The Druid's Garden

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

Poison Ivy Teachings September 24, 2017

Sometimes, as druids and as nature-oriented people, we focus only on the fuzzy and happy parts of nature: blooming edible flowers, fuzzy soft rabbits, cute animals, soft mats of green moss, and shy deer. But nature isn’t just about things that are comfortable to us and that bring us joy and peace–nature is also about survival of the fittest, about defenses and predators, about huge storms, floods and destruction. I think its important that we learn about all aspects of nature, even those that don’t always make us comfortable.  Part of this is because nature is a reflection of ourselves–we have our dark parts, the parts we wish we could avoid or forget. And understanding these many pieces of nature, I believe, helps us better understand the complex mosaic that makes up any human being. But another part of this has to do with honoring nature–without connecting with the many pieces of nature, we are in danger of misunderstanding her, of not seeing the whole, and not having a whole relationship with her.

 

Each year, I lead somewhere between 6-8 plant walks in my local area and broader region. A lot of the work of a plant walk focuses on  shifting perspectives, on reseeing “weeds” or other undesirable plants in a new light. One of the plants that I find myself always teaching about–and learning about–is poison ivy, or, as some affectionate plant people like to call her, “sister ivy.” I have a great deal of respect for Sister Ivy and find her to be a wonderful teacher and plant ally.  This doesn’t mean I am going to go roll around in a mat of poison ivy, but I am going to respect and honor her. And so today, I’d like to share some of the teachings of this particular plant ally–for she has much to teach.

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project

Spirit of Poison Ivy, from my Plant Spirit Oracle Project. This part of my own work with poison ivy to better understand and work with her.

About Poison Ivy and Identification

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant native to the Eastern Part of North America. (You’d be surprised with the number of people who think it is “invasive” because in our current ill-suited language about plants, invasive = bad). Poison ivy has multiple forms.  First, it can grow as a carpet of smaller plants rising up from the ground (either in a forest setting or even in a field of tall grass). When it grows like this, it is actually a trailing vine, but you might not see the vine as it may be buried in the soil. It can also row into a large bush (which is rare where I live, but not rare in other places) and the bush can be up to three feet high.  Finally, it can grow as a vine up a tree (and blend in well with the tree leaves). In this way, poison ivy is extremely adaptable and resilient; she has many forms and disguises, and can blend in well. Given her teachings, this is very appropriate.

 

Some old adages help us identify poison ivy:

A guide to poison ivy identification

A guide to poison ivy identification

  • Leaves of three, let it be.  (Of course, there are lots of plants with three leaves that are not poison ivy, like raspberry, but it is still a well known statement).
  • Three leaves and shiny. (Again, lots of plants that fit this description).
  • Hairy vine, no friend of mine. (This, to me is more useful because in my ecosystem hairy vines do equal poison ivy).
  • Berries white, run in fright” or “Berries white, danger in sight” (This is also useful; it can refer to a number of other kinds of plants, but none of them are good – Doll’s Eyes and poison sumac are two others that are very toxic that come to mind).

The way that I teach poison ivy identification has to do with the pattern of the leaves (see my drawing to the right). This pattern is very distinct for poison ivy but some leaves display it more readily than others. I created a graphic to help you remember. Essentially, most poison ivy has two mittens (with thumbs facing outward) and a central mitten. Some plants may have more than one thumb, but the main thumb is the most distinct.  Some may have the barest hint of a thumb, but it is still there.

 

Now, we’ll move to look at what I see as poison ivy’s three main teachings.  Ironically, all of them speak to challenges of our present age: awareness, land defense, and climate change.  At the end, I’ll also talk a bit about the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis (and how to deal with it!).

 

Awareness Medicine

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

Poison Ivy (Red) in a maple and birch tree

In reading a book called Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty, he offers a taste of how humans could once “read” the landscape in great detail.  In the case of Gatty’s work, re-learning some of how to read the natural landscape helps with navigation and finding one’s way. The challenge is that most humans, at least here in the US, have lost their ability to be keenly aware of their surroundings. We don’t know how to quietly observe or be present, our attention spans are much shorter, and we’ve lost a lot of human wisdom surrounding interacting with the natural world. A lot of time, people pay very little attention to where they are going or what is happening in their ecosystem (and they may have headphones, eyes glued to screens, and so on).

 

Poison ivy doesn’t tolerate such behavior.  She asks us to be present with each moment.  She asks us to observe, to pay attention, to be aware.  If we are aware, we can avoid the more intense lesson she offers: that of the “poison ivy” contact dermatitis we are all so familiar with. That poison ivy is awareness medicine was a teaching was first given to me years ago by my herbal mentor, Jim McDonald, and it began helping me begin to see poison ivy in a new light.  When you start observing and paying attention for Poison Ivy, it changes the way you interact with the world.

 

Because Poison Ivy takes multiple forms, she really demands awareness in a variety of ways. Even as an experienced wild food forager, herbalist, and druid, I sometimes make a mistake and Poison Ivy teaches me a powerful lesson. For example, one year I was harvesting beautiful St. John’s Wort to make into tinctures and infused oils.  I was in this tall grass in a field with a friend, happily harvesting away, paying attention only to the St. John’s Wort plants.  And then we looked down, and we realized that about a foot lower tucked away in the grass was poison ivy.  I slathered myself in fresh jewelweed and did get a bit of the rash, but it wasn’t too bad.  Just enough for me to remember to pay attention.

