Category Archives: Religion/Spirituality

Towards a Great Lakes Animism (Part 2)

  • As a note, this blog will be on hiatus for the next several months after this posting. There are no less than three manuscripts I need to to work on, and winter is the best time to do this for me. Take care!

Hello again folks!

This is a post I have been sitting on for a long time. They are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is reluctance to actually post it for sure. There is a lot of aspects of my personal practice in this post, and it is definitely what you would call “close to home.” In short this is real personal stuff, and putting it out there, especially on the internet, leaves me vulnerable in a lot of ways. My spiritual path is really personal to me, and it’s the kind of thing that gives me anxiety about going in-depth.

The second concern of mine is cultural appropriation. I go to great lengths to avoid that, and when I explore and talk about cultures outside my own, I do everything I can to approach that with respect and without exploitation. I am the descendant of settlers on land that I’m not indigenous to. But that’s where a big struggle of mine has come from in my spiritual practice.

Because the fact is that I’m an orphan of two worlds. My ancestors colonized and settled in the US early in it’s history, and thus I can count at least seven generations from the last immigration in my lineage. That means, for most purposes, I am not European. I’m distantly removed from all of those cultures, and I wasn’t raised in any of them. So while I count a whole host of European country among my distant ancestry, I am not native to any of them.

At the same time, I’m not Native American in any way, nor is the spirituality I practice. I reside on Anishinaabe land, but I was not raised in those cultures either. So it leaves me in a weird place, where it leaves me with a deep discomfort when I look to ancestral or sometimes, Native cultures, for inspiration for my own path. I’m not sure I can truly ‘claim’ either, and so I’m a cultural orphan. In many ways, American to the core. Rootless also comes to mind.

So, when practicing my own spirituality, I have to start with where I am. With the land beneath my feet, and where I exist right now. In other words, I would have to come up with a kind of animism all my own. I would have to create something for myself. In a way, make it up from scratch. At the same time, I am the descendant of countless ancestral animisms, as well as a settler on Native American land. I knew that whatever I created, had to honor and respect these multiple cultural realities.

I don’t want to create a fantasy for myself, but something really grounded in my own history, and the history of Michigan. Also, deeply grounded in the natural world. Something rooted in the forests, lands, and waters of my homeland. Michigan is home to me, and that means coming to some kind of terms with my past as a colonial-settler, as well as honoring the living indigenous people of these lands. The process would mean taking inspiration (being in-spirited) by ancestral paths, as well as ones native to where I call home.

So, a kind of hybrid spirituality would likely be the result. A kind of inspired synthesis, that would be something I could call my own. To build new relationships with the land, but in a way that is uniquely my own.

I knew that changing relationships would involve a changing of names, and a language to frame those new relationships. Because, language in many ways shapes worldview. I can’t speak any ancestral languages (aside from English which = Germanic), I also can’t speak any Anishinaabe. As such, I would also need new names, and new grammar for those names.

As such, a kind of ‘spiritual grammar’ was the result I came up with. A way of building new words and names for shaping new relationships. First, it had to acknowledge and honor Native American peoples of where I am now, which are primarily the Ojibwe/Chippewa, Odawa, and Pottawatomi peoples. As the First People, the Native name should be used if known and appropriate, and if not; a first root of a new name should, if possible, be a ‘root” (not a whole word), from one of three peoples above. The second, (or add’l), roots could be partial words from my own ancestry, mostly Indo-European (Norse/Germanic/Anglo-Saxon/Celtic), and Finno-Uralic. (Finland mostly).

So let’s take a peek at what that looks like;

O-wash-ta-nong (“Far Away Water”)/Wash’akwa (“Far Water”)/Miitg’akwa (“Water Tree”)

(The Grand River and it’s tributaries. It looks like a tree, with ‘roots’ in Lake Michigan.)

These are my working names for the Grand River (and the spirit there of), and it’s various tributaries. One of which is just down the road from my house, so I often bring this spirit various biodegradable offerings, usually water, herbs, or earth.

The first part of the word is from the Native name of the river, O-wash-ta-nong (think Washtenaw county), meaning ‘far away water’ . The second part is the proto-Indo-European root for ‘water’, akwa. (See aqua as an example.) Together, I tried to keep the original meaning of the name, roughly ‘far water’, owing to the overall length of the river. (Longest in Michigan.)

Yet, the name and my continued relationship with the river has changed the meaning, symbolism, and story behind it. It has also come to mean ‘water tree’ for me. The Grand River watershed looks like a tree, albeit a bit of a leaning one. It reminds me a lot of the Nordic World Tree, with several contemporary cities hanging from the ‘branches’ of the river, such as Grand Haven near the ‘root’, and Jackson towards the top of the Water Tree.

My wife and I went to Grand Haven in last year, and I have been processing this whole concept ever since. I once read, that sometimes certain cultures would structure their worldview around rivers. Like the Shaman’s Tree, ‘upriver’ could equate to Upper Worlds, and ‘downriver’ could correspond to Lower Worlds. This is really fascinating to me, as this would make Lake Michigan a kind of underworld, at the ‘roots’ of the Water Tree. It makes me think of all the ghostly shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.

More than this, you have probably heard the common refrain “water is life”. So this could also be framed as a kind of Tree of Life symbolism.

Oni-järvi (“Portage Lake”)

(One of my pictures of Portage Lake)

This spirit is another local water spirit, that is just near to my house. It’s a lake, and part of the larger Waterloo Recreation Area. It is also part of the Grand River watershed, though has a spirit uniquely their* own. Like with the Grand River above, offerings are usually biodegradable; water, herbs, or earth. Sometimes small stones. Plunk!

The name for this spirit is a combination of the first part of the word, onigam, meaning ‘portage’ (from Ojibwe People’s Dictionary), and the Finnish word for ‘lake’, järvi , maintaining the same name as in English.

Perhaps the best association I can make for this spirit is one of peace, relaxation, healing and refreshment. This is mostly a swimming or kayaking lake for me, and I find it often brings relief to aching bodies and a certain peace of mind.

Mishi-Tapio (“Large/Big Forest Spirit”)/Metsola

This is the name I use for my family land, that I recently inherited the stewardship of. Both versions of the name start with an Ojibwe root. Mishigami is said to be the Ojibwe name for Michigan, and means large water. Tapio is the name of a Finnish forest spirit/deity, who is concerned with animals and dwells in the forest. Metsola here, is just a Finnish word for a ‘forested place’, from the root word metsä, meaning ‘forest’, and -la which implies a place.

Thus the overall name is a name for a forest spirit, and one that I originally met on my family land. It would take a whole other post for me to discuss all the layers, and how much I have been taught, by this particular spirit. Hunting, deer, forestry, survival, animism… There is a lot there. Short version, trees are very sacred to me as well as for my Finnish and Nordic ancestors, and they were very important for the Anishinaabe people too.

Unnamed Waterloo Spirits

(That’s a nice boulder… One of my own pictures in Waterloo Recreation Area.)

I live in the largest state park in Michigan’s lower peninsula, and I spend a lot of time in those forests. There are at least two more spirits I have encountered that seem to be forest spirits similar to the one above. I felt them most strongly around rocky formations, and have left offerings like those above to these spirits. I haven’t named them just yet, but they are on my radar. I don’t have a lot more information beyond that, and that illustrates that this work is always a “work-in-progress” Moving on.

Map

I made this map as a kind of “spiritual geography” for the local spirits mentioned above. The are tied to forests and landforms, and so that made them easy to plot on a map of Jackson county. I left the areas vague for personal reasons.

Ending

There is of course a lot more to say, but I hope the takeaway here is that I am working hard to make an animism that is my own. It is taking shape, but there is a lot more work to do, building relationships, learning stories, study, study, and more study. I have no real idea where this might go, but it is starting to look like my very own folklore, that ties together various parts of my own past, present and future.

That’s all I have for now,

Thanks for readings!

Notes

*I typically refrain to gendering spirits, unless corrected otherwise. Neutral language is selected here.

** All throughout this piece I will refer to the beings in question as “spirits”. While it is true that spirits as I understand them vary widely in scale and influence, I have made no distinction between what might be called a deity in this post. Most the spirits basically encompass ecosystems, and may well fit the bill, but that is not the point here. I have selected for the word ‘spirits’, because I am an animist first and foremost. ‘Spirit’ means breath, to breathe, and the root of animism is ‘animus’, which is life, breath, spirit. Since we are talking about living, breathing systems in nature, spirits made the most sense for me as a term.

Sources/References;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_River_(Michigan)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anishinaabe

https://ojibwe.lib.umn.edu/ (Ojibwe People’s dictionary.)

