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Motherwort and Other Characters

This past week has been one of splendiferous adventures in plant identification.  My best friend recently introduced me to the New England Wildflower Society’s plant ID website, and it has been so much fun tracking down all manner of flowering plants.  Blooming this week in the Assabet River bioregion, we have Common Cinquefoil, White Campion, Motherwort, Sweetfern, and Horsenettle.

 Motherwort set me off on this journey of discovery.  You see, there was this strange little seedling in my garden plot this spring, but it looked so purposeful, that I talked with my row partner and we decided to leave it and see what happened. Now, she (the mystery plant, not my row partner!) is about two feet tall and happily feeding the bees. Motherwort is also a friend to humans, especially women, with many useful medicinal properties. We’ve decided to transplant her to the community herb garden, marking her with a sign as medicinal.

Common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) was another little mystery flower that had been bugging me this year.  Some sources claim cinquefoil as a fairly common medieval spell component, I’m guessing because the five finger leaves are reminiscent of hands. It’s astringent, antiseptic, soothing for the skin, and the powdered roots can be used to stop bleeding.

Every year I forget the name of White Campion (Silene latefolia) and have to look up. Maybe this year it will finally stick.  While it doesn’t have any medicinal uses, being high in saponins (much like quinoa), simmering the root will create a sort of soap. And, it’s just plain pretty to happen upon in the meadow.

Sweetfern is one of the first plants I got to know when I moved to my current home. It is very much associated with poor soils and stands of pine, both of which happened to be abundant on our property. Sweetfern can make a very nice tea and be useful in a variety of ailments, especially as an astringent. I’ll likely be harvesting it this year to experiment with as an insect-repellent incense.

Horsenettle is a member of the nightshade family–Solanum carolinensis to be specific. It’s often classified as a noxious weed, and I’ve had trouble finding any constructive use for it (if someone in the audience knows of one, leave a comment!). It’s the only member of the Solanums that has thorns, which makes its removal particularly tricky.

Lastly, I helped my father identify this little fellow as Sheep Sorrel, a member of the vast dock and sorrel genus. It’s been driving him crazy in the garden, as it sends its roots right underneath other plants and makes it extremely difficult to remove. He noted with some dismay that it doesn’t even have the decency to wilt after it’s been picked!  On the bright side, it is edible, and lens a lemony flavor to salads and soups.

I’ll be harvesting the Motherwort and Sweetfern, along with Mugwort, Agrimony, and Feverfew over the coming days.  I’m finally feeling like I have enough a) reading knowledge and b) glass jars to try making tinctures.  Agrimony is one of the things that keeps me from turning into an absolute badger in March/April when Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to hit me hardest.  I’ve made tea from the dried leaves in the past, and have taken a commercial tincture, but I’m looking forward to trying some of my own brew.

Oh, and the first blackberries are also ready to pick.  Just one more reason to love the Solstice season!

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Tool Time

7527856418_97cb6526bd_zI’m definitely one of those Druids who believes that tools gather power from being used on a regular basis. One of the big things I try to cultivate in my spiritual practice is eliminating the separation between sacred and mundane. This goes hand in hand with my very firm belief that humans are a part of, not separate from, Nature. Inevitably, I find myself questioning the necessity of spiritual purification. Many Polytheists and Reconstructionists become superstitiously fixated upon the dangers of miasma.  It’s too easy to become caught up in the Purity Olympics, and to blame any sort of misfortune upon inappropriate cleansing of self and home.

The same thing happens with some folks in regard to their tools. In the most extreme cases, a practitioner will have a complete meltdown if a person touches something on the altar. Now, of course it’s good etiquette to ask before handling someone else’s tools, weapons, kitchen implements, what have you. But sometimes, shit happens, and when it does, you need to be able to take care of your own psychic hygiene with a minimal degree of fuss.

I tend to view spiritual/psychic hygiene in the same light on view physical hygiene: wash your hands with regular soap and warm water for 30 seconds, and nine times out of ten you will have taken care of any gunk or nasties that you’ve accumulated since you last perform this little ritual. You don’t need the nuclear option of antibacterial soap, wipes, disinfectant sprays, or the magical equivalent thereof for your day-to-day needs. Soap and water works just fine.

In fact, I’d like to carry the hygiene analogy a bit further. The immune system, psychic or otherwise, needs a degree of exercise. Several studies have now been published about children who grow up in more sterile environment having many more allergies and an inability to deal with illness. The theory goes that without some agitation, our body’s defenses turn on themselves because there’s no enemy to attack, leading to increased allergies and immune disorders.  To extend this into the use and sharing of ritual tools, I view other people respectfully handling my sacred implements as strengthening my defensive capabilities. I don’t consider myself worth my own magical salt if I can’t do an instantaneous cleansing on a tool I just lent to a friend or neighbor.