 

Old poison ivy vine

Old poison ivy vine – note the many hairs.

Poison Ivy’s climbing form is particularly adept at shapeshifting and in enforcing this lesson. Her climbing vine is distinct, but can often blend right into the wood of a tree (or be climbing up the opposite side of the tree and you don’t see it).  Her leaves, then, literally blend into the leaves of whatever tree she is climbing.  This means you need to not only keep an eye on the ground, but also an eye above you.  I’ve had numerous occasions where I failed to look up and had a poison ivy branch brush my face. Fall brings yet another lesson from her climbing form. These higher branches have leaves that turn a beautiful red, and then, as leaves are apt to do, drop.  So if you are walking around barefoot, or even deciding to rake leaves and jump in them, you can be in for a surprise a day or two later.  Knowing where these vines grow, then, is part of the knowledge of the natural landscape that poison ivy teaches.

 

Sister ivy demands that we pay attention to our surroundings, that we be more alert and more aware.  This is awareness medicine, and it is a powerful and potent lesson for each of us in an age of distractions.

Defending the Land

Discussion of poison ivy as awareness medicine directly ties to her second powerful lesson: that of defense.  Poison ivy defends the land, particularly delicate ecosystems, and keeps humans out. Poison ivy is much more dominant in North America today than it used to be for a number of reasons.  One of these is that she is an edge plant that takes advantage of disruption. Humans have caused such rampant ecological destruction and environmental disruption that poison ivy has grown much more dominant in the ecosystem.

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

A center leaf of poison ivy, fallen to the ground

 

I see the rampant growth along the edges of wild spaces as a defensive act on the part of the land herself.   If you look at where and how poison ivy grows, you’ll start to see a pattern: edge spaces, tree lines, along suburban homes, along the edges of the old forests that still stand.  Poison ivy sends a strong “Keep out” message to all who are willing to see and pay attention.  You might think of this like a “No Trespassing” sign. I remember this lesson well when I was visiting Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie a few years ago. Every forest on that island was surrounded with a 30′ mat of poison ivy.  Like its own kind of “unwelcome” mat. I, and my companions, honored this forest’s request and stayed out.  I’ve also seen this a lot with ancient trees–there is often a poison ivy vine growing up them–nobody is going to want to cut it down. I’ve also witnessed this many times all along the edges of suburbia.  Where the chemical-drenched lawns end, there is poison ivy as the first line of defense for the forest.

 

Sister ivy is the defender of the wild spaces.

Climate Change and Potency

Not only is there a lot more poison ivy present in the world today due to disruption, researchers have found that poision ivy is gaining in power as Carbon Dioxide levels globally rise.  More CO2 makes poison ivy vines more abundant; increasing their growth and biomass–they have doubled their growth rate over the last 50 years. Further, as CO2 levels  climb in our world, so too do the levels of Urushiol, the toxin within poison ivy’s sap that irritates human skin.  According to a follow-up study, with the rise in atmospheric carbon, not only does urushiol increase, but poison ivy’s chemical balance changes, meaning that its potency has doubled since 1960 and will continue to increase with more atmospheric carbon. In other words, the more that the human race dumps CO2 into the atmosphere, the more of a warrior poison ivy becomes.

 

Sister Ivy offers this a direct message from the earth to stop, find a new path, and live once again in harmony with nature.

Poison Ivy Dermatitis

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

The vines and leaves of poison ivy contain increasing amounts of Urushiol, which, when touched by the skin, causes the allergic reaction (contact dermatitis) to affected skin. Urushiol is found in the clear liquid sap of the Poison Ivy plant; many animals can eat the leaves or interact with the plant without trouble, but it certainly affects humans. Some people are more susceptible to the urushiol than others; further, the more exposure one has, the more intense the skin reaction can be. This is why some people think they are immune–they might just not have had a lot of contact, and one day, they’ll get poison ivy dermatitis all over them (as an herbalist, I’ve heard quite a few stories of this happening!)  There are also people who appear to be totally immune to the dermatitis.

 

A simple witch hazel infusion of jewelweed is a wonderful remedy to the poison ivy rash (and I described how to make it earlier this year). Because Urushiol is oil-based, it is imperative when treating poison ivy rash to treat it with something that does not spread the oils further (like scratching does). The witch hazel infused with jewelweed is great because it dries out the rash (witch hazel) and promotes healing (jewelweed). Let’s just say with all of my adventuring in the woods each year, I end up getting poison ivy fairly regularly and this always does the trick. Applying it 4-6 times a day should clear up poison ivy within a few days and prevent it from spreading.

 

Conclusion

I see Sister Ivy as an incredibly important teacher for the 21st century. She reminds us that we need to pay attention to the world around us, that we need to be present her and now in the moment.  She reminds us that nature is all pretty flowers and fuzzy bunnies: nature is wild, powerful, and she seeks to defend herself.  Poison ivy is a part of nature that is responding aggressively to the damage we are causing this earth. She is a warrior, and, like any warrior, can be a dangerous foe or fierce protector.  I like to encourage you to build a respectful relationships with this plant.  If you respect her, she will respect you, and you may learn a great many things.

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

Poison Ivy, guardian plant

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Stones Rising: A Reflection on Raising a Standing Stone September 10, 2017

We gather to the outstretched rope lines, ready to move the 22 foot long stone weighing thousands of pounds by hand. Our goal is about a half a mile away, through hilly terrain. This stone destined for the a place in the ever expanding Stone Circle at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. All have gathered for one purpose: to move this massive stone using our hands and hearts, and to give it a home in the honored northern quarter of the circle.

