argued many times on this blog and elsewhere, nature spirituality, including druidry, is all about connection.  Connection with the living earth outside your door, creating relationships with plants, trees, rivers, mountains, any natural features.  Your relationship must be yours, alone, to cultivate.  You can build your own unique nature spirituality through building relationships, connections, knowledge and experience. Nobody in a book, workshop, or anything else can do that work for you.  If you are located outside of the British Isles, it also behooves you to do this work because, quite simply, it needs to be done.  All of us, in a variety of ecosystems, need more wildcrafted approaches to our druidry or nature spirituality.

Background

As I’ve started to share recently, my 3rd oracle project is going to be what I’m tentatively titling the “Tree Alchemy Deck”. I’ve actually been working on and off on this project for close to 10 years, but am closing in on finishing it in 2021!  This will be an eco-printed project tied to dominant and magical plants and trees on the US East Coast and Midwest regions. This project is actually proving to be the most challenging of any I have tackled thus far. I wanted to draw upon a wide range of sources: my own experience in working with these trees as a bard, ovate and druid; information on ecology, growth habits, and human uses for the tree (herbal, functional, etc); herbalism; and lore from a variety of places. That idea worked for many of the trees I researched that were dominant in the ecosystem and had long and rich histories and lore: oak, maple, hickory, cherry, sassafras, and so on. But this idea only took me so far with the second set of trees: less dominant trees, often understory trees, who are not part of the traditional western magical traditions (because they are located only in the US) and who don’t have any surviving native uses or lore.  A lot of the recent trees I’ve been researching are in this situation: Rhododendron, Devil’s Walking Stick, Spicebush, Witch Hazel, and Mountain Laurel.  These trees all really important understory trees and are almost entirely overlooked in any accounts and yet have important spiritual lessons to teach.

This is to say that some trees when you start to research this have quite a bit of information and some have practically no information and some have a wealth of knowledge. Over time, I’ve been developing a method for exploring and understanding these less well-documented trees in the hopes of being able to eventually finish this project.  I wanted to share my methods today and maybe they’ll help you too!

Developing Personal Tree Lore

The information that follows are the many different places that you might get lore and information in developing your own unique understandings of trees, plants, and any other natural features in the world around you. You can use any combination of the methods below.  Some of the local natural features/plants/trees may have a lot of information across many categories, while others may be very sparse and require you to do a lot more with your own insight.  There is no right or wrong way to develop these ideas. Most of these methods below can be understood as a combination of personal experience, direct observation, and learning from others (through books, videos, or other accounts).  In other words, use your own observations of local ecology along with reading ecological information on the tree.

Insight, Experience, and UPG

The most important aspect of any understanding of a sacred tree or plant is your own experience.  Your experience can span a lot of different areas. I’m going to specifically talk about spiritual experiences and memories here, and save direct observation and interaction of nature for other areas below.  The first area within this is memories or experiences you may directly have with the tree.  What sticks out to you here?  What relationship with the tree do you already have?

The second has to do with a variety of personal or spiritual insights that come to you. What messages have you received from this tree? At what points has this tree in your own experience connected with you, and in what way? Spiritual insights or flashes of inspiration, plant spirit communication, and so on may all be involved here.  These could be things from ‘feelings’ you get with certain trees to deep spiritual journey work involving trees or other spiritual practices.

All of these are ultimately about you and your relationship and connection to the tree.  Magic and divination work best if it is personal and relevant.  A lot of this kind of thing is called “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” or UPG in the broader pagan community. There’s nothing wrong with UPG and in fact, all of us build our spiritual lives around personal and spiritual experiences that are unique to us.  Where UPG gets a bad wrap is when someone tries to pass off their own UPG as a “fact”  or something that applies to everyone.  As long as you are aware of this and, if you choose to share, are open about where your information comes from, it is no problem.  For example, at the beginning of the Plant Spirit Oracle project, I make it clear that the entire project comes from my own experiences and insights, combined with knowledge from the herbalism community.  That way, anyone who picks up this project knows what they are getting–and part of it is my own UPG.

The other reason that personal insight and experience matter is that nature spirituality is all about relationships. Trees are complex with multiple sides and aspects. Your relationship with a tree may be very different from another person, and so what you are seeing in your experience may not match up with another source.  In all cases, you should trust your experience and insight over another source because your relationship with that tree may be unique.  I’ll give you a nice example of this: in the Plant Spirit Oracle, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) has two cards.  I painted the “light” elk version of the Elder first; this was the one I met in my inner vision and that I have worked with for years.  And then, as part of some ritual writing work for a gathering, a friend of mine was tasked by the spirit of Elder with making me an Elder mask that showed me a much more terrifying side of Elder.  In working with this mask after the event and returning to the Elder trees, this face of Elder ended up wanting to be present in the Plant Spirit Oracle as well.  Given the rich history and traditions of Elder throughout the world, I suspect Elder has many, many such faces.  And the face she chooses to show to you may be different than the face she chooses to show to me.

The Doctrine of Signatures

Mullein has lessons to teach!

Mullein has lessons to teach!

The Doctrine of Signatures is a concept in Herbalism that suggests that the plant itself (the shape, color, growth habit, etc) reflects that which it treats or supports. For example, the Mullein leaf has the same shape as the lungs, with the veins in the leaf and fuzzy hairs literally looking like the alveoli in the lungs.  The Hawthorn tree produces red, heart-like berries that medically support the heart.

The Doctrine of Signatures as a formal concept was developed in the Western World, first described by Pliny the Elder, and popularized in the Middle Ages in Europe. This idea is also present in many traditional cultures and has likely been with humanity for much, much longer.  Paracelsus was a Renaissance man who was a physician, occultist, alchemist, and philosopher, among many other things. In his Astronomica magna he wrote, “The expert must know how to recognize the virtue of all things thanks to the signs, be it an herb, a tree, a living being, or an inanimate object.” He further writes, “As you see, every herb has been brought into the shape that is akin to its inner nature.” Today, this concept is still very important in the practice of Traditional Western Herbalism and was one I was formally taught as part of my training as both a practical and sacred part of our practice.

This concept is extremely useful for you as you are working with local trees, plants, or other features that may not have any lore or other associated uses. By simply observing the plant and thinking about what it relates to, reminds you of, or is akin to, you can develop a very rich series of relations.  Look at everything about the plant–the way it branches off, the way the roots or leaves spread out, the veining patterns, the flowers, the fruit, etc.  This will help you develop these insights, guided by the doctrine of signatures.

Ecology and Place in the Ecosystem

You can use a combination of direct observations of your tree combined with well-written and documented information. For this, I suggest doing direct observations of the tree and where it grows, in what conditions.  Consider direct observations of the tree over time, including over a course of a season, and in different weather. These growing conditions can vary quite a bit even across the range of a tree and so it is helpful to know.  For example, further south Eastern Hemlock is found in damp forest bottom areas and in ravines because it likes it cool and damp.  Northern parts of its range, however, it is much more widely distributed because it is colder and damper there because of the climate.

You should also be able to find some great sources on local trees that discuss not only the basic features of the tree (size, shape, age, qualities of bark and leaves) but also those that discuss the wildlife that it supports and its role in the ecosystem.  John Eastman’s books have been invaluable to me in this regard, but I’ve also found excellent information in a variety of more detailed field guides or materials put out by our local state extension office (in the US).  My suggestion is to pick up some cheap guides at a used book store–the more local the better.  And then read across the guides, comparing what the different information says.  A good guide is one that presents a wider range of detailed information, including ecological niches, pests, diseases, etc.

The more that you can learn from your tree through reading and direct observation, the better!

Folk Naming Practices

Naming is another area that you can really gain a lot of insight. The Latin name of the tree will allow you to know what other trees or plants it may be related to  However, the traditional folk names for the plant often offer rich insight, particularly in the absence of other information from this list.

Here’s a good example: Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is a dominant understory tree in the Beech family.  Its folk names include leverwood, Indian cedar, black hazel, deer wood, hardtack, and Hop Hornbeam.  You can get quite a lot from this list: human uses may include how to make levers; it was obviously used by Native Americans in some way resembling cedar (possibly for construction or ritual uses), it has some connection to hazel, deer like to browse it, it is extremely hard, and may also have a hop-like plant.  You get the idea.

Human Uses: Wood, Tools, Functions

Delightful eating bowls and spoons!

The human uses of wood

Learn about the human uses of the wood, both contemporary but especially traditionally.  What is this wood used for? What does the wood look like?  Is it good for fires, instruments, woodturning, house construction, handles, or other things?  Books like Eric Sloanes On Reverence of Wood and Erichsen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other uses of North American Plants are excellent introductions to what different trees and woods were used for. Further, you can learn a lot of valuable information on harder to find woods in the bushcraft, permaculture, and wood carving communities.  Just search in these communities in the forums and all kinds of information will come forth on many more obscure trees and woods.  For example, Tulip Poplar has a wide range of bushcraft uses (cordage, bark baskets, fire-starting nest building) that is not present in any books I was referencing, but when I went to a bushcraft event, I learned all about it!

I also suggest you gain as much direct experience as you are able with the wood and other parts of the tree. If you are working with local trees, it should be no hardship to gather some wood and see what happens. Working with the wood is another way to work with the spirit of the tree–and it is a very important direct experience for you.  You can also purchase well made wooden things of the woods you are working with from local artists to learn more about their qualities.

Human Uses: Food

Does the tree offer any opportunities for food? This can be anything: eating fruits, nuts, leaves, brewing tea from branches, needles, or roots, and so on.  Many wild foods are well documented in the work of people like Euell Gibbons and Samuel Thayer as well as in websites online.  You can learn a lot by again, learning when to harvest, how to ethically harvest and honor, and how to prepare.  I did this with Oak and Acorns for the last few years and nothing taught me more about the Oak tree than processing and eating acorns!

Human Uses: Herbalism

Many trees and plants also offer herbal uses. This is, of course, tied to the Doctrine of Signatures above. Look at the herbal uses of the plant and consider those uses in relationship to everything else you are learning.  Again, if you can use the plant itself and make some of the medicine, even better. You will learn a great deal from using and working with the tree in this way. You can use the free M. Grieve’s Modern Herbal online as a good place to get started.

Concerns: Ecological Challenges, Toxicity, Invasiveness, etc

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

As you are learning, you should also learn about the tree itself: is it threatened in any way?  Is it a threat to humans or others through ingestion, touching, etc?  This information is very important as you are working to ascertain divination or magical uses.

First, pay close attention to any ecological challenges that are known and documented in your region concerning the trees.  These may be more survivable things like fungus or leaf spot, or they can be more damaging threats like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid or the Emerald Ash Borer.  A tree that is fighting for its life, like Ash, is not going to be able to hold the same energy as it would if it were not at risk.  Ecological risks can be invasive species but also human activity: logging, mining, climate change, and more are all putting many species at risk.  Do your research here because it matters.

Second, some trees may be toxic or have other concerns.  As you are researching, please make sure you research any of these issues.  Just because a plant or tree is toxic to humans doesn’t mean it can’t be a good spiritual teacher (Poison Ivy is one of my favorite plants and a tremendous plant teacher, but obviously I’m not going to eat her or even touch her). Also understand that some traditional folk uses you might find several hundred years ago are now questionable (such as large amounts of internal consumption of Safrole, from Sassafras roots).

Finally, it is useful to learn if the tree is naturalized, native, or opportunistic (I reject the idea of “invasive” for a number of reasons). Do not let this label immediately color your perspective of the tree. “Invasive” trees may still have much to offer, and frankly, they are in your ecosystem and are now part of it. It is best to learn how to make peace with all life that is present, and that includes those trees and plants that are more opportunistic members of the ecosystem. Much of the “native plants” movement is supported by chemical companies who see it as an opportunity to sell more weed killers and pesticides.

Magical Lore in the Western or Folk American Traditions

This is often where people start, but as you can see, it is pretty far down my list.  This is because I believe that the experiential aspects of learning about trees are much more important than what someone else’s experience indicates in a book.  Even so, it is useful to study the history, lore, and magical uses of the tree.  Some, like Oaks or Hazels, have books and tomes of lore and you can draw upon this effectively.  Others may have little to none, and that’s why the other ways to learn are here.  When I’m doing research, I usually look both at the broader Western lore (mostly from Europe and the UK) as well as the Folk American Traditional lore (a great book for this is Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Root and Herb Magic).  Some traditional American magical tomes also offer lore, like Long Lost Friend, but you have to read carefully–these don’t really have indexes for the kinds of herbs used, etc. You can certainly also use more contemporary books on sacred trees as well; usually, these are rooted in the Western Occult traditions of some kind or another.

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

Do be aware that some of the lore may not apply as well when moving across related species.  I’ll return to Elder here for a minute–the Elder that grows in Europe was used for ancient woodwind instruments (called a Sambucca, after the Latin name).  While I have been questing for some time to create a Sambucca out of Black or Red Elder here in the US, I was recently told by a friend who had lived in both the UK and US that our elder here is much more woody and less pithy (especially when older) and it would be much harder to make such an instrument out of our varieties.  Good to know, even if I’m still attempting it!

Traditional Native American Uses and Lore

Another place you could consider going is to explore the Native American uses and lore.  If you are non-native, I think there is a fine line here between respecting someone else’s culture through reading and study vs. trying to appropriate or recreate another tradition.  I’ve written my thoughts on this subject here in some depth.  In a nutshell, my own take on this as a white person situated in the United States (a country with a horrific history of appropriation and genocide towards native peoples) is that  I do think it is appropriate to read about how the ancestors of the land used these plants.  At the same time, I am absolutely under no circumstances going to try to recreate anything they did (like the maple syrup ceremonies) or share their stories as my own.  So I see these as sources for inspiration and wisdom, to learn about one aspect of the tree’s history.

Bringing it All Together

The above is quite a lot–it can take months to research and understand even one local tree.  But once you have done some of these things (certainly, you don’t have to do everything) you can start bringing it together.  From everything that you found and learned, what resonates the most to you?  How might you want to work with this tree? How might you want to use this knowledge as part of your spiritual or magical practice?  How might you choose to share this with others in your ecosystem, if at all?  And most importantly, how does this knowledge deepen your understanding and work with a tree?

It might be that one tree would take you some time to go on a journey in this way.  That’s certainly been my experience–I’ve actually been working to study sacred trees in my ecosystem for over a decade, and this work will invariably continue as my own spiritual practices deepen.

Deepening the Wheel of the Year and Wildcrafting Druidry

What is amazing about this wonderful planet we live on is the diversity of ecosystems, weather, climate, and life.  This diversity, however, can be challenging for those looking to adapt druidry or other nature-based spiritual practices to their practices.  Particularly challenging is the concept of the wheel of the year, especially if trying to apply the wheel of the year in a non-temperate climate setting. Thus, today’s post extends some of my earlier discussions about wildcrafting your own druidry, which include developing your own wheel of the year; in considering the role of observances, activities, and rituals; and in developing distinct symbolism for your work.  I’m going to continue this discussion today by talking about a further way to work with a seasonal approach from a wildcrafted and observational way and continue wheel of the year development!  So let’s get going!