The Manitous, by Basil Johnston

The Kalevala, by Elias Lonnrot

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan


Great Lakes Cosmology

One of the things I love about being a practicing animist, is that relationships are dynamic. Things are always changing, moving, relating and interconnecting in different and unique ways. Put another way, our webs of interconnection are always shifting. This fact brings with it not only the nature of shifting relationships, but also shifting paradigms and perspectives. Cosmology, the map with which I relate to the world, is always in motion, and always a work in progress.

This post is the next in a series that started with Towards a Great Lakes Animism. For this piece I will be drawing on a lot of my previous work, especially my previous work on Finnish folklore. I find that this work has given me a metaphorical compass, a way to orient myself as a animist living far away from anything that might be called ‘ancestral cultures’. But then again, at the same time, several generations of my family are buried right here in Michigan.

Michigan is part of my ancestry, and animism in many ways starts right where I am right now. Here, at home. I talked about this more in my piece The Spirits of Michigan, and in a lot of ways that post served as the springboard for this one. Now, with 30% extra content! Okay, that’s me being snarky, but this is an expansion in a way. But also, a map, a cosmology, a place of understanding where my animism is right now. In addition to a way to know where the edges are, where there be monsters, and what still needs to be explored.

It also draws some from my previous post here. 

Creation Stories

In most cultural cosmologies, the stories begin with the creation of the world. Well, here we can blend science and spirituality. Our world formed when the Sun and the rest of the solar system formed 4.5 some billion years ago. There was fire, and drama, and the Earth came into being. There are plenty of stories to be told there about Star Spirits as well as Fire Spirits, and many other spirits and stories besides. There is a plenty of material for inspiration there.

But more than that, we are children of the Sun, and of the Earth. Moving down through time, we can tell stories about Michigan as well. This is because Michigan has a great creation story. The Great Lakes as we know them today were carved out by massive glaciers expanding and retreating. You could say that Michigan was literally carved by the Glacial Giants. They mighty beings carved out the hollows, and then melted away as the world warmed. Their bodies filled the Great Lakes, and Michigan took on the shape that we all know today.

The Waters, and the Underworlds

Does the story of Glacial Giants remind you a bit of the story of Ymir? I did that on purpose, as Nordic is one of my (many) ancestral cultures. Yet, that is only one direction a Great Lakes animism might take. There is a lot of room for other stories as well. Most importantly, my home state of Michigan is surrounded on four sides by the Great Lakes, and so the Spirits of Water are part of the vitality of my homelands. Every river in this state eventually makes its way to a Great Lake, and from there to the Atlantic Ocean. All the waters of this land are interconnected, physically and spiritually.

In addition, to me water has always had an ‘otherworldly’ feel to it. When you go swimming, and dive into the waters, instantly you find yourself in another world. The ‘ceiling’ has change to the air above, and the ‘floor’ is now the lake/river/pool bottom. Or maybe, the unseen depths and darkness far below your feet.

As air breathers, this world is foreign to us, and we to it. We cannot ever stay long, unless you are fond of drowning. Even with the best scuba gear in existence, our presence in this underworld can only ever be passing. It is another world, and a world where countless dead have come to rest.

This is especially true of the Great Lakes, which has claimed the lives of countless ships, sailors, and swimmers. The Dead dwell within the waters. In addition, all the Great Lakes are down river from whatever river you stand in, and so ‘down river’ too has a very underworldly context. The underworlds are down river. Folklore is full of these kinds of stories, where some otherworld is across the river, or under the lake. I don’t have the space to detail all that.

In addition to the obvious surface waters such as lakes and rivers; there are also the waters that run beneath the earth. These waters are literally under-the-world, from where we stand. These are the places the tree roots reach for, and also the places where we bury our dead. Whether by water, by fire, or in the grave, we often place the bones of our ancestors under-the-world. In the Underworlds, which if you go deep enough turn into the burning core of the planet. We’ve circled back around the Fire Spirits, which also move through the sky.

The Sky, and the Upper Worlds

Our day is defined as the Sun, our local Star Spirit, moves across the sky. The Moon and the Stars track across the night, and across the year. These spirits help us keep time, and our the inspiration for countless stories. My ancestors painted their stories across the skies, there, the Hunter, there the Great Bear, and the Path of Birds (Milky Way) traces an arc across the sky.

Stories in the sky trace the lineage of not only the stardust from which we came, but also the course of where we might be going. My homeland has beautiful night skies, especially when reflected out over the lake. But beyond that, Michigan might also be home to two space launch sites. From the stars we come, to the stars we may return.

The trees reach up towards the sky, into the air, and towards the heavens. They reach towards the Sun, which is their source of food and life. They dig into the Earth for water, and so too is water life. That’s why I am so fond of “world tree” cosmologies, that connect the lower and upper worlds in a continuous stream like a river. A cosmic tree, and a cosmic river, Upper world and lower worlds. I love the poetry in it, and the potential for storytelling. My ancestors recognized it too, as many of those tales are full of World Trees and Great Rivers.

More than stars and moons, the Upper Worlds are also the place of rains, snows, and the changing seasons. As the days grow short in the coming months, the trees will change to the vibrant colors of fall, and then the long sleep of winter. The sky turns, and so do the seasons, and harvest spirits give way to snow spirits and Jack Frost.

The Lands, and the Middle Worlds

The lands are where we humans make ourselves at home. We are not fishes of the water, nor birds of the air. But bi-pedal ape descendants that make ourselves comfortable on the ground under a shady tree. We are animals, and so we are most closely related to the animals around us. The Spirits of the Forest and the Land are among those we understand best, because they are the most similar to ourselves.

In Finnish folklore especially, there is great respect and reverence for the Bear, the Wolf, the Elk, and a whole host of animals besides. There are reasons Finnish immigrants settled in the Michigan, as they saw a lot of their homelands here. Stories and a spirituality grounded in Michigan should not ignore our relatives and teachers of the land.

In fact, my own stories of the seasons turn on the Bear and the Wolf. The Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is native to my state. In fall, the Black Bear dens down to sleep through the long winter*. The Season of the Bear ends at the Autumnal Equinox, and begins again at the Spring Equinox. The Bear sleep in winter, but the Wolf hunts; as such the dark half of the year is the Season of the Wolf. More importantly, the Eastern Timber Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) is a unique subspecies of the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) is native to the Great Lakes region.

But I don’t have the space to detail all the animals, from the Ant to the Whitetail Deer, that are part of what makes Michigan home. Spiritually, they are teachers, guides and the source of more stories than I can count. The Red Fox, in all their mischievous, and the Trout who Swallowed the Fire.

While animals are among our closest kin, the rocks and the trees are vital parts of our stories too. Michigan was once all old growth forest, and the loss, and slow return, of those forests is a deep part of our history. So too is the very nature of the soil beneath our feet, a unique and wonderful blend of glacial till and the remains of the long dead. The soil is the flesh of the dead that nourish the living.

Upwards and Onwards.

There is more than enough stories among our plant and animal cousins for countless generations of tales and stories, and I even have a few of my own. This the the direction my own work is heading, and I hope to outline that a little more in my next post in this series, which more and more may well turn into a book. This is so much I am glossing over here, and so much more I want to say. But I am already past my arbitrary word limit (whoosh) for blogs, so I am going to have to end this here. More forthcoming!

As always, thank you for reading!

Notes

*The Black Bear not a true hibernator, but more like an extended napper. Black bears go into an extended lethargy from late fall to around April.

Sources/References;

http://geo.msu.edu/extra/geogmich/glacial.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_wolf


Towards a Great Lakes Animism

I am grateful for the new animism, because it counts for something. Its importance cannot be overstated. It is a beginning, even without the history and aboriginal connection to this land. It says the human is searching and with a need to be in touch with this land, or other lands of origins in a time when the world is so achingly distressed.” – Linda Hogan, Chickasaw poet and writer.

A bioregion is a landmass that has continuously similar geography, flora, fauna, and human culture, usually centered around a shared watershed. Bioregions are unique in that their boundaries are not marked by national, provincial, or state borders, but instead by the land itself, the native plants and animals, and the people who live there. A bioregion is where geography, wildlife biology, ethnobotany, and anthropology meet — where science, nature, and folklore are one. “ Sarah Anne Lawless

Hello again folks!

This post is the first part of several that are going to start pulling together various strands of my recent work. I think this piece really sets the groundwork for what’s coming next, which are posts about a kind of Great Lakes Cosmology, and then my own experience within that.

I’ve been writing a lot about Finnish/Nordic folklore lately, because that is part of my ancestry. But my ancestry alone is not my whole story. I was born in North American, in Michigan, as a descendant of colonial-settlers. That’s part of my story too, and the history the land I call home. I’ve been searching for a long time for a way to spiritually connect with this land, in a way that both honors the Native Americans, who where the First People, and my own ancestry. Animism is that spiritual path, and one that helps me navigate uncertain waters.