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

Part of the stone circle that has been raised in previous years

So much preparation has gone into this moment; building this sacred space from the ground up, the years and years of work. Countless hours of developing expertise on how to move stones.  More recent preparations, from the “stone peoples intensive” volunteers arriving a week early to prepare the site, building and securing the moving equipment, developing the rituals, preparing the grounds.  And there are the stone movers– the huge group of people who have gathered from far and wide. The evening before, we held ritual around the flame stone and called in our ancestors to bless our sacred work.  The next day, we volunteered on one or more of the many paths of service necessary to help the event take shape.  Anticipation built, especially for those of us who had never done the work before.

Calling in our Ancestors

Calling in our Ancestors

And so, here we stood, on the day of the “long pull.” Our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits ready for the work ahead. Everyone is quiet on the lines except those who are directing the activity. We stood in silent communion with the stone.  The order is given–pull slow and steady.  The stone people work closely with the stone, shouting orders, watching to see how it moves along the path, putting logs underneath so that it can roll along smoothly. The logs are particularly important for rises in elevation and flat areas (as the road we pull the stone down is full of many dips, hills, and turns). The leaders call out commands–we stop, we move left with our ropes, we pull.  We stop, shift again to the right, and pull.  We gather together to shorten the ropes and pull.  We move apart on the longer stretches and pull.  We breathe.  We pull.

A view from the back of the rope lines

A view from the back of the rope lines, the signal to stop.

We are many tribes within tribes gathered here to pull this stone.  And yet, on these ropes, there are no differences among us. Regardless of race, class, vocation, identity, skill, physical appearance, gender, sexuality, political orientation, or ability, we gather as a single tribe with our one purpose–to pull. We have three lines coming from the stone–I was in the middle line, with my small community of druids surrounding me. These druids are dear friends, people with whom I have long shared sacred space, with whom I’ve conducted the work of initiation, with whom I’ve spent many an evening at the bardic fire, sharing mead, stories, and songs. If I fall, I know they will catch me.  But I realize in that moment, looking to the broader tribe of people around me…so would any other person here today.  Whatever differences or divisions there were before this stone pull, they fade away, and with that, our small druid tribe flows seamlessly into the greater tribe, all working as one.

 

Doing the work of raising this stone requires an incredible amount of trust. It requires that we put aside our differences, our disagreements, our pain, whatever we carry with us, and simply trust the other people who are there beside us. You can’t have barriers between you for this work, because you can’t be anywhere but present in the moment. Anything else has no place. I can understand now, in ways that were unfathomable to me before, why the ancients built big things. They built things to build community. They built things to build bonds of friendship and trust that transcend any other boundaries. They built things to bring people together. You couldn’t hold a grudge against your friend or neighbor because the next day, that person you are angry at might be holding the wooden lever that is keeping 2000 pounds of stone from crushing down on you. The ancient monuments that still stand are symbols of that community and trust.

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

Moving the stone using rollers up a rise

In fact, working in a community to accomplish so many tasks used to be a skill that every human had. Communities worked together to accomplish incredible feats, like building stone circles that stand for 10,000 years.  It is no wonder we need our ancestors here to support us–we reach deep within our own blood and reconnect with their wisdom to guide our hands, hearts, and spirits.  We are not a separate people, but one.  Pull, wait, move.  Breathe.  Pull. Pull, Pull!

 

As much as you depend upon your community during the moving of the stone, your community depends upon you. The stone is so heavy; every person is needed. You have to pull your own weight in the most literal way. At one point, we were pulling the stone up a really long hill, and it was really intense. If we stopped, we might not get going again, so we just kept pulling. Our muscles were burning, everyone was sweating, groaning, giving it our all. There’s a temptation at that point to ease up just a little, to not pull quite so hard, to catch your breath. But you don’t. You pull with all of your might because if you don’t, someone else in your community will have to do so, and that might be too much for them as they are already giving their all. This is another form of trust.

 

If there is one thing that can be said it is that anything worth doing takes time. And stones in particular, move slowly. To move a stone quickly would risk serious injury to either us or the stone. The stone forces us to slow down, to be in the moment, to simply be present, and listen, and attend to exactly what is happening right now. I had to be present in each moment to hear what was coming next. For four hours while we moved that stone, I was in an extended movement meditation where my entire existence was focused on listening for those instructions and doing it exactly as asked. We get into a rhythm. The pauses allow us to reflect on the moment, on the beauty of it. I look to my brothers and sisters of the tribe of the standing people, noting the hickories and white pines who send us their blessings as we slowly pass. As we wait, as we pull, as we move left on our rope lines, as we drink the water that other community members provide, we are simply in that moment.

Some of us on the lines--and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

Some of us on the lines–and there I am in blue, pulling on that rope!

 

Our bodies grow sore, but the journey has not yet ended.  For some of us, we spend most of our waking hours in our minds, disembodied, our minds focused on screens of information.  Our bodies come to life in the moment where we pull, our bodies are fully, and sometimes painfully present, to let us know that we are still alive.  Our sore muscles remind us that we are here now, and that we are making this living monument that will last for generations.

 

As our sled that the stone rested on broke, as our log rollers broke, as everything seemed to break and we moved the stone up the last rise by sheer determination, we continued to pull. Finally, we reach our destination. The stone is once again celebrated and we come together as a tribe. That evening, the warriors, the veterans among us and others who choose to join, hold vigil over the stone.  We let the stone know that the community is here, this day, and always.  That evening, we released our fears, doubts, pain, and sorrow and came together as a tribe for the great work, the rising of the stone, to begin.

