The Druid's Garden

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

Druidry for the 21st Century: Psychopomping the Anthropocene February 24, 2019

As an animist druid, I recognize the spirit of all beings.  I honor and interact with the spirits in the land, in the trees, in the animals and birds, in the insects, in the rivers, in the mountains. Animals die, plants die, insects die. Their spirits live on.  In the Anthropocene, even mountains die, they are removed for mining activities all along the Appalachians and in many other places.  Rivers die, and have been dying for centuries as we fill them with refuse. In the Anthropocene, many things die. What happens to that mountain’s spirit when the mountain is gone? What is happening now to the millions of non-human lives that are dying because of human activity? That’s the question we focus on today–as part of my druidry for the 21st century series.  Earlier posts in this series include Druidry for the 21st Century and Druidry in the age of the Anthropocene.

 

As I shared in last week’s post, non-human life is dying at an incredibly alarming rate at this very moment–with almost 50% of all animal life dying in the last 50 years. One article discusses that while extinction is a natural process, extinction rates and die off rates are currently between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher. I think a good resource for this is to look at IUCN’s red list and see the 26,500 species threatened with extinction–these are species regularly losing regular numbers. Unfortunately, humanity’s actions continue to cause the death of so many species and so many individual lives, and given models and projections, it is expected to get much worse in the next decades. The mass amounts of death and extinction of non-human lives are not “natural”; they are directly the result of human activity.  This makes humans, collectively and individually, responsible.  Not just for the actions that cause such death, but also, I would argue, for what happens to those spirits when they die.

 

The journey into spirit

The journey into spirit

Death is an inevitable part of life. Death is another journey, and some of us are called or choose to help spirits along that journey.  This work has many names, one of the most common being called “psychopomp” work. Psychopomp derives from the from Greek words “pompos” which means “guide  or “connector” and psyche which can be translated as “mind soul, life, or breath.” A psychopomp, then, is a guide of souls. Other names I have heard for this work include death midwifery, soul midwifery, deathwalking, death shamanism, to name a few.  Regardless of the term, this work has been a regular part of the healing, magical, and spiritual arts in nearly all cultures across the ages.  Many cultures recognize that humans with certain sets of skills do this work (such as a shaman or other religious leader), as do non-humans (deities, animal spirits, angels, and other such beings). In fact, it is very likely that this was work done by the Ovates in the time of the ancient druids, for they were described by various classical writers as working with spirits and the dead, along with herbalism, divination, and other kinds of healing arts.  They were also described by classical writes as “mastering the language of nature” which I believe comes into play into this kind of present 21st century ovate work.

 

This sacred practice of helping spirits pass is largely forgotten in mainstream consumerist life, however, it is still quietly practiced in many earth-centered, pagan, and new age spiritual traditions. Every person I have ever met who does this work does it for human souls. Human souls, of course, may often (but not always) need help crossing over. Humans are complicated, and when we die, our deaths may be complicated too. Many human get lost on their way across the veil. They may get stuck, they may die unexpectedly and need to process their death, they may have unfinished business that prevents them from leaving, and/or they often need assistance to find their path. Psychopomps are the shining beacons in that confusion, helping a wayward soul find his or her path to the next part of their journey.

 

But today, I’m not here to talk about human souls. You can learn about that kind of psychopomp work from many other sources. Today, I’m here to talk about non-human souls and the work we can do given this time, this age, and the present conditions.  I will also note that the rest of this post is entirely from my own experience, from the many years I’ve been quietly doing this work.  You can agree, disagree, or share your own experience–and I hope this blog can be a space for us to talk about it.

 

The cycle of life and death of animals, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, etc, has been going on as long as life in some form has existed on this planet.  Spirits of the land know how to handle their own deaths, and human psycopomps would not typically interact in that way in regular circumstances.  Think about a death in a forest: if an animal or plant dies, within a few days (or in the case of a tree, a few years) those nutrients are completely cycled back into the ecosystem.  I have always gotten the sense that this same process takes place on the level of spirit as well—the land cycls her own.

 

However, because we are in another extinction-level event, where the whole world is threatened, whatever happens typically to non-human souls is simply not enough. In the last few decades in particular, and with increasing frequency, a much larger number of souls began departing, with some of them being the very last of their kind.  Some non-human souls who pass are exhibiting many of the same characteristics that human souls who pass often exhibit: anger, confusion, being lost, being stuck, not wanting to go.  I don’t get the sense that this is “normal”, but rather, this is a product of the anthropocene. If a typical cycle of life and death is a gentle forest stream, right now, the stream is massively flooded well beyond its banks, causing erosion and destruction, and this spillage needs some attention. I think another way of framing what is happening is that spirits of these various species are experiencing new phenomena, a phenomena that their own natural paths and natural cycles are not adapted to. Anything can adapt over a long period of time; that is the nature of evolution.  But it is hard to adapt–for any species or spirit–to such frequent and intense change, the kinds of changes driven by relentless human activity in the Anthropocene.  And that is where the trouble seems to lie.

 

Trees

Trees

Before I get into some of the specific practices I’m going to suggest today for actual psychopomp work, I want to start by saying that each person has different spiritual gifts (a topic I explored before in this blog) and not everyone has the gift of spirit communication (although you can learn to do this over time).  The work I describe below is fairly advanced.  It requires you to have extremely good protection, practiced ways of spiritually cleansing yourself, a solid mental state (do not try this if you are mentally unbalanced, depressed, etc), and excellent self-cares trategies. It also requires you to have basic plant spirit communication and journeying skills.  Finally, it requires inner contacts (guides, deities, spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, etc) who will partner with you for this work; it is very necessary to have individuals on both sides.  This is a list of some of the many deities and guides that do this work; it might be that you are already connected to someone. Some people find themselves drawn to this work intuitively, and for others, they may seek out training, books, teachers and other such resources.  I think like anything else, it is a skill you can learn to do, and do well, if you dedicate yourself to it. There are plenty of options out there to learn, and I can share some of the best.  I can also direct you to some of the basic skills that you need to do this work: spirit communication and journeying skills being most central. This page provides a good list of books for more information, for those who want to read more and understand.  I also want to stress that this work is not for everyone: there are many other kinds of work we can do in the Anthropocene. I think each of us should do something, but that something should be tied to our gifts and own journey.

 

So to get into the psychopomp work, I’m going to share a few examples to help illustrate some of what I understand to be the basic principles. Again, these are my own experiences; yours may be very different (and if you feel led to share, please do so in the comments–sharing is important at this stage, as we can build our knowledge and help the land in this way).

 

I remember the year the Christmas trees came.  Thousands of them, just after the holiday rush was over. They waited for me, patiently, planting themselves all over my property. I went out and walked among them. They wanted to understand why they had been cut and left to die. These trees, I realized, had never found themselves in the center of the family home and hearth adorned with gifts. Or if they had, once their use was over, they were unceremoniously thrown on the curb without so much as a thanks. They wanted to understand, needed to understand, what had happened and why.  Their whole lives–and deaths–were wrapped up in a cycle they did not understand, and they had to understand it in order to pass. I thought it was a fair question.  And so I showed them; I talked to them about humans and human life today. I invited representatives to join me for a few days in the world, to see how humans think and what they do, and I shared a human perspective. The representatives asked questions, and eventually, they were satisfied. They understood, after seeing me interact with humans and with my translation and explanations, that humans didn’t realize they had spirits. That humans didn’t realize that they were anything other than objects.  I apologized on behalf of all humans who did not understand. This seemed to appease them. When I felt the time was right, about two weeks after they arrived, I opened up a sacred grove in my outdoor grove.  I built a fire and, with the aid of my own spirit guides, helped open a gateway for them to pass. They went through it, one at a time.  It took a very, very long time.  Finally, they were all through.  Afterwards, I got the sense that that work was done, and now, others could pass.  Not through that specific gateway, which we closed at the end of the ceremony, but through their own means. Afterwards, I also did extensive cleansing and self-care; as the energies of the dead are not to be worked with lightly.

 

I’ve always been connected deeply with trees, and have long done this kind of work for forests who were logged. One forest, however, in particular stands out. It was a section of forest that I had spent time in; it was a wild place that, when I was a child, I would often go into with my parents. Maybe eight years ago now, the township decided that their industrial park was going right in the middle of that beautiful forest. They cleared giant swaths of it, put in infrastructure, and there, it sat.  Empty. I drove through it soon after it happened, and I felt such incredible sorrow, such loss, such anger and frustration. The spirits of the trees, of that land, of the animals who died, of insects whose lives were over, crowded up around me and demanded to understand why this had been done. Again, I asked them to choose a representative, which ended up being a spirit of a red maple. First, I sat in the forest for a long time, observing, singing to them, simply honoring them and letting them know that I was there, I was not alone (I describe many such practices in my earlier land healing series in the work of witnessing and apology). I walked along that recently cut land, and I found a piece of wood that had been cut, part of a stump.  I took it with me, along with some other materials, and made them into a piece of art honoring that forest. The artwork and use of the wood in a spiritual way seemed to appease the spirits. But, they still had questions.  Their representative went with me, learned what he needed to learn, and then we returned together to that place.  I did a ceremony for them (similar to the one I described above) and helped them move on.  After that, when I passed other logged sites near there, I got the sense that the spirits were once again taking care of their own work in those kinds of cases.  I was welcome to help, but I wasn’t necessary for me to do the deep work I did with this forest.

 

Former life....

Former life….

On one otherwise ordinary work day when I was working from home, I suddenly sensed a very angry presence. Opening up my spiritual eyes, I saw an entire tribe of lions.  They were angry, they were thrashing about. They could see me, and I could see them.  As their eyes bored into me, I felt almost like prey.  They demanded answers, and they were going to get them. I set my work aside, and told them I would speak with them, but only if they backed off and calmed down.  They left, and I thought that was that, that since I wasn’t feeding into their anger, they were going to go somewhere else.  But, a few hours later, they were back. I asked them about who they were, where they had come from.  They had been poached, they were the last of their tribe in any land as far as they were aware.  I simply listened,  acknowledged their hurt, and apologized for their suffering and deaths. As is the way of things, I invited a representative to come with me for a few days, to better understand the way that humans lived. To see. To understand.  In time, they were satisfied.  I did a similar ceremony to those I had done before: opening up a sacred grove, making an offering, inviting any final conversation, working with my guides to open up a gateway, inviting the spirits to pass through the gateway, and then carefully closing the gateway and space.  Again, afterwards, I did lots of spiritual self care, cleansing.