As I’ve said before, I’m a child of two worlds that really belongs to neither. I am on Native American land (Specifically, Three Fires land of Anishinaabe), but I am not Native American. Nor do I belong to any of the European cultures that are among my ancestors, because I am far removed from them in space and time. I am American, and with all the cultural messiness and baggage that comes with that. Specifically, I’m Michiganian (or Michigander, if you prefer), and born into the land of the Great Lakes. That is where I need to root my animism, even if I lack aboriginal connection. Where I stand right now, and the lands and waters I call home.

It brings me comfort that my searching counts for something, like Hogan’s quote above. I need to be in touch with this land, and also I have to respectfully navigate the liminal space between two cultures, two worlds, that are not my own. In that space, is the space for something new to take root.

Recently, in addition to Hogan’s work, I’ve been reading several different books that intersect in a variety of wonderful ways. It’s like I get to sit in the room where several amazing people have a really in-depth conversation, and I’m super grateful to just be able to listen. Obviously, Linda Hogan, a Native writer and poet, is the first person in that glorious conversation. The next is Lupa, and her book Nature Spirituality; from the Ground up.

… I believe a sense of disconnection is what’s at the heart of so many environmental problems today… Ancestral humans – and some people still today – became intimately entwined with their land not only as individuals but as cultures. They learned everything they could about the animals, plants, and fungi living alongside them, and they knew the weather patterns and seasons, the ways the land was shaped, as well as where the special and sacred places were.”

There is a great deal I would recommend about Lupa’s book, and it has been a really fantastic read so far. I think the part that got me thinking the most was a small exercise towards the beginning that concerned a kind of ‘bioregional address.” We often think of ourselves in terms of street names, states, and countries. But, as Lupa asks, what happens when we identify ourselves as part of a larger group of related ecosystems, a bioregion?

My bioregional address would look something like this;

West-Central Laurentia, Great Lakes Basin, Grand River Watershed.

This kind of address identifies myself as part of the greater biosphere, and as part of a unique eco-region. Curiously, all of this particular address revolves around water. Laurentia (St. Lawrence Seaway system), The Great Lakes, and the Grand River watershed are all connected. If I wanted too, I could take the Grand River all the way to Lake Michigan, through the Great Lakes, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Well, with a lot of time off and you know, hypothetically.

At the same time, it’s a lot deeper than just the connection between waterways. The land and waters of my homeland have a history, a story all their own. I am part of that story, and that story is what makes these lands home for me. In addition, as much as I am descendant from Europeans, who I am starts right where I am, in the lands and waters I inhabit right now. That’s also where my understanding of animism is grounded. In culture, in folklore, in ancestry, and in the lands themselves.

The last speaker at our metaphoric camp fire is Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her work Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer is a scientist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation*.

What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make a home? Where are the stories that lead the way? If time does in fact eddy back on itself, maybe the journey of the First Man will provide footsteps to guide the journey of the Second” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass.

I was born in Michigan, in a little hospital in the middle of the state that doesn’t exist anymore. I grew up on the food from this land, and the waters from the wells. I spent my childhood roaming fields and forests, spending my time learning about plants and animals, breaking rocks, and mixing up weird concoctions from anything I could stick in a vial and mix with water. That is the life of this country dweller, this ‘pagan’, this particular animist. In fact, it was in those fields and forests that I got my first lessons in animism, and my love for nature.

But, that doesn’t make me Native American. I was not raised in any of those cultures, I was taught in American public schools. Being blunt about it, I was told the white story of America, and of Michigan. I wouldn’t even begin to hear the voices of the people left out of those stories until I got to college.

But if people do not feel “indigenous,” can they nevertheless enter into deep reciprocity that renews the world? Is this something that can be learned? Where are the teachers?” – Kimmerer

There is so much I want to say about Braiding Sweetgrass, and I haven’t even finished it yet. Still, this question cuts to the core of what I am talking about here. Kimmerer focuses around the idea of teachers, of the plants, animals, the land and waters as part of indigenous teachings. In addition, this is also true of those of us who are not indigenous. My own story, told above, is a great example of the land, forests, and waters as teachers. Kimmerer points out that plants are among the oldest of teachers, for indigenous as well as immigrant people. Ecology, in a wider sense, teaches us about relationships to the land and living in balance and harmony, living in a wider eco-community.

She highlights two plants in particular, kudzu and the common plaintain. Kudzu is an invasive plant and swiftly colonizes new habitats, choking out other life, and growing without regards to limits. This is not all that different from our capitalist mindset. Kudzu teaches us how not to live in that community, as bad neighbors.

However, the common plantain is different. This plant is an immigrant, being non-native to North America. It is called White Man’s Footsteps by some indigenous peoples, because it came over with immigrants from other lands, people like my ancestors. I’ll let Kimmerer make the point here;

Plaintain is so prevalent, so well integrated, we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plaintain is not indigenous, but “naturalized”…

And maybe, that little plant starts to point the way for those of us who are not Native, but also don’t want to be invasive;

Maybe the task assigned to Second Man is to unlearn the model of kudzu, and follow the teachings of White Man’s Footstep (plaitain), to strive to become naturalized to place, to throw off the mind-set of the immigrant. Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land the feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer.

This is the point I want to hammer home with this post. While my ancestors may not be from this continent originally, my relationship with nature and the planet start right where I am now. I am of Michigan, a part of this land and ecosystem. Physically and spiritually, the land beneath my feet is among my ancestors. The land itself, and the land where my ancestors are buried. As where this piece started, I may not have the aboriginal connection or ancestral history here, but the first steps have to made somewhere.

I for one think the first step is at home, in the Great Lakes, and maybe my spirituality can start to become naturalized, even though it won’t be Anishinaabe or from my European ancestors. It will be of the Great Lakes. The land of Michigan will be my teacher.

Thanks for reading!

Notes:

*Irving Hallowell is the scholar who brought to light the idea of “new animism”, which he learned from studying with the Ojibwe people. Robin Wall Kimmerer, is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Notably, the Ojibwe, the Odawa, and the Pottawatomie are the people of the Three Fires, and the native peoples who lived, and still live in my homeland of Michigan.

Sources/References

– Hogan, Linda. We call it tradition. Essay in “The Handbook of Contemporary Animism” edited by Graham Harvey

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass

Lupa. Nature Spirituality from the Ground Up


Making Charcoal

I wanted to say that I do this writing free of charge. I don’t want to put this kind of writing behind a paywall. Much of this I learned free on the internet, and then experimented with it, and I want to offer it to you the same way. That being said, this kind of work is… well.. work. It takes a fair bit of labor to type this all out for you. So, if you want to donate $5 or whatever to help support me, my Paypal is here. Again, not required, but donations are appreciated!

Hello again folks!

Today I want to talk you through the process of making charcoal. Yes, it’s another how-to! Before we get started, I want to put a bit of a disclaimer/caveat on this post. The process I am about to show is works just fine, but this particular batch ended a bit undercooked because I misjudged it. Mistakes happen, that is a fact of life. Even though a little undercooked, I’ll use the pictures from the process anyways,as I didn’t really have any more need of another batch right away.

Anywho, up, up, up, and away!

Animism

As I will be showing you how to make charcoal from wood, it makes sense to talk a bit about the animism behind the process. In Finnish folklore, the forests as well as the trees had their own spirits that lived in the wood. These spirits are called the puun väki, the spirits of wood and the powers that dwell within. I have already talked about the Spirits of the Forest in another post, as well as the Spirits of Fire, which are both integral to this process.

Wood is the living ‘flesh’ of trees, the cellulose tissues that give trees their shape and great strength. It is one of the oldest building materials and fuel for our ancient ancestors, and as such working with wood is a rich and ancient tradition. From housing to fires, from decoration to boats, wood has been the foundation we built our lives around. Wood is a hydrocarbon, a biological material made up of mostly hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and water. The idea behind making charcoal is to ‘burn off’ the other elements, leaving just the carbon behind.

Carbon is an essential element for life on Earth, and we will be making carbon from the once living trees. The cycles of life and death are inherent in the making of charcoal, which can be used to return carbon to the soil, known as biochar, as well as to create fire and warmth. I use charcoal to both fuel my forge, as well as a soil supplement, and a pigment on occasion.

The Process

Alright, let’s jump into it! Making charcoal is a fairly straightforward process, and making charcoal in pits in one of the oldest methods. Charcoal is mostly carbon, and is derived by burning wood in the absence of oxygen. You see, wood is a hydrocarbon, made up of mostly ( 6%) hydrogen, (42%) oxygen, (50%)carbon, and other elements. What we want to do is drive off the other elements by pyrolysis (fancy word for burning with fire), and leaving behind just the carbon.

Materials Needed

  • Wood, lots of wood. Split thinly
  • A pit of decent size
  • A shovel/fire poker. You may need to adjust burning logs
  • A large steel plate.
  • A way to make fire.

