The Druid's Garden

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

Druid Tree Workings: Establishing Deep Connections with Trees July 2, 2017

Imagine walking into a forest where you are greeted by many old tree friends, each members of different families that form a community.  You know their common names, their less common names, and the secret names that have taught you.  You know their medicine, how they can be used, even some of their stories and songs. They rustle their leaves in joy as you continue to walk.  The movement of their branches is music in your ears, the sound of the leaves a song, playing in your mind.  Their medicine and magic is open before you.  And yet, you realize how much more you have to learn, to know, and realize that this process –the process of reconnecting to the medicine and magic of the trees–will take more than one lifetime to complete.  This is the power of establishing deep connections with the trees.

 

Oak at Samhuinn

Oak at Samhuinn

Over the last two years, I’ve offered a series of posts on what I call “druid tree workings.”  A lot of people who get interested in nature spirituality want to work with trees, and there isn’t always a lot of detailed information out there about it.  Since the trees have sung to me since I was a small child, I have been trying to compile this information on some of the strategies that I used in order to learn their teachings and work with them.  Today, I’m going to explore another strategy that takes some of my earlier posts a bit further.  If you haven’t read my earlier work in the druid tree workings, I suggest you start there becuase this post (and one I have planned in the next week or so), draws upon those initial principles. Earlier posts in this series include: finding the face of the tree, druid tree workings on the outer planes, druid tree workings on the inner planes, helping tree spirits pass, winter tree blessings, and a seasonal approach and the breath of the earth. Today, I’m delving into a few other strategies for establishing deeper relationships with trees through finding a focal tree and working with it in various ways.

 

Relationship Building

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, and I’ll mention it again here.  Reconnecting with nature, and doing any kind of nature-based spiritual practice, is just like building any other kind of relationship.  It takes time.  It takes both giving and taking.  It takes good listening skills and communication.  To establish relationships with plants, trees, nature spirits or anything else, this is the very beginning of where we start.  Nature isn’t there just to give, and give, and give (and when she is forced to do so, ecosystems eventually break down and we are left with the predicament we are currently facing).  Instead, we are meant to be in recriprocation.  Think about it this way: all of the “waste” products from your body (carbon from your lungs, nitrogen from your urine, and the nutrients in feces that breaks down into rich soil) are required by trees and plants for survival. And in turn, we need them for oxygen, food, shelter, shade,  and much more.  If we work with relationship as our basic premise, we can develop deep relationships.

 

Finding Your Tree

A simple way to begin to connect deeply with trees and prepare for deeper initiatic work (which I will discuss in my next post in this series) is to begin by finding a species, and an individual tree, that call to you. Different tree species work with different human energy patterns, and what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, one of my strongest tree allies is hawthorn, which is certainly not a species that is friendly to all! But over a period of time, hawthorn and I have developed a very deep bond and love each other well.  And so, it might be that as you are reading this, you already have a specific tree in mind. Or it might be that as you are reading this, you need a way to find one that will work with you. So let’s first explore how to find your tree.  Picking a single tree to begin this work is really important. You might think about this like the “central” or “keystone” tree in your larger sacred grove.  Your sacred grove, that is, the many tree species that will work with you, are added after you begin your work with this one tree.  Once you have developed a deep relationship with one tree, it is easier to communicate with others of that same species, and easier to connect to many other trees of different species.  The work spirals out from there.

 

There are two ways to go about finding your tree.

 

The Deductive Method: Having a tree (or tree species) in mind.  Do you have a specific tree speces or have a relationship that began with a tree species at an earlier point in your life?  This might be a tree species you’d like to seek out to establish a relationship with.  For example, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time climbing several trees–an old apple, an old maple, and an old cherry.  As I grew older and found druidry, these were the trees that first called me back and allowed me to reconnect.

 

The Inductive Method: Picking your spot and find your tree. The other way of going about this (and the one I’d suggest for a lot of folks) is to simply pick your spot and then pick your tree.  Before finding your specific tree, you need to scope out your general location. This is a very important consideration; you should be able to visit the tree regularly and do so with minimal disruption (e.g. a tree next to a busy highway might not be the best choice). So you’ll want to find a tree that you have very easy access to but also one where you can be undisturbed by passerby and other human behaviors. A lot of good trees can be found in local parks, forests, even your yard. Make sure your tree is somewhere that you can visit, at minimum, once or twice a week and that it is fairly easy for you to do so. If your tree is difficult to get to, you will be less likely to visit (especially if you are tired or busy).  Now, spread out in the area that you have selected. Use your intuition as well as your physical senses. Is there one particular tree that is calling to you? It doesn’t matter at first if you can identify it or not; the important thing is to feel a strong connection. Once you’ve found the tree, ask permission to sit with it for a time. Listen for inner and outer messages and simply be present with it.

 

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Beautiful Walnut tree at Summer Solstice

Initial Tree Work

Now that you’ve got a tree, great!  The next thing is start to work with it on the inner and outer planes.  Here are some, of many, options (see other options in my earlier post):

 

Find the Face of the tree. I have a whole post detailing how to find the face of a tree as a way to begin to connect with it. I would strongly suggest that you do this work the first time you meet the tree. How many faces does the tree have? What do they look like? What do they tell you?

 

Communicate with the tree. See what the tree has to say, using strategies on the inner and outer planes. Spend time learning how this tree communicates and developing your own intuitive skills.

 

Tree Research. After you’ve picked the tree, learn a bit about it (which requires you to identify it). Tree identification books are common (and now, there are a whole series of apps, like Leafsnap, which help you identify trees based on their leaves). If you aren’t sure, either take a small bit of leaf/branch with you and/or take good photographs so that you can refer to them. Make sure to get photos or examples of the leaves (both sides), the bark, and how the leaves attach to the stem. Also get photos or examples of any buds/fruit/nuts on the tree. If it is winter, you will need to get a winter tree identification guide (there are good guides on winter botany and on tree bark for example).