 

After a number of these experiences, I realized I needed a permanent space on my land where I could properly honor these spirits.  So I did that–creating a shrine that I used to “honor the fallen” and as any spirit interacted with me in this way, I would put a representation of them on the shrine.  When I moved to new land, I took a stone with me from that shrine and took the rest deep into the woods, to lay at peace.  The stone is now the start of my new shrine on our new land here.  I do not photograph these shrines out of respect for the dead, but they are like many others I’ve talked about on this blog: full of natural things and regularly honored. This shrine helps me honor them, to hold them in my memory.  I wrote about them, researched them, and told them that while I lived, they would not be forgotten.  With these words I write, this holds even more true, because they now live in more than just me, they live in you.

 

The Ovate Psychopomp

These examples are fairly consistent with my larger practices surrounding what I now understand to be some of the Ovate work of the Anthropocene, at least from my own perspective and experience.  So what is the nature of this work? We’ll now explore it from two perspectives: first, what I call “prerequisites”, i.e. the things you need to bring to the table to do the work.  And second, the things you do surrounding the work itself.

Prerequisites

The first prerequisite is being open to working in this way.  You have to be willing to see, be willing to acknowledge, and spend the necessary time and energy to do this work. If you aren’t open to it, they are never going to come to you, or you aren’t going to do them justice.  Some people probably read this and know this work isn’t for them, and to that I say, good!  I’m sure some other work is out there that is better well suited for you–like physically regenerating the land, teaching humans to honor nature, fighting to protect forests, fighting for environmental rights, etc.

 

Second, as I mentioned above, it requires some advanced gifts and skills: spirit communication, spirit sight, and solid practices surrounding protection and self-care.  It might be that you aren’t ready to do this till you’ve been walking the path for a number of years–and that’s ok.  I don’t recommend that any new person take this on.

 

Third, you must have guides, spirits, and/or deities working with you.  You need to have those you can trust in the spirit world for this kind of work; both for your own safety but also because this work seems to require it as a balance.  You are helping a spirit move from corporeal life to non-corporeal life, and that requires both someone who is corporeal and someone who is not to do it properly.

 

 

Cultivating connection

Cultivating connection

Fourth, you have to find balance and practice good self care and spiritual cleansing. This is true for everything we do, but especially true for this kind of deep work.  The energies of the dead are not good for the living long term (and if you’ve ever tended a dying person, you’ll know exactly what I mean).  I don’t do this work every day; I do it as necessary, and as individuals or groups of spirits come to me.  I can always refuse to do it if I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind–which I have done more than once.  Don’t let the dead stay near you for long periods of time.  They must pass, and you must find your way into self care and balance and embrace the energies of life.

 

Fifth, you will always have the gratitude of the spirits who pass, however, understand that this is quiet work.  Its work you do on your own, that you don’t typically talk about, and other humans have no idea.  That’s ok, the work isn’t for them.  But if you are someone who needs regular validation from human others, this is probably not for you.  This work is never about you.

 

Finally, a lot of people who I’ve spoken with who have gotten into this work one way or another had almost had some close experience with death, some way that helps them better understand it.  These experiences may have been having a very special person (human or otherwise) die, tending a dying relative, having a brush with death themselves.  Its not always the case, but does seem to be something that a lot of folks have.  I think that experience opens up something within you that then can be used to help others.

 

The Work Itself

Given the above, we now turn to some of the core aspects of psychopomping in the Anthropocene, as I understand it.  They are:

 

One, being open.  If you are doing this work regularly, somehow, the spirits sense it, and somehow they know. Its like you have an “open for business” sign up on the astral plane. Even if it’s just a self acknowledgement that you are willing to do this work, they will come once you are open.

 

Second, being ready to do the work of apology. Humans all over this planet are doing awful things and are causing the genocide of many, many lives and species. Why would these spirits of the recently departed trust a human?  Because you are acknowledging what is happening, you are compassionate, you can offer them perspective, and most of all–you can offer them a true and heartfelt apology.  Acknowledgement and an apology is all that many need to move on.

 

Third, being ready to explain things from a human perspective. This seems to be very, very helpful for many spirits who are dying in the age of the Anthropocene. They want to know why things are happening, and their minds cannot understand human behavior without your help.  And so my basic strategy is to let them tag along for a few days as I’m out and about in the world, explaining to them what they see, answering their questions. This has always led to success, at least in those I’ve interacted with.

 

Fourth, ritually helping them move on, if they need you to (often, I offer, and not all of them accept or need me to help).  I have my specific techniques, which I have shared above through stories, and which I do in the context of druidry.  Some of my techniques are unique to me, some of them would likely work for others. I would suggest learning what will work for you directly from a spirit, guide, or deity that you work with who is on the other side.  For me, I use music, fire, natural gateways, and other such things to help them pass.  These techniques were all taught to me by spirit, so I don’t know how translatable they are to others.

 

Finally, practicing extreme self care. This is not easy work; it can be rewarding but also very draining.  You have to take care of yourself, you can’t do too much of it, and you need to make sure to spiritually cleanse carefully after doing anything like this.  I like to do a herbal vinegar bath: I take a few tablespoons of infused herbal vinegar and add it to my bath and scrub myself all over.  I infuse it with plants that are significant to me personally and that are personal plant allies.  For a general blend, I would suggest sage, mugwort, rosemary, bay, lemon balm, and/or hawthorn.  You can simply throw handfuls of dried herbs into a quart jar, fill it with vinegar, and then have it available when you need a cleansing bath.  In addition to the bath, make sure you take time to do what fulfills you most–and let nature heal you!  For me, spending a lot of time gardening (working with the energies of life), being in healed and whole natural places, and working in my art studio are the ways I heal from this work.

 

There’s a lot here to process, and I hope it is of use to some of you who feel led to do this work.  I never thought I would write this post or talk about this in such a public way, but spirit said otherwise! If you are doing this work, please share if you are willing; I’d very much want to hear others’ experiences.  If you aren’t doing this yet but would like to, feel free to reach out!

 

Druidry for the 21st Century: Druidry in the Anthropocene February 17, 2019

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

 

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

A less disruptive path to help preserve an ecosystem

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

 

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

 

The Hard Stuff

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

 

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

 

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

 

Exoteric / Outer Works: Refugia

A safe space for all life

A safe space for all life

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Ringing the Bell/Sounding the Bowl

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

 

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

A simple indoor altar with singing bowl

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

 

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

 

Honoring the Fallen Shrine

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

 

Council of All Beings and Other Rituals

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

 

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

 

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

 

Druidry for the 21st Century January 13, 2019

This is a challenging age, doubly so for anyone who is connected spiritually with the living earth and who cares deeply about non-human life. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released towards the end of 2018, presents a dire picture for the future. This isn’t the only recent report from governing bodies globally–report after report continues to paint a clear picture of what humanity is doing, and what we need to do to change.  And yet, it seems to be business as usual.

 

The cycles of nature

The cycles of nature

When I talk to druids about their thoughts about this present age, there seems to be a few ways to think about it.

 

First, the glass half empty approach is feeling extremely demoralized, looking at climate change reports and long-term forecasts and seeing the continued inaction on behalf of world leaders. The glass half empty approach may also have feelings that nothing we do now matters, and may wonder what the point of even trying is. Druidry for them is a means of coping, a means of connecting, even if they think it may all go down the drain.

 

Second, the glass half full approach is feeling concerned about the state of the world but also recognizing the great potential in this age–we must adapt or not survive. One of the core permaculture design principles is “the problem is the solution” meaning we can see into the nature of the problem and in seeing it, we can find solutions within it. These eternal optimists feel that we can be the solution, and it’s just a matter of finding out what to do and how to do  it, and doing it well.

 

Finally, the third approach is ignoring the glass altogether: those who choose not to think about whats happening large-scale, and instead, respond by individual and local action and what they can control.  These druids are fed up with what is happening broadly and pay it no mind–but care deeply about what they can control and work to live in a way that honors and cares for all life.

 

There are probably more responses than I named here (and if I missed yours, please share it!).  Regardless, living in the 21st century is an incredible challenge for druids and any other practitioners of spiritual paths where nature is sacred and revered.  The questions that I keep getting asked, and that I keep asking myself are:  What does druidry do for us in the 21st century?  What does druidry offer the future?  How can we become good ancestors, and create a world that is safe, vibrant, and stable for our descendants?

 

I don’t profess to have all of the answers, by any means.  But I do have thoughts I can share.  I’ll tackle this first question above in this week’s post and the second question in next week’s post.

 

What does druidry do for us in this age?

This is a complex question that requires a number of different answers.  On one hand, we have to look at what it does in an individual’s life–how it supports an individual’s spiritual practices.  We also have to look at what it does to the world around us, ecologies and communities. Finally, we can look at larger paradigms that it challenges and helps us replace, more broadly.  Thus, in this age, it works on at least three levels: the level of the self, the level of the land, and the level of the community.

 

The Self: Tools and Practices. In my work as Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I see a lot of applications from new members. As part of our application, people need to write a letter that explores what encouraged them to join AODA, what made them come to druidry, what they hope to gain. Most of them have key similarities: the need to reconnect with themselves through a spiritual path, the need to connect with nature, and the need to find balance in their lives.  These needs bring me to one of the core gifts of druidry: helping us live in this age fully, powerfully, and sanely.

 

Being connected with nature

Being connected with nature

Modern western culture, particularly here in the USA, has discouraged many things: creative practices, being outside, having any kind of thoughts or an inner life, being curious about the world.  Druidry offers people a way back into these very human and fundamental practices. Druidry is ultimately a connecting practice.  This includes our connection with nature through the ovate arts, our connection with core spiritual practices that sustain us and allow us to cultivate a rich inner life through the druid arts, and our connection with our creative spirit through the bardic arts and the flow of Awen. Druidry offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, reflect, and ground.

 

Again, in my role in AODA, I get to read a lot of people’s reflections at the end of their coursework.  It’s amazing to hear just how much a single year of druid practice changes them: their healing from past trauma, their deepening appreciation and care for the natural world, their cultivation of a rich inner life, their cultivation of a creative practice.  These kinds of things get to the heart of what a spiritual practice can, and should be, for each individual–a way to connect with themselves, their creative gifts, and the world.

 

Tools and Practices for the Land. Druidic practices don’t just benefit us as individuals; they benefit the world around us. One of the great challenges of our age is that humans are radically disconnected from nature; our food comes from somewhere else, our products come from somewhere else; we don’t know the names of plants or animals in our local ecosystem, we don’t know what a healthy ecosystem looks like. We could not survive in our ecosystem without modern conveniences in place, as our ancestors once could.