Step One, chop wood and fill the pit

You want the wood you intend to burn to be split pretty thin. This makes it easier to stack in the pit without a lot of space, and also means that the heat of the fire can get into the wood easier and burn through. If the fire can’t reach the inside of your logs, they won’t turn into charcoal.

Next, you want to take all this wood to your pit, and stack it in pretty tight. Remember, we don’t want too much oxygen in the fire, otherwise all our charcoal will just burn up. We need some oxygen of course, especially in the beginning, otherwise the fire won’t actually do the burning thing. It’s a bit of a balancing act that comes with practice. Here, you can see how I stacked my own pit. It’s a pretty tight build, with a trench in the middle for starting my fire. I’ll throw tinder and kindling down in there to get things going, and then stack a little more split wood in as things get going.

(Wood Stacked in Pit)

Step Two, Burn Wood.

The next step is about as straight forward as they come, lighting up your tinder and kindling and letting the fire do it’s thing. Again, I used my magnifying glass to start the fire (fire is the child of the sun), and let thing catch nicely and throwing in some more wood as I saw fit.

(Fire!)

Now comes the part where you wait. Making good charcoal is a practice in patience and timing. You want the wood to cook through into charcoal, but you don’t want to burn it down into ash. My fire burned for over an hour, and I moved onto the next step as the logs started to turn white with ash along the edges.

(Larger logs on top)

When I see the ash on my first batch of logs, I threw in a larger set of logs to partly cover the whole pit. The reason I did this is to start the “smothering” process, knowing the larger logs wouldn’t burn down to charcoal completely. What the logs on top do is compact the lower levels, and deprive them of oxygen so they can “cook” more completely. I’ve seen videos of folks doing this in multiple layers, in much bigger pits.

(Big logs looking ashy, lower logs compacted)

After the layer of big logs burned down a bit, I smothered the pit.

Step Three, Smother

This is the part where we deprive the entire pit of oxygen. For this, I use a large steel (or in this case two) plate to cover the pit. You drop the plate over the fire, and then let the fire burn away without more oxygen turning your batch into ash. Then you use your shovel to put dirt over the “seams”, until there is only a small hole for smoke to come out.

(Plates in place, little smoke hole, showing a blue-ish white puff)

The reason I leave a small hole is so I can watch the smoke. It will change color as the different parts of the wood burn off.

The smoke hole helps me to judge how the wood is burning down. Really blue smoke means there is still water burning off, so give the batch more time (and oxygen) to cook a little longer. Gray and white smokes means the oxygen and hydrogen (and other trace elements), are still burning off. When the white smoke thins out, and you are seeing mostly just “shimmers” of heat, then your batch is mostly ready. Seal up your smoke hole, and watch thing for a while. You need to choke out the fire now, and as things settle it might start to smoke around the plate again. Drop some more dirt on those spots for the next hour or so.

(All sealed up)

Once you have babysat things for a while, and the pit is fully sealed up and not smoking anymore, walk away for about 24 hours to give it time to cool. Check back once in a while to make sure your dirty “seams” aren’t smoking. We want to keep oxygen out of the pit now, and can only wait for things to cool down.

Check your pit the next day, and don’t open it up until the plates have cooled. If they are hot to touch don’t open the pit. Give it some more time.

End Result

(Charcoal batch, undercooked)

Once your plate(s) have cooled, you should have a nice batch of charcoal. As I said at the beginning, mine ended up undercooked, because I goofed up. The big logs on top I didn’t expect to fully carbonize (as I just use those for snuffing the layers below), but I was disappointed to see more “whole” logs than I wanted underneath. I still got some charcoal, but this is not an ideal batch. You want the charcoal to be crumbly, and the log pieces to break into chunks of charcoal. Only the lowest layers of this batch did that.*

But don’t fret! The good thing about undercooked batches is that you can just throw those logs into your next batch and cook them some more!

As always, thanks for reading!

 

*My forge can use solid wood, as well as charcoal and coal. I prefer charcoal over wood just because it burns cleaner and a bit hotter. The impurities in wood are cooked mostly out during the charcoal process.

Sources/References;

A few links that got me started making charcoal.

https://www.instructables.com/id/Making-your-own-charcoal-aka-lump-charcoal/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5WYgjUdFEs

“Fire the Pit” 4 parts – A great look at historical charcoal making


The Spirits of the Moon

Hello again folks!

I started writing this on the full moon, so I am sure you can already guess what topic I am going to cover today. In Finnish folklore, moon spirits are called the kuu väki, or sometimes as the Kuutar (Moon spirits/’Maiden of the Moon’.)

The moon is our closest celestial neighbor, and for that reason it figures into most cultures in a variety of ways. Sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes none of the above, the moon has been a character in folklore and myth since time immemorial. Luna, Selene, Artemis, Mani, ‘Man in the Moon’; the list could easily go a lot longer.

But, as is the habit of Finnish folklore, to really understand the moon, and the spirits that dwell there, we first have to ask about the Origin of the Moon.

(Moon Picture Wikipedia)

Origin of the Moon

In the Kalevala, the Moon is formed from a piece of an egg white, and placed in the heavens. It’s a fun little story, but that’s certainly not the whole of it. The Moon is far more interesting than simply being a piece of an egg.

Based on our best guess and current science, the Moon formed when the Earth and the Solar system was still young, about 4.5 billion years ago. The Earth, was struck by a Mar-sized called Theia, and the giant impact created the mass that eventually formed into the Moon. It was a massive, fiery impact that reshaped both the celestial bodies. This is why the Moon has a unique composition, and is more alike the Earth than not. Compared to all other planets in the system, the Earth and the Moon are the closest to what we might call “siblings”, in terms of formation and composition. Plus they both share a common parentage in the Sun.

The cycle of the moon phases, the tides, and even the orbit of the Earth are the result of the dance between our planet and the Moon. In addition, moonlight is just reflected sunlight, further building the connection between the three. For me, the dance of the Earth, Moon, and Sun speaks of an old relationship among the three. Which also means, I often interpret the moon as a kind of “bridge” between them; sharing ancestry with both, and reflecting sunlight from even below the horizon during a full moon. The Moon is the bridge, like a port of call between the Earth and the Sun. That is what working with moon spirits is like for me, working with sailors from celestial shores and far away places.

Plus, the sci-fi geek in me loves the idea that someday, the Moon will also be a jumping point to the rest of the Solar System for us simple humans. A literal and spiritual port for Solar sailors. I love the poetry in that thought.

(Another Moon Picture, From the DSCVOR Satelite, Moon passing in front of the Earth Wikipedia)

More Moon Folklore

The kuu väki, the spirits and energies of the Moon, are more than just Solar sailors. The stories behind them are complex and varied even within Finnish folklore. There is a close connection between Moon spirits, weaving, and the Great Bear (Big Dipper). In Finland, the Bear is the lord of the Forest, and in many ways first among the celestial spirits. The is a close connection between the spirits of fabric, weaving, and the spirits of the Bear.

I would quickly run out of room if I went into the details behind those connections, but that is not the story I want to focus on here. This is the story I want to tell, in my own way of course. This is a story I touched on in my post on the Spirits of Fire.

Väinämöinen played his harp for many days; to the delight of all of nature

The animals came to listen, and the plants too

Even the sun and moon came down to the sky to listen

To be stolen by the Mistress of North Farm

Louhi of Pojhola had stolen the sun, stolen the moon

The world was dark, the world was cold

Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen, fast friends

Set out across the world in search of the Sun and Moon

Yet the world was dark, the world was cold

Louhi had hidden the sun, hidden the moon

Deep within a mountain

Where no sun could shine

And no moon could glow

Ilmarinen, disheartened by the cold went to his smithy

Threw gold in the fire, threw silver in the fire

Sought to forge a new sun and moon

To shape the arch of the heavens

But the sun would not shine

The moon would not glow

Shiny trinkets, nothing more

The friends would have to go

Would have to adventure to North Farm

(Louhi Steals the Sun and Moon, by Joseph Alanen)

Alright, so that is my own stripped down version of a much more complex poem and cycle of stories. I hope you get the gist, and start to see how important the Sun and Moon is in Finnish folkore. One of the many fights between the people of Kalevala and Pohjola are over the Sun and Moon. Eventually, the two are released from the mountain, and more than happy to return to their places in the sky.

There is also the deep connection with fire and forging. When the world goes dark, as I explored in a previous post, is when the two friends go in search of fire to make it through the long night. That would be a strange experience, having no Sun or Moon in the sky. An experience people near the Arctic circle are well aware of, I would think.

Which points to another role of the Moon, the cycles of time. The very word for “month” is built around the phases of the moon, approximately 29.5 days from Full to Full. The Moon is a vital timekeeper, and it is one the ways I structure my spiritual practice.