 

After you’ve identified your tree, learn as much as you can about about the tree. What role does this tree play in your local ecosystem? (My favorite books for answering these questions in the Midwest/Northeast are the Book of Forest and Thicket, Book of Swamp and Bog, etc, by John Eastman). How was this tree used by humans in the past? Is it still used by humans in the present? What are the features of its wood? Is it under threat? How widespread is this species? Is it native, naturalized, or considered invasive? Does this tree have any medicinal properties? Knowing the answers to these questions can really help you understand how past humans have worked with these trees (or taken from them).

 

Another important question to ask is: What is the mythology and magic of this tree? (You might find that it was a tree that I covered in one of my sacred trees posts; if not, look for both mundane and magical information).   You might need to look to different cultural sources and references to understand the tree. Some trees (like apple) are present in both the old and new world and so you can study the mythology of both. Some trees, like sycamore, are actually different trees and different species in the old and new world, so be careful that you are learning about the right mythology. In the mythology, look at the role of the tree—is it magical? Helpful to humans? Active in the story? Passive? All of these will give you clues into the nature of the tree.

 

Identification: Work to identify the tree in its various seasons. Look at its buds/flowers, its leaves, the bark, the overall profile.  Look how its branches grow and what their growth habit is. Learn this tree, well, as much as you are able. When you have the chance, work to identify and visit other individuals of that spaces. Get so that you can identify the tree in multiple seasons and both close up and at a distance.

 

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Roots of the Beech at the Winter Solstice

Visits over time.  Beyond the tree research, begin this deep tree work simply with one individual tree, whom you visit frequently. We have to rebuild relationships with these trees, and those relationships take time to establish (just like human relationships do).  Visiting the tree regularly over a period of a year is the best way to *really* know a tree, but that’s likely not possible unless the tree is very close to where you live.  But the more you can visit the better!

 

Tree Offerings

Regardless of the kinds of work you are doing with the tree, you should make an offering to the tree you are working with regularly—consider it like a gift you would give friends. As in any other relationship, we give and we take, and tree workings are no difference.  I would suggest that you make offerings before you take anything.  Nature is being used and abused by so many humans (direct and indireclty) at present.  You want to establish a different pattern, a relationship, not just a taking one.  So start here before doing anything else in terms of the rest of the post.

 

Here are some offerings that work well (and I use all of these, often in combination or at different times of the year):

 

  • One kind of very effective exchange is one where the tree gives of its body and so do you.  Humans and plants form a symbiotic relationship; we depend upon each other for survival. Trees take in our waste (carbon that we breathe and nitrogen that we pee) as some of their primary sources of nourishment and strength. Peeing at the base of a tree is a wonderful offering of available nitrogen to the tree (don’t pee directly on leaves, as they can’t handle such a strong dose of nitrogen). I am very serious here—this works and trees are thankful. Just ask them!
  • Music. If you can sing or play an instrument at all (even if its not very well), I would suggest singing or playing for the tree. It is often very well received (and the tree may have a song to give you in return!)
  • Spreading Seeds/Nuts: Trees need to propagate, and another meaningful offering is one where you are able to harvest the seeds/nuts from the tree and plant them elsewhere. This is especially important for hardwood nut trees, who often are slower to propagate (but don’t spread trees that are already spreading themselves too much, like those listed on noxious invasive species lists—do another kind of offering). Helping the tree establish its young is one of the absolute best things you can do.
  • Growing or making offerings. The one other thing I will mention is that I personally grow sacred tobacco for offerings, especially for wildharvesting. My tobacco is grown in my own garden from saved seeds. I harvest and dry it myself. I blend it with lavender flowers and rose petals. I was told by my own spirit guides to do so, and if you feel led, this might be another part of what you can offer.
  • A special offering.  Certain trees might like other kinds of offerings, and once you learn to communicate, you might get a sense of what these offerings are. They might sound strange or outlandish, but I’d suggest you try them.

 

You’ll notice above that none of my suggestions include buying something and offering it to the tree or burying coins at the roots, etc. Everything that we buy requires resources from nature (often at high cost); and nearly all of it today requires fossil fuel inputs which are severely threatening all life. Buying anything is not appropriate here, or is it with most nature magic—instead, offer something of value that doesn’t cost fossil fuels.

 

 

Carrying the Tree With You and Leaving a Part of You with It

The promise of connection

The promise of connection

In addition to taking the tree within, you can carry a small part of the tree with you and leave part of yourself with the tree. Usually, trees are happy to offer a dead branch or small piece of bark. In exchange, I like to offer them with one of my own hairs. That way, the tree has a piece of me, and I have a piece of it, and each day as I carry that with me, even if I can’t visit, that tree’s energy is present in my life. I usually will use simple carving and sanding tools to shape the piece of tree into a necklace pendant and then I can wear it on a string around my neck near my heart.   That’s just a personal preference—I’m a bit absent minded and have sent one to many nut or small piece of stick that I had in my pocket through the washing machine!

 

These strategies can help you continue to develop deeper relationships with trees. We’ll continue exploring deep tree workings in my next post, where we’ll look at tree initiations.

 

(PS: Please note that I am *still* camping and hiking in the wilds, and while this post is set to auto-post on July 2, I won’t be back till later this week to respond to comments.  I look forward to reading them!)