The Wheel of the Year and Why It Might Not Fit Your Practice

Late fall sunrise and mist over the homestead

For many, the wheel of the year in a standard sense with standard meanings (see here) is problematic and troublesome, not always fitting or holding meaning in their practice.  This is for at least two reasons. First, I have found that in working with new druids to adapt their practices to their local ecosystem, the idea of thinking in “four seasons” can be really limiting. Druids in a variety of ecosystems not have four seasons so the eightfold wheel may not make sense. Second, even those living in areas that traditionally did match up may now be seeing changes as climate change is causing changes to our ecosystems and weather.  Things are not what they were 100 years ago, or even 25 years ago.

The entire principle of the wheel of the year is that it is a modern mash-up of a set of old agricultural holidays from the British Isles, put together in the 1960s by Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardener. This wheel of the year construction fits parts of Eastern North America and Europe, certainly the British Isles, and allowed both Druidry and Wicca a set of consistent practices. Thus, if you live in an area that has four distinct seasons (temperate regions of Europe and North America), chances are, it might make some sense to you. But more druids live in regions that do not fit this cycle, making it challenging to create meaning. The wheel of the year has two pieces:

The cycle of the sun: The solstices and equinoxes are ancient holidays celebrated by many peoples across time. They are entirely determined based on the cycle of light and dark, which is a constant on our planet. In other words, regardless of what is happening on the earth, we can always use the path of the sun and the light in the world to observe the light of the sun and year.  While it is important to note that the available light impacts weather, there are also things that are happening on the earth that can be accounted for.   Regardless, in AODA Druidry and in other traditions, the times of greatest light (Summer Solstice), greatest darkness (winter solstice), and the two days of balance (fall and spring equinoxes

The cycle of the earth: The specific weather, the waxing and waning of blooming, rain, frost, or fog is all dependent on where you live.  This is where things often become more challenging for people who want more than the cycle of the sun as part of their own localized seasonal observances.  The first challenge is that while we think in distinct seasons.  But that’s not really accurate. In the land, changes happen slowly and the landscape gradually changes from one thing to another.  It’s just like a sunrise or sunset–humans have named distinct parts of the day as night, dusk, daylight, and twilight–but these are full of smaller transitions, each moment being distinct.  You will experience those states, but you’ll experience a lot in between.  The second challenge is that because we have terms for seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), we tend to try to fit the world into the terms we create.  That doesn’t always work. In other words, we’ve been conditioned so much to think about seasons in terms of the four, and stepping out of that conditioning to really deeply observe may actually benefit us deeply.

The Wheel Challenge: Your Ecosystem for Year

 So what do you do? How you develop a holistic and realistic wheel of the year that makes sense for you and your situation?   I would suggest rooting it in observation and interaction with the living earth–hence the “wheel challenge.”  Here’s the basic practice:

  • Spend time in nature or with nature as close to where you live as possible (e.g if you have a daily hiking trail in a local park, use that trail.  If you have a backyard, use that backyard).  The goal here is to get you as close to nature at your own home as possible.
  • Try to observe nature at least twice a week for 10-20 minutes.
  • Keep some kind of record of your observations: photographs, videos, sketches, journal entries.
  • In observing, note anything that changes: bloom times, snow melting, fogs rolling in, etc.  the goal is to document what is happening in your ecosystem so that you can identify any “seasonal shifts” that occur with regularity.
  • Try to disavow yourself of the regular notions of “seasonality” e.g it is spring so these things happen and instead, simply observe

This approach doesn’t require much of a daily investment and can be built into existing spiritual practices (like spending regular time in nature, daily meditation, etc). But for me, this approach reaped extremely rich rewards.

Golden hickories of mid fall!

I’m posting this at a time when we have finished the growing season for the year (just after Samhain) and thus, the seeds of the new year are upon us.  I started my own practice of observation a year ago, last Samhain, which made sense as the clear demarcation of the end of the previous agricultural season and the transition to the next. By all means, though, start whenever you feel inspired.

My Example: The Unfolding of the 12 Phases of the Four Seasons

I spent the last year doing this the above challenge. I took daily walks on my landscape, I documented bloom times, took photographs, and also visited my tree (from the Tree for a Year challenge), and spent time regularly in my Druid’s Anchor spot  I also noted any time that I could really sense a “major shift” in my landscape (for me, this was first light frost and first freeze, budding of the trees, first snow, the first summer storm, etc). At the end of the year of observation (this past Samhain), I asked: Which observations or events led to major shifts in the landscape? What seasonal markers seemed present?  What is their timing?

This practice reaped rich rewards in several different ways. First, I was able to document most of the blooming plants on our property; I took photos, compiled information, and learned a lot more about where I live.  I identified several new edible and medicinal plants I did not know before. I also found one critically endangered plant, a rare form of Jacob’s Ladder. My nature knowledge really increased by focusing my energy in this way and spending more time photographing and documenting things systematically.

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

Second, I was able to develop a 12-fold pattern of the seasons.  I learned that each of the four seasons had three phases where I live–so I’m actually looking at a pattern that is twelvefold (or 3 within 4) rather than a basic four-season pattern here in Western PA.  I am so excited about this discovery and it is going to really help me add a new layer to my wheel of the year.  Now, my plan will be to celebrate the seasons in a 12-fold way. Here is my draft of my revised wheel of the year based both on what is happening in my local ecosystem as well as what is happening on our homestead.

Spring

  • Early Spring: Maples stop running and bud out, signifying the beginning of spring.  Nettle and skunk cabbage emerges.  Occasional snows and cold temperatures, ice, and freezing rain, with many days above freezing.  A bit of green can be found on the land.
  • Mid Spring: Cool-season crops (brassicas) can go in the ground (in the greenhouse and outside with cover).  Herbs start to emerge in the garden.  Perennials start to come out across the land.  Kayak can come out on a warm day. More trees bud and leaves start to unfurl.
    • The Spring Equinox usually marks a turning point to mid-spring (but not always).
  • Late Spring: Hawthorn blooms, marking the end of the frosts and freezes.  The last frost passes by mid-May.  Planting out warm crops and planting seeds. Dandelions, wild violets, and serviceberry bloom. Wild apple flower.
    • Beltane coincides with the blooming of the hawthorns and the arrival of late spring.

Summer

  • Early Summer: Garden is fully planted and begins to take off.  Harvest peas and spring greens.  Leaves are fully out and “full”.  Oaks bloom.
  • Mid Summer:  Perennial herbs are ready for first harvest (yarrow, lemon balm, catnip, parsley, and more).  Cukes and beans are ready to start canning.  Clovers and herbs growing strong.   Black raspberries start to ripen.  Elderberry flowers.
    • The Summer Solstice usually marks midsummer.
  • Late Summer (Lughnasadh): The land is at its peak; gardens are full and abundant.  Sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes begin to bloom.  Tomatoes start to ripen. Start seeds for fall cool-season crops.  Wild blackberry and wild blueberry crops are abundant.  Mayapple fruits ripen. Bonset and Joe Pye weed bloom.  Elderberry ripens.
    • Lughnasadh usually marks the peak of late summer.

Fall

  • Early Fall: Goldenrods and asters start to bloom and the land turns golden.  The apples start to drop from the trees. The first dying back is noticeable as grasses and plants go to seed.  We can tomatoes 3x a week.  Fall crops go into the gardens.  Joe Pye weed starts to go to seed.
  • Mid Fall: First light frost happens and gardens start to die back.  Fall crops go into the greenhouse. The asters continue to bloom.  Harvest squashes, gourds, and pumpkins as the vines die back.  Leaves begin to change.  Acorns start to drop and continue throughout mid and late fall.  Towards the end of mid-fall, Chestnuts drop.
    • The Fall Equinox usually marks mid-fall.
  • Late fall: Late fall is marked by the first freeze or hard frost (under 30 degrees).  This radically transforms the landscape as nearly everything dies back.  Maples and cherries are bare, oaks begin to go crimson and gold.  Garlic is planted.  The days grow noticeably shorter. We have to set up heated waterers for all of the flocks.
    • Samhain often coincides with the arrival of late fall.

Winter

  • Early Winter. First snowfall (most years), freezing rain, and ice.  Nights are often below freezing but above freezing.  The land is brown and bare as even the oaks drop their leaves.  The days are dark and cold as we approach the winter solstice.
  • Mid-Winter.  After the winter solstice, “winter” really sets in. This is the coldest and darkest part of winter and comprises the latter part of December and all of January.  We start getting snowstorms and sometimes, polar vortexes.
    • Winter Solstice marks the start of midwinter
  • Late Winter. The start of late winter is firmly marked by the running of the sap of the maple trees.  Temperatures go above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.  We have plenty of snowstorms and cold.   Towards the end of late winter, you might even see a skunk cabbage sprout popping up through the snow.
    • Imbolc often coincides with the beginning of late winter.

Now that I have this general pattern figured out, I can spend the next year really mapping much more specific things to this pattern.  When exactly does the robin show up? When does she have her young?  When do the flocks of birds start congregating for the winter?  Before I had these tied to a simple season (spring, fall, etc) but now, I can tie them more explicitly to my 12-fold seasonal wheel, which is exciting.   So I will be repeating my “wheel challenge” for this upcoming year to refine my wheel and add more details to each of the different areas.

The other thing that I’m now thinking about is that I’d like a celebration to mark each of these twelve.  I have added in the 8-fold holidays (which I do celebrate) to this wheel, as they fit ust fine, but, with a 12-fold system, I am missing what is essentially the “beginnings” to each of these seasons. So this next year, I can start thinking about how I want to celebrate and mark each of the “early” points.  It seems like the first one to plan is the “first snowfall” celebration to mark the start of early Winter.

Dear readers, I hope this is useful to you as you continue to think about how to deeply adapt your practice to your local ecosystem, develop wildcrafted and ecoregional druidries, and rewild.  I would love to hear how you’ve been creating your own wheel of the year.  Blessings!

The Allegheny Mountain Ogham: An Ogham for the Northern Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern USA

By Dana O’Driscoll, The Druid’s Garden Blog (druidgarden.wordpress.com), Copyright 2020.

The Ogham is an ancient alphabet, used to write early Irish and later Old Irish. The inscriptions that survive of Ogham, some 400 or so primarily on stone, are found throughout Ireland, Wales, and England. The inscriptions are thought to date from the 4th century and onward, although how old the tradition is is subject to some disagreement. In the modern druid tradition, the Ogham has also been associated with divination, and many druids use Ogham as a means to connect with sacred trees in the landscape. However, for people living in places outside of the British Isles, making local Oghams allows them to connect both with some of the roots of our tradition in druidry but also wildcraft and localize their druidry. This Ogham is designed for the Northern Appalachian mountain region in the United States while being rooted specifically in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania.

The Northern Appalachian Mountains range from the Mason Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and into Eastern Canada. This Ogham is specifically based in the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania (Laurel Highlands and Pittsburgh Plateau regions), so some adaptations may be needed for people who live at other parts along the Appalachians. This Ogham would be most appropriate for druids living in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Virginia, but could easily be expanded outward.

When creating this Ogham, the selections are based on the following criteria:

  • Prominence: I selected trees that are abundant and widespread. Abundance varies from region to region, however, so you might want to make your own adaptations. The reason to use abundant trees is twofold. First, abundant trees have a considerable impact on the ecology and landscape. Second, for people who want to make their own Ogham, it is helpful to be able to find all of the trees. (This is why trees like pawpaw and chestnut are not on this list, even though they are important to this region).
  • Equivalency: In over half the Ogham fews, we have equivalent trees in the Allegheny mountains to the traditional Ogham (like Oak, Elder, and Birch). But there are also other very abundant trees that should be included in any North American Ogham like Hickory, Cedar, and Maple which have no equivalents in the British Isles.
  • Ecology: How the tree functions in the ecosystem is another critical factor for developing a regional Ogham, especially when looking for equivalents to the original Ogham fews. Does the tree grow quickly and help regenerate damaged parts of the forest? Is it an understory tree? Nitrogen fixer? How does the tree interact with other life in nature? Additionally, a preference for native trees is present.
  • A final factor is the health of the trees and tree species. Ash tree populations, including all mature ash trees, have been decimated on the US East coast due to the Emerald Ash Borer—thus, I’ve replaced Ash as the Ash here in the US cannot hold the energy that it traditionally did in the British Isles. Eastern Hemlock is also under serious threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, but at the time when I wrote this, the Eastern hemlock populations are still strong in Western PA—but may not be where you are located. Considering the health of the trees can help make decisions on Ogham inclusion or exclusion.

For each of the entries, I have also included possible alternatives when they made sense. Alternatives can be used when you can’t find the trees or if you feel drawn toward other options. Finally, you are also most welcome to adapt this Ogham as you feel necessary to your own bioregion. Pronunciations are based on those described by John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook.

This page includes the quick guide, a visual overview of the Allegheny Ogham, an in-depth discussion of each tree, as well as various means to use the Ogham in druid practice, including through the Bardic, Ovate, and Druid arts.

Allegheny Mountain Ogham Quick Guide

Original Ogham Allegheny Ogham Appalachian Tree Keywords Pronunciation
Birch (Beith) Black Birch

 

Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) Beginnings, rebirth, purification, regrowth BEH
Rowan (Luis) Sassafras Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Protection, Judgment, Discernment LWEESH
Ash (Nuinn) Shagbark Hickory Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) Interconnection, Magic, Connections NOO-un
Alder (Fearn) American Sycamore American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis); American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana) Bridge between spirit and matter; spirit, transitions, individuality FAIR-n
Willow (Sallie) Black Willow Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) Change, cycles, fluidity, receptivity, flexibility SAHL-yuh
The Second Aicme
Hawthorn (Huath) Hawthorn Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) Patience, restriction, danger, protection OO-ah
Oak (Duir) White Oak White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) Power, strength, durability, grounding DOO-er
Holly (Tinne) American Holly American Holly (Ilex opaca) Courage, Challenge, Opposition CHIN-yuh
Hazel (Coll) American Hazelnut American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta); Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginaia) Creativity, Inspiration, Awen, Artistry, Fine Craft CULL
Apple (Quert) Apple Apples and Crabapples of all varieties (Malus spp.) Celebration, Love, Harvest, Contentment KWEIRT
The Third Aicme
Vine (Muinn) Wild Grape Vine Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia). Vitis spp.

 

Freedom, Honesty, Prophecy MUHN
Ivy (Gort) Blackberry Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) Entanglements, Slow Progress, Determination

 

GORT
Reed (Ngetal) Cattail Cattail (Typha spp.) Swiftness, Speed, Transformation, Healing NYEH-tal
Blackthorn (Straif) Black Locust Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) Upheaval, Fate, External Forces, Unavoidable Change STRAHF
Elder (Ruis) Black Elder Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) Resolution, Endings, Permanent Change, Otherworld RWEESH
The Fourth Aicme
Fir (Ailm) White Spruce White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana) Vision, Understanding, Perspective AHL-m
Gorse (Onn) Eastern Hemlock Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Hope, Potential, Learning, Possibility UHN
Heather (Ur) Mountain Laurel Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia); Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.)