To be clear, I don’t go loaning out my ritual sword to the average Joe (pointy objects are pointy, after all). However, the two tools that I use most often for both mundane and sacred work are a utility knife/multi tool and a pair of pruning shears. If I’m out in the garden and somebody needs to cut a piece of twine to stake their tomatoes I have no issue handing them my working knife to do the job. A couple of quick gestures, a breath, and a prayer, and it’s all set to cast circle in the woods if need be.

Now, I don’t recommend this approach if you get twitchy about other people handling your magical equipment. Some folks are just that way, and that’s ok. There’s something to be said for keeping a piece secreted away, but it really depends on the type of work you’re doing. If I were in the cursing and hexing business, I probably wouldn’t be so cavalier about letting folks use my stuff! It is true that the tools I keep for spirit work or other occult (in the sense of hidden) practices I don’t leave lying about for anyone to put their paws on. However, the tools that I use in tending the land, or for casting a circle for group ritual, tools which serve to build and strengthen my community, only increase in power from being used by others.

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Turning the Tables

druidcraft_minor_swords_10Or at least, turning the cards.

One of the cornerstones of my spiritual practice is drawing a tarot card in the morning to help me focus for the day.  My views on tarot and divination are a bit muddled, perhaps because of my aforementioned paradigm shifting. I like to use the cards as a psychological tool, as a spiritual tool, and as a practical tool. They set the tone for my day and encourage mindfulness.

But, what to do if you choose a troublesome or challenging card? (I don’t like calling cards “bad” because there is usually way to much nuance for a card to be all good or all bad.) This is where magic can help. After I’ve thought about the implications of a card in whatever position I’ve drawn it (either upright or reversed), I flip it with a whammy-nudge of intent.

Case in point, three days ago I pulled the 10 of Swords. Definitely a difficult card: nadir, betrayal, overwhelm. The trick is finding that little sliver of light in the mire. As I turned the card upside-down, I kept my focus on finding that narrow way out of the despair and fear of current circumstances. Even though I ended up being blindsided by some family drama, it didn’t unbalance me nearly as much as it might have otherwise, and I was able to navigate through the unpleasantness by reaching out to my friends for help.

It all comes down to this: what good is being a seer if you can’t do anything to change what you’ve divined?

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Experiments with the Sun Mirror

18208165226_463cd981d4_zWow, what a change I’ve noticed in my energy levels when I’ve been able to do even a few moments with my Sun Mirror in the morning.  The mirror work in and of itself was inspired by Levannah Morgan’s lecture on DruidCast episode 98, which is worth multiple listens if you’re interested in this kind of magical/energetic practice.

The first energy system I ever worked with was qigong’s Three Dantian, and that’s pretty much what I still stick with today (although Kristoffer Hughes has a fascinating Welsh energetic system which I’d eventually like to explore further).

I’ve been invoking Beli Mawr since we’re passed May Day. It’s likely that I will invoke Sunna in the winter months. I’ll likely do a formal dedication/consecration of the mirror as a working tool on Solstice, but even without the formalities, it’s been extremely effective for getting the nwyfre flowing in the mornings.

Stand or sit with the sun at your back. Use the mirror to focus a beam of light first on your Lower Dantian (roughly where the uterus is located), then on your Middle Dantian (heart), then on your Upper Dantian (third eye).*  At each cauldron, say:

Beli Mawr, inflame my passion.
Beli Mawr, ignite my heart.
Beli Mawr, illuminate my mind.

I haven’t really found a satisfactory way to perform this exercise when it’s overcast, unfortunately. However, it’s quickly becoming a foundational element of my practice, and I imagine it will prove invaluable when the winter doldrums strike in early March.

*PLEASE DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE REFLECTION OF THE SUN. THIS IS WHY PIRATES WEAR EYE-PATCHES.

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Holding Multiple Paradigms

20140120-121832.jpgWhen seeking answers from the universe, it’s important to be flexible as to how the message is going to be delivered. These are all paradigms I’ve found useful at various points in my life.  Call me fickle if you want, but sometimes I’ll slip back and forth between several in the course of a day. Just like in an ecosystem, monocultures, or monoparadigms (to coin a phrase), are an unhealthy thing, whereas a multiplicity of potential thought processes is an expression of flexibility and diversity.  To invoke the ancestor Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.