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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Cultivating the Flow of Awen in our Lives June 11, 2017

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

 

What the poet Taliesin writes of is the “Awen”, a central principle in the druid tradition meaning “flowing inspiration” or “divine inspiration.”   In ancient times, bards embraced the flow of Awen to be masters of memory, sound, and expression. The bardic path was a lifelong pursuit and vocation; bards would spending many years (by one Scottish account, 7 years[1]) learning the bardic arts which included the arts of memory, diction, rhyming, and composition.

 

The flowing of Awen isn’t just an experience, it is a magical and meditative process. Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself–when you have a moment of inspiration and then begin to create, losing all track of time, all sense of where you are or what is going on around you–the thing you are creating is the only thing that matters, and you flow with your media.  Hours or days later, you emerge with something incredible.

 

A simple awen painting

A simple awen painting

Today, bringing the flow of awen into one’s life and connecting with one’s creative expression is one of the core aspects of the path of druidry. The druid path is one that embraces creativity, especially, the creativity inspired by nature.  How does the awen flow? How can we invoke it, channel it, and bring it into our lives? And what is the benefit for doing so? This post represents my first in a longer series on the Bardic Arts, that is, a series of posts that explore the relationship between nature, creativity, and druidry. We begin this series with a discussion of awen, for it is from the Awen that all things flow.

 

What is Awen?

Poets like Taliesin, known as the “Chief of Bards” in the 6th century and reported author of The Book of Taliesin,  spoke of the Awen not only as an abstract thing (as the poem above suggests) but also as a muse who works through the poet to bring forth great works. In the translation of the Book of Taliesin, “Awen” is frequently translated into “muse” but also as “flow” or “inspiration” depending on the poem. In some poems in the Book of Taliesin, the awen is personified (“the muse’s prophecy is…”) while in other poems, the awen is a more abstract thing “The muse flows…”). In the British Library Harleian manuscripts of the Historia Brittonium, Talhearn, a poet, is described as “tat aguen” (aguen = awen) translated as the “father of inspiration.”  Other cultures, of course, have also personified the flow of creativity in the form of a muse who are deities or spirits that help the creativity flow (such as the Greek muses).

 

William Owen-Pughe, who was a contemporary of Iolo Morganwg (from whose manuscripts helped start the modern Druid revival), offered a definition of Awen tied to “aw” (flow) and “en” (spirit).  So we have “flowing of spirit” or “flowing of inspiration” as a common definition used today within the druid communities. Other terms I’ve heard used for awen in the druid community include “divine inspiration” or “creative inspiration” or simply “inspiration.” All this is to say that Awen is a force of energy that flows within us, helping us bring forth and express our creative spirits.

 

Awen History and Origins

A  dig into the history of the word and concept of “Awen” can help us understand the awen deeper level. The Awen, like many other things in the modern druid revival tradition, was brought through the work of Iolo Morganwg in Barddas. Iolo drew upon existing Welsh traditions from much older manuscripts that he incorporated into Barddas.  Modern druid scholars have worked to trace the Awen to much older roots. Two full (and fascinating) reports of their work can be found here and here.

 

Of note, Angela Grant explains the research she did at the British Library to attempt to dig into the history and origins of the Awen. She reports on a manuscript she found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England which, she writes, “describes how the historian Nennius, on being challenged by an English scholar that the Welsh had no alphabet of their own, produced for his challenger an alphabet that bears a considerable resemblance to Coelbren, though more complex. It also contains an awen symbol (joined at the top) as one of its letters. This does not represent an individual letter but the Latin word ‘ego’ is ascribed to it : ‘I am that I am …”   Grant also traced Awen back to a “proto-Brittonic root for “breath” and “breathing” that ties to the English word “inspiration.”  From her research, we see that inspiration is connected to life itself–to breathing and to the ego/self.  To create is to exist, to breathe, to be.  So, by extension, one way we might think about the awen is that it can represent the fulfilled creative self.

 

The awen's light shining down on my sacred grove

The awen’s light shining down on my sacred grove

One of the stories that feature the Awen in the druid tradition (and is used extensively in OBOD’s teachings) is in the Mabinogion.  It is the story of how Taliesin became the greatest bard of the land. In a nutshell, Taliesin was once Gwion, a boy who is given the task of stirring Ceridwen’s cauldron while she brewed up a magical spell that bestows the Awen.  The blessing of the Awen was intended for Ceridwen’s son who was hideously ugly; she thought if she brewed up the Awen as a blessing, her son could at least be wise. Gwion accidentally gains the power of the Awen after having three drops from the cauldron splash on his thumb; the drops burn him so he instinctively sticks his thumb in his mouth to cool and inadvertently gains the Awen. Ceridwen is furious and begins to chase him. As part of the chase, the two transform into many animals, with Gwion barely escaping with each transformation. Gwion finally turns into a grain of wheat and jumps into pile of wheat in a barn. Ceridwen transforms into a “high crested” black hen who devours all of the wheat, including the grain that is Gwion. Inadvertently, she becomes impregnated with Gwion.  She plans on killing him when he is born, but instead, abandons him on the sea, tying him in a leather bag.  There, he is rescued by either a prince or fisherman, depending on the version of the story. The newborn child grows up to be Taliesin, the greatest bard of all time.  (For a really delightful musical version of this tale, I’d recommend Damh the Bard’s Ceridwen and Taliesin).

 

This tale offers a tremendous amount of insight into the Awen (and is well worth meditating upon).  Some of its lessons include that awen it is something that can be bestowed–and not always when we expect it.  Some of us may be struck with the Awen out of nowhere, just like Gwion when he was scalded by the three drops of Awen. The power of Awen is also a kind of initiation–the flow of awen into our lives open up great possibility. Awen is transformative.