 

Spiritual Power, Spirit connection, Energy, Creation OOR
Aspen (Eadha) Tulip Poplar Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera); Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes) Hard work, Endurance, Courage, Bending rather than breaking EH-yuh
Yew (Ioho) Eastern White Cedar Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis); Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) Legacy, Things that abide, Wisdom from Experience, Eldership EE-yoh
The Forfedha
Grove (Koad) Grove of Trees All trees in a forest Balance, Community, Conflict Resolution, Communication, Listening KO-ud
Spindle (Oir) Black Cherry Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) Obligations, Honoring Commitments, Persistence OR
Honeysuckle (Uilleand) Sugar Maple Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) Hidden meanings, secrets, subtle influences, mysteries ULL-enth
Beech (Phagos) American Beech American Beech (Fagus grandifolia);   Eastern Ironwood Wisdom, Learning, History, Ancient Knowledge, Memory FAH-gus
Ifin (Pine) White Pine White Pine (Pinus strobus); Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) Vision, Awareness, Making Amends, Self-work, Guilt EE-van

 

The First Aicme

Black Birch – Beith

Allegheny Trees: Sweet Birch / Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), White Birch / Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)

Original Ogham Tree: Birch

Pronunciation: “BEH”

Meanings: New beginnings, a fresh start, turning a new chapter in your life. Spring and the promise of things to come. Renewal, rebirth, and purification.

Ecology: In the Allegheny Mountains we have three dominant species of birch: White Birch, Yellow Birch, and the Sweet Birch / Black Birch. Any of these specific trees are excellent representations of Birch for Ogham. Birch is easily found in areas where trees were logged; many times the first trees that will come up in a large thicket are birch trees after logging. You can also find birch trees along rivers and in mixed deciduous forests. Black and Yellow Birches can be found mixed in Eastern Hemlock forests as well.

Alternatives: Birches of various kinds are quite widespread in the Northern Appalachian region. No alternatives given.

Sassafras – Luis

Allegheny Tree: Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

Original Ogham Tree: Rowan

Pronunciation: “LWEESH”

Meanings: Discernment about current events or people, using your best judgment, and protection from harm. Positive finances and financial futures.

Ecology: Sassafras tree was widely imported to Europe after early colonization of the US and was, at one time, believed to be a ‘cure-all’ for illness in Europe. Sassafras is a widespread and a quintessential “American” tree. It has fragrant roots and leaves that are used widely as a food and medicine. Sassafras trees grow in groves and propagate primary by sending new roots off of a mother tree to create a small grove of babies surrounding the tree. Due to the history and use of Sassafras, it has long been associated with protection.

Alternatives: American Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) or Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a good choice for individuals living north of the native range of Sassafras.

Shagbark Hickory – Nuinn

Allegheny Trees: Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata); Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis); Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra); Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa)

Original tree: Ash

Pronunciation: NOO-un

Meanings: Interconnectivity, interconnection, and connection of all things in existence. Magic, nature magic, and the magic of connection. The great web of life present in the earth, the soil, and the universe.

Ecology: The Hickory tree is a hardwood nut tree that is widespread throughout the eastern US. Hickory trees are slow-growing trees that can produce abundant nut harvests as they mature. Reaching up to 130 feet in height and featuring a variety of shaggy, gray bark, hickories form an important species throughout the region. They are easiest to spot in the fall, when their leaves turn a deep golden sun-yellow shade. The wood is very hard and straight-grained and most hickories have delicious, edible nuts, enjoyed by people and wildlife alike.

For the last decade, nearly all of the Ash trees in the US Midwest and East coast have been dying from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer beetle—this destruction has radically shifted the energy of the Ash tree here in the US. Due to the millions of deaths of Ash trees, it cannot hold the energy of Nuinn in North America. Because of the plight of the ash tree here, I have offered an alternative in the strong and mighty Hickory tree, which like ash, offers strong and tough wood and a commanding presence. Hickory trees are strong, dominant, have deep root systems, and in the fall, offer a wonderful alternative to the Ash.

American Sycamore – Fearn

Allegheny Tree: American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

Original tree: Alder

Pronunciation: FAIR-n

Meaning: Bridging between spirit and matter; spirit transitions. Individuality. Oracular guidance, messages from spirit. Transitions between realm to realm. Using one’s instincts or intuitioin.

Ecology: In North America, the Sycamore tree, which is often found along the edges of rivers and thrives in damp river bottoms, swamps, and bogs is an excellent choice to replace the water-loving Alder tree. Sycamore trees with their gray, greenish, brown, and white mottled bark which flakes off as the tree ages. As you drive through the river bottoms in the Alleghenies, you will see the sycamores reaching up from the bottoms, their whitish branches stretching out. Sycamores produce small seed balls that stay on the tree throughout the winter, looking almost like ornaments, dropping and spreading seeds in the spring.

Alternatives: The original Alder tree in the UK is a water tree that grows in swamps and bogs; it is often used to construct underwater and the wood grows harder in wet settings. Any other trees that grow in wet settings would be appropriate here. One such tree is the American Hornbeam (Capinus caroliniana).

Black Willow – Sallie

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Willow (Salix nigra); Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Original tree: Willow

Pronunciation: SAHL-yuh

Meaning: Change, growth, cycles, moon cycles. Women’s mysteries. Fluidity, receptivity, and flexibility.

<Ecology: Black Willows have a wide range within the Eastern US and Canada. Black willow is widespread, and grows thick and tall as it ages. As a water loving tree, it is often found along the edges of water. Willows are excellent for land and waterway restoration, as they have a high tolerance of pollution and can break down certain toxic substances in the ecosystem. The Willow, with its deep roots, can regularly handle flooding and changes in water levels.

The Second Aicme

Hawthorn – Huath

Allegheny Tree(s): Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), including Pennsylvania Hawthorn (Crataegus tatnalliana)

Original Tree: Hawthorn / Huath

Pronunciation: OO-ah

Meaning: Restriction, danger, warnings. Patience. Heart and emotional protection. Hawthorn’s thorns are not aggressive, as in the snag and tear (like blackberry) but rather they are protective, surrounding the tree closely. This offers insight on the kinds of protection that hawthorn provides: thorns that protect but do not attack, thorns that create space for healing.

Ecology: The Eastern US has over 70 native species of Hawthorn. While leaf patterns vary widely, all has the ubiquitous thorns, 5 petaled flowers in the spring signaling the return of spring (Beltane), with ripening haws (fruit) in the time between the fall equinox and Samhain.

White Oak – Duir

Allegheny Tree(s): White Oak (Quercus Alba); Eastern Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Swamp White oak (Quercus bicolor); Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra); Pin Oak (Quercus palustris); Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea); Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)

Original tree: Oak / Duir

Pronunciation: DOO-er

Meaning: Wisdom. Durability. Be strong and steady like the oak. Find your grounding. Power within and without. Growth. Protection.

Ecology: The Oak is one of the keystone species in the Eastern part of the US and into Canada. The White Oak can reach 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity, with a massive canopy and deep root system. White oaks live up to 300 years or more. Oaks produce acorns, but often do not produce large crops of acorns until after their 50th year of life. Every 3 years is a mast year, where Oaks produce a very large crop of nuts. Acorns were the staple food of many indigenous cultures and can be used in a wide variety of cuisine.

American Holly – Tinne

Allegheny Tree(s): American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Original Tree: Holly / Tinne

Pronunciation: CHIN-yuh

Meaning: Facing challenges, being a warrior, being dynamic and responsive. This is a plant of warriors and protectors. It also ties to the changing of the seasons, courage, and moving forward, and bringing light into dark times.

Ecology: The American Holly is an evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly. It is shade tolerant and can live in the understory of most forest canopies. It is spread across the southern and northern Eastern US, find in wild areas as well as cultivated areas. The holly berries are dominant at the winter solstice.

Alternatives: Any other evergreen species is appropriate here. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata), which is north of the native range of American Holly, is an excellent alternative for more northern areas.

American Hazelnut – Coll

Allegheny Tree(s): American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana); Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Original tree: Hazel / Coll

Pronunciation: CULL

Meaning: Poetry, wisdom, divination. Bringing ideas to the surface, awen; artistry or creativity; inspiration; divine inspiration, finding the muse. Honing one’s craft or skill in a subject. Letting the flow of inspiration (awen) come and opening to that experience.

Ecology: The American hazelnut is a shade-tolerant small tree or large shrub, usually not reaching more than 3-10 feet tall. It grows in large thickets and even when cut back or coppiced, can powerfully regrow. It is shade tolerant, often growing in the understory. Hazels produce delicious nuts that have a high protein content and can be enjoyed both by humans and wildlife.

Alternatives: Witch hazel (Hamamelis virgniana) is a different species, but may be appropriate as a substitution.

Apple – Quert

Allegheny Tree(s): Apple (Malus spp.)

Original Tree: Apple / Quert

Pronunciation: KWEIRT

Meaning: Celebration, love of all kinds, harvests and success, contentment. Paths of learning that are open. Making a good decision. Learning and growth.

Ecology: Although many species of apples were introduced to North American in the 17th centuru, the “crab apple” is native to the US. Crab apples are edible like their more cultivated counterparts, but are usually smaller and tarter due to lack of thousands of years of cultivation. Today, it is common to find crabapples and abandoned apple orchards all through the Allegheny mountain region.

Alternatives: Another domesticated fruit tree.

The Third Aicme

Wild Grape Vine – Muinn

Allegheny Tree(s): Summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), Fox grape (Vitis labrusca); Frost grape (Vitis riparia), New England grape ( V. novae-angliae), Vitis spp.

Original tree: Muinn / Vine

Pronunciation: MUHN

Meaning: Freedom, truth, honesty, trustworthiness. Release of prophetic powers, prophecy and divination.

Ecology: A variety of wild grape species grow in the Allegheny region; all are characterized by flexible steps that send out tendrils to cling, grow, and climb. Wild grapes often have gray bark that peels easily off the vines. Some wild grapes can grow massive and create a canopy of grapes that, if too heavy, can pull down trees around them.

Alternatives: Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Blackberry – Gort

Allegheny Tree(s): Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

Original Tree: Ivy

Pronunciation: GORT

Meaning: Making slow progress, being entangled or prevented from moving forward. Having delays, setbacks, and unforeseen challenges. With these setbacks, however, comes the determination to keep going. This is a time of persistence and determination.

Ecology: Blackberry is a native perennial shrub that can grow up to 7’ tall with many canes. Canes live for two years—the first year, the cane is green with many thorns. In the second year, the cane goes a dark red/brown with thorns. After the second year, new canes can sprout up from the same root system. The fruits are abundant and purple-black when mature, excellent for pies and jams—if you are willing to brave the thorns and canes to get them. If you’ve ever been caught in a big blackberry patch, you understand how the blackberry canes can catch, snack, and stall you.

Cattail – Ngetal

Allegheny Tree(s): Cattail (Typha spp.)

Original Tree: Reed

Pronunciation: NYEH-tal

Meaning: Swiftness and speed, the idea that things are moving forward, perhaps rapidly. Transformation. Healing and the healing that only changing circumstances can bring.

Ecology: Cattails are upright perennial plants that live on the edges of ponds, lakes, and other slow-moving or stagnant bodies of water. They are characterized by their long tall leaves and the stalk that produces a brown, elongated head, which, over the winter months, eventually turns to small seed fluff and flies off. Cattails are a keystone species in much of the Appalachian region and are also a useful wild food source.

Alternatives: Rushes, Phragmites, and other water-loving woody species.

Black Locust – Straif

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia); Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Original Tree: Blackthorn

Pronunciation: STRAHF

Meaning: Unexpected or unavoidable change, upheaval, or chaos. Fate, external influences, and external forces working for change, such that change happens regardless of your own actions. Having courage through such having courage through these circumstances.

Ecology: Black locust is a native tree that blooms late, drops leaves early, and has a general skeletal appearance with thick gray-brown bark, and large thorns on young branches. The black locust produces a very dense, strong wood that is rot resistant, and thus, useful for a variety of building applications. Large clusters of pea-shaped white flowers with a yellow center bloom on the black locusts usually in early June; these fragrant clusters are edible and delicious.

Alternatives: For those that are within the range, Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinose) is a fantastic alternative for Straif.

Black Elder – Ruis

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Original Tree: Elder

Pronunciation: RWEESH

Meaning: Endings, with the understanding that something new will come. Life in death, death in life; changes from old to new. Having resolution and closure. Connection to the otherworld, gateways to the otherworld, and fae connections.

Ecology: The Black Elder is a widespread, native tree to the Eastern US. Black elder can be found in full sun, part shade, and full shade, although it is often found along the margins of forests and fields. By the summer solstice, it produces beautiful clusters of tiny flowers, reaching up to the sun. By Lughnasadh, these clusters have turned into ripe, purple berries, bending down to the earth. The Black Elder has a hollow core and pith like other species of Elder in Europe. In Europe, the “sambucca” was an ancient woodwind instrument made of elder; and that’s where the Latin name to the plant comes from.

The Fourth Aicme

White Spruce – Ailm

Allegheny Tree(s): White Spruce (Picea glauca); Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

Original Tree: Fir

Pronunciation: AHL-m

Meaning: Having clear vision, being able to see what is to come, having insight into a situation. Perspective and the ability to look at a situation in a new way. Having an understanding or coming to an understanding about an issue or situation.

Ecology: Spruces are an important tree in the Appalachian mountain region, along with several other conifer species. Spruce trees can live up to 300 years and grow to a height of 150 feet tall. All spruces have a whorled branch structure (a spiral pattern) and a conical form (like many other conifers). The world’s oldest living tree is thought to be Old Tjikko, a Norway spruce located in Sweden, which is though to be 9,550 years old.

Alternatives: Any other conifer species would be appropriate.

Eastern Hemlock – Omn

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern Hemlock

Original Tree: Gorse/Furze

Pronunciation: UHN

Meaning: Hope, potential and possibility. Hope in a brighter future. Learning and growth. Possibility.

Ecology: The Eastern Hemlock is a keystone species in the Eastern US. It is a shade-loving tree, often found in deep forests or along the banks of forest streams and rivers. The world’s oldest known hemlock is in Tionesta, PA, being 554 years old. The tree can reach up to 170 feet tall and 5 feet across. The hemlock needle underside has two light green lines and the hemlock, for its large size, produces tiny cones less than 1” in length. Hemlocks are currently under threat from the hemlock wooly adelgid, which was introduced to the US in 1924 and has been in the range of hemlock trees since the 1960’s.

Alternatives: Any other dominant conifer species.