 

Celebrating the end of the long pull

Celebrating the end of the long pull

The next morning, it is time for the stone to rise to its sacred place in the north. We gather in the morning. All night long, while the warriors held vigil, the corn mother tribe baked us bread. They offer it to us to break our fast. It is delicious, slathered with honey butter. This warm gift fills our bellies and hearts. We pull, pull, pull and the stone is in place. We watch as the stone people slowly use leverage to lift it up, inches at a time, building sturdy wooden foundations to hold it. We wait, we watch, we listen. Finally, it is time for the stone to rise.

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Slowly raising the stone using levers and wood stands

Two ropes are laid out, and those of us who are at Stones Rising for the first time are given the place of honor at the front of the ropes so we can watch the stone rise into place. The drummers beat their steady rhythm, while the entire stone circle is decked out in beautiful colors; an outdoor sanctuary to the living earth.  We pull on the ropes, hand over hand, but this is easy work, as we are also using some block and tackle (ropes and pulleys).

The stone rising up!

The stone rising up!

Orren Whiddon, whose vision has created Four Quarters, is leading us in raising the stone.  He tells us that reason we are using block and tackle is because we don’t have the experience of working in a community together. We don’t have enough control.  We would get too excited, and we pull to fast, and so, the block and tackle slow us down. When we are 75% of the way, an additional tool is needed, and it takes time for someone to fetch it from the farmhouse. We hold the ropes. We wait. We breathe. It is not hard work with all of us here; we trust that the community will hold. Then, we are pulling again, hand over hand, as the stone raises up. With a final thump, the stone fits into its hole in the circle. We cheer and hug each other. The great work is done. Children are blessed, the community spends time in celebration, and later, feasting.

 

The main ritual that evening welcomes to the stone to the circle, it is powerful and moving and magic. I catch my breath and look around at my tribe, their faces shining in the dim firelight. I think about so many things there, as we stand in the firelight as a tribe honoring the new stone. Modern humans almost never have the opportunity to experience something like this. We have grown so dependent on fossil fuels and machines that do this kind of work that we have forgotten the most important lessons of trust, forgiveness, community, slow time, and craft. As Wendel Berry writes about in the Unsettling of America, the point isn’t to do something quickly.  It is to do it well. This is especially and poignantly true of building sacred spaces. Fossil fueled powered heavy machinery could never, ever compare to what we experienced here as a tribe. We might gain in efficiency in using fossil fuels, but efficiency comes at an extraordinarily high cost. In the case of building a stone circle or other sacred space, it may come at the cost of the heart and soul of a community. Fossil fuels have made life easier, quicker, but certainly not any more full.  Fossil fuels have stripped us of an extremely important gift–the ability to work together. Raising this stone has given us the briefest glimpse into the power of what that once looked like. And I want more.

 

This experience also has a tremendous amount of value to those of us here in the United States practicing nature-based spirituality. As any druid practicing here knows, we are in a bit of a pickle. We are practicing a nature-based spiritual tradition that originated with the Celts–their land isn’t our land. Some, but not all of us, can trace ancestry back to the British Isles in some form or another. That doesn’t really matter much when we don’t live on that soil. The truth is, here in the USA, we live on someone else’s sacred land. That unavoidable fact puts us in a serious bind–the most compassionate, respectful, and meaningful solution is to build our own sacred spaces. I’ve long advocated before the necessity of creating our own sacred spaces (and have offered some suggestions for how to do so), and this experience radically affirms and extends this idea. Building small spaces with a few friends, or very magnificent spaces, like the stone circle at Four Quarters, is part of our own flavor of what it means to be an American earth-centered spiritual person, an American Druid, an American anything else.

The "Flame Stone", the northern most stone of the circle

The “Flame Stone”, the northern most stone of the circle

The truth is, I’ve been attempting to capture in words an experience so sacred, words can never fully describe its power. But for those who do not have such an opportunity to raise a stone, I hope that my attempt to give the experience voice has given you pause for reflection.  To understand the work of the stones, you must do the work of the stones.  To understand a sacred place, at least the kind we are trying to create here in the USA, you have to take part in the creation of it.  Before I raised a stone, I really had no idea what the circle of stones there at Four Quarters meant, what their power was. I couldn’t hear the singing of the stones. But now, I understand that place. I am connected to it.  It is part of me, and I am forever part of it.

 

And, perhaps, I will pull stone with you next year, on Labor Day Weekend, for Stones Rising 2018! (And for those of you attending the OBOD’s East Coast Gathering this upcoming weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

PS: I am indebted to Patricia Robin Woodruff, who took most of the photos in this blog post.  You can learn more about her and her amazing artwork here.

 

Ecoregional Druidry: A Druid’s Wheel of the Year August 27, 2017

In the 1990’s, now Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, Gordon Cooper, developed the idea of “wildcrafting your own druidry”; this practice is defined as rooted one’s druid practice in one’s local ecology, history, legends and magic.  In today’s age of adapting and drawing upon many different traditions in the quest for spiritual wholeness, we sometimes forget that all knowledge, regardless of how ancient it is (like the Celtic Tree Alphabet and divination system, the Ogham) was originally developed in a local culture and ecosystem.  Thus, too, I believe our spiritual practice reflect our own local ecologies and ways of understanding.  I’m going to expand on some of Gordon’s ideas here and talk about my own work with “local druidry” or “ecoregional druidry” and how to put some of this into practice to create a “druid’s wheel of the year” that is specific to your local ecology and customs.  While I’m using druidry as an example here, anyone who is following a nature-based spiritual path and using the wheel of the year as their structure of holidays would benefit from such information.