 

Awen and Nature

Taliesin himself says: “pren onhyt yw vy awen” one translation being as “my muse[awen] is wooden!” Or perhaps, for druids, a more fitting translation would be, “my muse is nature!” And certainly, the relationship between nature and creativity are well worth considering. This statement can be interpreted in many ways: the trees themselves are Taliesin’s muses, or perhaps, he is inspired often by the living earth. Still another interpretation might be that he is nature’s instrument for expression. All of these can be simultaneously true, and I believe, represent some of the key connections between creativity, the bard, and nature.

 

How can we let nature be our muse?  Spending time there, observing nature, paying attention to her sounds, her movements, her colors, her patterns, her flows–all of these things offer us great inspiration for stories, songs, dances, artwork, and writing.  Model nature in our own creative works, and allow nature’s patterns, teachings, and inspiration to flow through us.  Many artists, for example, get great joy out of “plein air” painting, where you paint outside and in the presence of that which is inspiring.

 

Looking to the teachings of the river also provides druids with a deeper understanding of the role of Awen–and how we might use it. From both contemporary practice and ancient texts, we have a keen sense that Awen “flows.” Like a stream in the spring, it might gush forth from a person or be a small but steady trickle. Regardless, Awen, like the water, flows where it wants and goes where it wants. As it flows, it pours into a person, allowing them to be inspired and allow the creativity to flow back out.  The more that water is allowed to flow, the more easy that flow becomes, just like well worn, smooth stones and channels along the river.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity has its own path that we must learn to flow with, is a critical part of the bardic arts and cultivating them in our own lives. Spending a year observing a river will show times where much of it dries up, times where much of it floods and leaves its banks into nearby fields and forest, times where it lazily moves along. In my experience, the flow of Awen is just like this. We aren’t always heavily inspired and overflowing our banks, and we aren’t always dried up and without inspiration. Recognizing the natural “ebb and flow” of awen, I believe, is part of it. But also, recognizing that we have some power over that flow as we invoke the awen and work to bring it into our lives.

 

Connecting to water, and recognizing that creativity must be allowed to flow where it wills, just like water. Sometimes, trying to impose your own human will too much on a bardic project or performance can impede it (it is like you divert the water or put in a large obstruction that the water has to flow around). And if you are working with a personification of Awen, through a muse, he or she might not take too kindly to you imposing your own will too strongly. As we see from the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin, Awen is not only inspiration, but a magical or divine inspiration, and thus, the more that we work with it, the more we cultivate it, the more we are able to work with the flows.  My experience kayaking helps here–on a powerful river, you can expertly navigate the currents if you are experienced!  Then, you can do quite a bit, but still only react and flow with the river, rarely paddling against it.

 

 

Cultivating the Flow of Awen in Our Lives

I believe that the flow of Awen is a union, a synthesis, of human, nature and the creative flows and energy of the of the universe/divine. This means that there are things that we can do as a human being to cultivate Awen and there are things outside of our control.  Let’s take a look at what we can do to start cultivating Awen in our lives:

 

Invoking Awen. One of the most simple things to do is to invoke Awen regularly as part of your practice. Druids are good at this, and if you are a druid, chances are, you know how to chant “Awen.” For everyone else, the chant is simple.  You open up your chest and let all the air in, and then you ring out, strongly and surely, three syllables: “Ah – Oh – En.”  And you repeat that as long as you’ d like.  You can sing it, you can dance with it. And as you chant that sacred word, imagine yourself opening up to that flow of inspiration.  You can chant it anywhere you like.  You can get a group and chant together, or “cascade” it by having each person chant Awen at a slightly different time.  And then once you’ve invoked it–do something with it!

 

Visual representations. Visual representations of Awen (the three rays of light) are powerful ways of bringing awen into your life.  You might have a drawing, or another kind of image, to help bring the awen into your life which you regularly see.  Druids are often spotted with Awen necklaces–I like to keep an awen symbol on my person as much as possible, preferably, close to my heart.  I also have an awen in a window that was a gift of a friend–the sun shines through it, literally, letting the three rays of light of the awen come into my space.  Talk about powerful magic!

Awen bringing in the light

Awen bringing in the light

 

Letting the awen flow. The key to cultivating awen, at least for me, seems to be about allowing it to flow regularly, not damming it up.  Perhaps you’ve met people, or youv’ve been one yourself, who stop the flow of awen or who only allow a small tricke to flow forth. They say things like, “I’m not creative” or “I don’t have time for my [bardic art of choice]” or “I could never do that” (we will explore these issues in more depth next week).  Words have power, words are magic.  And saying this is like putting the flow of awen behind a dam. Maybe, if you are lucky, it will collect there, welling up, and one day, explode outwards like the dam bursting forth (this happened to me in my mid-20’s, and it was a really liberating experience!)  But maybe, it will dry up and go stagnant there, and your Awen will become like a dry and parched river bed.

 

The other piece to letting the awen flow is cultivating the right environment.  For some, that means a quiet place free of distractions where they can allow their awen to flow forth and setting aside enough uninterrupted time to “get into the work” and let something beautiful emerge.  For others it might mean bringing together a community to practice their bardic art, or surrounding oneself with other people who are creative.  It also means enough rest and self care to be one’s best to allow this work to happen (I, for one, can’t create when I’m exhausted).

 

Relinquishing control. And then there are people who want the awen to flow, but try to maintain all control and send it off in directions. You can’t always force it, you have to work with it and respond to it, just like that expert kayaker navigating a flow of water. As an artist, writer, and occasional musician, for me this means setting aside regular time to create, but allowing most of that to be unstructured time.  So I know I will create and have time set aside to do it, but until that day, I’m not sure what I will create: will I paint? What will I paint?  Will I play my flute?  Will I write?  And when I begin, I let the flow go as long as I can.  I don’t try to impose my will on it too strongly, but rather, let the awen guide me.  Its almost like there’s a second hand on my paintbrush, and if we both work together, it will work well, but if we don’t, it will be trouble.

