The Druid's Garden

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

Cycles of Nature, Cycles of our Lives: Allowing for Fallow and Abundance in Spiritual Studies January 26, 2020

Preamble: Now that I’m the Grand Archdruid of AODA, starting in 2020, I will be doing one AODA Druidry-based post a month. A lot of my posts are already tied with AODA practices as it is my core spiritual practice, but I wasn’t always as explicit about it as I will be now! 🙂  All of these posts, while framed in the context of AODA druidry, will be applicable to many different kinds of nature-based spiritualities and druidries.

 

A beautiful cardinal flower in late summer

The Wheel of the Seasons offers us many lessons and one of the core principles in AODA is the principle of the Cycle and Season. In Western Pennsylvania, where I live, we have a growing season that runs from May to late October. That us, from Beltane to Samhain, during the light half of the year, we can grow vegetables, forage berries, and be in an abundant and lush landscape. Then, the first hard frost hits in late October. In less than a day, the land withers and the annual plants die. The leaves drop from the trees and grow bare. The landscape literally changes overnight and we steadily move into winter. As I write this, its late January and we have a snowstorm coming through. The withered husks of last year’s plants still line the fields and forests. The sun hangs low in the sky, seeming not to have enough energy to rise. Other than the conifers, the land looks completely dead. But deep within the soil, the roots rest. Within the trunks of the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts, the sap starts to run. The seeds that were scattered in the fall lay dormant, waiting for the warmth to burst forth. But I know that spring will return—it is just a matter of time. Without this fallow period, the plants here would not be healthy and grow. The land needs its rest so it can return to abundance once more.

 

This lesson is a critical one for our own lives. Here in the US, there is an “always-on” culture such that people have to work constantly, even when they are sick, when there is a snowstorm, or when we have national holidays. People themselves perpetuate this culture by the glorification of busyness. If you aren’t busy and overwhelmed, you are somehow lazy or unproductive. In a culture that is defined by its productivity and continual growth, this is a price that must be paid. The problem is, this is not sustainable, healthy, or reasonable for any of us. Our culture operates like it is always in high summer, requiring us to constantly be productive. But this is how a landscape grows exhausted, how fields fail to produce yields. And just like an over-farmed field, most people you see are beyond exhausted, balancing too many things and doing none of them well.

 

When people start working on a degree in a druid order, such as the first degree in AODA, the always-on culture can have a detrimental effect. Some people go full steam ahead, eventually burning themselves out. Others find it difficult to make progress because there is no room in their lives for these practices. Still others make good progress, then have something with life get in the way, and then can’t get back on track. When any of these things happen, the guilt sets in. I have heard many newer druids describe their own shortcomings and shame for not finishing a course in a particular amount of time. I think a lot of this guilt and such comes from the “always-on” culture that makes us think, even for our own spiritual practices, that we need to always be moving forward. But as John Michael Greer has said on multiple occasions, “Growth at all costs is the ideology of a cancer cell.”

 

The reason I started this piece with the wheel of the seasons is that it provides us an alternative way to think about our own path of spiritual development. Spiritual development works a lot more like the wheel of the seasons than a straight linear path of productivity (like we may have experienced in our formal education). Depending on what is going on in our lives, our spiritual practices may need to respond in different ways. Fallow periods are as necessary to us and our development as periods of high growth and harvest. As an example from my own life: I’ve been a druid for almost 15 years. I’ve completed the courses of both OBOD and AODA in that time and have studied and grown through other projects and practices. I regularly take fallow periods where I allow myself not to do anything and just fall into the basic nature-based spiritual practices—being out in nature, doing some light meditation, and allowing myself to regenerate. This fallow time, this unstructured time is not when I’m checking items to do off my list, but rather, where I’m simply allowing my spirit and body some rest. This fallow time often leads to very rich understandings and a deeper sense of self. Because just like in nature, the fallow periods have function and purpose—they allow our subconscious to work. When the land goes into slumber, the roots grow deeper. When the human body fasts, within 24 hours, the body is making tremendous amounts of cell repair and regeneration. When we go fallow for a time, our spirits do that same kind of work.

 

Sometimes fallow periods in our spiritual life come because we choose not to plant anything in the soil. But sometimes they come because life sends us a curveball, something painful or wonderful that we did not expect but that takes up a good amount of our energy. Our attention, for a time, may be diverted from our own spiritual development. I think anyone who has been on this path for a period of time has had a fallow period—or several—happen And for those who haven’t yet or those who are going through this now—to you I say—it’s ok. It may be a necessary part of your path. Given time, this fallow period will end and you will find yourself once again in the place of high summer. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize the difference between a fallow period that is temporary and is healthy vs. never accomplishing what you set out to do. That’s a different kind of problem, almost like a multi-year drought.

 

Summer sun

The other thing that happens to well-meaning people is thinking that there is some kind of “gold standard” of spiritual practice and trying to measure up to that standard. Again, our own cycles and seasons vary, and these practices thus need to be adapted to each of us. Meditation is a really great example of a practice that is quite varied and one in which many people struggle to establish. For example, a common suggestion in AODA is to meditate while sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair. For most people, this is an excellent suggestion as it keeps them focused and not too comfortable. But, I have a fairly sensitive body and some back issues, and after trying and failing to use multiple chairs comfortably for almost two years, I gave up and started meditating laying down on a yoga mat. What a difference that made! After making the change not only was I more inclined to want to meditate (as opposed to forcing myself), but my meditations also became much longer, more rich, and more focused. As another example, some members of AODA with ADHD have found it impossible to sit still long enough to meditate in any stationary position, and thus, have made walking meditation their core meditative practice. The key here is that while meditation is a core practice of AODA, how you fit this into your own life and make it a workable and regular practice for you may vary. This is *particularly* true in a flexible and self-directed order like AODA, where we encourage you to take the basic practices and adapt them to your ecosystem, local culture, and individual lives.

 

As you are thinking about how to adapt AODA’s practices to the cycle of your own life, some questions you might ask yourself are: Who are you? How do you function? How can these spiritual practices support a better functioning version of yourself? When is your energy the highest? How can you fit these practices into your own cycles of your life? When I look at these questions, I recognize a few things: first, I have a demanding job, and I know at the end of a long day, I can’t to deep spiritual work. Thus, I do most of my deep spiritual work (such as seasonal celebrations or ritual work) on weekends when my energy is highest. Second, because we have a homestead and lots of animals, tending our outdoor flocks in the morning is a regular part of my daily cycle. Thus, I do early morning spiritual practices with our flocks as a movement meditation and I always take about 10 minutes to engage quiet and stillness in our gardens and on our land after I finish tending them. This 10-minute daily practice never fails me because every day, regardless of the weather or my own energy, I have to tend the birds. It is fully built into the cycle of my life. At the end of the day, I perform the Sphere of Protection and use discursive meditation to help focus and quiet my mind before bed. I have found that bookending my day with my spiritual practices has been most beneficial in my life. It took me a while to find this particular approach to my spiritual practice. I also recognize that while this system works for me in my life now, if something radical about my life circumstances were to change, it would likely no longer work and I’d have to find a new routine. At my former job, my cycle was very different. A challenging work environment meant that the first thing I did every day when I went to work was to ground myself, do some deep breathing, and do the sphere of protection. My current work doesn’t require such activity, so I’ve used the SOP in my life for a different purpose. This example, I hope, also teaches another lesson: there are times when adapting our spiritual practices can offer us benefit in our lives. There are also times when we need to adapt part of our lives to our spiritual practice.