Messengers, Sailors, Timekeepers. The kuu väki are important spirits to know and connect with. They like to visit the Earth every 30 days or so, to join us for a few nights and light up the world with their presence,. As such, I hope you enjoy the full moon this month!

Thanks for reading,

Sources/References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuutar

Sarmela, Matti “The Finnish Folklore Atlas”

Lonrott, Elias. Maguon Jr, Francis Peabody trans. “The Kalevala”


The Spirits of Iron

Hello again folks!

It is great to have some room to write again. There are a lot of different irons in the fire (get it?), and I am working my way through them. There is upcoming work that pulls a lot of my recent work together, a how-to on how to make charcoal, and some other work as well. I’m moving forward, and that is the best I can hope for at the moment.

(Picture of elemental iron, Wikipedia)

Today, I want to talk about iron. This should come as no surprise, because I’m a blacksmith. Iron in many ways central to the work I do. More than that, iron is ubiquitous throughout the universe, and essential to human civilization. Cars, machines, ships, even the hemoglobin in our blood is dependent on the existence of iron.

In Finnish folklore, the spirits of iron are called raudan väki. These are spirits of the environment as much as they are they are spirits of civilization. Like many other spirits, their nature is complex and they can be be benevolent, harmful, as well as anywhere in between. Swords made of iron are designed to hurt people. An ambulance is meant to give people a fighting chance. Low iron in the blood can make us sick, but iron supplements can help heal that imbalance.

Much of Finnish folklore and animism is built around the idea of origins. In no small way, if you know how some spirit came to be, it gives you power over that spirit. Knowing the story of a being helps you to understand it, and understanding makes building a relationship with a spirit easier. Think about repairing a car, or forging a knife, it’s easier when you know what you are doing.

In no small way, knowledge is power. That is why Finnish folklore is full of origin stories for all kinds of spirits; wood, earth, stone, disease, water, even blood and iron. . But since we are talking about iron today, let’s dig into that a little more.

Origin of Iron

Air is its first of mothers, water the eldest of brothers

iron the youngest of brothers, fire in turn the middle one.

(Kalevala, Magoun Translation)

(Image of elemental star formation)

Iron came from the explosion of large and dense stars. It takes a lot of energy to fuse lighter elements into iron, and thus kaboom! The universe is seeded with iron over the long cycles of living and dying stars. As our own solar system condense from the solar furnance, iron was already abundant. As a heavier element, as our planet cooled in sank into the core, and all throughout the young planet. Our best science today says that the inner core of our planet is likely solid iron and nickel, suspended in a layer of liquid iron.

Today, iron is the fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust, and the most common by mass. It is rarely found in it’s elemental state, however, iron ores (rocks/minerals containing iron) are among the most commonly found. Hematite and magnetite are the two most common sources of iron ore, which is then processed, refined, and made into raw iron and steel. Probably, one of the most common materials we use in this project we call civilization.

According to the folklore, the origin story of the raudan väki is a little more complicated. Personally, I have strong preference for the celestial origin of iron. Yet, in the Kalevala there are two main themes that run through the Origins of Iron.

It must be noted here that Lonnrott, as he collected the folklore as he traveled around Finland, took a lot of liberties with his source material to make it ‘flow’ more cleanly as a single narrative. However, this means it’s strung together from a lot of smaller oral traditions; ones that weren’t necessarily part of the same narrative.

The first narrative is the story of the iron maidens, and they were heavy metal rockers… No wait, that’s not quite right. The iron maidens were women/nature spirits. They had heavy breasts filled with milk, and they wandered across the land pouring out the milk as they went. Where the red milk (uh…) landed, iron ore came into being. Where the white milk (a little more normal…) landed steel was brought forth. Where the black milk (seriously, go to the doctor) landed, bar-iron was born. This is the first narrative concerning origin of iron, and in case it doesn’t show, I’m not a huge fan of this narrative.

The second narrative follows the first, but is probably drawn from a separate set of oral tales.. Iron sat for a long time within the Earth, and eventually wanted to meets it’s brother, Fire. Iron sought out Fire for a long time, and eventually the two of them met. But Fire was in a terrible mood, and Iron was burnt badly. Iron went back into hiding under some birch trees for years on end. But then;

A wolf ran along the fen, a bear wandered in from the heath

The fen stirred where the wolf stepped, the heath where the bear set its paw

There bog-iron came to the surface, and a steel ingot grew

In the print’s of the wolf’s claws, in the marks of the bear’s heel.

(Kalevala, Magoun Translation)

Eventually, the great smith llmarinen comes wandering through, looking for a place to set up his forge. He finds the iron in the wolf and bear tracks, and that is where he decides to site his smithy. He eventually helps to mend the relationship between Fire and Iron, because he’s a master smith.

Honestly, I like this version a lot better. First, because wolf and bears, obviously. Second, and most importantly, because this really speaks to the actual facts of the nature of bog iron. Bog iron grows in waterways, swamps, and fens as a result of bacteria growth. Iron is what those organisms deposit as waste, and the iron builds up over time. It is something that could well be found in the tracks of a passing animal.

(Bog iron ore, and iron bearing water from a spring. Wikipedia)

Blood and Rust

When you (iron) were resting as ooze, standing as clear water

On the surface of a fen, on the top of rough bald hill

When you were changed there to earthy muck, began to become rusty soil.

At the time you were not big, neither big nor small

When the elks trampled you in the fen, when wild reindeer lashed you on the heath

A wolf trod on you with its claws, a bear with its paws

(Kalevala, Magoun Translation)

This post is already getting a bit on the long side, but this is something I want to mention briefly. As I have already mentioned, there is a connection between iron and blood. It is the hemoglobin, an iron based protein in our blood that carries oxygen, and gives red blood cells the characteristic color. That is a trait of iron, and it is often evident by the red color in soils and minerals. The orange-red of rusting iron is also the expression of this trait.

Rust is part of the ‘life cycle’ of iron; as it moves from the ground, to the forge (or factory), and then as it decays it returns to the ground once more. Same as we do, as we live, grow, and eventually pass away. The iron returns to the Earth, and so does the blood.

Just as importantly, in the Kalevala, the raudan väki are closely connected to the healing of wounds and stopping bleeding. The story goes that Väinämöinen is building himself a boat, when his axe slips, and leaves a gouge in his knee. In order to have this wound treated, he has to seek out a healer. In order to properly heal the wound, Väinämöinen has to tell the healer the Origin of Iron, which we have already covered. When this is done, the healer recites a charm against the abuses of iron, and then a healing charm to stop the blood, and Väinämöinen is healed and can continue on his journey.

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

Sarmela, Matti “The Finnish Folklore Atlas”

Lonrott, Elias. Maguon Jr, Francis Peabody trans. “The Kalevala”

Wikipedia Iron

Wikipedia Earth’s inner core

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bog_iron


Pit Fired Pottery

I wanted to say that I do this writing free of charge. I don’t want to put this kind of writing behind a paywall or a Patreon. Much of this I learned free on the internet, and then experimented with it, and I want to offer it to you the same way. That being said, this kind of work is… well.. work. It takes a fair bit of labor to type this all out for you. So, if you want to donate $5 or whatever to help support me, my Paypal is here. Again, not required, but donations are appreciated!

Hello again folks!

This is another post in my on going series of practical skill-sharing. It gives me a small opportunity to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the years, and pass on some hands-on knowledge to you all.

Last time, I talked about Making Clay from Dirt, and also explored a quick way to learn more about your own soil. Alright, so we’ve made some clay, and we’ve made something out of it. The pottery for this for this how-to is made via slip casting, which is a skill I will touch on later on in another post. For now, I’m kinda glossing over that part. Let’s just assume you’ve made some awesome pottery, and now it’s time to fire it.

Pit firing is exactly what it sounds like. You put some pottery in a pit, and you start a fire around it. The pottery inside the pit then goes through a chemical process that turns the raw clay into a ceramic. A ceramic is a fired clay, that has at least partially gone through the process of vitrification, that makes the piece (at least partially) impermeable to water. That’s just a fancy way of saying that the fired ceramic will no longer melt back into mud if it gets wet. The amount of vitrification varies a lot, depending on process, clay, and temperature.

Earthenware, Stoneware, and Porcelain

Ceramics pieces such as bricks, pottery, and ceramic tiles are commonly classed in three different types; earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. Earthenware is the most common type, and it is made from many different kinds of clay, is porous, (won’t retain liquids), usually non-vitreous, and is fired at a lower temperature than the other two types. It can be glazed (and thus can hold liquids), or unglazed, and is the oldest type of ceramic in human history. Examples of earthenware date back as far as 29,000 BC.