 

The Many Forms of Creativity.  I’ve been talking in my examples about traditional bardic arts: writing, painting, music, storytelling, dance, and so on. But Awen can flow through us and be directed towards all kinds of things, not all of which would be considered “bardic arts” in the traditional sense. For example, I allow Awen to flow when I’m planning my lessons for my university teaching through creative activities and creative planning.  I know friends who do lots of building and allow the awen to flow with their design work,  their creative use of old materials and curbside treasures, and their finishing techniques. Others are culinary wizards in the kitchen and make amazing and beautiful meals.  Still others are master gardeners who create a palate with plants.  Once we realize that awen can be applied to more than just the traditional bardic arts, but we can, essentially, lead inspired lives–then the real magic begins!

 

May the flow of awen, of creative inspiration, come into your life!  Next week’s post will delve more deeply into the Bardic arts and how to take up the path of the bard.

 

[1] lrick de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde (1604–1657), Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde … containing several original papers and letters of King Charles II, queen mother, the Duke of York … &c. relating to the treaty between the Duke of Lorrain and the Irish commissioners, from February 1650 to August 1653. Publish’d from his lordship’s original mss. To which is prefix’d, a dissertation … containing several curious observations concerning the antiquities of Ireland. London, Printed for J. Woodman, 1722.

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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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On Keeping a Spiritual Journal April 30, 2017

Stack of some of my journals....

Stack of some of my journals….

Recently, I took some time to go back through the many spiritual journals I have kept on my journey deeper into the mysteries of the druid tradition and my relationship with nature. These journals spanned over a decade. They included a bit of everything: garden interactions, meditations, nature observations, events in my life of deep spiritual significance, recipes, notes from gatherings and visits, stories, experiences with rituals, and much more. I am so grateful to have kept these journals and re-reading them allowed me to rediscover so many pieces about that journey. They allowed me to see not only my own growth over time, but reminded me of important events and encouraged me further on my path.

 

Journaling and writing down one’s journey doesn’t come easy for many, and I, too, have to work at it!  Further, in working with those new to the druid path through my work as an Archdruid with the AODA, I’ve come to realize that many folks don’t know how to keep a spiritual journal nor what it can be used for or why they should do it. In my professional work as a writing professor, I know how difficult it is for some people to write anything because they lack the tools, motivation, or inspiration to do so. So, given this, I thought I’d take the time today to write about spiritual journals, why we keep them, and tips and strategies for keeping them (and keeping them well).

 

Why keep a spiritual journal?

When you are engaging in a spiritual practice of any kind, it is really helpful to document that practice. So let’s start by exploring the reasons why you would want to keep a spiritual journal.

 

The difference between sacred spaces and mundane spaces. One of the aspects of spiritual practices is that we are in a different head space for the duration of those practices than we are in the regular world. This is true not only of meditation and rituals but also of visits to natural places. We may gain deep insights or have moments of clarity and awakening and retaining those insights are critical for our development. If we don’t write them down, we are very apt to lose them.

 

I have found that in order to “not lose anything,” I have to write down my experiences in ritual or meditation immediately after they happen (often, I will write in my journal before I even close a sacred grove in ritual or before I leave the forest). This allows me to write about these experiences while they are fresh and in the forefront of my head. If I put off writing down my experiences, the longer that time goes by, the less I will remember and remember accurately–especially because visits to wild places and rituals alter our consciousness.

 

Inaccuracy of memory. Our memories are imperfect instruments and we can forget many things. If we write our experiences and understandings down (or use one of the other methods I share here), we offer our future selves a record of those experiences, which is a powerful spiritual tool. Trying to keep everything in our heads is a sure way to lose some of the critically important details or insights we gain as part of our spiritual practices.

 

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes...

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes…

To illustrate this, I’ll share a story here. I was out foraging for the day by myself, and I ended up in a really brushy area that required me to slog my way through about a two-acre bramble and brush patch. During this experience, I was in a deep meditative space. I had a critical number of keen insights about nature–all in a row (it must have been the stars aligning). The problem is, I had too many at once! (One of those keen insights about nature became my earlier discussion of weedtending, weedwalking, and weedcrafting while a second became my discussion of first-aid responder plants). I had recently lost my small journal I usually carried in my crane bag (to a river–it carried it away!), so I didn’t have anything to write down my insights on that particular day. And so, lacking any other means, I tried to commit as many as I could to memory. When I finally got back later that evening, all had escaped except the insights on the two posts I included above. Try and meditate as I might, I could not find the other insights anywhere in my brain–they were left in the bramble patch!

 

Keeping a Record. Documenting your practices and experiences through journals offers your future self a record about what you are feeling, experiencing, and the things you are engaging with at that particular point in time. This is a wonderful tool for tracking and understanding your own spiritual development. I love going back and reading my old journals and seeing just how far I have come! It’s also helpful to look at the journals and get a sense of what I was struggling with then, what I’m still struggling with, and what new things have come up.