 

Tomato Harvest!

The last metaphor of nature’s cycles that I’ll touch on today is the role of a regular period of growth. In our homestead each year, we understand that a yield takes effort.  If we want tomatoes, we have to start the seeds in about March, water them each day, shelter them until they can be planted out, and finally plant them.  As they grow, we make sure they have a healthy and rich soil to grow in, have adequate light and water and are properly supported.  We need to keep an eye on pests and things that would damage the tomatoes and respond appropriately. If we’ve done all this, within 5-6 months, we will get our first yield.  This is a slow process.  It requires us attending to our tomato plants daily, putting a small amount of effort each day so that we can eventually reap bountiful rewards.  This lesson, part of nature’s cycle, is also tied to our own spiritual development.  Spiritual development, like any human development, is a gradual process. People often think that it’s the big events, the big breakthroughs that define us as people. But if you aren’t putting in the work regularly (like watering, weeding, and fertilizing those tomatoes) the big breakthroughs won’t come as readily because you won’t be cultivating that spiritual life.  Regular cultivation of a spiritual practice is the true way in which we grow over time. You can’t have tomatoes without planting them first!

 

To conclude, looking to nature’s cycles can help us understand our own spiritual development and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we aren’t “progressing” as we think we should. Also, we can use the lesson of nature’s cycles to make the most of our own cycles for spiritual practice—recognizing that we have them and working with them, rather than against them. Look at the cycles of your own life and think about when you have time, energy, and built-in existing activities that may benefit from one or more of AODA’s regular spiritual practices. I think there is much to reflect and meditate on here concerning the principles of cycles and seasons—both those in the broader landscape and the lessons they hold, but also how our own cycles and seasons contribute to our spiritual paths.

 

PS: I am indebted to my fellow Archdruids of AODA, Adam Robersmith and Claire Schosser, for planting the seeds of this conversation and encouraging me to write on this topic.

 

A Tree for Year Challenge January 12, 2020

Into the trees

One of the most common questions that people ask when they start down a druid or other nature-based spiritual path is: how do I connect deeply with nature?  Connecting to nature can happen in such a wide variety of ways.  It can happen through connecting with our heads, through learning, study, and engaging with books or classes.  It can happen through our hearts, where we emotionally connect with nature and places.  It can also happen through our bodies when we physically experience the natural world.  It can be through our spirits when we connect with the spirit of the tree.  But regardless of which of our selves and methods we use, it requires an investment of ourselves, our time, and building a relationship.

 

A while back, I wrote about the Druid’s Anchor Spot, which is a spot that you can use to regularly engage and observe nature–a spot that you return to, again, and again, and learn through observation, interaction, and quietude/meditation.  Drawing upon this concept, I’d like to issue a challenge to my readers for this year:  Spend a Year and a Day with a Tree.  The idea is simple: find a tree, commit to visiting it each day for a year (or taking a piece of it with you if you are going to travel) and learn from the experience.  Here’s how to go about this:

 

The Druid Tree Challenge:

Find your tree. Find a tree or plant that you connect with and that is willing to engage with you in this work. This should be a tree that you can have daily access, such as one living on your street or your land.  Choose any tree that you are drawn to.  This tree should be willing to work with you, and before you begin this, make sure this is so (for how to communicate with trees see my communication links below).

 

Establish your relationship. I would suggest starting with communication with your tree and ensuring that the tree is willing to do this deep work with you.  If you are still developing your plant spirit communication skills, here are some possible communication strategies:

As you do this work, ask the tree what you can do in exchange.  The tree may want regular offerings or you to plant some of its seeds/nuts.

 

Visit your tree every day this year.   Visit your tree, even for a few minutes, each day.  Visit your tree regardless of the weather (this is good as it gets you outside). At least once a week, spend at least a half-hour with your tree, including some time in meditation. If you travel, see if you can take a piece of the tree (a leaf, a nut, a stick, etc) so that you can still spend time with your tree, even at a distance.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

Keep a journal of some kind. You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but do document your experiences with your tree regularly.

 

For some, what I’ve written above will be enough to take on the tree challenge.  For others, I have offered some additional suggestions by month so you can keep moving forward and learning and growing with your tree.

 

Tree activities by Month:

January: Offer your tree a blessing or wassail. This week — January 17th — is a traditional day for wassail ceremonies, and thus, anytime in late January is good for offering your tree a blessing. I have a post on two kinds of January tree blessings–I suggest you do one of these blessings for your tree before you move too much further into the year.  This is a very good way to start your year with the tree and ensures health and abundance for your tree.

 

February: Learn about the history and ecology of your tree. Start learning about your tree.  What kind of ecosystem does your tree grow in? What kind of life does it support?  How old might your tree be?  One of my favorite resources for this is John Eastman’s set of books–he shares not only information about trees and plants in terms of growth habits and botany but also, the web of life and key species that are connected to those trees and plants.  Observe.  Identify anything that you can around the tree, such as moss or lichens that may be growing.  If you live in North America, you can also look back through my list of trees that I’ve written about: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, Apple, and Black Locust.

 

March: Learn about the traditional uses of your tree.  How have people used this tree before? How do they still use it?  Books on edible wild plants are good places to start, as are books like Eric Sloane’s A Reverence of Wood that teaches much about the traditional uses of trees.

 

April: Practice deep listening.  Hear your tree’s story. Learn about its history on your landscape.  Simply listen to the tree for this month.  You can use my series on plant spirit communication for guidance: part I, part II.

 

May: Learn and practice the magic of your tree.  Each tree has its own magic.  Some of this you can uncover with books, stories, and legends (such as through my own “Sacred tree” series above) but I would suggest you look beyond the books.  Hopefully, by May you will be regularly communicating with your tree and your tree will be able to teach you some of its own magic.  Ask and see what happens.

A practice you can use if your tree doesn’t reveal one is tree energy work (adapted from John Michael Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn work). If you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, put your back against the tree and exchange energy.  Your nervous system will connect with the tree and slow down, connecting to the tree’s rhythms.  Breathe deeply into the experience.  If you are feeling depleted, do the opposite, by hugging the tree.  Again, breathe deeply into the experience.  This is a useful practice to do often with your tree.

 

June: Engage in spirit journeying with your tree.  A step up from learning the magic of the tree is asking the tree to take you on a spirit journey.  See what happens and what you learn.

 

July: Focus on experiencing your tree with your senses. This month, use your senses to experience your tree. What does your tree smell like?  Feel like?  Look like? Sound like?  Engage in a sensory experience with your tree.

 

August:  Daydream. Plan unstructured time with your tree.  Simply sit with your tree and be this month.  Unstructured time can be one of the most creatively inspiring and engaging.

 

A wonderful tree to get to know!

A wonderful tree to get to know!