Default Paradigms:

Animist–This is where I end up most often. Yes, I talk to my tea kettle in the morning, and apologize to the cabinet door if I shut it too hard.  Animism is the key to mindfulness in my practice, because if everything is sacred and deserving of respect, then we can engage with difficult situations in new and creative ways.

Polytheist–Second most frequent default.  I blame it being dragged around half a dozen Gothic churches every morning whenever Dad was on sabbatical in France. You can’t tell me that having three or more altars to various holy figures doesn’t inspire polytheistic leanings. ‘Cause it does.

Practical Paradigms for Everyday Living:

Henotheist–Really more like serial henotheism if I’m totally honest. It’s kinda like serial monogamy. There will be times when I work very closely with a single deity for an extended period, to the exclusion of other gods.

Kathenotheist–basically a term similar to the one above, and perhaps more fitting for dealing with shorter time frames. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Sometimes I’m convinced Aranrhod is the be-all, end-all of all goddesses, sometimes it’s Cerridwen, or occasionally Brighid. Don’t even get me started on my flip-flopping between Gwydion and Gwynn….

Depression Paradigms for Those Low Moments in Life:

Apatheist–don’t care if there are gods. Even when this one rears its ugly head, I tend to go through the motions of offerings anyway. Ritual for ritual’s sake can be an important part of self-care, even if it’s hard to muster the energy for genuine belief in the moment.

Meta-Paradigms for Those Big Honkin’ Questions:

Sanctity of Natural Laws–Most often I’d agree that the divine can be found in everything, as evident in the natural laws of physics and chemistry. Those very basic building blocks, like the Law of Gravity or Thermodynamics, are pieces of the sacred.  However, I don’t necessarily believe that a sentient creator was necessary to set these divine laws in motion.

Agnostic–It’s a good idea to challenge default assumptions on a semi-regular basis. Agnosticism is a good tool for that.

Igtheist–This one is pretty much omnipresent in the back of whatever paradigm is currently operating. We aren’t capable of knowing the full extent of the divine. Creating a space for sacred doubt is what allows growth and change, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Omnist–All religions provide a possible path. Again, this is usually running in the background of my metaphysical philosophies, though I want to acknowledge up front that some paths are definitely not for me. I also struggle with this paradigm when encountering intolerant or violent religious practices, as I have a hard time justifying a belief that thrives on hurting others.

Victory Gardens

Victory gardens first became “a thing” back in World War I and II. The name evoked the struggles occurring “over there,” and what people back home could do to aid in that conflict. One of my earliest memories is of a poster that my uncle, a WWI historian, had hanging in his dining room.  It showed an enormous basket overflowing with produce, boldly stating “Food IS Ammunition.”  Something like 8 millions tons of food was produced by victory gardeners, by some estimates 41% of the vegetables consumed at the time.

Eventually, victory gardens fell out of fashion, and growing your own food was a sign of poverty rather than patriotism. Then in the 1980s, WGBH Boston ran a series called Crockett’s Victory Garden. This along with the Joy of Painting (“happy little trees!”), was a Saturday afternoon staple of my childhood. Mr. Crockett led viewers through the basics of growing all sorts of vegetables and fruit at home. It was a great introduction to gardening, and I still frequently refer to his planting timelines in my very dog-eared copy of his companion book.

Unfortunately, Mr. Crockett’s methods were less than organic. He advocated the use of 5-10-5 fertilizers, as well as excessive soil augmentation with peat moss. Compost was mentioned for sure, but not in the amounts that most organic gardeners today would recommend.  Our understanding of soil biology and species interdependence has increased greatly over the past 30 years, casting a very different light on what used to be time honored practices.

Still, I think Mr. Crockett’s message of growing your own food not only for survival, but for pleasure was an important one.  I know in raising my own son, I very much want him to understand where his food comes from–both animal and vegetable.  To this end, we help raise chickens as well as encourage Hufflespawn to work with me in the community garden. The child who will not eat tomatoes in a restaurant has no problem plucking them off the vine and munching on them while we’re out in the garden.  It’s one more example of how the food that we get from the supermarket is so inferior to what we can grow ourselves.

Now we find ourselves in another era where gardening is becoming not just a hobby, but a necessity. With rising food costs, many people find that being able to provide one’s own vegetables can greatly decrease grocery bills. In addition it reconnects us with the land in a vitally important way. I’m not a big fan of declaring war on anything (look where the wars on drugs and poverty have gotten us), but seeking victory in the realms of nutrition, self-sufficiency, and land-connection is surely a worthy goal for its own sake. And I do think it’s possible to declare a victory without ever declaring a war.

Long live the Victory Garden!