 

Focusing, Expanding, and Reflection on Your Thoughts.  Journaling is not just a process of writing down exactly what happened or what the insights were, but it’s also a powerful tool and opportunity to ponder or sit with those experiences further.  And so, we gain a double benefit from this work. Reflecting on experiences that just happened allows you another way, which I see as another form of meditation, into those experiences. First, I have found often that after I finish a physical journey, spiritual journey, meditation, ritual, or whatever, writing down what has happened and my thoughts and insights about what has happened allows me to further shape and expand those thoughts (and actually, this is why I got into blogging!)  Part of it is that you are not just getting the initial insight, but taking the time to think about it deeper and focus on it through the journaling experience. This helps the insights and experiences come into sharper focus. Second, reflection also allows us to slow down and think about what we experienced, synth sizing our experiences and our own understandings. We can pick things apart, turn them around, wonder about them, and really gain the ability to see them from multiple angles there in our journal.  It might be that this kind of work needs to happen over a longer period of time than one entry, and that is perfectly acceptable as well.  I’ll also mention here that research in writing studies strongly supports both of the above–we learn through writing and we gain much from reflection!

 

Content of the Journals: What to Write

The question of what should go into a journal is obviously a very personal one.  Here are some possibilities for you to consider:

 

Documenting regular practices. In many of the esoteric traditions, keeping a “magical journal” is a required practice. It’s very helpful to document regular practices and their effects, especially over time. For example, each day I do the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual. In the years I was really learning it, I wrote down daily what happened. Now that my practice has stabilized, I no longer find it necessary to write down each day’s sphere unless something out of the ordinary happens during the sphere; but I still find myself writing about it regularly. I do write about my regular meditations, and that’s part of my habitual journal practice.

 

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages...

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages…

Salient, important things. I once spoke with a woman who told me she was spending more time writing in her journals than in her spiritual practices and was frustrated with the length of time it took to journal. I inquired further and discovered that she was writing down literally everything she was doing. While this certainly is an approach that you can take to spiritual journaling, I’m not sure its one I’d advocate. You’d spend more time, as she did, writing than actually engaging in your spiritual practices! Instead, what I advocate is writing down things of meaning, of salience, and of significance. In other words, I don’t write down every little thing (“I drove to the park”) but I do generally document what I did, what happened, and what I thought about it (“in my walk in the woods, this struck me because of…”).

 

Ideas, Plans, and Goals. I have found it useful to write about goals, ideas, and plans. If you write goals, check in on them regularly and see how you are progressing with them (a simple goal might be to develop a regular daily protective practice, or to spend more time in nature, or to observe the full and new moons in some way).

 

Nature observations. I have found it particularly helpful to document my observations and interactions with nature, given that I’m on a path of nature-based spirituality. For this reason, I almost always take a journal when I’m going out and about (even a small one I can carry with me, although I have a propensity for small journals getting eaten by bodies of water!)

 

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Reflections over time. At the end of the journal, when I have only 10-20 or so pages left, I find it really useful to go back through the journal and record any patterns in my thinking, any changes, anything that sticks out of significance to me. It may take me a year or more to fill a journal, but is a very good practice and then helps me “launch” the next journal with a vision and goals in mind.

 

Photos, drawings, plant matter, and memorabilia. You don’t have to be limited to words alone–consider adding drawings, photos, plant matter, and other memorabilia.

 

The Look and Feel of Your Journal

Especially when you are starting out, the finding or making the right journal is really important. There’s something about opening up a fine journal, one that you are attracted to, and writing in it. It’s nice to see it sitting on our shelf, nice to hold and cherish. Your journal might be something you make or something you buy. (I can write a post on bookbinding and spiritual journal making if there is interest. Let me know!) You may also find that you may develop certain preferences (thickness of paper, lined or unlined, etc).

 

I think that there is something special about keeping a physical journal and I would strongly recommend you keep your journal physically. For one, if you are taking it into nature and into sacred spaces with you, the last thing you want is an electronic device in those spaces. The screens have a way of pulling you away and into them rather into the space. If the purpose of the journal is to record words, I would suggest using old-fashioned methods.

 

On the outside: If you are going to go with a purchased journal, You want a journal that lays flat, that is enjoyable to write in, and that is well constructed.  One place to look is on Etsy and similar places and seeing if you can purchase a nice journal that was handmade with care and love.  You’ll support an artist and also have a wonderful journal.   Some journal makers (especially those working in leather) can make a journal cover that you can then replace the insides. This means that you could buy one journal + cover, and then when you are done, put the cover on a new journal and keep going, placing the old journal on your shelf. This is a nice option and represents a limited investment.

 

On the Inside: One of my very early spiritual journals was a simple affair, but homemade. I began by purchasing some hot press, low quality watercolor paper and folding them in half, making signatures. I bound the journal using a Coptic stitch technique with two boards. Then, in each of the pages, I did a simple watercolor wash. The watercolor pages dried and then, when I opened the journal, I had a variety of colorful surfaces on which to write.

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

You can do the same thing with cheap watercolors and any journal designed for multiple media or mixed media (these are readily available in arts and craft stores). These kinds of journals will be thicker and contain less pages, but will be sturdy and wonderful for colorful washes and bold printing.

 

Mixed media is anothe option.  Mixed media refers to any two media that are not traditionally put together (so photographs and drawing), and this is a wonderful way of expressing more than just words. For example, perhaps you want to sketch, find an image, imprint a leaf, take a photo, and so on. Any of these can be readily incorporated into your journal. Sometimes, a picture helps capture the event or experience in ways that words cannot.

 

Keeping Different Journals

One thing that I have found works well for me as a more avid journaler is to keep different journals for different activities. For example, I have a journal that I use to record important dreams. That’s a separate journal from my everyday/meditation journal, and also separate from my nature journal. At other points in my life, I have found too many journals burdensome and only kept one that held everything within it.  Here are some of the different kinds of journals you might keep:

  1.  Meditation journal. For regular meditation practices (especially if you are using discursive meditation and/or spirit journeying as meditation).
  2.  Nature journal. For experiences in observing outdoors (taken when you go outdoors, do nature observations, hike, etc). This journal can be small (a small Moleskine (SP)) journal works well for this purpose. You might want to keep it in a small plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
  3.  Gardening journal. Keep track of your gardening adventures!
  4.  Seasonal celebration journal. A journal that documents your seasonal celebrations and merriment.
  5.  Work with spirits journal. A journal that documents inner journeys and connections to the spirit realm.