September: Create with your tree. See if your tree will offer you a bit of itself, or wait till a branch comes down in a storm.  Learn how to make something, even something small, from the tree.  You can learn an entirely different layer of your tree if you work with wood, nuts, leaves, etc.  Making something from your tree can encourage you to learn about it on another level.  If you can’t create something from your tree, or, in addition to this, ask your tree to teach you its song or offer you some other kind of inspiration. create a dance or painting, or any other bardic art that is inspired by your tree. Let the awen flow.

 

October: Align with the seasons. If you live in a temperate climate, this month will likely have many changes for your tree, physically and energetically.  Pay attention to those changes and work to align your energy with that of your tree as we move into the dark half of the year.  This is a powerful practice that will allow you to more effectively adapt to the changing season and the dark and cold times (if you live in the souther hemisphere, consider doing this in April intstead!)

 

November: Gratitude. Spend time this month in gratitude for your tree.  Again, ask if you can do anything for your tree.  Bring offerings.  Gather up its seeds/nuts/fruits if at all possible and plant them. Hug your tree. Here are some gratitude practices you can try.

 

December: Reflection. Reflect on this experience with your tree.  Look back through your journal, if you kept one, and think about how your journey has changed and this experience has changed.  Decide what the future holds for your relationship.

 

Closing Thoughts

My own plan for the year is working with a large oak on our property.  This is a black oak, the largest and oldest tree on the druid’s garden homestead property. In December, the tree reached out to me and we began these practices in early January, learning and growing from each other.  I’m excited to see what the year brings and how this work deepens my relationship with nature, this land, and of course, this wonderful oak.

 

As a more broad issue, as we move into further into the 21st century, and now into 2020, things are more than a bit uncertain and terrifying. The more obvious it becomes that humans have to radically change our behavior, the more those in power work to send us and this planet into a downward spiral of pain, death, and extremes. I think a lot of us need some grounding.  Tree magic roots us, grounds us, and gives us strength.  Choosing a particular tree to work with for this year will help you bring that tree’s wisdom, magic, and medicine into your life in a time when we all can use it!

 

Sacred Dreaming at the Winter Solstice December 15, 2019

” When the body is awake the soul is its servant, and is never her own mistress. … But when the body is at rest, the soul, being set in motion and awake … has cognisance of all things-sees what is visible, hears what is audible, walks, touches, feels pain, ponders”- Hippocrates, Dreams

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Dreams are a critical part of what it means to be human–every night, we dream.  We may not remember our dreams.  Our dreams may be fun, terrifying, illuminating, or simply mundane.  There is magic in dreaming, and magic in our dreams. This magic of dreaming is particularly useful to consider at this time of year, at the Winter Solstice, when the darkness is all-consuming, the sun lays so low on the horizon, not even seeming to be able to bring power and light to the world.  This is the time of dreams and of the night. In today’s post, in honor of the coming winter solstice, I consider the role of dreaming and I share some dreaming techniques that you can use to deepen your relationship and attention to your dreams this time of year.

 

In the last few years, at the Winter Solstice, I’ve spent some time exploring the darkness, dreams, and the spaces of the night. Two years ago, I wrote about embracing the darkness and experiencing candlelight living. Last year, I explored how nature offers us suggestions for embracing the darkness through the quiet of the seeds and lessons of nature.  This year, we’ll explore the human realms and think about how the darkness may encourage our souls and spirits to dream and to travel beyond our physical bodies, gain messages, and gain a deeper connection with ourselves and spirit. The solstice, here in Western PA, gives us 14.5 hours of darkness–plenty of time for deep dreaming and dreamwork.  In the first part of this post, I’ll explore different ways that humanity has considered the role of dreams and dreamwork, and then in the second half of this post, I’ll share some techniques to help explore dreaming more fully.

 

Dreaming in the West: Subconscious and Psyche

In Western Culture, at least here in the US, dreams are not really given much importance, and certainly, they are considered free from mystical qualities. Modern psychologists, including those who study dreaming, see dreams only as a way for the subconscious to process our experiences. A good example of this kind of thinking is found in “Dreamtime and Dreamwork: Decoding the Language of the Night” by Stephen Krippner and colleagues from 1990. This work is a useful perspective on how psychologists view dreaming and how dreams interact with layers of the psyche. Going back further, Carl Jung recognized that humans have a psyche (a combination of the mind, the body, and feelings) and that dreams were one way in which the psyche communicated to us.  He writes:

 

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” –Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 10, paragraph 317

 

Thus, within the realms of the west, dreams are mostly considered manifestations of our own psyche or subconscious.  We also have plenty of expressions to show how unimportant dreams seem to be with phrases like “only in your dreams”.  While there is certainly validity in the Western Perspective, it lacks any connection to spirit beyond us.  As a druid and an animist, I know there is much more going on than just my psyche speaking to me.

Ancient and Indigenous Understanding of Dreams

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

We might look to indigenous wisdom for an understanding of how non-industrialized cultures view dreaming.  In many native cultures, dreaming is a way to connect with spirit (ancestors, deity, etc) and hear messages and to travel in a different world, a world that is just as real as our own.  In the book Black Elk Speaks, much of the teachings that Black Elk conveys to his people were passed to him through his dreams. Dreaming was important to all of the Ogala Sioux people.  As Black Elk shares about Crazy Horse, ““Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one.”

 

The Aboriginal Austrailian Dreamtime is one of their most important concepts, the essence of who they are as people.  As described by Clanchy (1994), the Dreamtime dates back at least 65,000 years and part of it includes stories of how the universe was created, how humans were created and what their purpose was, but also that the dreamtime continues eternally and is both past, present, and future.  The Dreamtime is also the land that they inhabit, the spirit of the place. Dreams that individuals themselves have function within this culture in a variety of ways, including “dreams of passage” (den Boer, 2012) where individuals have powerful dreams surrounding various rites of passage (deaths, births, marriages, etc).

 

We can see dreams at work in various ways with the cultures that influenced modern Druidry, including the Welsh.  In the Mabinogion, The Dream of Rhonabwy, where Rhonabwy dreams for three days, visiting the time of King Arthur, engaging in battles, and playing chess.  The Irish believed and closely linked dreams and omen.  Ettlinger (1946), drawing upon a variety of ancient sources, notes that dreams to the Ancient Irish were considered divinatory, visionary, and healing.  She notes a number of different ancient Irish stories where prophetic dreams lead kings to avoid conflict or seek it out, and they often sought out advice to interpret their dreams.

 

The ancient Egyptians, and later, Romans, Greeks, and Jews created “sleep temples” where people would go, rest, be hypnotized, dream, and have their dreams analyzed.  These temples often helped people with more psychological ailments, recognizing the importance of dreams and sleeping to well being.

 

While I could present much more information here, what is presented is hopefully sufficient to demonstrate that for many pre-industrial and indigenous cultures, dreams have incredible power: they can offer us messages, connect us with our ancestors, connect us with spirits of the land or landscape, offer us augury or predict things to be, and help us connect deeply with ourselves.  While the psychic interpretation of the west is certainly *part of* dreaming, dreaming can also connect us to the metaphysical aspects of the world and spirit well beyond our own minds.