Mountain Laurel – Ur

Allegheny Tree(s): Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia);

Original tree: Heather

Pronunciation: OOR

Meaning: Spiritual power, spiritual connections, energy, and creation. Passion and generosity. Close contact with spirit world and healing.

Ecology: Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with broad leaves in the heather (heath) family. When it flowers in early June, the flowers range from pink to white and look like beautiful little parasols. In the more southern end of its range, mountain laurel can grow to the size of trees; in the northern end of its range it stays shrub size.

Alternatives: Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) is an excellent alternative, and functions in much the same way in the ecosystem (showy flowers in June, evergreen leaves, shrub or small tree size, similar growth habit).

 

Tulip Tree – Edhadh

Allegheny Tree(s): Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Original Tree: Aspen

Pronunciation: EH-yuh

Meaning: Hard work leads to success. Endurance, courage, and will. Bending rather than breaking, the ability to endure and triumph.

Ecology: The Tulip tree (also known as yellow poplar, tulip poplar, or whitewood) is the tallest eastern hardwood tree. It can grow up to 160 feet tall, and often grows very straight in large stands in the region. Flowers, looking like beautiful yellow tulips, grow on the tree in May or early June, eventually turning to seedpods. Even in the winter, you can still see the remnants of the dried pod, reaching up from the tree.

Alternatives: The range of Tulip poplar stops in mid-new York and the bottom of Massachusetts. Other good options for those further north would be Big Tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata); Cucumber-tree Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata); or Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuliodes)

Eastern White Cedar – Ida

Allegheny Tree(s): Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidntalis)

Original Tree: Yew

Pronunciation: EE-yoh

Meaning: Death and rebirth. Legacy. Things that abide (like ancestral knowledge, traditions, or lore). Wisdom from experience. Eldership and honoring the elders. Endings.

Ecology: The Eastern White Cedar, also called the Arborvite or the Tree of Life, is a small-sized conifer averaging about 40 feet high. Scale-like leaves form massive branches that go out in many directions. Eastern White Cedar trees are some of the most long-lived trees in North America; some trees on the cliffs of Lake Superior are known to be at least 1600 years old. Even in death, cedar lives on through rot resistance in the wood.

Alternatives: Eastern Redcedar / Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) is an excellent alternative. Although it is also called a cedar, Juniper is actually in a different family.

The Forfedha

The Druid Grove – Koad

Allegheny Tree(s): The entire forest, the grove.

Original Tree: Grove

Pronunciation: KO-ud

Meaning: Resolution of conflict with others, peacemaking, and deep listening. Being a peacemaker and promoting a path of peace, justice, and understanding. Communication with others, particularly to promote understanding and harmony. Community and tribe.

Ecology: Forests are made up of thousands of species: trees, plants, insects, animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mushrooms, macrobiotics life—and within a forest, within a grove of sacred trees, there is harmony. This Ogham represents the grove, in whatever ecosystem you live in—this is harmony, community, and the circle of trees around you.

Black Cherry – Oir

Allegheny Tree(s): Black Cherry (Prunus serotine); Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana); Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica); Fire Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)

Original Tree: Spindle

Pronunciation: OR

Meaning: Fulfilling one’s obligations, honoring one’s commitments, and staying true to one’s word. The determination, dedication, and persistence sometimes needed to complete obligations.

Ecology: Cherry trees are widespread in North America, the black cherry spans from Florida the whole way to Newfoundland. Cherry trees are pioneer species, often rapidly growing after a forest has been disrupted. All cherries produce small “cherry” fruits, although the flavor of the cherry fruits vary widely, and thus, are usually eaten by birds. The cherry seed reminds us of the meaning here: cherry seeds have incredibly tough shells and require scarification to germinate (the surface scratched, perhaps by going through an animal’s digestive system). Determination is necessary for these seeds to sprout.

Sugar Maple – Uileand

Allegheny Tree(s): Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum); Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)

Original Tree: Honeysuckle

Pronunciation: ULL-enth

Meaning: Hidden desires, pleasures, and possibly distractions. Finding our true selves, and discovering insights along the path of our own growth. Subtle mysteries, secrets, and hidden things.

Ecology: Maples are widespread in North America, and since they are also planted for show, they are easy to find even in urban areas. The fall color of maples is fantastic, ranging from deep purples to bright reds, oranges, or yellows, which is why some maples are called ‘fire maples.’ Maples all produce a delicious sap that can be boiled down into syrup or sugar, although tapping trees and boiling it can take some effort. The maple encourages us to look within and find our true selves.

American Beech – Phagos

Allegheny Tree(s): American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Original Tree: Beech

Pronunciation: FAH-gus

Meaning: Wisdom, learning, history. Ancient knowledge, memory. Beech trees have long been associated with human learning, particularly through words, books, and stories written down.

Ecology: Smooth and light-barked beech trees are often found growing with Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch, and Sugar maple on rich and wet slopes here in the Alleghenies and represents a final stage in ecological succession. Beeches are shade tolerant but can also reach up to 115 tall. Throughout history, the smooth bark has invited humans to carve “arborglyphs” into the bark of the beech—some of these in North America date back to pre-colonial times.

Alternatives: Eastern Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) is an excellent alternative.

White Pine – Ifin

Allegheny Tree(s): White Pine (Pinus strobus);

Original Tree: Pine

Pronunciation: EE-van

Meaning: Vision, awareness, perception. Self-work and shadow work. Guilt. Making amends, possibly after a long and bitter time.

Ecology: White Pine is a dominant species on the US east coast, spanning throughout the Appalachian regions and beyond. As the tallest tree in eastern North America, White Pines have been recorded up to 230 feet tall and they can live up to 500 years. Needles that are long, green and flexible, typically come grouped in bundles of 5. White pines were heavily logged in the US in the 18th-20th century for shipbuilding and industry, but still some old-growth forests that contain White Pine (and often also Hemlock and beech) remain. These are a spectacular sight, walking within them is truly like walking in a cathedral. White pine can live up to 500 years.

Alternatives: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa); Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) ; Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida); Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

 

Using the Allegheny Ogham as a Bard, Ovate, and Druid

            Working with any Ogham system can be a long-term learning process. The Ogham is a flexible system that you can use for magic, divination, meditation, art, studies in ecology, and more. This section offers some ideas for how to best work with the Allegheny Ogham.

Preliminaries: Creating Your Ogham Set

Foraging for your Ogham Set. For long-term Ogham study and developing a deeper understanding of the ovate arts, you might want to seek out and forage for each of the Ogham fews that you are going to work with. While the symbols are useful, having the wood itself and meeting each of the trees can be a very effective way to work with the Ogham and understand it from the perspective of the ovate arts: that is, the perspective of ecology, identification, and experience.

Foraging for your own Ogham can take considerable time, sometimes a period of months or years, depending on how often you go out. Once you find a tree, you will want to spend some time with the tree. Ask permission to harvest a few from the tree (living or dead, your choice) and make sure you leave some kind of offering (I like to use a home-grown herbal blend. I also will pee on the base of the tree to offer nitrogen if I do not have any of my regular offering blend).

As you collect your Ogham, you can work with and meditate on each of the fews, doing some of the other work as outlined in this guide.

Ogham for dyslexics!

Ogham for dyslexics- with all of the words burned in.

Creating Your Own Ogham set: There are two ways to go about creating your Ogham set. The first is to use a single wood (maple, apple, etc) and create all of your fews from that wood. I recommend that if you want to get into the Ogham and start working with it immediately as a divination tool, you consider this option. You can also use this initial set as you are foraging for your own Ogham, as described above.

To make your set, you want to start by making sure that each of your fews are about the same length. A pair of hand pruners is an easy way to cut them to size. I would then recommend at least some light sanding to take the hard edges off of your Ogham staves. From there, you will want to burn in the images of each of the Ogham. The most common way is to take a sharp blade (knife, box cutter, or the like) and shave off an inch or so of the bark, cambium, and some of the wood so that you get a smooth surface. From there, you would draw, paint, or woodburn the specific Ogham symbol into the wood. If you have difficulty remembering the symbols (or you have dyslexia), you could also burn the name into the wood or add some other detail to help you, like an image of the leaf.

In this specific Ogham, Cattail and Blackberry are not trees, so they do not have a woody stem. For those, I would not cut away any of the branch structure but would rather mark the symbol right on the wood.

Storing your Ogham. You should have something to keep your Ogham in when you aren’t using them. Traditional materials include linen or silk, both of which are known in esoteric circles to be fairly neutral energetically. You can also store them in anything else you like—a small leather bag or small wooden box also works great. If you want to use a casting cloth, you can also store your cloth with them (or use the cloth as a wrap itself).

Ogham and the Druid Path: Divination, Meditation, and Magic

Ogham for Divination. Learning how to use the Ogham for divination is an art form—while its easy to get started, you can also deepen your understanding over a period of time. You can keep it simple or get very advanced with casting cloths and stave directions. Here are three such ways to start to use the Ogham. I would also recommend a book-length work for more info on using Ogham for divination such as Ogham: Weaving Word Wisdom by Erynn Rowan Laurie and the Druid Magic Handbook by John Michael Greer.

The Daily Draw. To start to use Ogham, and to continue to build your skills, I suggest a daily Ogham draw. This can be an Ogham few that offer you a message for today—something to reflect upon, meditate upon, and carry with you as you go forward in your day (or if you do it at night, as you rest and start your new day). Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, arriving at this moment and allowing other thoughts, feelings, and issues to retreat. Set your intention for your divination. Reach into your Ogham bag and feel for an Ogham few that speak to you. Pull that Ogham, and look at the meaning. Reflect on it for a few moments.

Three Rays Draw. The three rays draw has a number of different possibilities and interpretations. For this, you will be drawing three staves. The three staves can represent any of the following (choose in advance what you’d like them to represent)

  • Light aspect (right), Dark aspect (left), how to bring them into balance (center)
  • Current situation (left), suggested action (center), possible outcome if action is taken (right)
  • Mind (left), Body (center), Spirit (right)
  • To bring stability (left), to bring flow (right), to bring balance (center)

To engage in any of these draws, you will use the techniques described in the daily draw and draw three Ogham fews. Lay them out, look at their meanings, and meditate on the message.

Additional draws and options. Once you’ve done the above draws, you might want to get more elaborate in your divination. Many different methods exist for this. You can start by selecting a number of Ogham (three or seven) and then dropping them on a surface to see how they land. Pay attention to the interaction between them (e.g. are any of them touching? Which direction are they facing? How do they interact?) This gives you additional insights and experiences with the Ogham. Once you’ve practiced this a while, consider adding a casting cloth to your experience. A casting cloth allows you to “cast” any number of Ogham (I usually use 7) and where they land on the cloth, and in what direction, can help you interpret the meanings. You can create your own casting cloth or purchase one (there are a number of options out there, including some typically used for runes that will work great for Ogham).

Ogham for Meditation. A second way to use Ogham is to use it as a meditation tool. Meditation on the Ogham, their meanings, relationships, and associations can help you have a deeper understanding of what the Ogham means and their divination meanings. Meditation on the Ogham can also put you in a deeper connection with these trees and your local ecology. Here are three meditation strategies:

  • Energy meditation. The first meditation is one where you simply feel the energy of the Ogham few. Relax and get into a receptive space (with breathing, candles, quietude). From there, breathe deeply and allow the air to flow in and out of your lungs. Once you have found quiet within, turn your attention to one of the Ogham fews. See how it feels in your hand. Run your fingers over the bark. Engage it with your senses. Now, close your eyes and feel the energy of this Ogham few—is it welcoming? Cold? Strong?   Try picking up a second few and comparing the two. What is the difference?
  • Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation is a type of mediation based on focused thought. Prepare yourself for meditation by getting comfortable, engaging in deep breathing, and grounding yourself. When you are ready, focus on one of the Ogham fews (one you draw or select in advance). Consider the meaning of this few. Work your way through this meaning, allowing your thoughts to go where they would like as long as they continue to focus on the meaning. If you find yourself straying too far from the Ogham few itself, retrace your thoughts and focus back on the main theme—the Ogham few, meaning, and the tree itself. You can repeat this meditation for each few and work your way through them. I have found it useful to meditate on each one as I was learning, and then, about once a year, return to these meditations as my own experiences with the trees themselves and working with the Ogham deepened.
  • Journey Meditation. A final way you can use these Ogham for meditation is through spirit journeying. Journeying can allow you to meet the spirit of the trees and Ogham directly. Journeying, in this sense, involves meditating on the specific Ogham you wish to connect with, envisioning an inner grove where you can meet that tree, meeting that tree, and engaging in conversation, travel, or receiving teachings on the inner place from that tree. While it is out of the scope of this article to describe this in detail, I’ve written extensively on spirit journeying with plants in The Plant Spirit Oracle: Recipes, Meanings, and Journeys as well as on my blog (see: https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/2018/09/02/plant-spirit-communication-part-iii-spirit-journeying/ ).

Ogham for Chant Magic

A final way you can incorporate the Ogham into your druid practice is to use it for chanting.  This can be simple, simply chanting the Ogham itself so that you can bring that energy into your life.  Or, you can do something much more elaborate, like this Hemlock Galdr ritual!

Ogham and the Ovate Arts

As I described above under “preliminaries”, foraging for your own Ogham set and finding all of the 25 sacred trees is certainly a fantastic way to connect more deeply with nature and learn about these Ogham trees. That search, in itself, is a very powerful journey that allows one learn a variety of ovate skills: plant and tree identification, observation and interaction, getting out in nature, and communing with nature.

Beyond that work, I would also recommend seeking out places where these trees are dominant and doing some ritual work in these places. For example, some of the trees on this list, including Oak, Eastern Hemlock, and White Pine, can be found in old-growth groves throughout the East Coast. Visiting some of these groves and doing a kind of Ovate pilgrimage to these places is an excellent way to commune deeply with them. Bring your Ogham set with you (if you have one) and intone the Ogham as you sit among these trees.

Planting and tending some of the 25 sacred trees is another way to practice the ovate arts. You can get most of these from the Arbor Day Foundation (if you are in the US). Consider also learning how to forage for these trees for medicine or food—ethically and sustainably, of course.

Finally, you might learn about these trees in more depth: what other plant species are associated with these trees? What insect, animal, or bird life depends on them? What is their life cycle? How do they look at different points of the year? The more you can learn about the trees on the physical plane, the more that your spiritual connection with them will deepen in time.

Ogham and the Bardic Arts

Beyond making your own Ogham set (which is certainly a very Bardic skill), you can learn about the Ogham and work with them in a number of ways, both the trees themselves and with the symbols and sounds themselves.

The Ogham can be an inspiration for you for the Bardic arts. You might consider how the Ogham might be developed into chants, music, dance, or song. Poetry, short stories, or other literary works would also lend themselves well to considering the Ogham. If you are a visual artist, you might work the symbolism of the Ogham into various artistic creations.