Or you might keep just one journal and use it for everything! There is no right or wrong way to journal.

 

The inside of my "Garden Journal" that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

The inside of my “Garden Journal” that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

Getting in the Habit of Journaling

One of the most tricky things for people starting out is to get in the habit of journaling. Here are a few tips and suggestions.

 

Perfectionism doesn’t matter. You do not need to have proper grammar, full sentences, correct punctuation, or even really legible handwriting in your journal. This journal is for you and you alone, so as long as you can read it, that is what matters.

 

Stream of consciousness writing can work. Many people write journals in long paragraphs or entries that are in the style of “stream of consciousness”; that is, they write what immediately comes up in their minds. You might see this similar to how some forms of meditation work—thinking about an idea and seeing where it goes. In the case of your journal, I think the most important thing is to get the information down that you want to get down, and it doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece.

 

If writing doesn’t work, audio record (and transcribe).  Some people find that when they sit down to write they have difficulty putting any words down on paper. They stare at blank page. If you fall into this category, one suggestion I have is to use a small recorder and record your thoughts in audio format (like you are talking to a friend or to yourself) and then, later, transcribe those words into your journal. This adds a step, but it might be good to help you get going.

 

Keeping a journal is about habituating practice. One of the other challenging things to do for new journal keepers is just to get in the habit of regular writing. Above, I suggested writing as soon as you are finished with a practice or experience that you want to document. I also would suggest that if you aren’t doing anything else, setting aside a time to journal once a week is a good way to start. Once you have gotten in the habit of journaling, it will become easier to do.  Start taking your journal with you anywhere you go–on a trip, out into the woods, into your sacred space–and then work to use it!

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this post was helpful to those who are interested in starting a spiritual journal or in kicking their own journaling into a higher gear.  After a period of years, I can say with certainty that this practice has really helped me deepen my own awareness, my focus, and helped me progress along my spiritual path.

 

As an aside, I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging while I do some travel and get our big garden in for the year! I’ll return in late May with additional posts on my permaculture for druids series, information on the bardic arts, and so much more!  Blessings on this Beltaine!

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Lessons of the River: Nature Connection, Health, and Healing April 23, 2017

Sometimes, natural places call out to us, and we heed their call and journey within these wild places–often gaining profound insights along the way. For some time, I have been called to a particular creek. I would drive over a bridge as I was leaving town to visit my parents, and I watched the creek flow–its gentle water lapping at the shores, ducks swimming, stones and water babbling. I didn’t know the name of the creek, but I knew I wanted to connect with it. Then, one day after a storm last year, I saw some people kayaking on it when it was higher and a bit muddy.  Having just purchased my own kayak, I grew very excited and began asking people about the creek. Eventually, I learned where I might put my kayak in and where I might take it out, resulting in about a six mile paddling trip.

 

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

A beautiful and warm spring day on a clean river!

Truthfully, the whole journey was a bit of a leap of faith–I had talked to others who had been out on the creek sometime before, but it had been in prior years, and I knew conditions often change. I have a very good kayak that can handle just about anything and have taken some lessons and training to address emergencies, and this was known as a calm and quiet river. I packed some supplies and did a small ritual to protect the boat and off I went. This particular trip offered me several deep insights–but one I’d like to explore today is humans connecting to nature and land/river health (and I think this is a very appropriate post following up from last week exploring Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition).

 

The start of my journey was absolutely incredible–the water was pure, the scenery was beautiful. I could see evidence of many people’s interaction with the creek: in a quiet forest you could see benches lining the river, I saw several fishermen was fishing for trout, I saw bikers by the river taking a short break to enjoy the water, and even at one point, I passed a lovingly built small cabin the creek. I could tell from these signs that the river was well loved and appreciated by many in the area, even in some of its more hard-to-reach and secret places.

 

Miles passed in this serene way. I enjoyed my journey immensely and it allowed me to see so much life.  As I came closer to Homer City, which was the town where I had parked my car and was traveling to my “pull out” place, I turned a bend and saw this waterfall rushing into the creek. From a distance, it looked beautiful–I was excited to get up close. But as I started to get closer, something about that waterfall appeared very, very wrong. As I arrived near it, I realized that the waterfall was full of acid mine drainage (AMD), and it had bright yellows, oranges, and metallic spots all over the rocks and was pouring extremely acidic water (probably about a PH 2.5) into that creek.  Later investigation revealed that this particular stream–quite small–is coming out of a series of abandoned mines some 3 or so miles north with no AMD remediation.

 

AMD Waterfall - note the color of water change

AMD Waterfall – note the color of water change

Where the waterfall fell into the creek, the hue of the river changed–it grew cloudy and sickly pale yellow.  The waterfall left this cloudy trail in the water, a very distinct change from before. At first, only the edge of the river where the waterfall was running in was polluted, but as I went down the last mile of the creek, soon, it all took on that color.  Truthfully, as soon as I saw the waterfall and what was happening, I didn’t want to be on that river any longer–I racked my brain to see if I had a place I could pull out of the river early and call a friend to pick me up instead of paddling back to my car. But I decided to go ahead and finish my journey because there was clearly a lesson to see in all of this.