 

Dreaming the Winter Solstice: Some Dreaming Techniques

If you are going to start doing dreamwork, or pursue it at a more serious level, the Winter Solstice is the best time to begin this work–this is when night has the power, the darkness is in the landscape, and dreams have power. The deep darkness is a place of dreams, a place of spirit. Our conscious and controlling selves meld into a dream where we are simply along for the experience that is more than us and yet, intimate with us.  While we dream every night, there are a variety of tools to help us dream deeply, more powerfully, and with practice, more intentionally.  I’m going to outline a few of those practices now as a way to get started.

 

Herbal Allies for Dreaming

In what grows here in North America, Mugwort is the clear choice for dreaming.  Mugwort helps us dream powerfully and intensely, and can be useful for those who have difficulty remembering their dreams and also those who want to work on more intentional dreaming.  Mugwort, fresh or dried, can be made into a tea (don’t brew it too long or it will get very bitter), and is usually quite good when sweetened with some honey.  Mugwort can also be put in a smoking blend or smoked on its own.  You can make a dreaming oil with mugwort (and possibly other herbs like rosemary, borage, or lavender) and rub it on your temples and heart before bedtime. Finally, you can make wonderful mugwort smoke sticks (smudges) either with mugwort alone or with other herbs like sage, cedar, or rosemary.  Any kind of interaction with mugwort can put you in a place of intense dreaming–for that’s what she does–create intense dreams!

Other herbs that help with dreaming are those that calm the mind and body. Many use Valerian or Hops as aids to fall asleep more readily and stay asleep. These kinds of herbs can help put us in a ready state for sleep.

 

Mugwort gives us more access to dreams (Mugwort card from the Plant Spirit Oracle)

Grove Sleep (Temple Sleep)

A technique that I use often is derived from the Ancient Egyptian “Sleep temples” above. The goal of this is to create a sacred grove (ritual space) that allows me to experience dreaming in a more intentional and sacred way.  I recommend this practice when you can sleep in and you don’t have any pressing things on your agenda either before bed or when you wake up. The presence of a significant other can complicate this practice (or, if your significant other has a spiritual practice, you might do it together).

 

What I do is just before bed, brew up some mugwort tea and place my dream journal by my bedside. Then, I turn out the lights and leave a single candle burning.  I open up a sacred grove (using the AODA‘s solitary grove opening) in my bedroom. After I have the sacred grove open, I engage in some mind quieting and meditation techniques, lying in bed. These vary, depending on what I need and where my mind is. If my mind is racing, for example, I might engage in some empty mind meditation. If my mind is already calm, I might use some discursive meditation to help prime me for dreaming (both of these techniques are described here).  I attend to my breathing.  I fall asleep.  Usually, using this technique, the most memorable and potent dreams come in the few hours before I wake up, but this is not always the case.

 

When I wake, I write down anything of meaning in my dreams (including when I wake in the middle of the night).  Then I fall back asleep and keep dreaming.  In the morning, before I do anything else, I write down the remaining notes on my dreams and then close out the sacred grove and go about my day.

 

I don’t obviously do this every evening (that would be a lot!) but I do it often enough that it has become a regular spiritual practice of mine.  Attending to dreams in this intentional way has made my dreams not only more meaningful, but has given me more control over them as well as more chance of remembering them.  I started this practice some years ago, at the Winter Solstice, and it has become a welcome addition to my spiritual path.

 

Dream Journaling

A final dream technique I highly recommend is keeping a dream journal.  I have found that it is helpful to write down at least meaningful dreams, if not all dreams.  I kept a daily dream journal for a year, and since them, usually, write in my dream journal at least once a week.  I keep it by my bed so that I can wake up and immediately write.  If you think you will remember your dream later, I’m sure experience tells you that writing it down immediately after waking is the best way.  If you don’t have a dream journal handy and you have a powerful dream, just hit the record button on your phone or keep a little voice recorder (that is often easier than writing and turning on the light).  The important thing here is to help you remember your dreams and then, you can return to them as time passes.

 

Conclusion

Thus, at the Solstice, you can walk in the landscape of the dreamscape and see what comes. See who you meet, what spirit tells you, what your own subconscious tells you, and enjoy this dream journey! I would love to hear from my readers about your own experiences with sacred dreaming and the techniques you have developed!

 

PS: I will be taking several weeks of a hiatus from regular blogging for spending holiday time with my family, holiday travel, and rest.  I will return to blogging in early to mid-January.  Have a wonderful Winter Solstice / Alban Arthan / Holiday season, everyone!

 

References

Krippner, S. E. (1990). Dreamtime and dreamwork: Decoding the language of the night. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc.
Clanchy, J. (1994). Aboriginal Australia: An Introductory Reader in Aboriginal Studies.
den Boer, E. (2012). Spirit conception: Dreams in Aboriginal Australia. Dreaming, 22(3), 192–211. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028402
Ettlinger, E. (1948). Precognitive Dreams in Celtic Legend. Folklore, 59(3), 97-117.
 

The Bee and the Machine: Moving Beyond Efficiency and towards Nature-Centeredness November 24, 2019

Animals have spirit!

Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.

 

Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast.  If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”,  I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.

 

One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart.  I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.

 

A good thing!

A good thing!

The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.

 

The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned.  My response is that I’m a druid.  There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.

 

To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.

 

The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.

 

Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it.  Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.

 

Doing things the old way….at the North American Bushcraft School

By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.

 

But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar.  All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.

 

We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it.  The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are.  We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey.  In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?  Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.

 

Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily.  It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings.  The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.

 

Beauty and mystery of nature

I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift.  Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines.  I really appreciate the work that both do).  But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.

 

Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:

  • Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year.  I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints.  While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
  • Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
  • Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school.  You can find a list here.  I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places.  Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!)  The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
  • Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc.  As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world.  These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious.  Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it.  Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
  • Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature.  You’ll be glad you did!

This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post.  I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat.  If we change mindsets, we change the world.

 

On Being a Minority Religion and Paths to Building Respect November 17, 2019

“I’m sorry, I’m unavailable to meet on that day.”

A pause, “well, why is that? This is an important meeting.”

“Because it is a major holiday for me, and I am taking a personal day to celebrate it.”

Another, longer pause.  “Wait, your holiday is Halloween? That’s not a religious holiday.”

“No, my holiday is Samhain, which is a holiday dedicated to my ancestors. Modern Halloween traditions actually derived from this much older holiday.”

Another pause. “Can’t you celebrate it on another day?”

“No.  The timing is critical to the celebration. Would I ask you to meet on Christmas or Easter?”

Another pause. “That’s not the same thing.”

 

The above interchange is a fairly common interaction fairly typical of my workplace experiences in being a minority religion, a druid, here in the USA. In fact, I had this exchange with someone just last week. Since this kind of thing seems to come up around Samhain, in particular, I thought I’d take some time today to share my perspective on some of the challenges that people like me, walking a minority religious path, face.  But most importantly, I’m going to share some ideas for how we can build bridges and build respect (beyond mere tolerance, but actual understanding).

(*I use the word “religion” understanding that this word represents the dominant term for people who have a spiritual path.  A lot of druids don’t like it, and I don’t necessarily like it either, but it gives certain credibility and legal standing–so I choose to use it.)