Another option here for the Bardic arts is to work with the woods and materials from these sacred trees. Tulip poplar, for example, allows you to make amazing bark baskets—if you find a Tulip tree that has recently fallen, you can harvest the bark and learn basketry. The cambium of this same tree is excellent for using as kindling for fire starting. The woods of many of these trees, including Cherry, Sassafras, Oak, and Beech, are excellent for woodworking (including woodburning, turning, carving, and more). Learning each of the trees by working their wood in a Bardic tradition allows you deeper insight into the trees themselves.

Conclusion

I hope that this guide has inspired you to work with the Ogham or deepen your practice. Questions and comments about the guide can be posted to this page.  I welcome your comments, feedback, and thoughts!

Wildcrafting Druidry: Getting Started in Your Ecosystem

One of the strengths of AODA druidry is our emphasis on developing what Gordon Cooper calls “wildcrafted druidries“–these are druid practices that are localized to our place, rooted in our ecosystems, and designed in conjunction with the world and landscapes immediately around us. Wildcrafted druidries are in line with the recently released seven principles of AODA, principles that include rooting nature at the center of our practice, practicing nature reverence, working with cycles and seasons, and wildcrafting druidry.  But taking the first steps into wildcrafting your practice can be a bit overwhelming, and can be complicated by a number of other factors. What if you are a new druid and don’t know much about your ecosystem? What if you are a druid who is traveling a lot or is transient? What if you are a druid who just moved to a new ecosystem after establishing yourself firmly somewhere else? This post will help you get started in building your own wildcrafted druid practice and will cover including using nature as inspiration, localized wheels of the year, pattern literacy, nature and relationship, and finding the uniqueness in the landscape.

 

AODA Principles

Prior to this post, I’ve shared some of my earlier ideas for how you might develop a localized wheel of the year, consider the role of local symbolism, and develop different rituals, observances, and practices in earlier blog posts.  The three linked posts come from my own experiences living as a druid in three states: Indiana, Michigan, and now Western Pennsylvania. For today’s post, I am indebted to members of AODA for a recent community call (which we do quarterly along with other online events).  In our 1.5 hour discussion, we covered many of the topics that are present in this post–so in this case, I am presenting the ideas of many AODA druids that flowed from our rich conversation. For more on upcoming AODA events that are open to AODA members and friends of the AODA, you can see this announcement.

 

Nature as Inspiration and for Connection

While the principle of wildcrafting seems fairly universal, in that all druids find some need to wildcraft to varying degrees, there is no set method for beginning to engage in these practices or what they specifically draw upon in their local landscape. The details vary widely based on the ecosystem and the individual druid’s experiences, history, culture, and more. What an individual druid chooses to follow is rooted in both the dominant features of that landscape, what they choose to focus on in the ecosystem, and how they choose to interpret and build a relationship with their landscape. Here are some of the many interpretations:

  • Following the path of the sun and light coming in or out of the world (a classic interpretation) and looking for what changes in the landscape may be present at the solstices and equinoxes
  • Following clear markers of the season based in plant life: tree blooming, sap flowing, colors changing, tree harvests, dormancy, and more
  • Following clear markers of migrating birds and/or the emergence or stages of life for insects (monarchs, robins)
  • Following animal patterns and activity (nesting behavior, etc)
  • Following weather patterns (e.g. time of fog, monsoon seasons, rainy season, dry season, winter, summer, etc)
  • Following patterns of people or other natural shifts in urban settings (e.g. when the tourists leave, patterns of life in your city)
  • Recognizing that some places do not have four seasons and working to discover what landscape and weather markers mark your specific seasons
  • Drawing upon not only ecological features but also cultural or familial ones (family stories, local myths, local culture)

Transient druids or druids who travel a lot may have a combination of the above, either from different ecosystems that they visited or from a “home base” ecosystem, where they grew up or live for part of the year. There is obviously no one right or wrong way to create your wheel.

 

Another important issue discussed in our call tied to using nature as inspiration is viewing nature through a lens of connection rather than objectification.  When we look at a tree, what do we see? Do we see the tree as an object in the world? Perhaps we see it as lumber for building or as a producer of fruit for eating. But what if, instead, we thought about the interconnected web of relationships that that tree is part of? What is our relationship with that tree?  Thus, seeing nature from a position of relationships/connections and not just seeing nature as objects is a useful practice that helped druids build these kinds of deep connections with nature.

One interpretation of the wheel of the year

One of my own interpretations of the wheel of the year

Wheel(s) of the Year: Localizing and Adapting

The concept of the wheel of the year is central to druidry. Druids find it useful to mark certain changes in their own ecosystems and celebrate the passage of one season to the next–practices which we’d define in terms of a wheel of the year. But to druids who wildcraft, the wheel of the year should be a reflection of nature’s cycles and seasons, things that are local and representative of the ecosystems that they inhabit.  While many traditional wheels of the year assume either a fourfold or eightfold pattern and are based entirely on agricultural holidays in the British Isles and the path of the sun, this system does not map neatly–or at all–onto many other places of the world. The further that one gets from anything resembling UK-like temperate ecosystems, the less useful the traditional wheel of the year is. The disconnection and divergence encourage druids to build their own wheels of the year.

 

Druids describe widely divergent wheels of the year in different parts of North and South America. Some reported having only two seasons (rainy and dry) while others reported having up to 7 different distinct seasons in their wheel. Wheels of the year might be marked by some of the kinds of events described in the bullet points above:  the return of a particular insect to the ecosystem, the migration of birds, the blooming of a flower, first hard frost, the coming of the rains, and so forth. I shared my own take on the wheel of the year here, and also wrote about my adaptation of Imbolc to my local ecosystem and local culture–these are two examples that might be useful to you.  Even if you live in an ecosystem that isn’t that divergent from the classical wheel of the year, you still may find that you want to adapt parts of it to your specific experiences, practices, and connections.

 

From my earlier article on the wheel of the year, here are some practices that you might do to start building your own wheel:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming, or what they understand to be the seasons. You might be surprised at the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farms and agriculture. Most traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems. You can learn a lot about important things that happen in your local ecosystem by paying attention to the agricultural wheel of the year and what is done when.  If you have the opportunity to do a little planting and harvesting (in a garden or on your balcony) you’ll also attune yourself to these changes.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs and festivals and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs from much older traditions (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? What is changing?  Observation and interaction will help.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature spirits or spirits of the land and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

Pattern Literacy: Nature’s Archetypes

All druids seeking to wildcraft and connect deeply with the world around them would benefit from understanding what permaculturist Toby Hemingway called “Pattern literacy”.  Patterns are nature’s archetypes;  they are the ways that nature repeats itself over and over through broader designs, traits, configurations, features, or events.  Each unique thing on this planet is often representing one or larger patterns. Learning pattern literacy is useful for all druids as a way of starting to engage with and develop wildcrafted druidries.

Rosaceae – Patterns from Botany in a Day book

 

Let’s look at an example of pattern literacy from the plant kingdom to see how this works. The rose (Rosaceae) family is a very large family of plants and includes almost 5000 different species globally–including blackberries, apples, hawthorns, plums, rowans, and much more.  Members of the rose family are found on nearly every continent in the world. Rose family plants have a number of common features, including five petals, five sepals, numerous stamens, serrated leaves (often arranged in a spiral pattern).  If you know this pattern, then even if you don’t know specific species in the ecosystem you are in, you can still do some broad identification–you can recognize a plant as being in the rose family, even if you don’t’ know the specific species.  This information–along with lots more like it, comes from a book called Botany in a Day, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning plant patterns.

 

For those of you who are transient, traveling, or looking to connect to a new ecosystem, pattern literacy offers you a powerful way to form immediate connections in an unfamiliar ecosystem.  Connections are formed through relationships, experiences, and knowledge–you can have a relationship with one species and transfer at least part of that connection to similar species in a new area. With pattern literacy, you an learn the broad patterns of nature and then apply them in specific ways to new areas where you are at. Once you can identify the larger patterns, you are not “lost” any longer, you are simply seeing how that familiar archetype manifests specifically in the place you are at.  These kinds of immediate connections in an unfamiliar place can give you some “anchoring” in new places.

 

The best way to discover patterns is to get out in nature, observe, and interact.  Reading books and learning more about nature’s common patterns can also help.  In addition to Botany in a Day which I mentioned above, you might be interested in looking at Philip Ball’s series from Oxford University Press: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts. The three patterns that he covers are: Branches, Shapes, and Flow. Mushroom and plant books also often offer “keys” or key features that repeat over many plant families (e.g. shelf mushrooms, gilled mushrooms, boletes, agarics, etc).  These kinds of books are other good sources of information.  Learning nature is learning patterns–and pattern literacy is a critical tool for druids.

 

Recognizing the Uniqueness in the Landscape

Another useful way of wildcrafting your druidry is thinking about what is unique and special about your landscape.  These can be natural features, beauty, diversity, insect life–and these unique features can be a land’s journey through history and restoration from adversity, the story of that land.  Finding and connecting to these unique features may give you a way of seeing how your land is unique in a very local way.  Some landscapes have old-growth trees, others huge cacti, others endless fields of flowers, and still others huge barren mountains with beautiful pigments.  Each place is different, special, and unique.

 

For transient druids, traveling druids, or druids who are new to an ecosystem, recognizing the uniqueness in the landscape has added benefit. It allows you to focus on what is special and best about the landscape you are in rather than focusing on a landscape that you miss (e.g. being able to appreciate the prairie for what it is rather than focusing on the fact that there are few to no trees).  Thus, this offers a way of orienting yourself in an unfamiliar environment.

Ready, Set, Wildcraft!

Hopefully, this post combined with my previous writings on this topic can help you develop a connection with your landscape, and thus, find new ways of deepening your wildcrafting practice.  Find the cycles, find the patterns, discover what is unique, and discover what changes–all of these suggestions can help you better understand the world around you.  If you have any strategies or ideas that weren’t shared here that have helped you wildcraft your druidry and connect with your local landscape, please feel free to share!

Recipe: Wildcrafted Herbal Blessing Oil

A herbal blessing oil is a simple magical tool that you can make that directly comes from the living earth. The herbal blessing oil can be used to bless tools, seed balls, trees, yourself, other people, or anything else you like. You can include it as part of your Druid’s Crane Bag. Your own unique blend of herbs and wildcrafted ingredients will make it an amazing and potent tool for your practice.  While druidry doesn’t use oils extensively, other traditions, like the American folk magic and Hoodoo, use oils a lot to dress candles and do other kinds of energetic work.

 

Choosing Plant Material

You can harvest material from one plant or from a variety of plants and combine them. Here are some possibilities for you:

  • Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Majoram, – Garden herbs that offer healing and protection.  Add one or more of these as a blend.
  • Mugwort, Yarrow, St. Johns Wort, Goldenrod, Aster – Field herbs that offer protection, vision, and inspiration.  Mugwort is particularly good for dreaming.
  • Needles from White pine, eastern hemlock, and/or blue spruce – Tree herbs that offer strength, consistency, and vitality

You might also look at my series on sacred trees ( Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, and Birch) to create a specific tree oil that will be useful to you and the work you are currently doing.  You can also refer to my longer list on smudge stick making for details about many plants and their uses.  You can also refer to any good magical herbal, like John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of Natural Magic or Beryl’s Master Book of Herbalism.

The oil in my photos is a journeying oil for dreaming and deep journeying work.  It contains mostly plants I grew and dried myself, but also some wildcrafted ingredients.  The recipe is: mugwort, bay leaves, rosemary, tobacco, lavender, borage, and heather.  Given that its winter here, these materials have been preserved from earlier in the year.

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Gathering Materials

You want to gather fresh or dried plant material.  Fresh material can be obviously gathered in season; you can purchase or dry your own plant material otherwise.

Gathering Material. At a time of power (full moon, one of the eight holidays, another day of significance) go out and gather aromatic plant material. Aromatic plant material is that which has a high concentration of volatile oils (which is what essential oil is made from). When you crush the leaves of a plant or needles of a conifer and you can smell that wonderful smell, this is an aromatic plant. Even if its winter, you can gather conifers to make a potent oil.

You can gather your plant material from a variety of places a cultivated garden, an abandoned lot, an edge space, a field, or a forest. Before you gather your material, ask for permission from the plant and use inner listening skills to see if you can gather–I do not advocate taking any plant material without permission and an offering (see this herbal blend as a potential offering). If you are given permission, make an offering  and then harvest a small bit of the plant.

Purchased material. If you purchase your material, make sure it is organic and ethically sourced.  You don’t want any chemicals in your blend, and certainly, no suffering of the land.  Even though you purchased it, I suggest still making an offering to the land in thanks for the herbs before proceeding.

Dried material.  You can also use home-grown and dried materials from your garden or wildcrafted.

 

Making Your Oil

Fresh plant material. Once you’ve gathered your plant material or have obtained dried material, chop up the plant material into small pieces (1” or so in length). Spread the plant material out on a baking tray or similar surface. Allow the plant material to wilt on the counter indoors for a day so that some of the water is removed from it (wilting it in the sun will strip it of the aromatic oils). Wait till it dries out at least partially to reduce and/or eliminate the water in your sacred oil–water makes the oil go rancid.  It shows up like small bubbles at the bottom of the oil.

 

Open Up a Sacred Grove. Open up a sacred grove for magical crafting; as I described in my hawthorn post. You don’t have to do this, but I think if you are making an oil for magical purposes, its good to do so with intention and the right energy.

Making your Oil. Get a pint jar or other glass jar.  Using a pair of scissors or a mortar and pestle, break up the large plant material/grind up the plant material.  You can do this while changing, loosely pack the plant material into the jar. Now, take a good quality olive oil or other shelf stable oil (fractionated coconut oil or almond oil are other good choices) and pour the oil over the plant matter until it is completely covered.

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Infusing your oil. Let the plant matter infuse in view of the sun and moon (like in a windowsill) for at least seven days.  If the plant matter is wet, you want to infuse it no longer than 7 days.  For dried matter, you can infuse it longer, up to a single lunar cycle.

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

On the seventh day, get a fine strainer and strain the plant matter out. If you don’t have a strainer, 1 ply of a paper towel can work, but it takes a while to drip through. Sometimes, a cheesecloth or thin paper towel (one layer) can be used to get final bits of plant matter out. Getting out as much plant matter is critical because plant matter will make the oil go rancid much faster.

 

Finishing Your oil: At this point, if you want, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. You can get a small portable bottle and take the oil with you. Store your oil in a cool, dark place.  It will stay good 1-2 years.  Make sure you label it carefully and write your recipe down so if you want to make more, you will remember how to do so!

 

Using Your Oil

Here are just some of many uses for this kind of oil:

  • Put it in your crane bag or in a bottle necklace and take it with you to bless trees, rocks, or any other aspects of nature on your journeys.
  • Consider using it to support meditations and dreams; you can dab a bit on your temples before meditation, dreaming, ritual work, journey work, and more
  • Dress candles with it, using traditional folk methods.  Dressing a candle means putting oil on your finger and holding the candle in front of you.  If you bring your finger from the bottom of the candle and up, toward you, you are “bringing in”.  If you do the opposite, and move your finger away from you and down the candle, you are “removing”.  You can do this and then burn the candle (I like the little 4″ chime candles for this purpose).  Use this for healing, meditation, and more.