 

Dividing Up the Landscape

The Laurel Highlands (Alleghney Mountain Range in the Appalacians).  These are the mountains I call home--my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

The Laurel Highlands (Allegheny Mountain Range in the Appalacians). These are the mountains I call home–my inspiration for my localized wheel of the year.

Before we get into how to adapt some of the druid path practices and material to a local setting, it’s important to understand the different ways in which we can divide a landscape into smaller units that are more uniform. Most of us understand divisions from a political sense: the line that separates two countries, states, or provinces. These divisions may help us understand some of the different cultural practices that we can draw upon that are regionally or locally-based. Local feasts, local foods, local agricultural practices, local traditions and folklore all may contribute to our own understanding of ecoregional druid adaptations (and I’ll talk more about those in a second post).

 

However, political lines only occasionally follow ecological boundaries, and so we also need to understand something about ecological boundaries. At the largest level are ecozones (like the Nearctic ecozone, which constitutes most of North and Central America) and bioregions (like the Eastern United States). These bioregions are very large areas that have many, many different ecosystems within them, but do share some broader characteristics (such as patterns of light and darkness throughout a year).  For our purposes, likely the most appropriate place to look is at the level of ecoregion (or ecological region) which is, according to Brunckhorst (2000) is a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterize a region.”  This may include patterns that repeat in the geology, physiography, vegetation, climate, hydrology, flora and fauna, and soils of a land area. In the case of the United States, the Laurentia ecoregion which also includes all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest east of the Mississippi as well as parts of South-Eastern Canada. Within this ecoregion, there are many ecosystems which are unique to their specific locations but also broader species that are shared across them.

 

With knowledge of both your regional or local traditions and ecoregion and local ecosystems, you are well on your way to adapting your druid practice.

The Adapted Wheel of the Year

The holidays that make up the wheel or cycle of the year in the druid tradition follow the path of the sun and include the solstices and equinoxes are determined by the path of the sun. The solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days manifest differently upon the earth in quiet dramatic ways. The modern wheel of the year, which is celebrated by druids, was developed in Great Britain from older agricultural holidays from Europe. While it fits the UK ecosystem quite well, it may be far less appropriate Texas, USA or Australia. Particularly, while the astronomical event of the longest day and longest night are present always, how they manifest on the earth is tied to how the holidays are celebrated. For example, in the UK or Eastern US, the Fall Equinox is a ritual devoted to harvest because that’s what’s happening in the landscape. Many different adaptations of the wheel of the year have been created by druids all over the world, unique to their ecosystems.

 

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

A radically different ecosystem that would not abide by the UK-based wheel of the year

Further, the four season model present and assumed in the Wheel of the Year is based on a temperate climate. Some druids don’t live in regions with four seasons. Even within a temperate ecosystem each season may vary considerably by weeks or months, with different bloom times. Each year also is variable; a warm and early spring equals a growing season that has flowering and fruiting maturing earlier.  And so why the sun and solar currents are steady, dependable, and predictable, the hydrological cycles, weather, and manifestation of the season on the earth herself is ever changing.  It seems, then, to create a truly representative body of holidays, we must observe both the progress of the sun across the sky, but also consider the role of the specific season upon the earth and how it manifests where we live.

 

While the overall themes of the wheel of the year manifest in most ecosystems (a time of light/spring, a time of harvest, a time of being indoors/shelter (which might be from sun or cold, depending on the location), these are not consistent with the traditional wheel of the year in many places.  Not all locations have traditional spring, summer, winter, and fall. And so, some druids may find it necessary to develop a modified seasonal cycle and wheel of the year. For example, a wheel of the year in the tropics might include a dry season and a stormy season; this would drastically change the nature of the seasonal celebrations and the overall themes.

 

Deepening the Wheel of the Year: Adding Ecoregional Sacred Observances

Even if you live in a temperate climate (like I do) that is fairly representative of the standard wheel of the year, one of the ways you might adapt the wheel of the year is by adding in what I call minor sacred observances. These, unlike the path of the sun or cross quarter days, do not have specific dates on a calendar set by the consistent path of the sun and patterns of light and dark. Rather, they mark a period in time in the ecosystem, and that specific occurrence changes from year to year.

 

Through a period of observation and interaction, which involved being out in every season and through all kinds of weather, certain events seemed particularly meaningful and salient in my ecosystem.  These were events that I noticed happened with regularity and also that were notable or strikig to me in some way. I also used some of my own knowledge of past local history and lore. This wheel of the year took me over a decade to fully develop and, just as importantly, changed substantially when I made the move from Michigan to Pennsylvania a few years back.  Here it is in its current form:

Dana's Wheel of the Seasons

Dana’s Wheel of the Seasons

 

Anything that is in between the eight holidays is mostly variable – like the first hard frost or first snowfall.  These are particularly significant events that happen each year, and I make note of them and honor them when they occur. I also have noted important dates that connect me to seasonal activities and the land–the yearly creation of Pysanky eggs, a longstanding family tradition. Additionally, all of my gardening and homesteading activities that help root me firmly in the ecosystem like starting my seeds, preparing beds for the fall, harvesting, and so on.  You’ll also see that I have included what I consider to be important markers of changes in my local ecosystem, like the chirping of the Kaydids or the blooming of the hawthorn.