 

In fact, not so many years ago, this entire creek had once been filled with AMD. Acid mine drainage is a very serious issue anywhere where we’ve had coal mines. The earth’s blood and bones are torn up, and in the process, she bleeds, and that pain spills into our rivers. In this area, we have thousands and thousands of abandoned coal mines.  Most of these mines were put in prior to the laws of 1970 that required that mines clean themselves up, prevent runoff into streams, and replant the land. So we have a lot of problem mines that are from pre-1970 that are continually polluting the streams (in fact, this problem can go on for 1000’s of years–some mine runoff in Europe spans back to the time of the Romans!) Around here, due to the high acid content , AMD kills all of the life in and around streams.  The stream has a characteristic orange color, with all of the stones also turned orange and the water itself orange, cloudy, and toxic. In Pennsylvania alone, we have over 3000 miles of AMD-polluted creeks.  They are so prevalent in my area that when I was child, we had so many creeks and streams like that I thought that’s just how all waterways looked.

 

A typical AMD stream with no life

A typical AMD stream with no life

What I didn’t know was that all of Two Lick Creek that I was paddling had similar problems at one time. However, local conservation efforts by several groups have made good headway in the northern part of the river. One a group called the Evergreen Conservancy has been working to clean up one site nearby–and their efforts show!  The other (where I put my kayak in) is the Waterworks Park, that offers an AMD remediation site and wetland. Without the signage indicating that AMD remediation was happening at the Waterworks Park, I would never have known that the northern part Two Lick Creek had ever had an AMD problem.  The creek banks were beautiful, the creek itself full of life and vibrant.  This speaks, among other things, to the power of humans to heal.

 

And so, I simply observed what the AMD waterfall was doing to Two Lick Creek.  The environmental effects were clear.  As I continued to float downstream, the rocks grew tainted and orange, the river grew cloudy and I could no longer see the bottom.  As the river flowed, the tainted water slowly worked its way into the creek–and entire water grew cloudy and the rocks took on an orangish hue.  It wasn’t a serious case of AMD (like my photo above, another creek that nobody interacts with).  Still, nobody was fishing here, that’s for sure.

 

However, the environmental effect wasn’t the most surprising thing on the river that day, instead it was the shift in human-nature interactions. As I floated past the AMD waterfall, I witnessed an invisible “line.”  North of the AMD waterfall, people interacted with the river. They had chairs out behind their houses by it, they had benches, they had little docks, they were out fishing and enjoying the river, and so on. However, after the AMD waterfall, people no longer wanted to be near the river, and they worked to distance themselves from it.  The difference was very striking. People put up fences and walls, dumped their garbage and burn piles near the river, and simply didn’t not go near it.  It became a neglected thing. Despite the same kinds of houses and people and access to the river upstream and downstream, after the river had AMD, it was no longer wanted or desirable. I realized that it wasn’t just that the waterfall tainted the physical water in the river–it also tainted people’s interactions with it.  Pollution literally disconnected humans from nature.

 

In other words, even a small amount of pollution turned the river from something people cared about to something people didn’t.  It turned the river into a site of enjoyment and connection with nature to something to avoid looking at or interacting with.

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected

Upstream: clear, pure, and human connected (and you can see clear to the bottom–and avoid the rocks!)

 

AMD water...

Downstream: Cloudy, Irony, and human disconnected…(and it’s hard to see to the bottom, and thus, you hit the rocks)

I wonder how often this happens. As lands are polluted or damaged, people no longer want to interact with them.  When people stop caring, stop interacting, even more pollution is allowed to occur.  The pollution itself disconnects us from the land and the more polluted things get, the less we want to interact. Even I, as a druid and land healer, a person who has long faced these things with open eyes and an open heart, had a first reaction of wanting out of that river as soon as I saw what had happened to it.

 

You can see how we have come to the point, in this time of so much pollution and damage, to where people aren’t in nature at all. Why would you want to spend time next to (or on) a polluted river? In a logged forest? Hiking among fracking wells?  (Only crazy druid healers do such things, that that’s spiritual work, not leisure!)  If that’s the only options you have, it is no wonder so many humans are so disconnected.

 

I am left with two profound insights from this experience. First, the work of land healing has an additional dimension that I had previously not realized.  Just like in the permaculture ethical triad of earth care, people care, and fair share: we see these things all entirely linked with the others.  If we can restore nature to a state of health and allow her to thrive, we can help heal not only the land, but the human-land connections (and in doing so, the humans themselves). This allows more interaction with the land, more connection with the land, and helps us grow more “places that people care about.” To me, care and nurturing is an essential quality of helping us, as a species, return to being in a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.  And so, if we heal nature, we can start to heal those connections.

 

But secondly, if we see ourselves and our work as a metaphor for a river, we can gain insights. In journeying down the river, you get to see the growth of the river over time. As each spring or stream flowed into the river, the river’s power and size grew. The creek began, at the start of my journey, about 15 feet across, and by the time I pulled my kayak out of the water 6 miles later, it was spanning 30 or 40 feet. The small “creek” had grown into a river with power, carving out rock faces as it went.  And so, I see the tributaries as people, and all of us, combined as one, could accomplish much more than a single spring or trickle. There is power in these combined currents, just as there is power in numbers of people working together. This is something that I’ve been learning firsthand since taking the first steps to establishing our intentional community here–but also something that I’ve long seen the value of in various kinds of sustainable living (like permablitzes, barn raising or community groups).

 

As much as we, collectively, are the river, we also need to look for the sources of pollution–those things or people that will cloud us and prevent us from being our true and whole selves.  Otherwise, our entire river can become tainted, just like the AMD tainted this river–and that changes everything.  Tainted waterways can be remediated, of course, and perhaps, there are more lessons in this as well.

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