 

Challenges Druids and other Nature-Based Religions face

Minority religions face a lot of challenges in general in the modern US.  Some of the challenges we druids face are shared by other minority paths, and others are unique.  Here are some–certainly not all–of some of the typical things that people walking the druid path may face.

Just being a druid!

Just being a druid!

 

Invisibility. The Pew Forum offers some general demographics on Religious life in the US.  If we use the numbers from their Religious Landscape Survey,  nationwide, the category “pagan or Wiccan” (which is the closest one can likely get to druid) has about 0.03% of the population.  In other words, my path isn’t even listed on the survey, and so, we are much lower than 0.03%.  Some druids do identify as pagan, others do not, so it is really hard to tell exactly how many of us there are.

 

But regardless of the specific percentage, because there are so few of us, people have no idea who we are or what we do.  This is actually beneficial in some cases, as assumptions are hard to change (ask anyone calling themselves a witch about that!)  I’m of the opinion that a blank slate is better than a slate filled with misinformation. A blank slate means that I can educate people who ask me about it in a productive way (at least some times) and define “druid” in ways that actually represent our practices.  Recently, for example, I told my employees that I was taking Samhain off. They were supportive, and one of my newer employees asked me, what’s a druid? And I was able to respond in a productive way, and we had a good conversation, and she wished me well on my holiday!

 

On the other hand, you do have things like RPGS, World of Warcraft, and D&D that paint druids in a certain light.  If people find out I’m a druid, I sometimes people get the impression that I run around in robes lobbing globes of green nature energy at villians. Again, not necessarily a bad impression, but also, not quite right.

 

This invisibility also means that holidays aren’t recognized, and as my opening example discussion shows, that can lead to other kinds of difficulty.

 

Intolerance.  Like any other religion with a “pagan” label, a lot of druids worry about what happens when their conservative Christian neighbors learn about who they are or what they might be doing. Some druids choose to do public ritual to help build tolerance, while others simply want to be left alone to do their own thing.  Last year, the Wayist Druids in Tennessee decided to do a public ceremony and had some trouble with the local conservative Christians. But often, these protests are more bark than bite.  The Wild Hunt reported on two recent events that were slated to be protested by conservative Christians, and in both cases, the protesters, few in number, showed up briefly and left pretty quickly. And yet, even one or two intolerant people can make doing anything public very uncomfortable. One of the things that I worry about where I live, for example, is that I’m in a rural area that does have a fair share of hate groups. There’s a Moose lodge nearby that is a known hate group hangout, very rural, only about 5 miles north. Their presence so close to where I live certainly gives me pause.

 

Lack of Basic First Amendment Rights and legal protections.  I am a legally ordained clergy member through the Ancient Order of Druids in America, a federally recognized religious organization in the US.  Despite this federal legal recognition, I am not permitted to perform religious ceremonies in my home state (Pennsylvania) because PA state law says that in order to be recognized at the state level, my “church” must have a building and meet regularly.  With the 15 or so practicing druids in my region, this is simply an impossibility. Technically, we do have a building (our home) and meet regularly (about 3-4x a year for grove events).  But this doesn’t “count” from the state’s perspective–they only want organized religions that look and act like Christianity to be legally performing ceremonies.  You find a lot of these kinds of things–assumptions that “religion” equals things that look and act like Christianity.  Many states have laws that are really designed only to allow traditional religions to be recognized, and that’s a sad thing.  But things are changing if the battle over veterans’ tombstones is any indication.

 

Small altar in the woods

A simple altar on public land

Lack of Places to Celebrate. Especially in urban and suburban areas, it’s surprisingly hard to find quiet places to celebrate your path and to do outdoor public ritual.  I can’t tell you how many rituals were disrupted over the years because I thought I had chosen a quiet space to celebrate a druid holiday or just do some of my own ritual work, but it turned out, I did not.  Hiking deep into wild public areas is a generally safe approach.  Renting private places for a weekend is a safe approach. Doing things on your land or someone else’s land is a safe approach.  But doing outdoor public ritual otherwise is a gamble: it might go fine, or it might draw the ire of someone who is not supportive and will cause a scene (in the middle of your Samhain ceremony!)  Lots of groves and individuals find workarounds, like designating 1-2 people who are there to keep outsiders from disrupting a ceremony.

 

Part of this is because we are druids.  It’s so nice just to be outside, at some amazing place, and be able to celebrate there.  Or even just have a quiet moment.  I think if druidry and other nature-based paths were more well known, there would be more opportunity to have ceremonies in public places and a lot more tolerance of those ceremonies.

 

Lack of family / friend / loved one support.  Probably the most difficult of anything is the intolerance and lack of support that one gets for choosing a different path, particularly if you have strongly religious famliy members.  I’ve struggled with this in my own life; my Christian family largely still doesn’t support my path and its better not to say anything than try to push the issue.  I’ve made good inroads with my parents, but that was a very long and hard fight spanning over a decade.  My extended family, I don’t even bother with.  I let them think what they want because there is not really a way forward in that particular area.  I’ve had relationships (including some long-term ones) end because of my religious identity, and I’ve also had friendships end when someone found out what I was.  When I mentor other druids, I often find this is one of the most challenging things–its not the random strangers that you have to worry about but rather, the people that you love and that are closest to you.

 

Bridges to build

So now that I’ve outlined some of the major challenges druids face, I want to talk about strategies for building understanding and compassion.  Note that I’m not using the word “tolerance” for a very specific reason. The concept of “tolerance” gets a lot of airplay here in the US.  We want to “build tolerance” between different faiths. Dictionary definitions from Merriam Webster about the word “tolerance” say things like, “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something” or “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”. I think tolerance is the first step in what hopefully becomes a deeper understanding, respect, and mutual support of diverse paths. That’s my ultimate goal and what I’m working towards.  Tolerance to me isn’t enough–what that basically means is that someone “tolerates” my existence.  What I’d like to see is someone going well beyond tolerance and into invitations to share, mutuality, collaboration, and respect.

 

Bridge building is a really important step, and I find that this is best done individually.  I gave the example above about simple conversations, such as the one recently between my employees.  Part of why that conversation worked was that I’ve been working with these folks for a while, they trust me, and I have a good reputation in my workplace and in my field.  A good reputation, being well respected, makes something “weird” like druidry go down easier.  This is why timing really matters–I don’t want to open with “I’m a druid” to new people, necessarily.  I prefer to build relationships first, and then, over time, they can get to know this side of me after they’ve already formed a basic opinion of me. Those conversations will have much more impact this way.

Trail into the woods....

Trail into the woods….leading to understanding and respect!

One of the strategies that I find helpful is looking for similarities.  When I talked to my mother about druidry for the first time, I took her for a walk in the woods where she prays.  Then, I talked about my path of druidry and how it shared many things with her path of Christianity–she seeks messages in nature, she goes to the woods to commune and pray, and she recognizes nature as God’s creation.  I seek messages in nature, I got to the woods for reverence, and I recognize nature as a sacred place.  When you frame it in this way, what seems foreign becomes familiar.