 

You’ll notice on my map, Groundhog Day is included for a simple reason: I live 40 minutes south of Punxsutawney, PA, who has an annual tradition of doing a groundhog weather prognostication (a fancy word for divination) describing how soon winter will end by reading Phil’s shadow. Because of that bit of regional and honored folk magic, I tie my own Imbolc celebrations in with the general regional celebrations for Groundhog day on Feb 2nd and do divinations for the coming year at that time.

 

Of course, a different druid (even one living in the same ecoregion) might have a very different calendar of events. For example, when I lived in the Great Lakes region of the US, the full freezing over of the ice on the lakes (so that you could walk, skate, or ice fish) was a memorable occurrence, as was when the first crack in that same ice appeared. For some druids near the coast, the monthly “tidal bulge” might be particularly salient or the blooming of the beach rose. This is all to say that your own earth-centered holidays and even more specialized seasons themselves can be developed in line with your observations of local ecosystems and ecology. The more that you know about the world directly around you, the more you will have a sense of what is sacred and meaningful about that world.  Perhaps you don’t have a winter, but you have a season of fog—that would change how and when you celebrated that season.

 

Suggestions for Developing and Extending Your Wheel of the Year

First snow....

First snow….

I see this kind of ecoregional calendar as a next step in the druid tradition: we have a set of solstices, equinoxes, and cross quarter days that occur with regularity and that help bring us together. And these are determined by the path of the sun.  But each druid or group of druids might find their own way forward: the general principle here is that part of the druid tradition ties sacred ecological knowledge with a honoring of the cycles of nature and the cycles of the year. Or, you might choose to keep the solstices and equinoxes and do away with the cross quarter days entirely (as they are agricultural) and instead, build in other holidays or sacred moments that are important to you and your region.

 

How you develop your own seasonal calendar is up to you—it is about what is salient on your immediate landscape, the landscape you inhabit each day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming.  You might be surprised with the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farmers and farm products. A lot of traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems.  You’ll see that reflected in my map above—the flowing of the maple sap, for example, as well as the budding of the maple tree are significant to me both because I have done sugaring most years, but also because of the broader cultural custom in this part of the US.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs (like the celebration of the maple tree present in my region) and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities, might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? For example, for me around the Spring Equinox here (late March) nothing is blooming. But what is happening are the robins are starting to return and the maples, birches, hickories, and walnuts are running with their sap. And the maples, in particular, are in a place of their highest power of the year (which I understand from talking to them and sensing their energy over a long period of time).  Maple, then, features predominantly in my local druid calendar as well as in ritual work that I do at that time.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature sprits, the powerful energies of the landscape where you live, and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

And so, with some observation, intuition, and research, you can develop a highly personalized “wheel of the year” calendar that is eco-regional and very specific to your druid path.  I’ll continue to examine this topic next week, when we explore how to develop localized rituals, observances, and activities for your wheel of the year.

 

(PS: If any of my readers are heading to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary for Stones Rising next weekend, I hope to see you there!)

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

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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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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Connection as the Core Spiritual Philosophy in the Druid Tradition April 16, 2017

It seems that religions or spiritual paths have a set of core orientations or philosophies that form the underlying foundation upon which the religion and practice rests. This core philosophy is like the seed from which the entire “tree” of the religion grows–the tree might branch in different directions, but all of those branches eventually lead back to that single seed. For example, in many forms of Christianity, we might see that core seed as salvation; this seed forms the bulk of Christian thought, belief, and action. In some forms of Buddhist thought, the seed is freedom from suffering. This underlying seed makes that particular path unique, form the foundation of what is considered right thought and right action on that path, give the path purpose, and that offers particular gifts to its practitioners or to the broader world.  And most importantly, this seed drives a number of underlying morals, values, and assumptions that practitioners of that path hold.

 

Seeds for new traditions!

Seeds for new traditions!

Druidry is many things to many people, and the joke is that if you ask five different druids about what druidry is, you’ll likely get seven different answers. As scattered and diverse as the modern druid movement seems to be–I believe, we too, have a core philosophy (with at least three expressions of that philosophy), and I’m going to explore this underlying seed of our tradition in today’s post.

 

Sources of Inspiration

The flow of Awen for this post comes from a few places, and I want to acknowledge those first. Part of my insight comes from being in a leadership role in a major druid order in the US. I serve as the Archdruid of Water in the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and in that role, I interact with a lot of different kinds of druids at multiple points along their paths. I interact with people when they find druidry for the first time–what they are seeking, what they hope to find, and later, I see them as they move through our curriculum deepen their own understanding and interaction and the insights they have. I get to read their exams at the end of their time working through parts of our curriculum–so I’m hearing of the experiences of many on the druid path who have taken up this spiritual practice in a serious way. Additionally, part of my inspiration is personal; it comes from my experience in working through the complete curriculum in two druid orders, the AODA (1st, 2nd, and 3rd degrees) and the OBOD (bardic, ovate, and druid curricula) and coming to deep understandings over decade of time about that work. Finally, I have attended and been part of a lot of gatherings, online groups, and various initiatives. This post represents a synthesis of what I’ve read and conversed with others, and what I’ve generally understood over a period of time. But there is also another piece here– I’m also considering the overall trajectory of the druid tradition itself–not what we are, or were, but where we are heading and what potential exists for druidry in the future.