Through learning about nature, through nature study, wisdom, and experience–we learn how to be in nature.  Once you begin seeing nature as sacred, you treat it as sacred.  This manifests in so many diverse outward actions–we learn how to live more caring lives that support rich ecology and diversity; we learn how to nurture and tend the lands around us. Druids plant trees, tend gardens, do river cleanup, convert lawns to wildlife sanctuaries, and so much more. Druids make lifestyle changes to reduce their impact on the living earth and help sustain life. Ultimately, druidry takes us from potentially indifferent to knowledgable and connected with nature–and that helps us do good in our land, rather than cause harm. This change on our inner selves has outward results that support our broader ecosystems.

 

What can druidry offer the future?

Druidry helps individuals and those individuals can make some impact on ecosystems–but what about what is happening broadly? While the glass half full and the local action readers are probably nodding and smiling with what I’ve written above, my glass half empty reader is probably reading this and saying sure, that’s great, but we still have an unsolvable predicament on our hands.  And to this, we begin orienting ourselves not only to the present, but to the future.

 

As druidry develops in the 21st century, I think it will inherently look differently than it did in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. It’s a personal spiritual practice, yes, but it’s also an alternative philosophy–druidry is in the process of developing new mental models for living and being and interacting in the world.  Let’s look at why this matters, and the power it holds.

 

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model  offers us a way of understanding how change happens, and at what level change happens. This model suggests that if we want to change behaviors and actions, we must change the underlying mental models–the paradigms we live by. In this model, the top of the iceberg is events–things we react to, events that happen.  That’s what is sticking out of the water, what we can see.  So something occurs, and we react to it. A lot of people get stuck here–reacting to events that occur, not realizing that most of the iceberg (the cause of the event) lies under the water.  The second layer down, just below the water line, are patterns or trends.  These are the series of events that are connected over a period of time and form larger patterns of actions and events.  We don’t always see the patterns, but they are often there.  The third layer is the underlying structures: physical world, organizations, policies, rituals (in the societal sense).  These are the things that govern and support a lot of patterns, and thus, a lot of events.  These are also the structures that make it detrimental to engage in certain kinds of activities (such as going fully off grid).

 

The layer we are most concerned with today, however, is the final layer–that which underlies all else.  This is the layer of mental models: where ideologies, attitudes, beliefs, expectations, values, and myths reside.  These are the stories we believe and the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as cultures.  These mental models drive larger structures in society as well as individual actions.  These are the myths we live and die by.  If you want to change action, the mental models themselves must change. And here’s the thing: right now, western culture has some incredibly destructive myths: to individuals, to communities, and to ecosystems.

 

So what does this have to do with druidry and the future?  And my response is — just about everything.  Druidry isn’t just a spiritual path for individuals in the here and now.  Druidry is a way to change the world.  When individuals take up nature spirituality as a path, the practices lead them to shifts in thinking–to rethink and reframe mental models.

 

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

Loving the Land (All Heal from the Plant Spirit Oracle, my in-progress oracle deck)

The Myth of Progress vs. the Cycle. One of the core arguments that John Michael Greer has made about industrialization is that the myth of progress is a national, cultural religion (see Not the Future we Ordered, among his other writings). The myth of progress insists that growth must happen always (economic growth, technological growth) and that progress will forever continue. That is, the idea of progress is so central to the way that humans think and act, and the decisions that we make, that this paradigm drives nearly everything else. The myth, like all good myths, is rarely questioned: to grow is good, and not to grow is bad.  A housing development is progress over a forest.  The myth suggests that humanity has progressed from the stone age to today, with today being the pinnacle of progress, and tomorrow being even better.  This myth also asks us to value efficiency, expediency, mechanization, and standardization.

 

Druidry asks us to confront this myth.  Lessons of nature, of the wheel of the year, of the seasons, teach us that the world doesn’t work in a straight, ever-upward moving line.  The land works in a cycle, with seasons of famine and of plenty, with light and dark times.  Nature’s lessons offer us key ways of re-orienting our own philosophy away from the destructive myth of progress and into something that is more sustaining.

 

Infinite Growth vs. Balance.  Tied directly to the myth of progress is the myth of infinite growth. The idea that all growth is good, and the only way to have a stable society and stable economy is by growing.  This is embedded in to any discussion of modern economics, and certainly, is a driving force.  Edward Abbey wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell” and this very much rings true.

 

Druidry teaches us differently.  Nature is certainly about growth, but like everything else, it is growth for a season.  Nature teaches us that limits are real, and necessary, and that growth and limitation are always in balance.  If trees grew too tall, they would blow over.  If the summer never ended, pests on the land would grow and multiply to great numbers, harming plants.  Nature spirituality teaches us the lesson of balance.

 

Harmful consumption vs. Humans as a force of good. In the permaculture film “Inhabit” permaculturist Ben Falk talks about the challenge we face as humans who care about the land. So many of the things we buy, the narratives we hear, suggest that we should do “less harm.” As though the only thing we can do is harm less, or be a little better than we were before.  But, as he argues, if you follow this thinking to its logical conclusion, it almost seems better if we weren’t here at all, if we had never been born, or that the best thing we could do is end our lives rather than keep polluting and consuming.  This, of course, makes us feel guilty just for inhabiting our earth, for going about our daily lives.  I agree with him in that this thinking is extremely problematic because it defines our role only in a damaging sense.

 

Druidry, and ecological approaches like permaculture, offer us an alternative perspective: we can interact with nature in many other ways–we can be a force of good.  Through tools of both spiritual action and physical action, through the head, heart, and hands, we can regenerate and heal our lands.

 

There are more paradigms than just these that druidry confronts, but I think these three are a good starting point.  To go back to the iceberg metaphor, we can see how what happens (events) and patterns surrounding what happens are supported by underlying structures.  But those structures exist ultimately because of mental models–that which we think, believe, and hold sacred.  If we can change the mental model–we change everything else.

 

What will druidry do for our descendants?

The mental models that have driven this world, particularly, the western world, into the 21st century are failing.  They are failing humans, non-human life, and every ecosystem on this planet.  And frankly, given how destructive they are, they need to fail.  We are quickly approaching the time when a lot of people are going to be seeking new mental models. We are already seeing movement in this direction–the decline of traditional religions and the growth of ecologically oriented religions, the growth in other kinds of ecologically-based thinking– it’s already there.  We’re seeing this movement in the youth of many countries. The paradigms we learn from nature are being shared in many nature-oriented practices and communities: balance, wholeness, integration, connectedness to the land, cycles–lessons from nature.

 

If we can rewrite the culture’s mental models and paradigms using lessons of nature, and if that new myth can become a driving force, all of society will change as a result of it.  And here’s the thing–people are looking for these kinds of new ways of thinking, doing, and being.  The mental models, rooted in nature, can offer us the next paradigm–the next society we build, one that is in line and honors nature and all life.

 

As we grow in our understanding of what this tradition is now, and where it is heading, I believe that we druids are the forerunners of so much change.  Humanity will either have to adapt and develop more ecologically sensitive models, or go extinct.  Think of us druids like the forerunners of that change.  This is the gift we offer our descendants–the mental models that precipitate new structures, patterns, and actions in the world.

 

Abundant milkweed along a field

Abundant milkweed along a field

The Road Forward

 

As I’ve shared before on this blog, druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age, and through the ages, it has always been such a response. Revival druidry began at the dawn of industrialization, responding to that day.  Modern druidry has gained speed as our ecological problems have increased.  Revival druidry saw the beginning of industrialization, and I honestly believe it will see us through to the end of it.  For those of us in the 21st century–druidry is our response to today.  And what we offer our descendants, then, is hope.

 

What we do today will help shape what our tradition–and our world–looks like tomorrow. Today’s practitioners have much to contribute to this conversation–What are we currently doing? What will we do? Who will we become?  I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us as we pave the way for the future.

 

The Samhain of our Lives October 28, 2018

Just last week, we had our first hard frost. After homesteading for a number of years, you grow to be vigilant for the signs of the first frost. The air smells different somehow in the two or so weeks leading up to it. The bird and wildlife patterns change.  The nights have a crisp bite to them that they didn’t even a few days before. And then, just like magic one day, the frost is there, glistening in the morning light. The garden radically changes overnight–even for those things you covered–the entire landscape lies in disarray.

 

Sunrise at First Frost

Sunrise at First Frost

I could feel it on the air, and for the last few mornings, have been going to to see if it had arrived. That morning, I turned the corner and first saw it first on the strawberry patch–white and glistening. The frost is beautiful, magical, and yet, destructive. While the garden was growing powerfully the day before–with the last harvests of our remaining tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, and gourds all ripening and growing abundantly–this morning, frost covers all.  By mid-day, the garden of yesterday is but a distant memory. The garden of the frost is a disaster zone for summer crops–the tomatoes are wily, the half-ripened crookneck squash spongy on the top where the frost hit, the eggplant fallen over in sadness.  By the second day, the leaves of these plants are withered and dead, former husks of what they had been less than 48 hours before.  The first time you see this destruction, its really something to behold.  It is shocking in how the cold can do so much damage in such a little time period by a temperature difference of only a few degrees.

 

Samhain is certainly here, and already, my garden has gone through increasingly hard and bitter frosts. The temperatures continue to plummet, the leaves drop from the trees, the animals and birds fatten up, hibernate, or fly south–and winter sets in.

 

This year though, this Samhain, it seems a little different. Maybe its the general collective despair and demoralization present right now, at least here in the US, which is affecting so many (and what I was responding to in my post a few weeks ago). Maybe its the latest UN report that suggests that–if we are lucky–we have about 12 more years to stave off the worst of climate change, but only if we act now. Maybe its reading that report and knowing that action, at least in my own country, won’t happen.  And, knowing, I will have to live to see the results of inaction, results that will irrevocably harm the live and lands I hold sacred. Maybe its the growing open conversations I am having with my new college students about their own futures and their fears.  I’ve been teaching college for over a decade, but it has only been in the last 1-2 years that I’ve heard my college age students start to openly discuss these things and their impact on their futures.

 

This Samhain, the changes in the landscape and in my garden, seem to reflect the changes going on culturally.  We’ve had more than a few hard frosts.  We’ve had bitterly cold days.  Some of our favorite summer plants are dying off. I think a lot of people are asking–is this a sign of things to come?  Are the darkest times, at the Winter Solstice–still to come?