 

Go-to-Responses. Let’s say you decide to be fairly open about who you are as a druid.  If you are, people will ask questions from time to time.  I prefer to be prepared and know what I’m going to say rather than flounder.  Thus, I have developed some “go to” statements that help me talk about druidry.  I usually practice these from time to time. I like to remind myself that hat the first impression is possibly the only impression you can make. Here are a few common ones and how I frame it:

What is a druid?  Druidry is a spiritual tradition rooted in connecting with nature.  For druids, nature is our sacred text and our church, in the sense that we derive deep spiritual meaning from nature.  One of the things we do, for example, is work to attune our own lives with the seasonal changes that are happening around us.  Especially with some of the challenges we face in the 21st century, we see reconnecting with nature critical to our own lives.

What do druids believe? Druidry is a set of spiritual practices, and we honor belief as an individual’s choice.  That means that different druids have a differing understanding of deity, the afterlife, and other such questions.  I am an animist druid, which means that I do not work with the concept of deity, but rather, understand all living beings and natural features (such as forests, rivers, or stones) as having spirits. I work closely with those spirits as part of my own druid path.

What is X holiday about?  I generally will explain the wheel of the year and how we look to nature for guidance; then I shift to talking about where we are at this point in the year and the closest holiday.  Most of the time, I get asked about Samhain, and I would share something like this:  Samhain to many druids is really about two things: honoring various kinds of ancestors and letting go  Ancestors to druids include blood ancestors, but may also include ancestors of the land, ancestors of our druid tradition, ancestors of our profession, and others.  We remember them, honor them, and commune with them.  If you look on the landscape right now, we’ve just had the first frost, the leaves are falling from the trees, and winter is setting in. This season is over, and a new one is beginning.  We work with that energy at this time of year.

 

Public druidry.  The final strategy I use is some public outreach and public druidry.  For example, in the last few months, I’ve been asked to come and speak about druidry at the local UU church and offer a lesson in druidry for some of the middle school kids that go to the church.  Soon, I will also be giving a talk for a pan-spiritual group on campus who wants to know about druids.  I think that once you’ve been walking this path a while and you feel ready, this is good work to do. Every person who hears about you now knows something new.  That person in the future is more likely to build bridges with you and others.

 

Druid's prayer for peace painting

Druid’s prayer for peace painting

Subversive druidry. Finally, I like to get the ideas of druidry out there sometimes without even attaching the label.  For example, I have been giving medicinal and edible plant walks for many years.  As part of my plant walks, I talk about reciprocation, repair, regeneration–concepts that I understand because I am a druid.  These are concepts that lead people to deeply connect with nature and begin to see nature as not only a physical thing, but a metaphysical thing.  To be clear: I’m not trying to create new druids. But I am trying to expose people to some druid thinking so that perhaps later, when they hear the label, it doesn’t seem as weird.

 

The Work of Peace.  I want to close with what I consider to be the most important part of all of this work–the work of peace.  In the druid revival tradition, peace is a central part of what we do.  At the beginning of our rituals, we declare peace in the four quarters.  Really think about that–we magically and powerfully proclaim peace in the four directions.  We have druid’s peace prayers and an emphasis on aspects of peace in the druid’s prayer (understanding, wisdom, knowledge, justice, the love of all existences, the love of earth our mother). Each time we say one of these prayers or declare peace in the quarters, we are sending that prayer into the world.  Everything I’m saying here, is another way to pray for peace.  Even if we can’t do anything else, or aren’t comfortable doing anything else, we can always offer that prayer for peace.

 

I have a lot more I could write on this topic, but I think this is a good start to talking about these issues.  Readers, I want to encourage you to post with your own experiences and suggestions–things that worked well for you, things that did not, experiences you have had.  Thank you and blessings!

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Black Locust’s Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meanings November 10, 2019

Black locust in bloom

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a spiny, scraggly tree that is found abundantly along the US East Coast. Very little is written about this tree from a magical or mythological perspective, although certainly, anyone who works wood or practices permaculture is aware of the more tangible benefits this tree provides. In today’s post, we explore this amazing tree and start building some more specific magical knowledge to incorporate this tree into local druidic or nature-spirituality practices.

 

My parents’ land in Western PA, land where I grew up, consisted primarily of old potato fields.  We had two sets of tree lines where the farmers had let the trees grow; these lines were full of huge cherry and maple trees grew.  In between those tree lines as the land sloped down the mountain were open areas populated with blackberry bushes, hawthorn, and black locusts–several acres of them. These locust trees, rising bare and spindly out of the earth, often looked like skeletons–they would usually wait to put their leaves on well after the rest of the trees had gone green in the spring.  They would also be the first to drop their leaves, sometimes as early as mid-September, while the rest of the trees would wait till near Samhain. It was if they didn’t enjoy the light half of the year and preferred the darkness of winter.  As younger trees, they have pretty amazing wicked thorns (thorns similar to blackberry or raspberry thorns, rather than hawthorn-style thorns).  These are thorns that catch, snag, and hold fast.

 

I’ve always known these trees to be powerful magical allies with a particularly strong energy–and yet, almost nothing is ever written about them.  Needless to say, growing up among the locusts has given me a unique perspective on these amazing trees and I recognize them for the magic they hold. This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern US, including in Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, and Oak.

 

Black Locust: Identification and Ecology

Black Locust in Winter

Black locust is a distinctive tree–it has compound leaves that are between 6-12″ long.  Each compound leaf has pairs of leaflets that are oval in shape.  The younger branches and stems often have two sharp thorns at the base as well as thorns going up the smaller branches.  Larger branches often jut out in odd directions and grow at odd angles, giving the tree its distinctive appearance.  As the trees mature, thick gray-brown bark with thick ridges grows.  The wood itself is a brown-gray with distinctive rings and it is very dense and heavy.

 

The black locusts growing at my parents’ land were growing, in part, because it is a tree that helps regenerate damaged ecosystems. My parents’ home was built on what was once old potato fields. After decades of growing potatoes, the soil was nutrient-poor and full of rocks and clay.  Not all trees thrive in such an ecosystem, and this is part of why the black locusts came.  Black locusts are trees that regenerate damaged soils–as they fix nitrogen, they often can be an early part of ecological succession to help repair damaged soils and serve as a pioneering species in that regard.

 

Black Locust is not tolerant of shade, and thus, prefers to grow in areas with plenty of sun including old fields, disturbed sites, and wastelands.  It prefers a limestone-rich soil but otherwise can adapt to many other soil conditions.  It is an early species–as other species grow up and as ecological succession continues, it dies back and makes way for other species.

 

Black locusts are native to part of the Appalachian mountains and parts of Iowa, stretching from Western PA to the top of Alabama, but has been widely planted beyond that smallish range.  Partially, it is planted because its wood is extremely useful as it is heavy, durable, strong, and rot-resistant.  But partially, it is planted because of its a great regenerator of poor soils.

 

Apparently now in places in the US, it is considered an “invasive” species.  But since many of you know my thoughts on that term, I find this label pretty unfortunate.  As the link in the first sentence suggests, Black locust is a first aid tree–it is adaptable, deals well with disruption and disrupted soil, has a tolerance for pollution and industrial waste–sounds like a pretty darn badass first aid responder tree to me!  It is unfortunate that so many responder plants get such a reputation.