 

Therefore, this post is my take on the seed of our tradition, the underlying or core philosophy that drives much of druid practice. You might disagree with me, or want to add or subtract from this list–please do so and share in the comments what your own thoughts about what your version might look like.

 

On the Druid Revival

To understand the underlying core philosophy of druidry, we first need to delve back into the history of the druid revival and then move into the present day.

 

It is no coincidence that the very roots of the druid revival came about at the same time that industrialization rose in the British Isles. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories (see, for example, the “Highland Clearances” and “Enclosure Acts” in Scotland). During this time, the rise in machine-based worldviews, that is, that humans are machines (and cam work like machines, act like machines), and that nature is just another machine, became dominant (we see the outcome of this thinking everywhere today, particularly, in industrialized agriculture).

 

Our spiritual ancestors watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress, the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities, the rampant pollution and exploitation industrlization was creating, the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to that of a machine. It was during this time that our spiritual ancestors reached deep–and creatively–into their own history to return to an earlier time where humans and nature were connected. The druid revival movement sought to reconnect with nature through ancient roots in a time where society was heading in the opposite direction. I believe it is the same reason that people today are so drawn to the druid tradition–there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection.

 

Now, a lot of the early druid revival works and authors have been discredited for creating “ancient” texts, drawing upon “found” materials that they had created, I find these attempts to discredit them problematic because they do not understand their context. These early attempts at bringing back the ancient druid traditions had a lot to do with people’s response to living in an age that was quickly stripping the lands of their resources and filling the skies and rivers with pollution.  I think they were a bit desparate, and certainly, were working within the traditions of their age (and not ours). To me, the most important thing here is that druidry we practice today was descended from druid revival tradition and that tradition was a spiritual response that emerged during the very beginnings of this current age of industrialization. That means, these historical roots offers us much wisdom as we are living with the outcomes and consequences of this same industrial force.

 

Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, much harm not only to our living earth, but to the pre-industrial communities and customs of the common people (a topic I picked up in some depth in my last series of posts on “Slowing down the Druid Way”). It is unsurprising, then, at the persistence and growth of the modern druid tradition in these times. For over 300 years, the ancient druids have offered our tradition sources of inspiration and reconnection. It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how druidry is, in some ways, a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world.  In other words, druidry is us finding our way “home.”

 

Overall Druid Philosophy: The Power of Connection

What our spiritual ancestors in the druid revival were seeking, I believe, was (re)connection, a way to have a closer relationship with the living earth and with their own heritage. And it is in this historical view I see as the core seed of the philosophy of the druid movement: connection. It is this same connection that draws so many to the druid path today and keeps so many of us practicing this spiritual tradition.

 

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

Interacting with nature, learning the plants

In the modern druid movement, it is through the power of connection that we rekindle and learn how to cultivate a sacred relationship with nature, how to find our own creative gifts, and how to practice or path in a way that brings us wholeness and joy. When people come to the druid path, this is what they often are seeking. (As an aside: interestingly enough, there are at least two “denominations” of druidry, while all are descended from the druid revival traditions, in the 1970’s, and some went on to seek to reconstruct ancient druid practices and teachings. I think that these two currents of druidry do still share an underlying core philosophy of connection, even if it manifests incredibly differently and may not have the same three expressions I share below).

 

In this way, druidry is a direct response to the disconnection that those living in westernized culture have experienced: seeking to reconnect with nature, with our own gifts, and with ourselves. So now, I’m going to walk through three expressions of this underlying philosophy of connection through nature, connection to one’s creative gifts, creative arts, and connection to one’s spirit.

 

Connecting to Nature

To say that the druid path of nature spirituality is about nature perhaps seems like an obvious thing–but it is more than just being “about” nature. I can read books “about” nature and never step in the forest, I can understand in my mind many things about nature and her systems without ever connecting with nature through the heart. This does not give me a connection to nature, but simply some disconnected facts about it. When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing most share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces nature and relationship to nature at the core of its path, or that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship (and aspired relationship) towards nature is multifaceted.  I see this nature orientation having at least three different aspects:

 

Nature is sacred.  One of the key aspects of the druid tradition is the inherent worth and sacredness of nature. When interacting with nature, many humans focus on what is in relationship to us, that is, how does nature help us? What do we get out of it? As one begins to delve deeper and deeper into the druid path, I have found that a lot of that orientation shifts from “what can nature do for me” to “nature has inherent worth.” I see this in the mentoring work I do in the AODA–people begin taking up this path without any clear sense of the role of nature in their lives, but after a few years of druid study, observation, seasonal holidays, and the like, they have a profound shift in their oreintation towards the living earth. The shift here is not just in seeing nature as something that has value to us because it offers us something (which, of course, it does) but rather, valuing nature simply because it exists and because we are a part of it.

 

Sacredness implies care and connection: we have deep respect, reverence, and awe concerning nature. We see it as something to be protected, preserved, and cherished. In the same way that other spiritual paths may see a shrine as holy, or a city, or a church, we druids see the living earth, her systems, and all life upon her, as sacred. As part of this sacredness, druids recognize the importance of living in harmony with nature and that nature provides all of our needs.