 

Kale loves the frost!

Kale loves the frost!

In my frosted garden, I turn my eyes away from the summer crops, the eggplants, squash, and tomatoes that cannot handle even a 33 degree night with cover. Instead, I look to the carrots, onions, spinach, lettuce, celery, kale and cabbage that we had planted in late July. These plants are much more resilient, and all of them are doing fine despite the glistening of frost on their leaves. Some, in fact, had been enhanced by the frost–the cabbage leaves are more succulent, the kale more sweet. Rather than harming the plants, the frost had simply made them better versions of who they already were. This, too, seems to be a powerful lesson, both for the garden and for our larger culture.

 

It seems that I’m not the only one smelling frost on the air more culturally, and processing what to do about it. A few days ago, I saw a new thread on a permaculture forum written by a 22 year old girl who was asking serious questions: “Given the state of the world, do you really think permaculture offers us what we need to save the world?  If the older leaders refuse to act, can individual action save us? And if you are using permaculture this way, how do you stay focused when all of this is happening around us?” It was a good question, a reasonable question, and had a range of useful responses. One of the most powerful responses was from a man who had seen a world war, had worked industry, and had retired to a little one-room cottage in the woods. He shared some of the things he had seen in his life and said, “Its the cycle of life. The reason we practice permaculture is that it gives us hope. This is a season, others will come and go. I always ask is how do I respond.  And my response is to hope.” I wonder, too, if that’s why so many of us practice druidry.  It gives us connection, it gives us peace, but most of all, it gives us hope.

 

The practice of druidry, of living by the seasons, helps me process the inevitability of the crisis of climate and culture that seem to be bearing down at present. Samhain is in the air, both for us this year, but also for us culturally.  It might be that this time will pass and spring will arrive quickly.  Or, it may be that the world will have to endure the difficulties of winter, for some time to come.  Most of us think, or already know, that we are in for the latter, but I must remind myself of all that I learned as a druid gardener, all that I learned from celebrating the wheel of the year is present here this Samhain.

 

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

So much wonderful food in the greenhouse!

As a druid homesteader, I respond to the frost–and the incoming winter– by good planning and good design. The “problem” of winter  becomes a “solution” if I simply plan accordingly. I choose my plants more carefully for the fall and winter season–knowing some are resilient and designed for the cold, and others, like the tomato, fall at the first brush with frost.  I start these plants in July, when summer appears to be endless.  But soon enough, the fall will come, and these plants will thrive.

 

Using shelter and layering, the plants can survive much more than a bit of frost. Our little greenhouse will have a third layer of protection this wee, and our spinach, lettuce, bak choi, and arugula will be able to be continually harvested till January or later. Carrots and potatoes will stay in the ground waiting to be unearthed anytime the ground is unfrozen enough for us to do so. The greenhouse itself, combined with a second inner hoop house and then a thick floating row cover offers shelter. Embedded stones and a back covered wall allow the design of the greenhouse to be even more resilient, pulling in the warmth into the stones when the sun is out. The stones radiate that heat into the soil in the cold nights. Nothing will succumb to the frost or cold in that greenhouse unless it goes considerably below freezing. And if it does, we will make our final harvests, put wood on the fire, and wait till mid February or early March when the soil to warm enough to plant again.

 

Further, as a druid gardener, I think about the “problem is the solution” from the permaculture principles.  With the right plants and planning, we can thrive and grow.  Our world *needs* to change. The current course of our society is radically unsustianable, and every bit of communication from this wonderful earth is letting us know that with in creasing frequency.  Finding new ways to live, to be, to inhabit this world will require us to adapt to the harsh realities that Samhain brings.  We can’t be tomatoes in the coming years to come: we must be kale, cabbage, carrots, tatsoi, arugula, spinach–all of the plants that can withstand the harsh winter and still offer abundance.

 

As a druid, likewise, I have many lessons that help me think about and process this difficult time. I have celebrated the turning wheel of the year and the seasons for many, many years. I know that looking to my ancestors and honoring the season in the moment brings me quietude and peace.  I also look to my ancestors to re-learn how to live more sustainably and simply, in line with the living earth. I know that winter is coming, and it will be dark, and harsh, and cold.  But somewhere in my bones, woven into my DNA, I know my ancestors got by with much less than I did, and they thrived–if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.  I also know of the beauty of winter when it arrives; I know of the freshness of the snowfall and the cold nights where the stars glisten.  And most of all, I know that spring will come once again.  The maples will once again begin to run, the crocuses will once again bloom.

 

 

In the meantime, I’m going to shore up this greenhouse and plant more kale.

 

An Ancestor Oracle Deck October 31, 2017

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

Samhain is here, and with it comes a time of reflection, casting away, and working with our ancestors. In my post several weeks ago, I discussed in great depth the ways of working with various kinds of ancestors–in this post, we’ll explore a bardic art  project project that you can make to work with your ancestors: an Ancestor Oracle. This was an idea birthed by a friend of mine and I on the drive back from the OBOD East Coast Gathering this year.  We spent hours in the car talking through all kinds of things, and one of the things that came up was a conversation about working with the ancestors–by the end of the conversation, we had both decided to construct an Ancestor Oracle in time for Samhain this year.  I thought others might also like to construct one of their own, and so, this post will tell you what this is about and how you might create one.

 

The basic concept of the Ancestor Oracle is simple: you generate a list of your ancestors (however you conceive of them): ancestors of blood, land, and tradition, those others whom you have loved and lost, human or otherwise.  Then, you either create a deck of cards (which this post describes), get printable blank cards or purchase a blank deck of cards.  Each ancestor or group of ancestors that you want to represent is giving their own card.  Each person’s ancestor oracle would, of course, be unique to that person.  The Oracle itself can be used in a number of different ways including divination, honoring ancestors, celebrating Samhain, and grieving lost loved ones.

 

Selecting Ancestors

Before you construct your deck, you will want to spend some time making a list of the ancestors you want to acknowledge.  Samhain is a particularly good time for this kind of work. For me, I included ancestors of blood, tradition, and land all within my deck. Some of them ended up as a group, like “The Ancient Druids” (because I don’t know their names) while others (like Iolo Morganwg, Ross Nichols, and Juliet Ashley–three important figures in my own druid heritage) were named specifically. I also included, of course, a range of loved ones and family members who have passed on. I found that this work took time–I had to compile my list, come back to it over a period of days and spend some time meditating upon it.

 

Doing this in advance is important to know: do you have 100 different ancestors you want to represent or just 20?  That will help you get a sense of what kind of supplies you need and how many cards you want to create. The Ancestor Oracle is, by definition, an evolving project (as I’ll discuss in the next section), so you’ll want more cards than you need at present.

 

Using your Ancestor Oracle

Once you’ve made your Ancestor Oracle, you can use it in a variety of ways. For one, an oracle is like any other divination system: you can seek wisdom and guidance from it as you would with the Tarot, Geomancy, and so forth. You might ask a question and draw a card, connecting with that ancestor and the advice or wisdom that they/he/she shared. If facing a difficult situation, you could draw a card and think about the kind of wisdom that particular ancestor might embody.

 

You can also use it for longer-term ancestor work. What I have been doing since creating mine two months ago is drawing a card each week to place on my altar–this shows me which ancestors I can attend to this week and what wisdom they share.  Given that this is the period of time where ancestor work is done, I think I will make this a yearly part of my own celebrations of this time: for the months of August, September and October, I draw a weekly card and work with that ancestor, leaving the card on my altar for the week.

 

A third way you can use the Ancestor Oracle is for an ancestor alter.  Now that we are at Samhain, I have laid out all of my cards on my main altar to honor my ancestors.  I will probably leave them there till Alban Arthan (Yule).  This altar the place where I do my daily meditations, Sphere of Protection, prayers, etc, so they are there and present with me.  Seeing the cards there, each day, has been a very profound experience and has really helped me to better connect with my various ancestors.  Especially the ones of my tradition, whose words and work I embody as a druid each day.

 

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

A final way I plan to use the ancestor oracle is with grief and remembrance. When I constructed my deck, I made many more cards than I currently have ancestors. The truth is that I have been looking for some additional ritualized way of grieving a lost relative or friend, and the ancestor oracle offers me this way.  When someone I know and love crosses over the veil and joins my other ancestors, as I go through the grieving process and come to a place of acceptance, I will add them to the ancestor oracle and honor them in a ritual way.  I feel very good about this use of the deck, and know it will be a powerful healing tool. I suspect that there are a lot of other possibilities for using an Ancestor Oracle–if you have any, please share!

Some Options for Creating Your Oracle

Now that we have some sense of what an Ancestor Oracle is and how you might use it, let’s get down to how you can create it. I recognize, of course, that not everyone has cultivated visual art skills, and so, some of you might be looking for a route that you can manage.  That said, there are a few routes you could go to make this deck.  Here are four such options:

 

Option 1:   The route I took and will describe in this post, is to break out the art supplies and make some kind of artistic deck.  Since I am a visual artist, I made a watercolor deck.  I’m going to show you how to do this method (instructions in the 2nd half of this post), and even if you have very little practice or skill at present, you can still make a deck that speaks to you using basic watercolor wash techniques that anyone can do.

 

Option 2: My friend ordered a set of ready made blank tarot cards and wrote the names of each of her ancestors on them–this is a wonderful idea.  You can write in a normal script or try something fancy.  You could also paint them with acrylics.  Even a chisel point pen, like that used for calligraphy, would give a nice touch.

 

Option 3: Another way you could make this deck is by printing out pictures or using a photo editor to actually visually represent the different ancestors.  Taking it to a local print shop and having it printed and cut wouldn’t be too expensive (or you can order blank printable cards to do at home). I would talk to the print shop about what they are capable of before you went this route. Or you could get the photos themselves and even cut them to size and adhere them to a playing card deck. The possibilities for using photos to make your oracle deck are numerous.

 

Option 4: You don’t have to make an oracle with cards; you could make it with objects.  Find one small object that represents each ancestor, put them in a nice cloth bag, and your oracle is born!

 

Option 5: You also could make your oracle out of something  other than cards: you could woodburn wooden rounds, you could carve wooden rounds, you could paint on rocks, create polymer disks, and so forth.  The sky is the limit!

Instructions to Create a Watercolor-Based Oracle

Now that I’ve covered the ways you might use this deck and what its overall purpose is, I’m going to walk you through a simple way that you can make your own beautiful ancestor oracle deck using watercolors.  No painting skill is required to create this deck (I promise!), but you will need some supplies.