I hope this is helpful to you as yet another druid tool for your crane bag!  Readers, can you share any additional tips for how you’ve used magical and sacred oils in your practice?

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part III: Nature Engagement

Leading you in deeper!

Leading you in deeper!

I’ve heard a lot of conversation in the nature spirituality community, including the druid community, about not touching nature, leaving it alone, to simply “be”.  I remember one influential druid speaking at an event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.”  From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. Because people have a tendency to come in, move things about, pick things, disrupt ecosystems, and generally cause havoc.  Or worse, much, much worse. Further, in a world where most humans can’t identify even five trees or have any idea if the ecosystem they are looking at is healthy or not, it is a good perspective for nature to be on her own.  This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. I do think there are cases, for ecologically sensitive areas, during breeding season, and so on where this is still the best philosophy.  But I think in many more cases, it is not.

 

However, as I began my own journey to understand and connect with nature more deeply, I came to a different understanding.  Through deep study of permaculture, bushcraft, wildcrafting, and so on, and reading the works of many authors, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Jon Young, and Wendell Berry, I came to a different understanding. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies that we put nature on a pedestal; that we enshrine her and look at her from afar, that we leave her alone. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.

I see at least three problems with this perspective, as a general principle:

 

  • It fosters separation and disconnection from nature. The minimal interaction with nature maximizes separation.  But we are part of nature, we are not separate from her.
  • It fosters fear about nature or about our own interactions with nature. Particularly, the fear to do harm, the fear to do the wrong thing, makes us fear doing anything. And so then, we do nothing.
  • It fosters ignorance about nature. Last week, I talked about how nature wisdom had two parts: the book learning through nature knowledge and the  experiential interaction through nature understanding. Because we are separate from it, we have no opportunity to learn from experience.

 

An alternative perspective–which I’m advocating today through nature engagement and next week through nature reciprocity–is a very different one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility. Nature engagement is the opposite of “pick up the garbage and get out”–its the idea that we are part of nature, we can learn to use her, to work with her, help her grow, and tend her, and use her responsibly. (And for earlier posts in this series, please see the framework, nature wisdom, and nature engagement).

 

A place to explore...

A place to explore…

One of the concepts that really shaped my thinking on this was how M. Kat Anderson describes the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness”.  While in English, the concept of wilderness is a largely positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild, the concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good (as long as that wild place isn’t someone’s front lawn). But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

What I’m actually talking about is dependency. With the rise of industrialization, factories and mass production replaced home cottage industries; consumer goods and purchasing replaced hand-created, foraged, and grown goods; and humans in western civilization, in a few short generations, lost the ability to learn to live from nature. Today, for many people living in industrialized nations, we have lost nearly everything our ancestors knew about how to live abundantly from the land. This included everything from growing food to foraging, from fishing and hunting to natural crafts, to building things naturally or with wood (a topic I explored in my “way of wood” post some time ago). We need nature, we depend on her, her survival is our survival–even if systems present in consumerism and industrialization have separated many of us from this truth.

 

If we enshrine nature, if we put her on a pedestal and look at her from afar, we will never develop the sacred relationship and co-dependency that leads to deep love and knowledge.  If all we are willing to do is “pick up the garbage and get out” then that’s all we will ever be willing or allow ourselves to do. The connection stops there–with a distance of respect, and reverence, but without interaction or interactivity.  Part of why nature is so powerful to us is that she can–and does–provide all of our needs. You step on a lawn; there is an incredible abundance of healing food and medicine there. Each time you walk into a forest, there is so much there to offer you.  Looking at a beautiful plant is one thing; looking at a beautiful plant that can help heal your pain is quite another. Through interacting with nature, and instead, prefer to interact with nature, to learn how to use her, to learn how to heal her (which all go hand in hand).

 

And, with all of the above in mind, we come to the three ways of nature engagement:

To engage with nature we can:
use nature for healing, living, and sustenance
enjoy nature’s beauty and adventure
be creatively inspired by nature

Using Nature

Humans use nature every day–it is how we survive as a species. From the oxygen in the air to the clothes on our back, nature is with us.  Everything that clothes us, feeds us, heals us, and shelters us ultimately comes from the earth in some form.  We in the western world might be very disconnected from the original source of materials used to create the things we wear, sleep on, or eat every day, and see it as wholly human made–but in the end, it has a natural source, and it is important that we learn to reconnect with nature as provider.

 

Elderflower harvest

Elderflower harvest

Because of exploitation, because we have such damage in many ecosystems, we are hesitant to directly take anything from nature; hesitant to do harm, when the very materials we thrive upon and food we eat comes from the land.  But “using nature” in a druidic sense needs to account for more than what we take–for a nature-based spiritual experience, it is less about “what can I take” and more about relationship, both give and take. Previously, I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry’s concepts from the Unsettling of America: approaching the natural world from a perspective that exploits (which is only taking, taking without reservation, and taking in a way that degrades and destroys life) vs. a perspective that nurtures (taking only enough, paying attention to the health of the land and considering long-term issues). If we approach using nature in a place of nurturing, we are already in the place to develop a relationship with nature. To me, I see this issue as one of reciprocation. I know that with each meal, with each moment I spend in a warm and heated home, I am taking from nature.  So my goal, then, is to give back in every way that I can.  If I pick our native black raspberries to eat (like I did this morning–yum), I save some and scatter them into new areas where they will grow and I leave some ripe ones for the wildlife.

 

Here are a few, of many, ways that you can learn to more fully “use nature”:

  • Foraging and Wild Foods: This hobby is a wonderful way to learn how to use nature and enjoy some tasty treats. I always balance foraging activities with ways that I directly give back to the land: scattering rare woodland species seeds, helping the plants I am harvesting (when native) by spreading their seeds, and so on (more on this next week). Sometimes, foraging helps manage species that are too abundant (or what others might call “invasive”); thus helping keep that species in check. You can never harvest too much japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, kudzu or dandelion!  Two posts (here and here) introduce you to foraging activities and give ideas and suggestions.  Lots of websites and books are available–and I often post material on foragable treats (like Hostas and Milkweed, both of which I covered this year).
  • Bushcraft. Another take on the “using nature” is by learning bushcraft skills. These are various wilderness survival skills like shelter building, fire starting, making cordage from natural materials, and more. There are various bushcraft skills scattered throughout the country and they offer a rich variety of classes. One I have attended is the North American Bushcraft School in West Virginia, who offer a wide range of classes on a variety of topics.
  • Herbalism. Learning how to heal the body with plants is another amazing way to “use” nature and learn how to engage with her more fully. I have found the herbalism community in the US to be rich, and delightfully earth-affirming and earth-honoring.  It is a wonderful practice to learn with a lot of good people to learn from. I have a post here detailing some of the ways to get started in this practice. You can learn both how to grow your own herbs and also how to harvest from nature and tend to wild patches of herbs to help them better grow.
  • Natural building. One of my long-time favorite ways of learning to use nature is through building using materials right from the land–through timber framing, cob construction, and more. I’ve written on this topic a bit here and will have some upcoming posts on the topic later in the year!

 

I actually think that part of the great tragedy of the modern consumerist movement is that nature has lost much of her “value” to humans.  I watch people cutting down apple or walnut trees, cutting back big swaths of dandelions or burdock, cutting down whole forests–and there is so much “of value” in those spaces, but the value isn’t known any longer.  When I teach wild food foraging classes in the summer, what strikes me the most is how learning something even small about a plant completely changes a person’s perspective on it–it changes their relationship, changes the “value” the plant has, and ultimately, connects them more deeply not only with that plant but with the ecosystem in which it grows. I’ve had people come back to me several years later after attending a plant walk and saying how they stopped spraying their lawns because they didn’t know that you could make wine from dandelions and salve from plantains, etc.

 

And use of nature absolutely builds nature connection. What I’ve found as I’ve delved more deeply into the above practices (some moreso than others) is that the more that I learn to use nature, the more connected I am, and frankly, the more value something has.  As a druid, I approach every aspect of nature with reverence and respect. But, its amazing to come across a patch of wild dogbane in the summer and be so excited because in the early winter, I know I can come back and harvest the dried stalks for cordage.  That really adds something to my interaction with this incredible plant and the ecosystem in which she grows.

 

Nature Activity

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Our second category under “nature engagement” is nature activity. This refers to the many nature-based activities that we can engage in and be out with and part of nature.  Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, and much more are an assortment of things that can be done in nature. My general rule, as someone who is focusing on cultivating a nurturing relationship with nature, is to focus on activities that have minimal impact or no impact and use minimal to no fossil fuel.  So I am happy to kayak down a river paddling using my own human power and navigating the river’s current, but don’t want to take a big speedboat. There are so many ways we can engage in activity, exercise, and healing through “doing” nature. I also think that activity can be paired with wild food foraging and herbalism, which really enhances your experience with being part of nature and connected to nature!

 

Another thing I like to do is combine sacred activities in nature (nature reverence, which we will explore in more depth in two weeks) with getting out in nature.  So planning a kayaking trip that also has a ritual component; bringing along a healing blend of herbs to make offerings to the land and a bag of American Ginseng and Ramp seeds to scatter, and so on.

 

Creating With/Through Nature

In addition to providing all of our needs and offering us incredible experiences through exploration, nature offers us inspiration.  Many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, fine crafts people and other creative artists throughout the ages have found their inspiration in the living earth, in the flow of the waters, in the spark of first light in the heavens, in the bloom of a flower or the soaring of a hawk.  In the druid tradition, we cultivate and work with the Awen, the force of divine inspiration, that flows from nature and through a person seeking to create.  Here are some ways that we might create with/through nature:

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

  • Nature as a muse: nature can be an incredible muse for all different kinds of creative practice.  I am a visual artist, and I am often sketching and photographing what I see to bring into my paintings; a dancer might choose to interpret the pattern of the clouds through motion, where a musician might play the song he hears in the waterfall.  Being present with nature, being in nature, being observant in nature, learning to meditate in nature–all of these can bring you inspiration.  I also find that when I travel somewhere new, outside of my usual places and outside of my own bioregion, inspiration of new natural places often floods within me.
  • Nature and Artistic Media: Using nature as part of your creative process is another way to bring nature centrally into creative practice.  This might be doing woodcarving and using wood, creating berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, and more.
  • Wildcrafting: There are many kinds of artistic materials and craft projects that you can do. I love finding ways of working with nature directly in my artistic and bardic practices. Berry inks, handmade papers, homemade decorations, smudge sticks, herbal offering blends, and so much more can come right from the living earth. For these, I only take what is in abundance, what I grow myself, or what needs to be managed.

I’ve also seen artists who work with whatever is abundant–a wonderful basket artist who works with bittersweet vines; harvesting the vines helps keep them under control and produces lovely works.  Or a woodworker who collects deadfall from the side of the road and turns it into masterpieces.  Or a mosaic artist who works with stones and shells from the ocean. Part of this, I think, is finding the parts of nature that speak and resonate with you and that bring you inspiration.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of ground–so we’ll end for here, and next week, we’ll pick up and explore the other side of the coin to  “nature engagement” which is “nature reciprocation.”  Blessings as always!

 

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Part I: A Framework

A lot of people find druidry because they want to “connect” with nature.  They want to attune to nature, feel part of it, gain knowledge and wisdom about it. But what does “connecting” to nature look like in practice?  Going out in the woods and feeling good?  Knowing the name of trees?  Walking with sacred intent in a natural place?  Spending time in nature?  All above the above? And so, over the next few posts, I want to spend more time with the concept of “connecting to nature” and share some strategies for what people can do to connect with nature in a multitude of ways.

As I’ve written about earlier, part of what I see as the core of druidry as a spiritual tradition is the work of “connection.” In that post, I talked about connecting to nature, connecting to the spirit, and connecting to the creative practices as three ways in which connection is manifest in this tradition. And, I believe, it is this search for connection that underlies so much of the interest in nature-based spiritual paths like druidry and the growing amount of druids worldwide.

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

Connecting to nature at the rocky shore

 

A Framework for “Nature Connection”

I find that older books on nature can really offer perspectives that we’ve sometimes forgotten about. For example, The Field Book of Nature Activities and Conservation (1961) by Wiliam Hillcourt, five nature-oriented actions are outlined in the opening chapter. He suggests that we can know nature, probe nature, use nature, do nature, and conserve nature. I think this offers a beginning of a useful framework for thinking about this topic.

 

Drawing upon his five categories, and adding in my own definitions and additional areas that are pertinent to druids gives us a nature connection framework with four major areas with three specific activities for each area.

Nature Wisdom

The basis of much of nature connection is rooted in building an understanding and knowledge of the living earth. This first category, which I call “nature wisdom” helps us do just that.

  • Knowing nature – Knowing nature includes two aspects: knowledge, that is, learning about nature and being able to identify aspects of nature, ecosystems, ecology, botany, and much more.  This knowledge is typically gained from books, classes, and teachers.  It is knowledge that is passed on to us as part of human wisdom.  While knowing about nature used to be something that every human had, and was part of the formal or informal knowledge that was passed to each generation, for many of us living in western contexts, this often needs to be learned anew.  From my perspective, if I am going to honor nature, I better know something about her as well, and that “knowing nature” helps me begin to do that.
  • Understanding nature – As the druid’s prayer suggests, there is a distinction between knowledge and understanding. Knowing is having a piece of information in your head (e.g. wild yam is a forest-dwelling vine that has heart-shaped leaves). Understanding is the kind of knowing that can only be gained through direct experience in nature.  (Wild yam grows up this tree in this particular pattern and has these variations in the leaves. And it has a good energy about it.) Direct experience leads to understanding. I truly believe that both knowledge and understanding are necessary for building “nature wisdom.”
  • Probing nature – Probing nature is not something that everyone does, but it is something that everyone could do.  This can mean anything from scientific observations and interactions where we build knowledge about nature to well as building your own understanding of nature through systematic nature journaling, observation, and so forth. This is what the great naturalists did as they built systematic knowledge of nature; this what every citizen scientist does as she logs the first blooms through Project Budburst. This is also what any organic gardener does as he carefully tracks yields of vegetables based on different soil amendments. Asking questions and seeking answers about nature is what “probing nature” is all about.

Abundance of harvest

Abundance of harvest

Nature Engagement

Nature Activity is the second broad category that helps us establish a connection with nature by engaging with and through nature. This category includes how we use nature, interact with nature, and do things in nature.