 

Relationship to Nature. When we think of how humans treat a sacred thing, a couple of possible iterations occur. One is that we might put it on a pedestal (literally or figuratively) and admire it from a distance, keeping it safe and secure. Although some conservationists take this approach (for very good reasons), this is typically not the orientation that druids take towards the living earth. Instead, most prefer to cultivate a sacred and powerful relationship with nature by interacting with her, connecting with her, smelling the roses and touching them and learning how to tend them effectively instead of just observing them from afar. Part of this relationship is that nature offers us teachings and deep understandings when we connect. This may involve regular visits to natural places and simply being “in nature” and various ceremonies in natural settings. Many druids take further, working to tread more lightly upon the earth and live sustainably, participate in active healing of the land, planting trees, and more.  Relationship implies that we not only take but also give back.

 

Connecting to Nature’s cycles.  Another major part of the orientation towards nature is becoming an active observer and participant in the cycles of nature. And nature has many cycles through which we can observe and participate cycles of the celestial heavens (the cycles of the sun or moon) that are tied to the land (seasons).  These might involve the cycle of nutrients through plants, fungi, and soil, or even the cycles of water upon the land.  The cycle is a critical part of the way that druids think about nature and build our sacred holidays and sacred activities around it, as is gardening and foraging and other such activities.

 

And so, connection with nature is certainly at the core of the druid tradition, but there at least two other pieces of connection that also seem central to this path.

 

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

A simple awen painting I did a while ago

Connecting with One’s Creativity and the Flow of Awen

A rekindling of our creative gifts, the bardic arts, and our human gifts is a second core part of the druid path.  In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (another Welsh term pronounced “Ah-Oh-En”). Awen means “creative and divine inspiration.”  It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs and delivered them to audiences all over the British Isles.  It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hands, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole.  It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow commercialized creations to take the place of our own.  And it is the inspriation of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creativity gifts and expressions.

 

Let’s again tie this to how druidry itself came to be and what it responds to. Industrialization and modern commercialization and commodification teach people how to be good consumers rather than provide for one’s own needs.  Today’s entertainment industry is a trillion dollar affair. Our core birthright, that of telling our own stories, songs, poetry, dance, music, visual arts, sacred crafts–have been stripped away by these industries.  We pay for mass produced entertainment as commodities rather than create it ourselves. It is a sad thing, I think, to sit around a fire with a group of people in the 21st century and sit in silence because nobody knows what to do or how to entertain themeslves (insetad, the pull out the cell phones!). The fire is silent, the stories and songs are stilled–the Awen has yet to flow into the hearts and spirits of those there.  But each person has an inherent ability to let the awen flow–through music, drumming, dance, song, stories, artwork, woodwork, and so many more things.  In fact, if you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

If you come to a druid event and you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant Eisteddfod (a Welsh term pronounced EYE-STED-FOD). An Eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts.

 

Connecting to Individual Truths and a Personal Path

Most traditions have a set of core teachings, a sacred book, and a big part of the transmission of that tradition is to teach these materials to others and ensure that the set of beliefs and rules are followed by practitioners. In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each human’s relationship and interaction with is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, different cycles and seasons, and different needs. Because of this, we recognize and cultivate the development of and pursual of a personal path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are celebrated rather than minimized. If you join a druid order descended from the druid revival, we do have some common frameworks and practices, of course.  In AODA, we have a common set of practices that gives us a framework; these include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working the sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes, planting trees, observing nature, discursive meditation, and practice of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts.  However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest, and are central to what additional practices are taken up.

 

This is to say, druidry is a spiritual path that takes creativity, inspiration, and work: it is up to the individual to establish his or her own personal practice, his/her own personal cosmology, and no two druids are the same.

 

And so, while most religions tell you what to believe and how to believe it–this is not the case with Druidry. I have found that this particular aspect of the druid tradition is really difficult for new druids and non-druids to wrap their heads around because to them, “religion” or “spiritual practice” requires adherence to a rigid, prescribed set of beliefs and behaviors.  It takes a lot of conversation to explain the difference, that a religious practice could actually be something different. The question, “What do druids believe” doesn’t seem to be right question to ask (but it is the question that most people start with). Two druids likely have the same larger philosophical orientations (as shared here) but not necessarily the same specific belief systems with regards to the nature of divinity, the possibility of life after death and reincarnation, the belief in spirits, and so on. For many druids, there are some common themes, but these common themes don’t extend to all druids.  But what certainly seems to extend to all druids is the seeking of a personal path and connecting with that personal path at the core of one’s being. And this is an honored and sacred thing within our own tradition.  (And so, better questions might be “what do you as a druid belive? or What do you do?)

 

I see this finding and following one’s own path as inherently connecting kind of work: you develop a personal druid path by exploring your own meanings and what resonates with you, what connects to your own beliefs, your lifestyle, the work you feel you are to do in the world. It is through exploring these connections that you are able to settle upon a set of beliefs and practices that ring true. The more that you practice, the deeper those connections become. You might think of this like a path through the forest–there is underbrush when we begin, but the more we walk the path and establish what that path is, the easier the path becomes and the more it is open to us.

 

A Triad of Druidry

You might notice that my own presentation of the “connection” philosophy in druidry comes in a three-part form. The following is a triad of this presentation (a triad common teaching tool in the druid tradition descended from Welsh tradition, it is used heavily in the OBOD’s teachings).

Three philosophies of druidry:

Connecting to nature

Connecting to our creative gifts

Connecting to our souls

 

It is through the connection to nature that we can be inspired, foster our creative gifts, and ultimately, find our own paths deeper into ourselves and our core beliefs, practices, and work in the world.

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