Supplies

You should be able to get all of these supplies for under $30 or so of  at a local craft/art store or borrow from an artist friend:

  • 140 lb watercolor paper. The weight is important here–you want a weight to your finished cards.  Weight of less than 120 isn’t going to be thick enough.  Often, art supply stores sell single sheets of watercolor paper that are 22″ x 30″ in size for $3-$7–this is a great idea and is what I used for my deck. Otherwise, a watercolor pad will be fine.  Watercolor papers have different “tooth” or roughage; a more rough paper will give you more interesting textures than a smoother one.
  • Watercolors. Any watercolors, even a pan of children’s watercolors, will work for this. Having a variety of colors is helpful but even a few colors will work.  The colors will, of course, determine the final product.
  • Brushes. You will need a 1″ or larger brush as well as a smaller brush for lettering and splattering paint. Here’s a tip: professional artist paintbrushes can be kind of pricey–but if you go to where they sell house paint (like a home improvement store) they sell really nice brushes there for half the price.
  • Scissors, a box cutter, paper cutter, or X-acto blade to cut your cards out.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Paper towels or newspaper for your surface.  This is a messy project!
  • Jar of clean water for wetting your paints and cleaning your brush
  • Plate for mixing watercolor colors (optional but useful)
  • Chisel point/Calligrapher’s pen for writing names

 

Creating your Card Background

Now that you have your supplies, we are going to do this project in two steps. The first step is to create the background of the cards.  The background should be somewhat uniform.

 

First: Lay down some newspaper or paper towels on your surface.  For one, this is messy and for two, you don’t want too much paint getting on the other side of your paper.  I didn’t do this, but I was working on dedicated art studio space. Get your supplies ready to use.

Ready to paint

Ready to paint

Second: Now, you will need to decide a color combination for your deck.  I went with colors of the harvest–browns, oranges, yellows–the colors of fall leaves.  Because Samhain is a time of the ancestors, I wanted to embody the colors of this season here in my part of the world.

 

Third: Now, get your paints wet (assuming  you have dry pans of paint). If you are working with tubes, understand that wet watercolor in tubes is *super potent* and you will need only a little bit.

 

Fourth: Now, wet your full paper with water; getting it fairly saturated is a good idea.  Its OK if its a bit drippy.

 

Fifth: Layer a few colors onto the page, giving it a good amount of color (depending on how you want it to look).  The colors will likely run, and this is a good thing.  The paper may also bunch or curl a bit–this is ok (we didn’t stretch it).

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

Sixth: Now, here’s where time and chance come in.  Watercolors have a mind of their own, and they change and spread as they dry.  To make this background, you can take advantage of this. While the original base layer is still wet, get your smaller brush full of color, and hold it about 3-6″ over your paper.  Hit the brush to your other hand and the color will splatter nicely.  Splatter the second color all over.

Layers and splatters

Layers and splatters

Seventh: Repeat this with several other colors. Then, give it 5 min to dry, come back and do it again, and repeat that process. I layered about 8 or so slightly different color layers onto my page as the base layer slowly dried.

Ready for salt!

Ready for salt!

Eighth: You can also use plain table salt or sea salt to add a wonderful effect to your card back.  The salt should be the last thing you add to the page–it makes something that looks like snowflakes on your page by sending away the pigment from where the salt grain fell.  I really like the effect.  Before you add your salt.  check to see if there are any particularly large pools of water–you might want to sop them up with your brush (we are going for a consistent background look, and pools of water can make things less consistent).

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Just sprinkle a little bit, on the pages, like you are salting your meal.  Then, give it time to completely dry.

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

 

Finally: Let the sheets fully dry (you can use a hair dryer to speed things up if you really want) and proceed to the next step.

Creating the Card Fronts

For the card fronts, I am going to suggest that you do a simple watercolor wash (1-2 mixed colors, using steps 1-5 above).  You can choose to do the same color on the entire front for consistency of cards, or, if you’d like, you can cut them and then do a different color wash on each card. In other words, if you want them all to be uniform, you can do the watercolor wash, let it dry, and then cut it up.  If you want the cards to have different colors, cut them up first.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler - just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper.  Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler – just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper. Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

The easiest way to cut them up is to measure and draw lines in pencil to whatever size you want.  There are certainly common sizes for tarot cards (like 3.5″ x. 5.5″) but since this is your deck, you can make it whatever size you want–even round! The other option is to make one card as a template and then use it to trace out all of the other cards. If you want them round, just get a cup of the right size and trace the cup onto the sheet and cut them out. Or you can use a paper cutter, like I did.

Paper cutter

Paper cutter

Finished cut cards

Finished cut cards

Once you have your cards cut and have done a watercolor wash on the card fronts, you might want to snip the edges to keep the card nice (or if you are a scrapbooker, you might have one of those fancy card rounders!)

Snipping corners

Snipping corners

You can finish the cards by adding the names of your ancestors, one per card.  If you get a nice chisel point pen (like the kind calligraphers use) it will make your writing look really nice, which is an added touch.

 

If you’d like, a nice technique to finish the edges of the cards is to darken them.  To do this, take a black ink pad and a makeup sponge.  Dab the sponge onto the ink pad, and then rub it gently over the edge of the card on both sides (If you haven’t done this before, consider practicing it before you go ahead and do it!).  You’ll have a darker edge and a border, which gives the cards a nice complete look.

Edging cards

Edging cards

 

I also chose to paint a symbol for each of my ancestors like freshly baked bread, a rocking chair, etc.  That was my way of connecting to the ancestor not only verbally but also symbolically. If you are uncertain of your drawing ability, you can also print and cut out a picture or other graphic that can be glued to the card.  If you are going to glue anything, I strongly suggest using a bookbinder’s glue, like Yes! Paste or even one of those little kids paste pots or glue sticks.  A lot of glue (like Elmers) has too much water in it and will make a lot of wrinkles as it saturates the paper of whatever you are gluing.

Edged cards ready for names!

Edged cards (Front and Back) ready for names!

 

I hope you found these instructions helpful.  May the ancestors be with you this Samhain and blessings upon you during this sacred time.

 

Honoring the Ancestors of Land, Tradition, and Blood October 15, 2017

As the world  (where I am at, at least!) gets bathed in frost, as the plants wither and die, as the trees bathe themselves in color and then drop their leaves, as the cold wind blows and as the darkness sets in, we in the druid tradition–and in any other traditions–turn to think about the ancestors. In this post, we’ll explore the global traditions surrounding honoring the dead that tie to August-October and honoring the dead to see similarities, we’ll discuss three types of ancestors the druid tradition recognizes, and then we’ll explore ways to honor the ancestors.

 

Food for the Ancestors!

Food for the Ancestors!

Global Ancestral Traditions

When you start digging into ancestor traditions around the world, some striking similarities seem to emerge.

  • The Mexican Day of the Dead, which is a blending of European traditions and Aztec honoring of the dead, goes from Oct 31 – Nov 2. As part of this celebration, Mexicans that believe that the souls of the dead return to the living and elaborate and colorful altars of food and gifts are prepared.
  • The Japanese Buddhists celebrate Obon in August; Obon also honors lost ancestors and the Japanese believe it is a time when ancestors temporarily return to the land of the living.
  • In Korea, Chuseok, which is a three day celebration of thank-giving and honoring of the ancestors, takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which is either in September or October. This holiday includes thankfulness for the harvest and visiting the graves of the ancestors.
  • In China, Buddhists and Taoists have an entire month dedicated to the ancestors called “Hungry month” where the dead are said to walk among the living (held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, or August). The spirits are fed and given offerings on an altar to appease their hungry spirits.
  • Gai Jatra is a festival of cows and the dead in Nepal, held in August. The Cow, the Hindu sacred animal, is led through the streets to help deceased family members cross over.
  • Finally, in Cambodia, Pchum Ben, a festival of honoring the dead, is celebrated in mid-September to mid-October for 15 days. Cambodians believe the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest at this point and dead ancestors may return to seek out the living. They dress in white (Cambodian colors of mourning) and visit temples and also offer food at temples for the hungry ghosts.

 

The festival of Samhain itself came from the Gaelic tradition (which also celebrated Imboc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh). On the Hill of Tara, a mound called the Mound of Hostages built between 3350 and 2800 BCE has a cave that is aligned to the Samhain sunrise. In the Samhain tradition, it was believed that veil between the otherworld was thinner and the souls of the dead could pass through. The souls were thought to return to their homes and seek hospitality, so offerings were left for them. Great fires burned for various rituals to protect livestock through the winter. People often dressed up in costumes and went about door to door for food to confuse the spirits (which is where modern Halloween traditions come from).

 

These traditions are all notably similar in their understanding of what happens with regards to the dead, what should be done, and when it should be done. Sometime in the fall, somewhere between August and early November, something changes in the fabric of the world and the “veil” grows thinner and those who have died are able to briefly return and walk among us. They are often hungry and in search of their family, and so, various preparations need to be made in order to honor them which may involve preparing home altars, visiting temples, feasting, and making offerings of food.

 

Three Kinds of Ancestors

For many of the cultures above, those living on ancestral homelands–the ancestors would include spirits who lived on the land, who created and passed on the traditions, and who were blood ancestors. In the druid tradition, particularly in non UK contexts, we have roots from many places.  And so we often honor at three kinds of ancestors. We honor the ancestors of the blood: the contributors to the physical DNA within us, our genetic heritage, people of our family lines that came before. We honor the ancestors of the land: those who lived and tended the land before us.  And we honor the ancestors of our tradition: those who helped create the druid tradition and bring it into being (both ancient and modern). Let’s take a deeper look at each of these:

 

Ancestors of the Blood.  This is the most common definition of “Ancestors” in the US and usually around the world.  We carry the genetic heritage and legacy of our ancestors.  We know now, for example, that genes can be expressed or repressed by how people live; our ancestors’ and their lives, are literally written into our bodies and into the DNA present.  The work of our ancestors are also present in the landscape: how they lived, where they lived, what they did while they lived, and so on. Even in the US, with its lack of attention to the metaphysical realm, you’ll hear people talk about a deceased grandmother that they feel is “watching over me” and so on, so even if there isn’t a fully expressed ancestor tradition, there are small pieces.  We also have Memorial Day, which is a close to an ancestral tradition as we have, where, at least in my family, in late May we visit the graves of ancestors and tend to them. It is to these ancestors that have literally brought us into being that we give thanks.