 

Wood and Uses

A really nice history of the black locust tree at the Live Science website explains how Black Locust is the hardest of our timber woods here in North America, including describing evidence that the Native Americans living in the mountains may have exported black locust to the coastal areas and that black locust was thus a valuable trade item.  This is likely because Black Locust can resist rot for up to 100 years, making it an amazing building material!  Native Americans also made many of their bows from Black Locust due to its strength. As Eric Sloane discusses in a Reverence of wood, Black Locust was well known in colonial times.  Philadelphia, as a planned city, had an important street named after the Black Locust.  It was exported very early in colonialization, starting in 1640. In 1686, Captain William Fitzhugh of wrote that the locust as “as durable as most brick walls.”  (p. 57, Plants of Colonial Days by Raymond Taylor).  These early wood exports (like Black Locust and Sassafrass) were exported because of their usefulness and uniqueness–think about how much value a wood had to be loaded on a ship and sent back to the old world.  Black locust was one of the early exports, which really shows its value for a range of applications.

 

And today, Black Locus is still an extremely useful wood, finding a niche in any projects that call for strength, density, and rot resistance. Traditionally, it has been used for everything from houses to railroad ties and telephone poles to tool handles and mine props.  It is very useful to line garden beds because it almost never rots. Because it is rot-resistant, it is also used for fence posting and building projects. As Eric Sloane discusses, it was also a frequent material in living hedges and fencing material due to its thorns.

 

Black Locust tree with Crow Nest

Another historical fact shared from the Live Science article–it is likely that Black locust pins, holding the American Ships together, helped win the war of 1812. These pins, stronger than those oak pins of the British fleet, allowed the American ships to withstand more cannonball damage than the British ships, leading to victory.  In this way, the strength of the Black Locust was directly pitted against the strength of the oak–and the Black Locust was the victor.

 

Edible and Incredible Black Locust Flowers

For about two weeks a year, the black locust radically transforms from its usual spindly and scraggy self to a carpet of beautiful and fragrant blossoms.  These cascades of white flowers with little yellow centers–they look a lot like a pea (and locusts are related to the legume family, so this makes sense). These delightful sprigs of flowers can often be harvested with abandon, and you can harvest as much of them as you can reach!

 

Due to their abundance, I’ve made a lot of things from these flowers, but the best, by far is a black locust flower fritter. Pick flowers that are still yellow in the center (if they are going brown, it means they are past their prime). Make a simple fritter batter (1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, 1 tbsp sugar, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 2 eggs) and fry them for 3-4 minutes.  I prefer frying them in coconut oil, which really enhances their flavor.  The fritters are done when they are golden brown.  Sprinkle with some cinnamon and powdered sugar for even more tasty goodness.  I’ll also note that, in Nature’s Harvest, Sam Thayer writes that we don’t know how to treat flowers in a culinary sense since we don’t really have them widely used in our cooking in North America.  But locust flowers can be treated like any other vegetable.  He uses them in salads, vegetables in soups, green salads, fruit salads, stir-fries, and more.

 

I’ve also made pancakes from them (treating them like blueberries in pancakes) and also tried brewing them as a tea.  Given the fragrant nature of these flowers, you’d expect the tea to be good, but really, it just isn’t.  It has a bad taste, so I wouldn’t drink it. The pancakes are fun, however, and a nice seasonal treat!  You can also eat the flowers fresh from the tree.

 

The beans are also edible, but they are so tiny, you have to be really dedicated to getting any kind of meal from them.  I’ve tried and have collected a small handful of beans here and there, and when I throw them into a soup or something, they totally disappear.  So probably not the best wild food out there, but the flowers more than makeup for it.

 

Black Locust Blossom Close-Up

It’s important to note that beyond the flowers and the beans themselves, everything else on the black locust is toxic, including the bean pods and leaves.  A poisonous glycoside called “robitin” is contained within the bark, leaves, roots, and wood, which is toxic to us as well as animals.

 

Magic and Herbal Qualities from the Western Tradition

This is where things start getting quite thin. Most of my normal reference books for herbalism (Wood, Culpepper, Grieve, Gerard, Gladstar) and magic (Greer, Yronwoode, etc) say literally nothing about black locust.  It is a new world tree, and many of the older herbal books are based on old-world plants–new world plants and trees often get no notice (hence, my entire point of this series).

 

Books aside, a few herbalists list some information on their websites about Black Locust.  For example, the Plants for a Future entry seems to confuse the black locust with the honey locust, talking about edible pulp (which is not a feature of the black locust).  Henriette’s herbal suggests that the bark was used as a violent emetic (since it’s so toxic, yes, it would make you vomit violently!)  It also lists the flowers as potentially anti-spasmodic, but I haven’t found that information in any other source.

 

That is, as far as I can tell, there is virtually nothing on the magical qualities of the Black Locust from a western perspective.

 

Native American Herbalism and Lore

Since this was a tree growing in the native range of North America, many tribes did have interactions with it, and I found a small amount of lore and stories surrounding it. Unfortunately, a lot of the tribes that would have interacted with this tree were forcefully removed and/or slaughtered–and much of their knowledge of this tree likely died with them.  Here are two useful references:

 

From Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees (1891) by James Moody,  Moody translates a discussion and a commentary on a particular kind of occult disease (or curse, perhaps). One of the ways this curse can manifest is by a maleficent person putting a sharpened stick of black locust into someone’s skin; if it is not removed the person may die.

 

In a second Cherokee story, the black locust is used to help a deer sharpen his teeth so that they aren’t as blunt (referring, likely, to the strength of the black locust wood).

 

Magic of the Black Locust

My story that opened this piece shared what I consider to be three of black locust’s most important features:  some of the most strong, rot-resistant, and durable wood we have, regenerative qualities that help heal damaged ecosystems; and the skeletal nature of these trees’ growth cycle. To summarize my findings, I’d like to put forth the following magical and divination qualities for the black locust:

 

Black Locusts in Early Spring

Ultimate strength and endurance.  Black locust is beyond strong and endures beyond any other tree, particularly in death. It is rot-resistant, literally lasting 100 or more years, even when sunk into the earth.  That beats most chemically treated woods, making it a tree that is ultimately connected to endurance, strength, and power.

 

Death and Life. If we look at the contrast of this tree ecologically, it offers us a rich interpretation of the interconnection between life and death.  Here is a tree that looks like a skeleton, and spends more time being bare than covered in leaves.  And yet, it offers the landscape healing through nitrogen-fixing and regenerative qualities, working to quickly transform damaged landscapes.

 

Shadow and Underworld Work.  Moving from the second point, I think this tree may help the living connect with the dead, and hence, can be a bridge to shadow work, underworld work, and work with the dying/decay energies of this time of year. The Skeletal nature of this tree, combined with its poison, and its short blooming time, really speaks to me of an underworld connection.  This is a tree one can use to connect with the energies of the underworld, particularly at Samhain and the Winter Solstice, and use those energies for their own kind of shadow work.

 

What a tree indeed!  Readers, do you have any additional information or stories on Black Locust to share?