Most clays won’t survive very high temperatures during firing, so stoneware didn’t show up until about 5,000 years ago. Stoneware can only be made of specific clays, and is fired at a higher temperature than earthenware. It goes further into the vitrification process, and as such loses the porousness of earthenware. Stoneware is usually glazed as well, and as such is commonly used for liquids.

Porcelain is fired at the highest temperature of the three types, and therefore porcelain can only be made with very specific (usually kaolin) clays. Porcelain requires great skill and craft to produce, and so is the latest of the three to be invented. Porcelain, for that reason, is often found in “prestigious” items throughout history.

Modern ceramic manufacturing covers the spectrum of all three types, with a variety of glazes and materials. Ceramic tiles, bricks, terracotta flower pots, spark plugs, electrical insulation, and tableware are all made of fired clay.

Animism and Ceramic

As I don’t want this piece to be too long, I will only touch on this briefly here. There is a great deal of animism of working with earth spirits, and clay and ceramics. Just like my first piece on pottery, ceramics are a way of building relationship to the earth as well as to the ancestors. In fact, pottery is one of the key ways working archaeologists differentiate one culture from another. Every people, every culture throughout time has inscribed their own ideas, beliefs, and worldviews into their pottery. In addition, they embodied they working skills and practical experience of their people as well, in working clay and firing ceramics. Moving forward!

How-To

Let’s start with materials. For this one, we are going to make pit-fired earthenware, which is the oldest type of ceramic we know of. In short, unfired pottery is put into a pit, and lit on fire. That means the temperatures are low (usually below 800 degrees Celsius, or below 1470 Fahrenheit). It also means there are not many materials needed. For this how-to, I used the following;

  • A pit
  • Two cinder blocks
  • A piece of metal mesh
  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Pottery pieces to be fired
  • An oven (optional)

That’s it, so lets get started.

Step 1 – Pre-baking (Optional)

Before I get to firing the pottery in the pit, I throw them the pieces to be fired into the oven. First, an hour or so at 400 F, and then I turn up the oven to 500 F for another hour. Even though the pottery is air dried when it hits the oven, the reason I do this is to drive a little more water from the pieces before firing. This is an optional step, but I find it helps a lot with survival of the pieces. In addition, any really bad pieces won’t survive this step, so it helps weed out those pieces too without wasting wood and effort.

(Pottery after pre-baking, ready for the pit!)

Step 2 – Digging the pit, chopping the wood

(Gettin’ wood)

This is the most straightforward part of pit firing. You need yourself a pit, which is basically just a hole in the ground. Site this away from dry flammable stuff, and find yourself a shovel. For this demonstration I used a pit about the width and depth of a five gallon bucket. It doesn’t have to be huge, as long as you aren’t firing too many pieces. If you already dug a pit for my first tutorial, congratulations, you don’t have to duplicate the effort.

You will also need wood. Not too much since we are starting small, but larger pits = more fuel. Chop chop! Smaller pieces work better in smaller pits.

Step 3 – Prep the pit

(Pit, ready to go)

Once the pit is dug, you have to prepare it for firing. As you’ve might notice, I put two cinder blocks on either side of my tinder and kindling. The reason for this is important. You want the heat to hit the bottom of your pottery. Trust me on this, otherwise you will get only partially fired bottoms. The point of the cinder blocks is to have something to put my pottery rack on top of, so the fire is all around the pieces, and thus heating them from all sides. I didn’t start with a lot of wood in my pit, because you want the temperature to raise somewhat slowly. If you go right to a big, raging fire, some pottery might explode due to unequal heat. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

Step 4 – Fire!

(Lighting fire with the power of the sun! Animism at work… Or play? )

Alright, so now it’s time to light the fire. I like to light my fires with a little convex lens and a box of tinder. If you read my previous post on The Spirits of Fire you might be able to guess why that is. If not, in short in Finnish animism, fire is a child of the sun. There’s practical spirituality there.

Also, once I lit the fire, I had to quickly (yet, carefully) place my rack of pottery onto the fire. That way, the fire was underneath my pottery. Then, over the next couple of hours, I built up the fire and maintained it. There is some finesse here, because you want to maintain a constant temperature, without crushing your pottery. Build the fire up gradually, maintain it at a peak, and then let it cool down slowly. I probably used bigger wood than I should of this time around, though thankfully I didn’t crush anything. Knocked one piece over once or twice though.

Pit fires only get so hot, so overheating isn’t too much of a risk. Once you’ve burned around your pottery for an hour or two, feel free to let the fire die down. Then let the pottery cool for several more hours. It will take a while, so don’t rush it. Pottery likes to explode under unequal heat conditions, which means it warms up too fast, or cools too fast. Be patient. I know, it’s hard. When your pottery is cool to the touch, feel free to remove it.

Step 5 – Pit Fired Pottery, hopefully

Once my pottery is cooled, it’s time to give it a look over. 50% loss rate is about normal, so don’t be surprised if you lose about half your pottery. This is good to keep in mind when you are making and shaping it from clay, not to get attached to any one piece. It may well be the one that blows up. If you really like a particular design or specific pot, make a few of them. That helps to ensure you will get at least one on the other side of the fire.

This is where I tend to ‘test’ my pieces, and give them a good look over. Sometimes there will be broken pieces, sometimes small hairline cracks. I will tend take at least one piece from each batch and get it wet. A little at first, then a full submersion. If it turns back into mud, it didn’t fire completely. If not, congratulations, you have pit fired ceramic! Also, bubbling is totally normal for earthenware, they’re porous after all. Water will drain through them, albeit slowly.

I also want to draw your attention to a couple of details throughout this process. This is where the real artistry of pit firing comes in! Pit firing creates unique ceramic pieces that vary a LOT in color and patterning. The nature of the fire, and the clay, makes each piece one of a kind. Iron minerals in the clay make the rich reds you see in my pieces above. Burning wood and charcoal creates black colors. You noticed I added green grass to my fire, creating more grays/blacks/browns. Minerals, salts, metals, all kinds of materials can be added to the fire to create different colors, especially on white clays.

Some of my pieces have small cracks, or broken bits. I hope to add an extra layer of artistry; by fixing some of those cracks with colored resin. In the tradition of kintsugi, except I’m not using gold… Paints and other things can be added for extra artistry!

Experiment, and enjoy!

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceramic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthenware

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoneware

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porcelain

https://www.upinsmokepottery.com/pit-firing.html

https://www.upinsmokepottery.com/colorants.html (A great list of colorants for your pottery!)


Spirits of Fire

Hello again everyone!

It is good to be writing again, at least in some regular fashion. I don’t remember if I mentioned it here or not, but some months ago my work schedule changed and my writing output went to nearly nothing. I’ll be honest, keeping up with any kind of writing has been hard, even though I have been able to get out a couple of pieces in the past couple of months. Suffice to say, there is a fair bit of work in the backlog that I hope I can get to soon.

So let’s talk about the backlog, just for a bit of an update. In the next few posts, I have a couple of more posts for my ‘practical skills’ series. The first will be about pit firing pottery, and the second will be about making charcoal. I ran through these processes recently, so have plenty of pictures of the process ready for posting. I just have to get them written up. In addition, I have folklore posts, such as the one today. In addition to the one for today, I also have two others in the pipeline, one about iron, and one that is more a compilation piece that starts to pull the wayward posts together.

Later on in the year, there is also work on two longer manuscripts, a non-fiction piece, and another novel. Work, work, work! Did I mention how excited I am to be writing again?

Fire!

With that all out of the way, let’s jump right into it. Today, I want to talk about the Fire People. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are called the tulen väki. The Fire People encompass not only the physical nature of fire, but also the more spiritual aspects as well.

Fire, and use of fire, has been ubiquitous throughout our history. The earliest evidence of the use of fire by Homo erectus is almost 2 million years ago. Since then, fire has been instrumental in cooking, protection from predators, and even humans migration to cold climates and every environment across the globe. Fire is a foundation of our society even today, and near the heart of our industrial civilization. Everything from internal combustion engines, to blast furnaces is dependent on fire. Whether for energy, fuel, or food; fire is absolutely essential to human life.

(From Wikipedia, National Museum of Mongolian History)

If you have ever spent any time sitting around a fire, you also know something of it’s spiritual qualities. Some of the most in depth conversations I have ever had happened around a fire. This speaks to the complex nature of the tulen väki, that speaks straight to our own spirits, but also to the forces of creation of destruction.

Like many spirits, fire can sustain life as well as take it away. It can be the devastation embodied in the forest fire, or the healing present in a hot meal, or the healing warm airs of the sauna. Hey, this is Finland we are talking about saunas here. Fires were at the heart of many community festivals in Finland, going back to at least to the Iron Age, and probably well into the animistic past. Fire, and the Fire People, were the source of community well being, and everyone had to bring something from the village to contribute to the flames.

The Origin of Fire

Lightning, fire from the heavens!