 

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Ancestors of our lands. For those of us living in North America, especially on the East Coast where I live, the peoples who once tended these lands for tens of thousands of years are no longer generally present.  These are people who tended this land for generations, who understood and interacted with the spirits of the land, and who were mercilessly driven from it or forcefully relocated to other parts of the US. Now, by no means am I advocating appropriating any of their traditions. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable and relevant to honor those who came before–I have always gotten a good response when making such offerings. I think this is especially important for druids who are honoring the land–in M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, she makes the strong case that not only were native people critical to creating an incredible abundance found in the Americas, they also did plant breeding work, allowing certain plants to thrive through their careful propagation. The land that we love as druids is a land that was so carefully tended by their hands.

 

Also as part of the ancestors of the land, for me, are the 1930’s conservationists who did so much to establish the state and federal park system here in the US.  After I visited Shenandoah National Park a few years ago and saw the careful work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, enormous amounts of people who were put to work creating the park systems, I wanted to honor these ancestors as well.  The conservationists of that era did us a tremendous service by having the vision to preserve land, to set it aside, and to make it freely accessible.  That is well deserving of an offering!

 

Ancestors of the Tradition. The final kind of ancestor we could honor are ancestors of our tradition–those who have influenced the practices that we hold.  I generally honor three groups here: the Ancient druids (a lump group, since we dont’ know any of them by name).  The druid revival druids, many of whom we know, like Iolo Morganwg. Morganwg has gotten a terrible rap. Let’s be clear: Iolo Morganwg is one of the key ancestors in our tradition and if were not for him, I believe we would not have a tradition. In the more modern movement, we might look to ancestors of the tradition like Ross Nichols, who, with Gerald Gardener who sat in a bar in Glastonbury and developed the modern wheel of the year and founded OBOD, or Dr. Juliet Ashley, who was instrumental in developing many of the frameworks currently used by AODA and Mother Betty Reeves, one of the Archdruids in AODA who helped pass the tradition to John Michael Greer so he could bring the order back into a healthy place. My point is, without these ancestors’ contributions, we would not have a druid tradition–and the specific traditions I practice–today. Its important that we honor them, as they are ancestors of this path.  Your own ancestor of tradition path may look a little different than mine, of course, depending on what specific path you follow.

 

How do we honor the ancestors?

Honoring All Ancestors: As described in the worldwide traditions above, some of the ways we can honor the ancestors are as follows:

  • A Spirit/Ancestor Altar. Creating an altar to honor the ancestors and make offerings either outdoors or indoors (or at another sacred place).  You can leave offerings of food here.
  • Making offerings of other kinds. A pinch of tobacco for native peoples of the land, a bit of bourbon, picking up trash in the forest in honor of the conservationists, and so on, may be useful offerings that can be made to honor certain groups of ancestors. Remember that an “offering” doesn’t just have to be a physical symbolic thing that you give–it can also be your time and energy.
  • Feeding the Ancestors. This may include something called a “spirit plate” that is left outside (traditionally in the west), preparing a feast for them, food offerings at an altar, and so on.
  • A Dumb Supper.  A tradition circulating within various forms of pagan celebrations is a “dumb supper” where you invite the ancestors to dinner.  In this case, two plates are set for each participant–one for the participant, and one for their ancestors.  The way I’ve done it most commonly was that we create two plates of food and eat in silence, listening for the voices of the ancestors.  A cup of mugwort tea may also be enjoyed to open the senses for the voices of the ancestors.  Afterwards, the spirit plates are left on an outdoor altar till morning.

 

Honoring the ancestors of our blood: To honor the ancestors of our blood, you might also choose some additional activities.  For example, I believe it is a wonderful honor to find out as much as you can about your ancestors, where they came from, and who they are.  In the USA, in particular, we have often completely lost these cultural traditions. finding out who they were, learning about our histories of our own memories of our families.

  • Writing our own histories so that when we become ancestors, or children and children’s children will have that material. My ancestors didn’t do a good job of this; or if they did, this has been lost and it is of great sadness to me.
  • Learning about the history of your last name. One of the ways I did this was to study the cultural heritage of my last name, O’Driscoll. I managed to find this book on the Internet from the O’Driscoll Clan, in Ireland, called O”Driscolls: Past and Present. I now have a much better understanding of who the O’Driscolls were and the name that I carry.
  • Learning and practicing one or more cultural traditions from your ancestors.  If you are like me, you don’t have any cultural traditions of your ancestors left.  I have decided to learn some of them and carry on traditions from my ancestors.  One of these is creating pysanky eggs, information which I shared on this blog before.
  • Learning the stories of the ancestors.  Learn a story or two from the lands where you can trace your genetic heritage.  Perhaps, perform it for family members!

 

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Pysanky eggs created in the family tradition

Honoring the Ancestors of the Land: The ancestors of the land are many and diverse where I live. We have the Native Americans of various tribes who used to live here  (such as the Shawnee, who were the most local to my area). We have those who came here after, and who unfortunately, pillaged the land to build industry–and for me, these are also ancestors of blood. Finally, we have conservationists who have worked to preserve a beautiful park system throughout the state and country.

  • Honoring Native Ancestors: Learning to tend the land.  There are lots of ways to honor the native ancestors of the land, but to me, engaging in their work and tending the land is one of the best. I believe that we need to re-learn how to inhabit a particular place, tend it, and bring it back into healthy production for the benefit of all life. We need to reclaim our last heritage of humans interacting with the land–again, I point to the incredible gift that M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild is–her book showed that it was by the judicious use and propagation of the wilds that the native peoples brought abundance and a deep ecological knowledge. The best thing we can do to honor the ancestors of this land is to treat this land with reverence and respect and to learn their knowledge. Because of this, I study native plant uses, I study the traditions of the ancestors of the land, and I learn how to cultivate and harvest plants. In other words, I re-establish my relationship with the land, and through that, the ancestors of the land.
  • Conservation Activities: Because I recognize not only native ancestors of the land but also those in the CCC and other groups who essentially “saved” large parts of land for state and federal parks, I believe that the best way you can honor these ancestors of the land is by continuing their work. This may be political advocacy to save lands that they had a hand in protecting, trash clean up work, re-introducing native species to lands, and more.
  • Reparation work. Given that my own ancestors also helped to damage the lands and contribute to some of the ecological challenges faced here in my local ecosystem, I also do reparation work on behalf of my ancestors. Most often, I do this through land tending through the practice of permaculture (see the first bullet point) but also do land healing work.

 

Ancestors of our tradition: we do have many ancestors in the tradition of Druidry. They are important ancestors, and I mentioned some of them before: Iolo Morganwg, William Stuckley, Ross Nichols, and those who brought forth and continued the druid revival and continued it. We don’t now all of their names. But I still think they are deserving of our honor.

  • Readings.  One of the things I like to do to honor the ancestors of the tradition is to read a short paragraph of their writings in a sacred space (if a text is available).  It is a simple act, but acknowledging their work, their efforts, and their life energy is also important.
  • Altar: I like to honor my ancestors of the tradition on my main druid altar.  I made an ancestor oracle recently (see next week’s post!) and have all of my ancestors there on the altar, including those from the druid tradition.

As druids, I believe it is very important we think about where we came from. Iolo Morganwg and others of the early druid revival have gotten their names sloshed through the mud in an unfair way. Iolo didn’t plan on having his papers published; it was also quite common in the day to “discover” ancient texts. Why are we making him have the same standards as academic scholarship in the 20th century? There’s this body of sacred wisdom and knowledge that we have been given access to, that has been tremendously helping us through these difficult times. We need to honor those who shaped this tradition.   I think this is very appropriate for ritual, but I also think studying those ancient works and using them, integrating them, is also really important.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you some food for thought–my goal was to tease apart the idea of “honoring the ancestors” and show how rich and incredible this work can be.  Next week, I’ll share details of how to create an ancestor oracle to further some of this work.  Blessings as we continue into the dark half of the year!

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Magic, Medicine, Folklore and Ecology of Ash (Fraxinus Americana) June 4, 2017

I remember the first time I met an Ash tree suffering from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) in South East Michigan. She was a young ash, about 20 years old, about 4” thick at her widest point typical age, and had begun producing seeds. She stood proudly to the south-east of my sacred grove behind my pond, and I would visit her often. All of her elders in the surrounding area had been killed by the Emerald Ash Borer some years before. The EAB is a bright green beetle that came into the Detroit, MI harbor in 2002 and spread quickly into the surrounding ecosystem (now threatening ash trees along the midwest and eastern seaboard).  The EAB larvae eats the cambium (green inner bark) of many ash species; however, the borer ignores trees that are young and instead goes for more mature trees that have a more developed cambium. As this small ash grew older, the borers came into her trunk at the thickest point, and this young one was struggling to live and produce offspring.

 

Ash tree honored as maypole

Ash tree honored as maypole

I very much wanted to save this tree. I had read about various treatments for ash trees with the EAB and had spoken to our state extension office about options, but all were using petrochemicals and none were effective at this stage of her infestation. So instead, I held space for this tree. I made regular offerings, I gathered her seeds and scattered them and started new ashes. Each year, I watched the damage get more severe, her lower bark starting to peel off, and I wept for this tree. Her children were born, in many places, and I was glad that they, at least, would live for a time, hopefully, to scatter their own seeds. And maybe that something would come along and make a good meal of the borers by then and give the ashes an opportunity to live into a ripe old age again.

 

When it came time to select a maypole for our druid grove, I found a tall, beautifully straight fallen ash of some considerable height in the forest behind my homestead. I peeled off the bark, seeing the damage from the borers. We used that maypole every year I lived in Michigan—honoring it each year, wrapping it with ribbons, and giving it offerings and honoring the ash with each ceremony. I cut it up so that I could move it–and it is still with me here in PA. When it came time to select a Yule log for our Yule celebrations, again, we selected ash, painting her with natural pigments and honoring her in your Yule fires. With each celebration, the ash played an honored role—sometimes, just as fuel for our fire (with the many dead ash trees on the property, it was my firewood of choice for years) or other times, as the center of our celebration.  We did as much as we could to honor the ashes and recognize their plight–and also their importance.