 

Awen, Bardic Arts, and the Ancestors November 3, 2019

The time between Samhain and Yule is always a time of deep reflection for me.  As a homesteader, this represents the end of the season– the first frost happened in the week I was drafting this post, making everything curl up and die. By the time late November comes around, any major outdoor projects are complete for the year. We anticipate, even embrace, the winter months when snow carpets the ground and all is frozen and still.  While in the light half of the year, I spend most of my spare time gardening, doing various permaculture projects, or just being outside in the summer. In the dark half of the year, this is when I turn to more inward-focused bardic arts, more intense practice of my magic and journeying,  and learning from books of all kinds.  So as we move into the dark half of the year, I’ll be spending some more time on my bardic arts and awen series of posts as that is where my mind is moving into.

 

Awen and the bee

Today’s post explores the ancestral connection to the bardic arts and considers how we might explore our ancient ancestors by working with their art forms and using their work as inspiration. This is part of my larger series on the bardic arts. For earlier posts, see, Taking Up the Path of the Bard, Part 1, Taking up the Path of the Bard Part II, Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part III – Practice makes Perfect, Cultivating the Awen, A bardic storytelling ritual for empowerment, rituals, and activities to enhance creativity, and the fine art of making things.  Finally, you might be interested in reading my 2018 Mount Hameus research piece, supported by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

 

Bardic Arts and Our Ancient Ancestors

Many ancent human ancestors practiced the bardic arts. Every culture on the planet, in addition to having language, also has many forms of bardic arts: music, storytelling,  fine crafts, fine arts, drumming, singing, dance and bodily expression, and much more. Some of how we know this from archeology and the kinds of things we find in museums.  For every “functional” tool, we also see one decorated or objects that are purely decorated.  Our ancestors (and by this, I mean human ancestors of all kinds) painted on the walls of caves, shaped clay, wove, and used colors.  They sang and told stories and danced.  They practiced fine crafts and honed their skills in incredible ways–some ways which have been lost to us in the modern era.   But more than what can be found in the historical record–we know this.  We know this because we seem to have been evolved to create.

 

Some of the earliest records of art are 65,000-year-old cave paintings by Neanderthals, as reported by Nature Journal In 2018, scientists reported cave drawings by homo sapiens that were at least 75,000 years old. The cave paintings and drawings endured over time, even when likely many of their other art forms vanished.  But I’m certain that these images were not the only kinds of bardic arts that our ancient ancestors did.  The oldest known instruments are the Gudi flutes, which are a kind of crane bone flute.  I actually have a bamboo flute modeled in the style of the Gudi flute, made by Erik the Flutemaker. He doesn’t appear to make that one anymore, but he does make a similar ice age flute.  When I play my flute (in a pentatonic scale), I wonder how similar this music might be to the ancestors.  I could keep going with many other kinds of bardic arts:  dancing, storytelling, fiber arts, pottery, basketry–I think you get the idea.  If we look deeply into our own cultural history, and deeply back much further into prehistory, we can see that the bardic arts were clearly practiced by our ancient human ancestors.

Awen from the heavens

This leaves us with at least two exciting possibilities, both of which I’ll now explore.  The first is the ability to connect with our ancestors, modern and ancient, by practicing intentional bardic arts.  The second is to work with their awen and be inspired by their creations for your own.

 

Connecting to the Ancestral Bardic Arts

The first possibility is that we can connect to our ancestors by practicing some of the bardic arts they may practice. I’ll go back to my crane bone flute for a minute to share an example. If I’m playing my flute by myself, I close my eyes before I play it and take deep breaths. I feel my consciousness stretching back through time to reach those ancient human ancestors who may have played similar instruments. Once I reach that space, I begin to play, letting whatever notes come to me in any order. Sometimes, good things happen with the music when I do this. If I am playing my flute with others, I will begin by briefly sharing what the flute is, what it is modeled after, and ask them to close their eyes and connect with those ancient ancestors. And then I play a song. I think this is quite different than just playing the flute for people–of course, people are drawn to music and love to hear it, but understanding that this flute has a deeper ancestral connection gives us that deeper experience.

 

If you want to explore your own ancestors (or more broadly our common human ancestors), there are a few different approaches. The first is to research the history of the thing you already do and learn about it from an ancestral point of view.  For example, if you tell stories, see if you can find the oldest stories and information about how these stories were conveyed, who told them, and so forth.  If you play an instrument, learn about the history of that instrument, what older versions of the instrument exist, and maybe see if you can get one (like my little crane bone flute). If you like to write, learn about etymology (the history of words) and the history of writing (which is so fascinating!)  This approach is good for someone with an established bardic practice, someone who maybe wants to take their practice in a new and interesting direction.

 

You could also do the opposite–pick your ancestors, and then learn what you can about them and their bardic arts. Once you’ve done this, start practicing one or more bardic arts. You don’t have to go back to pre-history for this: any group of ancestors at any time are possible sources of inspiration. This, for example, is why I occasionally dabble in making hex signs.  My ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and the hex signs can still be found on barns all over my region. Once I started doing family history, finding a family bible with small charms written in it (all in German, of course), and so on, the ancestral connection to this tradition grew within me and I wanted to build some of that into my bardic arts practice. This is also why I practice pysanky (and my motivation for having so many different egg-laying birds!) and play the panflute!

Awen and growth

Awen and growth

Ancestral Awen as Sources of Inspiration

I shall sing of the awen, which

I shall obtain from the abyss

Through the awen, though it were mute

I know of its great impulses

I know when it minishes;

I know when it wells up;

I know when it flows;

I know when it overflows.

–Taliesin, “The Festival” from the Book of Taliesin, 13th century

This is one of my favorite poem segments, from Taliesin, who is thought in the Celtic world to be the greatest bard who ever lived. Here, he’s speaking of his deep relationship with the awen, and how he understands it, and how he cultivates it. Although he cannot speak to it directly (“though it were mute”) we can see how he knows exactly how to work with it.  Taliesin is, as he says, a master of the awen.  When he wrote, he was bringing that spark of awen and transforming it into poems, stories, and songs.  So, too, were other practicing bards throughout the ages–some named,  many nameless. Even though we don’t know all of their names, the work that they have left us still stands–in museums, in our buildings and architecture, in our stories and songs.

 

Another ancestor-focused practice tied to the bardic arts, then, is focusing on using historical bardic works for inspiration.  Many masterful designers use this approach (I was taught a version of this approach in two different master classes teaching radically different skills–leatherwork and figure drawing).  We can look go previously created works, preferably historical, for inspiration.  To do this, I go to museums for inspiration.  Perhaps I see a pattern I really am drawn to; I take reference photos (if photographing is allowed, and if not, I get a copy somewhere). I take walks around, looking at patterns and beauty in old buildings, old iron gates, and so forth. I combine these photos with inspiration from the natural world. I do this for a while, gathering bits and pieces of ancestral inspiration.  I develop an ancestral library of sorts, which compliments my nature-based library of inspiration.  Then, the next time I sit down to design something, I use those photos as inspiration.

 

This kind of practice creates almost like a chain of awen. The awen was sparked by some ancient bard, somewhere in prehistory. That bard inspired others, and new works were created.  Some of those works remained available to me, as a modern bard, and I can draw upon their inspiration.  How many previous works inspired the one I’m looking at today?  How many ancestors am I touching, in finding inspiration in their own work? How many future bards may my work inspire?