 

  • Using Nature – That humans can–and need to–use nature is a key part of not only our connection with nature, but also for our survival. Using nature is twofold: on one hand, it is about learning how to use the natural world for meeting our needs; on the other, it is about the reciprocation activities that must be present in that use so that it is sustainable over a period of time. So using nature includes learning the uses of many plants, animals, and other aspects of nature and would include foraging, natural building, hunting, and bushcraft skills.  This is about how to work with nature to bring productive abundance to our gardens and lands, how to make dyes or spin cloth from plants we grow, and so many more ways that we can turn a part of nature into something that we can eat, wear, or make.  And, it is also understanding local plant or animal populations, understanding the carrying capacity of the land, and learning how to give back.  That is,  engaging in sustainable (minimally) or regenerative use where we give as much as we get (through tending the wilds, scattering seeds, and doing other regenerative activities, see next section).
  • Nature Activity – These are the various activities that you can engage in  while in nature, such as kayaking, camping, backpacking, skiing, and so on. These activities help us get into new parts of nature and let us have fun and relaxation while doing so. Nature, then, becomes a canvas for some of the ways we engage in healthful activities and learn more about the living world.
  • Creating with/through nature – A third way that nature activity happens is through the flow of awen, through creative inspiration.  This might include finding aspects of nature as a muse for creative acts (poetry, song, dance, music, artwork, etc) or else directly working with nature in terms of creating artistic media (wooden drums, berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, etc.). This category is essentially the synthesis of the bardic arts and the living earth–and there is much to explore here!

 

Nature Reciprocity

Inherent in the use of nature and our dependency on nature is reciprocation. Inherent in the term “sustainability” is the idea that what we take from the land still allows that land to be abundant and healthful, that the resources used will be able to replenish themselves (with or without human help).  But, like many permaculture designers, I find that the term “sustainability” lacks the power of good–the recognition that humans have took too much (at least here in the US) for over three centuries.  It isn’t enough to sustain, but we must learn to nurture and regenerate. This helps us achieve long-term health and balance of the land while also attending to our own needs.  This reciprocity has at least three areas.

  • Conserving nature – Working to protect nature and conserve existing ecosystems; such as those that are pristine or those that are actively healthy or healing. This includes a range of “conservation” activities that may include protecting new areas, protecting endangered species, encouraging native plant and pollinator populations, river cleanups, building new trail systems, political action, and so on. Conserving nature can also include exploring our own ways of reducing our impact on the planet as a whole, engaging in actions that help us preserve and protect existing resources from further degradation and exploitation.
  • Regenerating and Healing Nature – Working with the land to help heal damaged ecosystems and bring ecosystems back into health, we might use both ritual means (land healing ceremonies) and physical means (such as permaculture design techniques). In this case, we recognize that a great deal of land has been degraded and we can work actively to help be a force of good and bring these lands to a healthier state ecologically.  For example: turning a lawn into a butterfly sanctuary or a food forest is a good example of this practice.
  • Offerings to Nature: Throughout time, humans have recognized that rituals and ceremonies designed to offer something back, physically or metaphysically, was also part of reciprocity.  Offerings in this case are symbolic representations of our understanding of the give and take relationship we have with the earth that provides abundance. A wassail ceremony, for example, is an excellent example of the kind of ceremony I am talking about, as are simple blessings and offerings of food, drink, etc.

 

Nature Reverence

A nature based shrine

A nature based shrine

Everything that I’ve been writing about is a form of honoring nature.  When you develop nature wisdom, you honor nature.  When you learn how nature can offer you so much–and what you can offer in return–you are honoring nature.  But there are also specific activities that are more distinct, more intentional, that put honoring nature as central.

  • Respecting Nature – I believe that honoring nature begins, first and foremost, with a mindset. Most people in Western society are socialized to think of themselves first–what can I do that best benefits me, etc.  Through respect of nature, we can add “what can I do that best benefits the land” as an additional (or primary) category in our minds.  Recognizing and engaging in thought, word, and deed that recognizes the sanctity of life and the living earth  is the first step in honoring nature.  This internal mindset, then, will manifest as outward action in a variety of ways.
  • Honoring nature – Honoring nature also involves offering respect and reverence for the natural world and recognizing the sanctity of all life through ritual and intentional action.  This can be through engaging in various kinds of ritual for benefit of life on the planet and the living earth–such as through seasonal celebration or land healing rituals. Another way we might honor nature is through creating physical spaces in our homes and out on the broader landscape. This may include creating physical shrines upon the landscape, home altars, and more.
  • Communing with nature – Nature can often facilitate deeply spiritual experiences for us, experiences that help us understand the land and our place in it in greater depth.  Many traditions facilitate these experiences surrounding rites of passage or coming of age rituals, but these experiences are open to anyone. Having deeply intense and spiritual experiences with nature; experiences that may fundamentally alter your understanding of yourself, your spiritual practice, and the living earth.  May include things like a druid retreat, vision questing, journeys, long-term work on a single site (like a druid’s anchor spot), and more.

 

Looking at this list above, there are clearly a lot of ways that “connection’ with nature can happen. There are likely ways I’m missing,  but I do think that this list is a good start for someone who wants to connect but isn’t sure how to do so beyond the “go into the woods and feel good” kind of thing!  Since each of these four topics can be a post in itself, that’s exactly what I’ll do next–delve into activities for each of these and how we might engage deeply with them.  Blessings as you connect with the living earth!

Tree Resins from Eastern North America: Harvesting, Crafting, and Incense Making

Jack Pine Resin - Abundant and Amazing smelling!

Jack Pine Resin – Abundant and Amazing smelling!  I harvested this locally.

Burning incenses, particularly the burning of tree resins, has been known throughout the millennia as a sacred activity. Incenses are offered to the spirits, the land, the gods, the ancestors as a way of seeking communion and blessing. Today, most people who are interested in “natural” incenses gravitate towards resin incenses for their lasting effect, delightful smells, and natural origins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees: trees may be scored or drip naturally and the sap hardens, creating the resin (like Frankincense, Myrrh, Benzoin, Copal).  Others might be dried liquid from trees or fruit (like Dragon’s blood). When you burn the resin on a charcoal block, you get billows of incredible, sweet smelling smoke. Tree resins have an extensive history certain parts of the world, and are often highly revered by the cultures that produce them. For example, when I was in Oman in April (for a professional/work trip), I was amazed to see the frankincense trees and experience the fresh frankincense firsthand. The Omani people see frankincense as a symbol of their culture–it is burned in many public places; ground up and drank in water, and much more!I’ve already listed some of the most common incenses you can purchase–and, like most things, they come from considerable distances and far away places.

 

It is sad, I think, that we don’t do more to honor or local trees that produce incredible resin incenses here in North America, particularly in the Eastern part of the US.  While it is little known, we actually have a large variety of fantastic ingredients for incense making! They are not commercially available or discussed, but they are present and available in the landscape. It is possible that this knowledge has been lost because the native peoples of these lands, those who had the knowledge, were driven off to other lands and/or killed as part of this colonization. I believe that we can relearn and integrate ourselves into our lands more fully–and part of that is the sacred tree knowledge that we hold.

 

Given this, for a good number of years, I have been working to develop local incense sources and locally-based spiritual supplies (see my post on making your own smudge sticks, for example).  And so, in today’s post, I’m going to explore tree resins local to the Eastern USA, particularly the midwest/north-east/mid-atlantic regions, and sharing how to find these resins, how to harvest them, what they smell like, and how to craft basic incenses.

 

What is resin and what tree resins work best?

Tree resins are the sticky and dried sap of trees. In my area, this primarily refers to the sticky and dried sap balls and drips you find on conifers. Conifer resins are not hard to find and are often abundant. Pines, in particular, produce really nice amounts of resin (especially if they have a limb removed/broken and/or are damaged in some way) and most of their resins have a piney/lemony smell.  Spruces also produce nice resins that are typically easy to harvest; the spruce resins are more musky than the pine resins. If you can find it (and this is by no means an easy task), Eastern Hemlock produces the most amazing resin (however, in my visits to thousands of hemlock trees, I’ve only really been able to collect or find resin from two of them). I haven’t yet had a chance to collect resin from the Larch/Tamarak (there are few in this area) so I can’t speak to that specific tree.

 

There are a few non-confier trees that also produce a resin.  Black Cherry produces a resin that hardens and appears a possible candidate  However, I have tried burning this and it doesn’t burn and doesn’t really smell good. But I suspect that some other trees or plants may produce a nice-smelling and nice-burning resin. If any readers know of other plants that produce a nice resin you can harvest–please share and I can update my list.

When and where do you harvest resin?

Spruce oozing from a cut wound - I woudl harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

Spruce oozing from a cut wound – I would harvest the bottom drip only or what is on the bark, not from the wound itself (since that protects the tree)

You can harvest conifer resin anytime of the year.  Tree sap flows most abundantly in the spring, and it will often be dried a bit by the fall. I actually like to do a lot of my resin harvesting in the late fall months when I’m starting to look for Chaga mushrooms–whatever resin flows happened that year, they are likely dried out a bit by then and the cold can sometimes make it easier to break off the resin. Although when everything freezes, its hard to harvest the incense in many cases. But most months of the year you can look for it and harvest it.

 

In terms of finding conifers to harvest from, you don’t need to go into the deep woods.  In fact, some trees that are at local parks or along the street produce really good resin because they are often trimmed or damaged.  These damaged trees will ooze from a wound.  The spruce in the photo to the right is along my street and I go past it on my walk to work–that’s how easy it can be to find.  You can also find large patches of conifers in local parks or in forests, and those are well worth your look.  Really, if you just keep your eyes open as you are out and about, you will find abundant supplies of resin.  Just be prepared to harvest it!

 

How do you harvest resin?

Tree resins start out in a fresh form–they are extremely sticky, gooey, and delightful.  Whatever you get them on, they will stay on (so if you harvest with a knife, that knife will likely have resin on it forever).  You can use the resin either in its fresh form, or you can wait for it to dry and crystallize.  I have harvested both and both have their uses (see recipes, below).

 

I typically have a special knife (ok, it is an old butter knife) I use to harvest resin and usually harvest it into plastic cups, small glass jars, or plastic bags.  The knife is pretty much used just for resin–resin is really hard to get off and clean of anything else (requires alcohol, not water). The plastic bags or jars keep it from sticking. If you end up having to clean your tools, you will need to use a high proof alcohol to do so (even rubbing alcohol can work); conifer resins do not clean up or extract in water.  If you are harvesting fresh resin, and put it in a plastic bag, it will never evaporate and turn crystallized; so if you want the crystal stuff, let it crystallize on a tree and/or harvest it into a cup and let it sit somewhere in the sun for a long time.

 

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here....not sure I will ever get the bowl back!

I put white pine sap in this nice ceramic bowl five years ago after finding it in abundance on a white pine that was cut down. It hardened fully about two years ago, and I am slowly scraping it out of here….not sure I will ever get the bowl fully clean!

You will need to be patient for the dried form of resin–if you see a tree freshly oozing, its probably necessary to come back in six months, a year, or more, and check it to see if it’s dry (how long it takes depends on the kind of tree). Usually, finding other trees around will allow you to harvest a bountiful amount of incense.

 

When harvesting, remember that tree resin is created when the tree is damaged: the resin essentially “seals” the wound of the tree.  Because of this, when you harvest resin, you want to only harvest from around and/or below the wound of the tree, not the wound itself.  For example, if a tree has had a limb removed, some trees (pines especially) will produce a mountain of resin to seal off the wound. I would not remove this resin, as it is protecting the inner part of the tree.  However, the tree could have produced so much resin that there is excess dripping down the side of the tree.  This is what I would harvest in abundance, as that is not actively sealing off a wound on the tree.  I hope this makes sense: we harvest carefully, and delicately, to ensure our tree brethren are not damaged in the process.

 

Some trees will also drip resin to the forest floor, which you can then scrape off of roots, lift off of the pine needles on the floor, or even pick up crystallized chunks.

 

Trees Producing Abundant Resin – List and Scent Descriptions

Here are some of the tree resins that I have harvested and my description of their smell. All of these trees are easy to find and abundant throughout the Eastern US and parts of Canada:

 

  • White Pine – White pine, the chief of standing people, produces the most amazing incense.  It can be found typically whenever the tree has been cut or broken (like limbs removed). It is a very sticky resin till it dries–and it can take a very long time to dry out (I have some that I have been drying out for 4 years now…it is still partially gooey).  The smell itself when burning is really divine: light, piney, with a hint of vanilla scent; when it burns it almost reminds me of how some whipped cream frosting smells.  I think this is one of my favorite of all conifer incenses and is well worth your time to harvest.

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

    Some of my many harvests of tree resin for incense making

  • Jack Pine – Jack pine resin is a light colored, quickly crystallizing, extremely abundant resin (I have a photo of it at the opening of this article).  I had a spot in Michigan where tons of little jack pines were growing and I could easily collect a pint of it in about a half hour–it just crystallized all over the tree very quickly, was rarely sticky, and quite easy to harvest. In terms of smell, it has a very light aroma, piney with hints of lemon orange, very clean and excellent burning.
  • Red pine – Red Pine produces a lot less incense than some other trees, but it is well worth gathering.  Most of the time, I find small chunks of it on the trunk of certain trees because a little bug has burrowed in deep and the tree has responded by producing a chunk of incense (some of which can be removed or will remove itself by flaking and some of which should stay to protect the tree). The incense itself burns with a piney smell that includes almost an orange/cherry undertone. It is very light and refreshing.
  • Blue Spruce – Blue spruce resin can be harder to find, but it is well worth the effort.  It is usually found on the places where the tree is damaged (from being cut or trimmed, etc).  And when it is found, it is found in abundance.  It is an intense incense–it has a very skunky/musky, almost animalistic smell. Some people really like it and others do not–but I’d say, find some, harvest it and see what you think!
  • Norway  Spruce – Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a  skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines, and slightly different than the Blue Spruce.  They often also have an undertone of slightly citrus, slightly floral.  Different trees produce different amounts of the “musky” quality, which can get quite strong in some trees.

Trees that Produce Little Resin

The above trees are my staples for tree resin incense, but I also want to share a few additional trees. These are trees that only produce a tiny amount of resin, but it is worth keeping your eyes open for:

 

  • Eastern Hemlock Resin – As my blog readers know, I very much adore and love the Eastern Hemlock Tree.  Of the thousands of hemlocks I have visited, I have found harvestable resin on only two of the trees. One had a huge gash from logging and had produced some dried resin that I could harvest without damaging; the other had a gash from debris along a riverbed. The broken branches do not produce any resin, nor do cut stumps.  So, if you can find it, it is well worth your time, but it it is incredibly elusive!  The incense itself is extremely light and refreshing with a hint of lemon; it has a very clean smell and smells awesome.  It is comparable to white pine resin, but with more of a lemon/cirtus smell.
  • Eastern White Cedar: Thuja Occidentalis does not like producing much resin at all, but if you can find it, it is really nice.  I have found tiny little beads of resin sometimes on older trees’ trunks and larger branches. The beads burn well and smell very cedar-like, which you would expect.  Because of the lack of abundance of resin, I often burn the needles of this tree (which pop and crackle for quite some time).
  • Juniper / Eastern Red Cedar: thus far, I have not found a juniper tree with any amount of incense to harvest (although I am keeping my eye out!).  However, I burn the berries of this (they smell really wonderful, a strong piney/floral scent) and they also smoulder nicely.  So they have some resinous qualities themselves.