In Finnish folklore, we even have stories about the Origins of Fire. Now, keep in mind that folklore is not always consistent, and can be told in different ways at different times and places. So there are several different themes that run throughout the folklore. Here I’ve just presented a stripped down version of my own to keep things brief.

Louhi of Pojhola had stolen the sun, stolen the moon

The world was dark, the world was cold

The spirits stalked about the heavens, wondering

Why so dark, why so cold?

One took up a the tinderbox, struck fire on the steel

Struck once, struck again.

Fire burst forth, and was taken by the spirits of the air

It was rocked in the cradle, rocked in infancy

Someday there would be a new sun, growing into a new moon

But the cradle tipped, and fire fell to earth

It streaked from the heavens, fell in the forests

Burned acrossed the world, and fell in Lake Alue.

To be swallowed by a fish, eaten whole and hidden.

Alright, so that’s my version. It’s not anything fancy, but gives you all a rough outline. The poetic version(s) can be found in the Kalevala, and is much longer and more robust. There are also several different themes, many that date from early shamanism of Finland. After the Sun and Moon was stolen, fire was created in the heavens, and fell to earth (as lightning), where it started a forest fire.

Ilmarinen struck the fire, Väinämöinen flashed with a multicolored snake, with three eagle

feathers above six bright canopies, above nine heavens/ above a steep cloud edge…

Fire golden made of sunshine, grandson of the sun, born from his mistress…

Rolled on the fire-ball, over marshes over lands, burned the earth, burned the Underworld/

burned half of Northland…

Here we see the themes that roll through the folklore about the Origin of Fire. Two well known cultural heroes strike fire in the heavens, and it falls to the earth as lightning (multicolored snake), or perhaps is shot to earth as an arrow (three eagle feathers). Fire too is considered the son of the Sun, and that when fire comes to earth in can be devastating. The Fire Folk are also the ‘middle brother’ in the tribe of common spirits. This is from the Origin of Iron;

Air is its first of mothers, water the eldest of brothers

iron the youngest of brothers, fire in turn the middle one.

(Kalevala, Magoun Translation)

I could go on of course, because above is only the barest selection from all the stories about fire in Finnish folklore. Many stories tell of the relationship between the humans and the fire, in terms of managing forests, clearing land for agriculture, burning charcoal or pine tar, and especially smithing and the forging of iron and other metals. We will be talking about the Iron Folk in a future post.

(Retired blast furnance for iron making in Spain, from wikipedia.)

I am a blacksmith myself, and in many ways, someone who learned about animism in the forest. I love the naturalistic aspects of Finnish folkore and animism, and the same is true of the tulen väki. I have a great deal of experience working with fire; spiritually as well as practically. I have tended campfires, forges, charcoal grills, and even make my own pottery and charcoal as well. As I mentioned up above, those practical skill write-ups are forth coming. Since fire is at the center of those posts, it made sense to write about the Fire People first.

I have just scratched the surface with this one, and there will be a lot more to come. At least with this briefest of introductions, you will have a better understanding of the spirituality and animism that underlies the coming ‘how-to’ posts, which both involve fire.

As always,

Thanks for reading!

Sources/References;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_of_fire_by_early_humans

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haltija

Sarmela, Matti “The Finnish Folklore Atlas”

Lonrott, Elias. Maguon Jr, Francis Peabody trans. “The Kalevala”


Making Clay from Dirt: Supplemental

I wanted to say that I do this writing free of charge. I don’t want to put this kind of writing behind a paywall or a Patreon. Much of this I learned free on the internet, and then experimented with it, and I want to offer it to you the same way. That being said, this kind of work is… well.. work. It takes a fair bit of labor to type this all out for you. So, if you want to donate $5 or whatever to help support me, my Paypal is here. Again, not required, but donations are appreciated! Thank you for those that have already donated! 

Hello again folks!

Now this one isn’t a full how-to, but more information that you may find useful about my previous post about Making Clay from Dirt. That is why this one is called a supplemental!

(Captain’s Log, Supplemental. You’re welcome.)

Maybe you don’t know diddly squat about dirt, or the land your reside on. Maybe this is the first time you have ever held a shovel in your life. Hey, there was a first time for all of it. I’ve been digging holes since I was a kid (much to my parent’s dismay, at times), but there was a time when I had no idea what I was doing, and we all start somewhere. So, for today I want to share with you a quick an easy way to learn a little more about the soil, especially if you want to make clay from it.

Materials:

This one is real easy.

  • You will need an empty jar, I used a mason jar

  • Something to dig some dirt with. A shovel is probably your best bet, because we have to dig down into the “banking” layer of the soil to have the best chance to find some clay.

  • A water source, a sink worker well for me

  • A spoon, or stick, or something to stir mud

  • Sifter, optional, but it helps.

Soil Horizon.

(A quick refresher)

Just a quick reminder, layer B is the layer we are after. Clay minerals leach out (because of water weathering) of the upper layers and move down into the B soil layer. There is usually a noticeable color change, (my soil turns tannish after the darker brown of the upper layers.) But in some ways each soil is unique, and there can be a lot of variety based on both the cultural and natural history of the land we are digging. My home land is an old onion farm, so it’s been turned over, and over, and over. Wet soils (river beds, swamps) may have clays a lot closer to the surface, others may be deeper down.

The cool part of what I am about to show you is that you can do it more than once, and really get a good feel for the clay (sand, and silt) content of your soil. This is really good information to have on hand.

The Process

Take your shovel and go out to wherever you are wanting to dig clay from. Make a small hole that gets you down into the banking layer. It helps me to make the hole wide enough were I can clearly see the layers in the wall of the hole. You can scrap the wall with your shovel or a trowel if you really want to see the layer changes.

Once you have your hole, you need to fill your jar around half full with dirt. Do you best to avoid lots of organic matter (roots, twigs, debris), gravel, and stones. You don’t want these in your sample. You can sift your soil quickly if that helps, but this part is optional if you are careful.

Now that you have your jar of dirt, take it inside and add some water to it. Don’t overfill it, but you need enough to be able to liquefy your dirt. Grab yourself a spoon or fancy stick, and stir that dirt up real good. You want a dirt cloud when you are done.

Now set it aside for a few hours or a couple days and let the dirt settle. This is going to allow the dirt to settle, and the particles are generally going to do this by density. Sand and gravel will settle towards the bottom, followed by silt, and on top.. Clay!

That’s the process, but now we explore the why.

The Soil Texture Chart

(My sample, clay is the smoothest layer on top. Followed by silt, and then a buttload of sand.)

The information we get from this short process is really valuable. Look at my sample above after a few days, and tell me what you see? Alright, I’ll tell you. This short little process gives you an idea of the proportional makeup of your soil. Ignore the water, and just focus on the layered soil. Mine is about 10% clay, 20% silt, and the rest is sand.

With that information in hand, let me introduce you to the Soil Texture Chart. It’s a triangle that covers most of the soil types you will encounter.

(Soil Texture Chart)

Also, there is handy online tool from the USDA that is super helpful here. Once you have your proportions, you can enter them into the tool, and it spits out your soil type. You only need fill in the percantages for sand and clay, and it will highlight your soil type on the chart above.

My soil type is called “Sandy Loam” in the bottom left, which means I get a little bit of clay, and a mountain of sand when I make clay. Your soil may be different, from really clay rich soils at the top of chart, to really silty soils at the bottom right. And that’s it, that’s the whole process. Now you know a little bit more about your soil, and this has wide implications beyond just making clay. It is also important for things like gardening (plants like minerals), agriculture, and even things like carbon sequestration. But I don’t have the space to go into all that here.

Future Posts

As this was a slightly shorter post, it gives me a little bit of space of what I am working on right now. I think my next skill sharing post will be about making charcoal, as that is another important building block for future projects. I also want to cover traditional pit firing of clay, and there will also be a little bit about slip casting (poured clay) in the near future. Ideally this is building towards a few posts on blacksmithing and metal work. (clay and charcoal are both components.) There are a few other things I may talk about along the way, woodwork, forestry and some other stuff too. I also have more folklore and animism I want to tie in too.

As always, thanks for reading!


Making Clay from Dirt

Making Clay from Dirt

Hello again folks!

I hope you are all doing well! I am still in quarantine until the end of April, so I have found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. I would tell you I have been getting a lot of writing done, but that isn’t really true. Getting a little done around the house, but not much to tell beyond that.

Which I why I wanted to start posting about practical skills. It gives me something to write about, and I get to share with you all things I have learned over the year. It’s a way for me to teach and share, without having to leave the house. It also keeps me busy, and keeps me from going stir crazy.