 

The Ash is a dominant tree in our history and folklore, often being seen as the “world tree”, the tree of healing, and/or the tree from which humans were created or from which humans emerged.  In nearly every culture, it has some extremely sacred significance. In much of the mythology, as we’ll explore in this post, the ash tree somehow links to the overall health of the world and the humans within it or it has been the tree from which humans are formed.  And yet, the Emerald Ash Borer here in the USA is spreading far and wide and destroying many of our ash trees. I believe that the plight of the Ash tree and challenges with the Emerald Ash Borer offers us a hard look at the larger challenges we face in the world.  Ash still very much represents a “world tree” but a world tree that is faced with sobering challenges, in many ways, reflective of the same kinds of challenges we face across this planet. I have been struggling with how to understand and represnt the Ash, Fraxis Americana, for a long time as part of my “sacred tree series.”   This post continues my “sacred trees in the Americas” series of posts; where I explore the magic, mystery, medicine, and lore of trees native to the North-East and Midwest regions of the United States. Previous trees I’ve covered include Hickory, Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar, Maple, Hawthorn, Beech, and Walnut.  I’m focusing my comments today on the White Ash, with whom I am most familiar, although these comments could apply to other ashes (blue, white, green).

 

Sacred Trees in Context

I started my discussion with ash tree here today with these stories about ash in my ecosystem, because it illustrates a critical point about considering the nature of sacred trees: our trees, like the lore from which we draw, are intimately connected to specific places and times. We can’t just generally say, “ash, it means this in the Ogham (Celtic Tree Alphabet), and therefore, that’s what it means” without also taking a close look at how that tree or plant also functions specifically in the ecosystem where we live.   The traditional meanings for the ash and other trees were formed in a different time, place, and culture. I think, in grasping for tidbits from the past and trying to reconstruct old spiritual traditions, we sometimes are quick to reach far and wide to understand the lore of things that are near us—without also considering our immediate and local context.  This is why, in addition to reading the ancient lore about sacred trees, it’s a good idea to be out in the world observing them through the seasons and working with them in various ways. Ash gives us a good reminder of this–her energy is so much different here in the USA because of the Emerald Ash Borer that the way we read those stories also has to change.  I’m not saying, necessarily, that this means the old lore and information isn’t valuable to us: it certainly still has its place.  But we must read and understand this old lore in the context of this present day and age and with the current challenges we face.

 

Small ash tree

Small ash tree

Ecology and Growth of the Ash tree

White ashes are also known as Biltmore ash, Biltmore white ash, cane ash, small-seed white ash (and we can look to the name “cane ash” to get some sense of how the wood was used by more recent ancestors). Ash trees typically grow around 70-80 feet tall and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet. Larger ashes may grow up to 100 feet in height and up to 5 foot in diameter, although that is extremely uncommon today. Prior to the Emerald Ash borer, most early tree books indicate that it was relatively free of disease, easy to plant, and very fast growing. Ash is commonly found in the bottom lands as it likes its feet wet and prefers moist soil.  Sometimes, you can find it growing up slopes as well, as long as the slopes aren’t too dry or covered in stones.  In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman reports that ash grows in groups on northern or eastern slopes with good drainage and along streams.  Ash prefers oak-hickory forests (either dry or mesic).

 

As Eastman reports, because ash has a tendency to grow with a cleft or central cavity (see some of the lore, below), it is often a good place for birds, especially woodpeckers (pileated, red-headed, red-bellied), to nest. After the woodpeckers have vacated, owls, wood ducks, nuthatches, or gray squirrels may take up residence.  The seeds of ash are eaten by a wide variety of birds and mammals, including turkeys, wood ducks, bobwhites, finches, grouse, grosbeaks, cardinals, squirrels, and mice. One of the best mushrooms, the common morel, can sometimes be found under white ash trees in the spring—look for them there!

 

Ash Wood Uses

Ash has long been used by humans for a variety of applications, largely in part due to its elastic yet strong and close-grained wood.  It has a beautiful brown grain with a thick, lighter sapwood.  Even the fallen ashes still make excellent choices for various kinds of woodworking. Ash has long been used for manufacturing various kinds of baskets. In fact, a good number of fruit boxes are made in part from ash (like those little ones you get berries or apples in at markets).  It is used to make crates, flooring, furniture, and for various kinds of athletic equipment: baseball bats, sleds, canoe paddles and snowshoes.  In Reverence for Wood, Sloane notes that ash “bends with supreme strength, but since it splits with precision, splints for baskets, chairs, and hoops were made from the black variety…white ash is second in value to oak, being the best material for tool handles, oars, and for any implement where elasticity and strength were required” (p. 100).

 

Ash and the Alchemical Fires

Walter de la Mare wrote in his poem, Trees: ‘Of all the trees in England, Her sweet three corners in, Only the Ash, the bonnie Ash Burns fierce while it is green.” And thus, ash has a particular alchemical quality that is worth noting here.  It has a flammable sap, so even when it is green, it works beautifully to start fires.  I have experienced this numerous times when camping when I was younger—like the conifers, ash has a way of lighting up dark places!

Given that most of the green wood is young and with the current plight of the ashes, I would never use green ash wood for this purposes.  But using ash in this way used to be a very common thing both for Native Americans as well as those who came after.  Still, it is a good piece of information to know as we unravel some of the ash’s other mysteries.

 

Young ashes rising up!

Young ashes rising up!

Medicine of the Ash Tree

Ash has some limited uses within the tradition of Western Herbalism, although it is less used in contemporary practice than it was in times before. Historically, Culpepper’s Herbal gives it a range of uses. He mentions that water distilled from the ash, in small quantity, helps those who are retaining water (so it is diuretic; it was also used this way by Native Americans).  He also mentions that the leaves decocted in white wine helps break up kidney stones (as do the seeds within the husks) and the leaves can also help with jaundice.

 

On a contemporary side, Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Volume II) suggests that white ash bark (infusions or tinctures) is used for tissue states that are lax or atrophied (so it has some astringent qualities), although it is used in small doses for this. Large doses are purgative, that is, it makes you vomit. For over a century, ash has been used in small doses to treat tissues that enlarged, swollen and/or prolapsed and retaining water.

 

Native Americans used the ash more broadly: as a laxative (decoction of the leaves), as a childbirth tonic for women (leaves), as an aphrodisiac (seeds), as a diuretic encouraging the flow of urine and flushing of the kidneys, for various kinds of sores and itchy things (a bark tea). Juice from the leaves also helped with swelling an itching of bug bites.  One tribe, the San Fernando Indians, “refreshed themselves” with water from the bark of ash trees in that region.

 

Magical Uses from the Western Tradition

The Ash tree has a number of magical uses from the Western Magical Traditions. Culpepper lists ash as being a tree governed by the Sun.  John Michael Greer in the Natural Magic Handbook notes that ash was associated both as an “elf tree” and one associated with medieval witchcraft. Luckily, the winged seeds of the ash could protect one against hostile magic.  In the Ancient world, druids carried ash wands.  More recently, Greer notes that ash wood and ash seeds were used for healing and prosperity magic. In the Hoodoo Tradition, Cat Yronwode notes that Ash is less important in Hoodoo than in European Folk Magic. However, in this tradition, Ash leaves were used for protection and spells where someone wants to draw love or romance to them (or keep it with them). Leaves were placed in vehicles to help protect against accidents. Also, the leaves were kept on a person to prevent disease.

 

In the old world, Ash had tremendous power and as well documented in various books and sources. In the Book of Talismans, Amulets, and Zodiacal Gems, Thomas and Kavitt report that ash was used in the middle ages as follows: a horseshoe was buried as an offering at the roots of an ash tree to “charm” the tree. Sticks from that tree, then, that a twig from that tree could be stroked upward on the cattle to “charm away the evil.” In one county in England, you could be rid of warts by rubbing them with a piece of bacon, cutting a slit in the bark of the ash tree, and sliding the bacon under the bark. The warts would disappear from your hand and would reappear on the ash tree as knobs and bumps.

 

Ash in the Ogham

Ash is the first tree in my series to be included in the traditional Celtic Tree Ogham.  It is known as “Nuinn”, “Nin”, or “Nion” and often represents strength, health, protection, courage, and connection to the sea.  Mastery is associated with the Ogham in the ash; it encourages us to gain power and strength associated with the mastery of our selves, our knowledge, and our skills.  Ash, then, might best encourage one to “know thyself” and to encourage self mastery. This is likely why the ancient druids carried Ash trees–as a way of drawing upon their own power and promoting self-mastery, offering protection, and building courage.  The ash was also linked to the idea of the natural cycles and natural forces in the world.  For the ancient Celts, the “three cycles of being” and the past, present, and future were linked and tied to the ash tree as the world tree.

 

Ash in Native American Mythology

As part of this series, I’m combing old books and web archives of Native American mythology to try to paint a picture of some of the uses of ash trees and how native peoples viewed the ash.  These sources are synthesized into themes, which are then described.  Ash has a number of themes:

 

Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Black and White photo of Emerald Ash Borer patterns (dead large ash tree)

Ash, Arrows, and Flying True

Ash was seen as a powerful tool-making tree by many Native Americans, a tradition that continued into colonial days. For example, in an Iroquis story, “Grandmother and Grandson,” the Grandson and Grandmother are the only people in the world.  In the story, the Grandmother gives Grandson many instructions, not all of which he decides to follow.  At one point, Grandson fashions a great many arrows for hunting out of a white ash tree.  He also sings and brings the animals to him so that he may slaughter one to feed his grandmother.  In the book, “American Indian Fairy Tales” (Margaret Compton, likely a Native American herself, tells the story of the “Fighting Hare.”In this story, the prince of the hares, who is very much a trickster, goes on a journey after having his feet burnt by the sun.  He encounters many beings who try to kill him, but each time, he bests them instead and kills them through his magic, plotting, and scheming.  He eventually comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands.  He asks each of the trees what they are good for: The ash says, “From me is taken the bow that speeds the arrow in its flight.”

 

These stories and others show the importance of ash in making arrows and in the hunt.  The ash arrows grew straight and true and were the best tree, of any, for such work.

 

Ash as Hiding or Summoning

In two of the stories I uncovered, the ash either has a role of summoning a magical being through transformation. “A Little Boy and His Dog, Beautiful Ears,” is a legend from the Senaca people. In this story, an evil woman is mistreating her son, requiring him to go fetch water from a place that makes him uncomfortable each day.  After he does so, she leaves the house saying she is going to get bark for making her fire (often stripped from ash trees, see above) and demands the son stay home. Her husband, the boy’s father, skips hunting and follows her. He watches as she bangs the back of her hatchet on an ash tree; after she bangs on it three times (and it makes a beautiful sound) a bird flies down and the bird becomes a man.  he husband shoots at the bird, but it is gone.