 

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Burning a small amount of red pine resin on a charcoal block in a censer

Resins Not Recommended

I want to mention one other tree that produces resin, but that you don’t want to use–and that is Wild/Black Cherry.  Cherries do produce a resin that crystallizes and dries.  However, it doesn’t burn like a typical conifer resin (which smoulders nicely, producing billows of smoke as it boils and burns on the charcoal block); rather, it crackles and pops, it doesn’t want to burn, and when it burns, it kind of just smells like something is burning (dark, earthy smell).  You might be able to grind it up and use it with some other tree incenses, but I’m not sure I’d use it on it’s my own.  I’m still experimenting with it.

 

Making Incense from Fresh Resin: Incense Balls

You can make a really nice incense from fresh resin in the form of incense balls. Note that if you harvest resin sticky, and then you put it in a bag, it will remain sticky pretty much indefinitely because it is not exposed to air. If you don’t want it sticky, best to let it dry out on the tree for some months and/or years. Trust me.

 

But if you harvest it sticky, and you have a nice clump of it, you can make some great incense balls. Collect the fresh resin itself (I usually do this in an old bowl). Then, I add any other ingredients I would like that are dried and/or finely powdered to the resin: sage, rosemary, mugwort, and so on (you can see a list of my common ingredients that are local and useful in my smudge stick post for some ideas). Eventually, you will work enough plant matter in that the incense takes form. You can test out small amounts until you get a good smell (my favorite is fresh white pine resin with rosemary and sage powder). Form your balls (with your hands or gloves; your hands will need a very good cleaning afterwards–use alcohol). Then, give them a final “roll” in some kind of powder to avoid stickiness.  You can also wrap them up individually in a bit of wax paper.  But what I like to do, is let them sit out for a while (a month or so) and then the outsides will eventually dry out.

 

To use them, simply burn them on a charcoal block.  Different mixes obviously will make different blends–try testing out a few different combinations and seeing which ones you like the smell of best!

 

Making Incense from Dried/Crystallized Resin

The other way to work with the tree resins as incense is to harvest it after it has dried out.  Sometimes, you can find really nice dried piece of resin.  Most dried resins flake easily off of the tree and into your bag/jar.  I like to keep these incenses in a jar somewhere handy–they are beautiful and easy to use.  You might find that before burning them, you want to take a hammer and put them in a bag and mash them up a bit–otherwise, the chunks may be too large to be serviceable.

 

The easiest way to use this resin is simply to burn small chunks of it on a charcoal block in whatever amount you’d like.  Test a small amount first to see how much smoke you get.

 

The other way you can use it is to grind it up into a powder and add other ingredients (tree powders, powdered or finely chopped dried herbs, and the like).  You can see my incense on incense making for more information.  Any of the dried resins can be used in place of more traditional resin ingredients (frankincense, myrrh, etc).  As with all resins, they are not self-combustible, so you would be making again an incense to burn on a charcoal block.  If you used a LOT of woody matter and plant matter, and a tiny bit of resin, you might manage to make a combustible (self-burning) incense, but that’s a bit hard to get the balance right.  Some incense books (like Cunningham’s) use Saltpeter to get things to burn on their own–it is carcinogenic.  Use the charcoal block (non-self lighting).

 

Incense Papers

If you have access to really high proof alcohol (and by this I mean 95%/ 190 proof) another fun thing you can do is to extract the resin in the alcohol and make incense papers, which can be burned.  Essentially only alcohol will extract resins.

Grind up your resin (dried) or add your fresh (I find dried works better for this).  Cover it with your 190 proof alcohol (or as close to that as you can get).  Shake it every day or so, and let it sit at least two months.

The alcohol will extract the components of the resin and produce a resin tincture.

Then, you can drop a bit of this onto a sheet of paper (like Japanese rice paper or standard copy paper) and let the alcohol evaporate.  Then, burn the paper to get some of the scent! I am only starting to experiment with this, but the results are promising (I will probably post more on this in a future post, but wanted to share some initial thoughts here).

 

Energy and Tree Incense

One question you might have is: what spiritual or energetic qualities do these incenses hold?  For this, you need to go back and look at the specific tree.  Here’s a basic list:

  • Pines: Considered a “tree of peace” by some Native American tribes, it also represents longevity, life, immortality.  It can be burned for purification, healing work, and divination.  I see it as our “frankincense” and use it in pretty much the same way.
  • Spruces:  Considered a versatility tree that survives well in northern, cold environments; it can represent constancy, versatility, and determination.  I like to burn spruce for getting things going and keeping them going.
  • I have already covered Eastern Hemlock and Eastern White Cedar extensively already (and some of the other trees in this post will get the same extensive treatment).

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve found this post on making tree incenses helpful! I am also working on a post on local, natural incenses, but I suspect it will be some more time until I can present that to you!  I would love to hear from you about trees to add to this list. We don’t have many wild firs growing around here–would love to know what they smell like as well!  Blessings on this Lughanssadh weekend!

Making Seed Balls and Scattering Seeds for Wildtending

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

Dried seed balls ready for tossing!

This is the last post (for a while) in my series on wildtending. In the last month, we’ve explored the philosophy of wildtending as a sacred action, explored the refugia garden principle, I shared my own refugia garden preparation and design, and finally, we are ready to start scattering the seeds!  Perhaps these seeds were gathered from the wilds, given as a gift from a friend, or perhaps, they were gathered from a refugia garden.  Wherever you get them, now is the time to begin to scatter these amazing little balls packed with life, love, and magic.

 

Seed balls were invented by Fukuokoa and described in the permaculture classic, One Straw Revolution.  They have a number of benefits over other methods for scattering seeds.  First, and foremost, they are easy to throw and toss into spaces you can’t reach.  A lot guerilla gardeners  use them in urban spaces as part of rewilding activities.  Similarly, I have found it so much easier to have a bag of seed balls with me and begin tossing them, seeing where they land and if they can grow.  I also like them because you can imbue them with some magic (even using some of the earlier energy methods I described with minor modification). They also give the seeds a bit of nutrition to help grow, and the ball itself creates a little platform for growth of the seed as the clay and compost spreads out and as the ball breaks down. There are two downsides–first, roots and larger nuts need separate treatment (obviously; I usually plant these directly by hand), and second, the seed balls can be a bit heavier than tiny bags of just seeds. But I have found them to be extremely useful to have in my foraging bag or crane bag when I’m out and about in the world!  So here we go–Let’s roll up our sleeves, find a few friends, and make some seed balls!

 

Designing Seed Balls

There are three pieces to seed balls: seeds, clay, and compost as well as some simple tools to work with.  We’ll talk about each of these in turn.  A bit part of making seed balls is ethical sourcing–if done right, you shouldn’t have to buy anything (or much of anything).

 

Get Some Seeds

The first step is to get some seeds. Deciding what to put into a seed ball depends on what you have access to (like in my case, see below) but also what you want to spread–see my first post in this series for suggestions of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants, for starters. You can spread whatever seeds your ecosystem needs–I’m focusing my energies right now on medicinal plants and tree seeds. You can gather these in the wild when they are in abundance or you can start growing the key plants in a “refugia garden” as I described in a recent post. Or you can find them in…other ways. Since my garden is still in process, I was in the search for seeds this summer. In my last post, I gave some lists of potential plants for different ecosystems–check out this list for more ideas about seeds to spread, but I would strongly suggest studying up on your ecosystem and thinking about where you might share these balls.  Searching out seeds is a longer-term process, something to keep in your mind for the upcoming season!

 

Aster seeds drying!

Aster seeds drying!

Despite the fact that I didn’t find hardly any New England Aster or a few other key plants, like Blue Vervain and Echinacea upon my return to the northern Appalachians, I stumbled across a native plant garden at a local park. And, even more delightfully, they had just trimmed the garden back for the fall, and there was a pile of plants there just going to seed in a pile waiting to be carted off…and so…well, I helped myself. This gave me a wonderful set of seeds–here are a bunch of the aster seeds drying. I also found an abundance of milkweed, boneset, and swamp milkweed to round out my stash.  Perfect!

 

I decided, given my delightful treasure trove of full-sun seeds, to make a set of seedballs geared toward medicinal, hard to find perennial plants that grow in full sun.

 

Finding Your Clay

Now in his book, Fukuokoa used a local clay, “red clay” and there’s been some discussion in various permie forums on whether or not “red clay” is necessary.  No, it is not–any LOCAL clay will do. Please, please, please don’t go buy clay unless you have none in your local ecosystem (and chances are, you do). In most places on the planet, clay will be part of your natural subsoil and its just a matter of finding some.  Look when people are digging holes into the subsoil, look at eroding banks of rivers after flooding, look at new construction–you will see it.  Its heavy, retains water, and is sticky. The reason I say don’t buy any clay is because its very fossil fuel intensive to ship due to its weight. In PA and in Michigan, when you dig down, you can easily find clay. I prefer to dig mine out of banks by streams or the side of the road. I knew of a wonderful bank by a forest stream, so I went on a hike to get some.

Clay bank in stream

Clay bank in stream

I used my hori hori to dig my clay; the hori hori is a Japanese garden tool and is my favorite foraging tool. To dig your clay, literally any little trowel or shovel will do. Since I’m digging it from a soft bank, I primarily took clay  from the bottom of the bank where it already had spilled over to prevent further erosion. I used a doubled plastic shopping bag to put the clay in. After digging, I put it in my bag and lugged it 1/2 mile back up the mountain :).  Of course, not a week later, I saw a bunch of clay deposits on the side of a back country road, having been dug up from last year’s plowing.  Ah well!

Digging the clay

Digging the clay

I pretty much got as much clay as I could carry up the mountain all that way, or about 25 lbs. The recipe I’m going to give you is based on simle ratios, so however much you get is fine.

 

Other Supplies You’ll Need

Before you set about making your seed balls, you will need some other supplies.  I should also mention that seed ball making is VERY MESSY and should, at all possible, be done outside or in like a dusty garage or something.

Compost: In addition to clay and seeds, you’ll need some sifted and finished compost or top soil (something seed free). Chicken-created compost, as is any home compost or worm castings. Any rich soil will do. If you think you have unwanted seeds in the soil that you don’t want to spread, you can bake the compost at 350 degrees for 10 minutes (but this may kill off other microbial life, so be warned).

A large plastic bucket is necessary for mixing. A 5 gallon bucket works well.

A bucket of water for cleaning your hands and adding water to the mix. If its cold outside, make it warm water!

An old towel is also a good idea for cleaning your hands.

A small tarp or large garbage bag.  This will be for sorting out your clay, adding your seeds, and so on.

A few friends. Good friends make seed ball making fun!

 

The Process

The process is simple enough, and I took photographs of each step to help you along. The first thing you want to do is to make sure your compost and your clay is free of debris, woody material, leaves, or stones. Since my clay was wild clay, we had some sorting to do. It was a little wet, but that was fine. It could have been a little dry as well. If your clay is super wet, you might want to lay it out for a few days to dry out a bit before starting. The key is finding that “just right” texture that is more on the dry side than the soupy side.  Most clay you dig right out of the earth will be the perfect consistency.

Sorting the clay

Sorting the clay

We took out the big lumps, sticks, and rocks.

 

Next, you’ll want to measure your clay. You want to use a ratio of about 2 parts clay to 1 part compost–enough to form nice balls. Part of this will depend on the kind of clay you have (and if it is pure or has anything else in it, like a little bit of sand). We used a flowerpot to measure out or clay (2 parts clay).

Measuring clay

Measuring clay into the bucket

We added our finished compost (1 part) and mixed the clay carefully.

Mixing the clay and compost

Mixing the clay and compost – good to get your hands in the soil!

After mixing, we tested the seed balls to see if they stuck together.  Sometimes, you might need to add a bit of water, depending on how moist the clay was. We added about 1 cup of water to our bucket and then checked to see if it formed a ball. If it forms a nice ball, its ready to go.

Testing the seed ball

Testing the seed ball

 

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

Paul and Sandra checking the mixture

At this point, we found that its helpful to spread the material out on the tarp/plastic bag so that you can get an even amount of seeds in each ball.  After spreading out our mixture,  we have begun to add aster seeds.  You pretty much add as much seed as you like–the balls that we’ve made this time and in the past generally had a lot of seeds!

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

Spreading out material and beginning to add seeds

We added a lot of seeds–in this batch, it was what I could find: blue vervain, pleurisy root/swamp milkweed, blue vervain, milkweed, and some stinging nettle.

Our lovely seeds spread out!

Our lovely seeds spread out! The milkweed puffs don’t seem to matter (and in fact, seem to give the balls strength).  Neither do bits of dried plant matter, etc.

Once the seeds were spread out, we mixed everything together and began forming our seed balls.

 

There are a few strategies to make the balls–one that Paul showed us was to roll out a long “worm” (ok, it totally looks like a turd) and then break off smaller bits, forming them into balls.

Forming balls

Forming balls

We made a good number of balls–probably 120+ with the mixture we had made.

Making seed balls together!

Making seed balls together!

Drying your balls

Since its winter here and the weather is generally quite chilly in January, I ended up laying my balls on my seed starting rack that I just put up. It is near a heat register, which allowed them to dry quite quickly. I put them down on some paper bags I had cut up.

Seed balls drying out!

Seed balls drying out!

Blessing your seed balls

Of course, no magic seed ball would be complete without a blessing.  So many things you can do for this, and I think any blessing you give will help set your intentions for the seeds to grow. A few ideas:

  1. A nice blessing oil that you can use to touch each seed ball saying a small prayer
  2. An elemental blessing (four elements) or three druid elements blessing
  3. Put them in the center of your circle during a druid holiday.  I’ll be blessing my most recent batch at Imbolc in a week or so.
  4. You can make these on a full moon, on a holiday (Samhuinn or Yule being a good example) for added effect.

 

Scattering Your Seeds

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Finished, Blessed Seed balls are ready to go!

Scattering the seeds is a huge part of the fun.  I like to make extra and give them as gifts to those who would appreciate them–then the seeds can go even further.

 

The easiest way of scattering them is just tossing them wherever you want them to grow.  Remember that some seeds need a cold period (cold stratification) so tossing them even in the wintertime isn’t a bad idea!

 

The sky is the limit in terms of these seeds. Make yourself a little bag, take it with you where you go, and have fun!  With each toss, you regenerate the land, bless the land, and scatter abundance.

Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

 

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.

 

Refugia

Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. 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 covered 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 Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

 

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of  us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

 

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA

A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

 

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

 

Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

 

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

 

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

 

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

 

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

 

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

 

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

 

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

 

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

 

Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

 

Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).