Before we jump into the deep end here, I wanted to say that I do this writing free of charge. I don’t want to put this kind of writing behind a paywall or a Patreon. Much of this I learned free on the internet, and then experimented with it, and I want to offer it to you the same way. That being said, this kind of work is… well.. work. It takes a fair bit of labor to type this all out for you. So, if you want to donate $5 or whatever to help support me, my Paypal is here. Again, not required, but donations are appreciated!

About Clay and Soil

Now, for a little bit of background. Soil varies a lot, and can come with all kinds of different compositions, textures, and mineral content. The soil outside your door may be very different than mine, and it helps to have a familiarity with that. You may have a clay rich soil, and this could be an easy process. Or you can have real sandy soil like mine, and so for every bit of clay you produce, you are guaranteed to have more sand than you know what to do with…

Without going into too much detail (I’m trying to keep this short, so I may expand on this in another post), clays are the result of mineral weathering, when certain rocks and minerals break down and leach into the soil. One of the chief producers of clay is water. Specifically, low energy water. (Low energy deposition is the technical term.) Think slow moving rivers, lakes, and especially wetlands. Some of the best clay I have ever dug came from a swamp! So if you have a river or a lake nearby, those will probably yield the best clays. But you may be able to get it out of your backyard as well!

Faster waters tend to flush clay minerals downstream, and into river deltas and things like that. Clay has been easier for me to find in low energy water bodies, and so the clays are all deposited on site, in river banks and such.

Clay is formed when water breaks apart rocks, minerals, and soil; and separates out the clay minerals. This are tiny particles that are smaller than gravel, sand, or even silt. It’s the very fine nature of the clay minerals that gives clay their distinct plasticity. That is why our ancestors learned to cast, shape, and mold clay into all kinds of cermamics and pottery!

A Little Animism

Again, without going too much in depth, as a practicing animist, it goes without saying that working with the earth and with clay has a deep spiritual component for me. The Earth is the planet from which all life we know shares a common heritage and ancestry. Digging into the soil is creating a close relationship with the Earth, and deepening that connection. As a former archaeology student, the land beneath our feet is in a very real the living memory of the Earth, the layers of geology and human prehistory are like memories of the planet. More than this, clays and ceramics are one of the oldest materials that our ancestors learned, and for me the process is a deep way of connecting with them as well. This could also be a whole other article in itself, but I wanted to briefly touch on it.

Materials

Alright, let’s begin! One of the best parts of digging clay is that is pretty straightforward, and doesn’t have a lot of material needed;

  • Approximately 3 – 5 gallon buckets. (I tend to use about three buckets, but the number varies based on how much you dig.)
  • A shovel. Preferably one with a long handle, for your back and because the hole you dig may get deep.
  • Water. You’ll need water, and a fair bit of it. I use a hose at the back of my house. You can also use an extra bucket or two filled with water.
  • A fine screen. Something with about 1/8 inch holes or so. I literally just have a roll of fine-ish metal mesh from Home Depot. This is for sifting out organic material, rocks, and other debris.
  • A stick. For stirring up mud in a bucket. I use an old shovel handle.
  • 2 or 3 pillow cases. Cheap ones from like Big Lots, or old ones. Nothing too fancy. They will be filled with mud.

Step 1 – Dig Dirt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_horizon

Now it’s time to dig some dirt. You notice I’ve included a picture for this section. This is a soil horizon, and this is important context for HOW to dig dirt for clay. You don’t really want the first two layers (O & A “topsoil” layers) , as you don’t want all the organic stuff, and at least in my soil, there isn’t much clay in these layers. What you typically want is the B layer, the subsoil. As clay minerals weather, they move down deeper into the soil. The B layer is sometimes called the “banking” layer, because it stores a lot of minerals that can be “withdrawn” later by the plants above. But we are interested in the clay in this layer, so this is what you want to dig. In my own soil, this is a really sandy layer, and pretty easy to dig through. Your mileage may vary.

To start out with, I typically will fill one of my 5 gallon buckets about half way with dirt. You need room for water, afterall. So now, you have a bucket of dirt! Hurray!

(Alright, I have two…)

Step 2 – Make Dirt Slurry

Now that you have your bucket of dirt, it is now time to make a mud shake. Carry your dirt to wherever your water supply is (outside preferably, your housemates will thank you). You want to pour water on top of your dirt, and generally you want more water than dirt. Take your stick and stir it all up! Make yourself a runny mud-shake… The boys won’t show up in your yard for this one. Probably.

The idea here is to completely liquefy your dirt sample. The reason why will become apparent in our next step.

Soup is ready! (Do not eat.)

Step 3 – Screen and Filter

The reason we wanted to make a mud slurry is because it will separate your dirt into all it’s various components. Clay will suspend into the water, organic debris will float, and sand and rocks will sink to the bottom. Now we have to do the work of separating it all out.

This part can get heavy, so heads up. Don’t hurt yourself alright, as buckets of water and dirty aren’t light. Lay your screen/mesh over top of an empty bucket, near to where you made your slurry. Stir it up real good the first time, and then strain the bucket of slurry through the screen and into the empty bucket underneath. The screen will catch a lot of organics, rocks, and even some of the sand. Once you’ve strained it, take the screen somewhere and shake it off, and maybe give it a good rinse.

(Bucket with screen.)

In my experience, you will probably do this step a couple of times. Stir, strain, repeat. If you are using the same bucket over again, be sure to rinse it out before you strain the slurry back into it. Otherwise you’re just putting it back in.

While you are straining, you may notice that the sand settles to the bottom. Getting that out is our next step. The straining will get some of it out, but not all of it. Here, we take advantage of the fact that sand sinks. Stir up your freshly strained slurry, and let it sit a couple of minutes this time. Now pour it back into a clean empty bucket, slowly. The sand will be stuck at the bottom, so don’t pour that into your clean bucket. Dump the sand out, and do it again. Rinse, and repeat as needed, until all you have is mostly clay suspended in water. Again, you may have to do this a few times to get all the sand out.

Typically, I will strain at least twice, and separate the sand out at least twice. As I said before, this can get heavy, so take your time and save your back! If you need to take a break, do so. Stuff may settle, but you can always stir it back up if it settles too much.

(Screening out debris, and leaving behind the sand.)

Step 4 – Pour into Pillow Cases, and hang to dry

When you are all done, you should have a bucket of mostly dirty water. No rocks, debris, or sand should be evident. Depending on the clay content of your soil, this could be a thicker or thinner slurry. Either way, the density isn’t a big deal right now. What matters is you have some amount of clay suspended in water, and free of stuff you don’t want. Now, we have to get the clay separated from the water.

Into the bucket with you!

In a clean empty bucket (likely one you already used, and cleaned. It doesn’t have to be dry, just clean), take one of your pillow cases and use it like you would a trash bag. Line the bucket with it, and pull it over the edges. Pour some of your slurry into this pillow case/bucket combo. Some will leak out into the bucket, and that’s okay. The idea here is most of your clay-water is contained in a filtering pillow case. Now, just hang up that pillow case and allow it to drip out the water.

It is okay if you use more than one pillowcase during this process. In fact, it’s best to not dump a bucket full of clay slurry into one case, break it up. It will dry out faster, and you won’t have to hang up one heavy case full of water!

What will happen is that the clay will settle in a corner of the pillow case, and act as a filter for the water. This works better on warmer days, as the water can evaporate too, leaving just the clay behind in a pillow case.

Mud on a line, wasting all my time…

Also, it’s best not to let it completely dry out. (You can, but then you have to crush up the dried clay into powder, and add water again.) Grab the pillowcase on occasion, and you can tell by touch when the clay is ready. This drying period can take a few days depending on temperature. Also, don’t leave it out in the rain, as that defeats the purpose.

Step 5 – Clay!

Ball of clay!

When your pillow case has filtered out most of the water, all you have to do is turn it inside out and extract the ball of the clay inside. Congratulations, you have made clay from soil! Or maybe not, sometimes it takes a little trial and error to get it right. Sometimes you get clay, sometimes you don’t. I’ve gotten sandy balls of kinda-clay, and things that are best just tossed back into the hole. Soils vary a lot in color, minerals, and clay content. While the backyard is a great place to start, I dig soil from all over the place, and each result is a little bit different.

Each clay can be different too. They can vary a lot in color, plasticity, and how the clay responds to later steps such as throwing, casting, and firing. Some clays will cast great, but throw poorly. Some will throw and coil like a dream, but cast like hell on wheels. Some will fire fantastically (to all kinds of temperature ranges), others will blow up dramatically. There is a lot of trial and error to this, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go right the first time.

Please feel free to ask questions or ask for clarification as needed. This is my first how-to, and again, that trial and error thing. At the end of this post is a short list of additional resources and Youtube videos, so you can go above and beyond what I have explained here. Google is also a fantastic tool!

As always, thanks for reading!

Additional Resources;

The King of Random – Youtube (This one really helped me get going!)

WikiHow Article