“The Story of the Three Strong Men” which is an Algonquin/Micmac legend, the elfin daughter of a goblin is given as a wife to a very strong man who is the son of a bear.  The elfin daughter, who is trouble, eventually hides beneath an old ash tree by a pond and, due to her magic, women see different things in their own reflection. The author also, interestingly, notes that this story may have come through a French Canadian source and then was adapted into the Algonquin tales (so some fairy magic crossover).

 

Humans Made from the Ash tree

Another Algonquin tale, “How Glooskap made the Elves and Fairies, and then Man of an Ash Tree, and last of all, Beasts, and his Coming at the Last Day,” Glooskap came to the Algonquin country (which is present day Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada) the land that is “next to sunrise.” He took up his bow and arrows and shot at the basket-trees, the Ash trees.  From the ashes, Indians came out of the bark to live in that land.

 

We see a similar “humans come from ash trees” in Greek Mythology. In http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htmWorks and Days, Hesoid writes, “Zeus the Father made a third generation of mortal men, a brazen race, sprung from ash-trees (4); and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence; they ate no bread, but were hard of heart like adamant, fearful men. Great was their strength and unconquerable the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs. Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun.”

 

I find it fascinating that multiple cultures in different parts of the world both share this kind of mythology surrounding the ash tree.

 

Ash as Warding Away Snakes

Many sources report that Ash has the ability to drive away snakes, likely accounting for its “protective” qualities listed more broadly. For example, An old book of English Folklore reports that ash trees will prevent snakes from coming near a person and shares a story of a boy who befriended a snake. The boy’s mother wasn’t pleased so she wrapped him in ash to keep away the snake; the boy eventually wastes away and dies from the loss of his snake friend. John Eastman in Forest and Thicket, likewise reports that Native Americans as well as colonists in the early US placed ash leaves within their shoes, which was said to ward away rattlesnakes and prevent their bites.

Culpepper, too, writes in his Herbal that, “the young tender tops, with the leaves, taken inwardly, and some of them outwardly applied, are singularly good against the biting of viper, adder, or any other venomous beast.” He notes that he can’t vouch for this use, that he got it from Gerard and Pliny, both of whom note that the adder and ash have antipathy between them.

 

Ash and Connection to Life

 As reported in Frazier’s Golden Bough, a wide-ranging custom in England was to pass infants or young children through a “cleft ash tree” (in other words, one that was split in two) as a cure for rickets, ruptures, or a hernia (of which the child was likely to die).  The child was passed through the tree three times or three times three (nine times) naked at sunrise, “against the sun.”  The tree is quickly bound up with ropes and the split is plastered with mud or clay.  As the tree heals over time, the child’s ruptured body will be healed too, but if the cleft in the tree stays open, so, too will it in the child. If the tree dies, the child would also die. If the tree heals, the child is cured, but the child’s life now depends on the health of the tree.

We see this same thing from Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye, where he reports the same tradition of healing people, and he also reports that people imprisoned mice in the split trunk of ashes to cure lameness in their cattle.

 

Print of ash tree leaf

Print of ash tree leaf

Ash as an Irish Protector Tree

Irish culture was believed to be protected by five magical trees. These were the three ashes: the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branchie Tree of Usnech, as well as a yew and an oak tree). When these trees fell, it was said that Irish paganism fell with them (Paterson, Tree Wisdom, pg. 153).

 

Ash as the Yule Log

In Western England, the Yule log, which is burned on Christmas eve, is traditionally an ash log. In Tree Wisdom, Jacqueline Memory Paterson writes, “Our Christmas custom, which is no less than the burning of Igrasil, the tree of life, emblematical of the death of the vegetation at the winter solstice.  It is supposed that misfortune will certainly fail on the house where the burning is not kept up, while, on the other hand, its due performance is believed to lead to many benefits.  The faggot [ash log] must be bound with three or more ‘binds’ or withes, and one or another of these is chosen by the young people.  The bind which first bursts in the fire shows whoever chose it will be the first to be married.” (pg 107-108).  Older traditions offer a 12-day feast, also with the burning of an ash log.

 

Yggdrasil, the World Tree

Perhaps no tale of the ash is more famous than that of the Norse World Tree. In this mythology, heaven and earth are separated, and the cosmic tree, the Ash, connects the different worlds.  In the Eddas, it is written, “The chief and most holy seat of the gods is by the Ash Yggdrasil. There the gods meet in council every day. It is the greatest and best of all trees. Its branches spread over the world and reach above heaven. Three roots sustain the tree and stand wide apart.”  As part of its work as the world tree, however, the Ygdrassil is in constant turmoil. The serpent at the base of the roots of the tree (representing earth/female energies) and the eagle at the top (sky/male energies) are constantly interacting, causing stress to the tree. The squirrel who serves as a messenger running between the serpent and the eagle, moves to and fro between heaven and earth (likened to humans).  Further, four deer live in the Ash’s branches, eating them, the moisture of their antlers fall to the earth below as dew. The leaves of the tree are fed upon by Odin’s goat, the goat then produces the drink of the gods, drank by warriors of Valhalla in Odin’s Great Hall. It also has a spring located at the roots, the Well of Urd, and three maidens (called Norns) who ruled over human’s destines and who water the tree daily and rubbed clay into its bark to whiten it.

In a fascinating account Edna Kenton compares the Norse tale of Yggdrasil to that of many other Native American cultures, including the Osage Indians, who, in their drawings of the cosmology of the universe, include a world tree as a bridge and the Thompson River Indians (in British Colombia) who also have a world tree. The Sia Indians in New Mexico, have six world trees comprised of spruce, pine, aspen, cedar, and two kinds of oak.   Likewise, the Mayan Cosmology also includes the Yax Che, the Green tree or the Tree of Life. Of course, we also see this same tree of life metaphor in the Hebrew Kabbala.

 

 

The Divination Meaning of the Ash Tree

Synthesizing all of the above lore and literature from above, and given where it sits ecologically, I’d like to offer the following interpretations for the ash tree:

Ash is a Mirror for Inner and Outer Realities

When we put the mythology of the world tree together with the mythology of humans springing from ash trees and the mythology of the ash trees tied to human health, a very powerful picture emerges about the role of the ash tree. I see this tied to the inner and outer manifestations of reality. The ash represents both the world (and its health) and ourselves (and our health).  The inner and the outer are both present:

  • Ash Represents the world and the health of the world.  Ash–her growth and her suffering–represent the health and vitality of the world. Healthy ashes equal a healthy world, and the plight of the ashes here in the US, I believe, represent the plight of the world.  So we might consider how we can heal ash, and therefore, heal the broader world.
  • Ash represents the health of humans. Given that human life and healthy are so carefully tied to ash trees in the mythology, I think that the ash tree represents the health of humanity. We see this certainly in the lore that ties the health of a person to the health of the tree.  So the ash represents healing, but healing tied to its own health and magic.
Ash patterns

Ash patterns

The old ashes slough off their bark as they die to reveal complex patterns..the patterns of the borer are almost identical to the patterns of suburbia you can see from aerial maps.  Clearly, these old trees have a message for us, and the patterns that we humans have wrought upon the landscape are causing the world harm, in the same way that the borer causes the ash.  We need new patterns, ways that do not harm, but heal.

 

Ash Represents Self Mastery Within and Without

On an individual level, Ash represents the ability of humans to master themselves, to build their knowledge, to overcome their demons, and to ultimately know themselves well.  This mastery, then, offers us powerful rewards and magic.

I also believe, given the first set of interpretations above, that ash offers us an opportunity as a culture and species to engage in self-mastery.  Right now, our time of excess involves little self-control: people have indulged in their whims, been sold trinkets and stuff that is literally killing our planet and threatening all other life.  Part of living in a regenerating manner is mastering ourselves, understanding our own needs (vs. our wants) and choosing consciously to live differently.  It is through this mastery of our wants and desires that we might yet help shift the tide of these times.

Another piece of this seems to be alchemical, from the ash’s ability to transform into fire even when green; certainly, inner alchemy is another step on the process to self-mastery.

 

Ash offers Protection

Ash offers a range of protective magic, as shown in the various mythologies.  Obviously, there is a protection from snakes (not a bad thing for hikers!) But if we look to the protective trees of Ireland and other places, we also see ashes as key protectors over the land and the people. We might plant ash trees as guardians and carry pieces of ash–and honor the ash each chance we get.

 

Ash Offers a Path Straight and True

The physical uses of ash by a variety of groups suggest that ash is used for its strength as well as its flexibility. The arrow, which needs to be shot straight and true, offers the ability to meet goals and go far.

Ash offers Hope

I have been dwelling on the plight of the ash, and trying to understand this tree and its mythology, for the better part of eight years.  I have had parts of this post ready to go for at least the last three years, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I didn’t understand, or maybe, I didn’t want to understand, what it meant to humanity and the world that our ashes were all dying, given their protection and how tied they seem to be to humans.  However, now, I understand that while these things are true, looking at what is happening to the ashes ecologically in areas infested with the borer offers us the most powerful lesson of all: that of hope.

 

An ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

A young ash tree is reminded how much she is loved

I was recently visiting Michigan, and part of that visit included seeing some of my druid friends. And so, as is the usual way, a group of druids went into the woods to do some ritual.  Our ritual that day included communing with various sacred trees there on the landscape, and I ended up near a large ash that had long since died and had a crack; it was getting ready to fall.  And around that ash were all of the ash’s offspring, probably 8-10 years old, not yet producing seed. The spirit was still in that old ash tree and I spoke with it. The old ash was proud–she was there watching her children grow up around her, knowing that her legacy carried on. Even with all of the old ashes that reached up and to the heavens gone, she had hope that her species would carry on through the newest generation, her children, scattered at her feet.

 

After this experience, I once again returned to my old homestead to visit the the ash that was struggling in her battle against the borer.  She had lost her battle with the borer, but the young ash trees were rising up surrounding her.  Her spirit was still there, waiting for me to return a final time.  She offered me a piece of wood, and shared with me some of the lessons of the ash that I’ve shared here with you today. I crafted a simple wand from that wood and will honor such a gift.  The ash in areas afflicted by the borer are no longer a generation of elders but a generation of the young. The seeds of a new generation are the seeds of hope.  As we think about the plight of the world, we recognize that many problems were caused by many previous generations.  It is the thinking, patterns, and actions of those older generations, including many who have long since left their mortal bodies, that have us here, today, in this predicament.  And if we can begin to think differently, with a clean slate of a new generation, we have hope.  It is this powerful message of the ash, of hope, despite the adversity, that is one of the many lessons she provides.

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